Is a moral instinct the source of our noble thoughts?

August 11, 2009

judgmentUntil not too long ago, most people believed human morality was based on scripture, culture or reason. Some stressed only one of those sources, others mixed all three. None would have thought to include biology. With the progress of neuroscientific research in recent years, though, a growing number of psychologists, biologists and philosophers have begun to see the brain as the base of our moral views. Noble ideas such as compassion, altruism, empathy and trust, they say, are really evolutionary adaptations that are now fixed in our brains. Our moral rules are actually instinctive responses that we express in rational terms when we have to justify them.

(Photo: Religious activist at a California protest, 10 June 2005/Gene Blevins)

Thanks to a flurry of popular articles, scientists have joined the ranks of those seen to be qualified to speak about morality, according to anthropologist Mark Robinson, a Princeton Ph.D student who discussed this trend at the University of Pennsylvania’s Neuroscience Boot Camp. “In our current scientific society, where do people go to for the truth about human reality?” he asked. “It used to be you might read a philosophy paper or consult a theologian. But now there seems to be a common public sense that the authority over what morality is can be found by neuroscientists or scientists.”

This change has come over the past decade as brain scan images began to reveal which areas of the brain react when a person grapples with a moral problem. They showed activity not only in the prefrontal cortex, where much of our rational thought is processed, but also in areas known to handle emotion and conflicts between brain areas. Such insights cast doubt on long-standing assumptions about reason or religion driving our moral views. “A few theorists have even begun to claim that that the emotions are in fact in charge of the temple of morality and that moral reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as the high priest,” University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt, one of the leading theorists in this field, has written.

Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory argues that morality is based on five concepts that evolved in all cultures: harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authorty/respect and purity/sanctity. Those concepts have real-life consequences, he says — political liberals and conservatives disagree so much on so-called “culture war issues” because liberals base their moral views on the first two concepts while conservatives use all five. Other theorists such as Marc Hauser of Harvard and John Mikhail of Georgetown suggest humans have a universal moral grammar akin to the universal grammar that linguist Noam Chomsky claims underlies all the world’s languages.

robinsonFor more on these ideas, see review articles such as “The Moral Instinct” (Stephen Pinker, New York Times), “Do The Right Thing” (Rebecca Saxe, Boston Review), “The Emerging Moral Psychology” (Dan Jones, Prospect), “The Roots of Morality” (Greg Miller, Science) and “The End of Philosophy” (David Brooks, New York Times). Hat-tip to fellow boot camper Tamar Gendler for pointing them out.

(Photo: Mark Robinson at the boot camp,10 Aug 2009/Tom Heneghan)

Does this mean that public opinion will turn away from seeing reason or religion as the bases for morality, in favor of the brain? Robinson doubts that. “I don’t know that they will shift to a completely neurobiological view of morality (and) I don’t think this is a fundamental shift away from religion. But it will mean that religion will have to come to terms with the public’s perception.

“I think there will be a greater acceptance of biology as an accepted domain within which to ask certain types of questions. That isn’t to say that people will understand morality completely differently in the future, or won’t have any morality. But they will at least know that (neuroscience) is another domain to go to for answers. The question of authority is a big one. Who is the ultimate authority on these issues about the fundamental nature of human morality?”

Robinson stressed that the authority issue is different from the question of personal belief. In future, he says, people could have moral positions similar to those today, but based on different authorities than in the past. “Think of it in search terms. Where will people go? What kinds of questions will they ask?” he said. “If they will lead to different beliefs, who knows? But the process of looking has changed.”

What do you think? Do you sense that science is taking over from reason or religion as the preferred way for people to justify moral decisions?

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I think Haidt’s ideas are an invaluable tool for authors seeking to create believable characters. But then, authors probably knew all of that stuff already! (Tolstoy’s “Resurrection” seems a perfect description of much of life in the first decade of the 21st century….) In real life, their value seems more dubious: they can certainly help me understand why my opponents persist in their misguided beliefs and refuse to be corrected by me – but only if my ears are already open.

And if my ears are already open, I don’t really need expensive coffee table books; I just need to remind myself that Hitler, too, was as convinced of his moral rectitude as I am.

Posted by Ian Kemmish | Report as abusive

Clearly inherited morality exists in that children are powerful, albeit primitive, moralists. The endless plaint of siblings that ‘it isn’t fair’ is actually a moral pronouncement because the child is indicating that it wants its share but does not want its brother to go completely without.

However, there is a knockabout silliness to arguments which say ‘science says A, you say B, therefore you are a gullible fool’. The major problem with an exclusively scientific explanation of morality is that it begs the question ‘where does ultimate moral authority lie?’ And it is this question which religion identified a long time ago and imputed to God.

Science is on somewhat shaky philosophical foundations itself. It may seem that its laws are immutable, but eventually most are superceded when more information is acquired. ‘Survival of the fittest’ which is the basis of evolutionary science is particularly dubious because it is circular in its fundamental argument: ‘that which survives is fittest, that which is fittest survives’.

Any scientific theory is potentially falsifiable, but most people think it is wrong to kill another human with an absolute conviction that could not possibly be ‘explained away’ by a scietific theory.

Posted by John Lamble | Report as abusive

I think Dr Pascal Boyer produced the best scientific analysis of moral intuitions in his 2002 book “Religion Explained”. I was lucky enough to see him speak at the Darwin Festival in Cambridge recently and he was very convincing on this topic. I recommend his book highly.

Posted by RGilyead | Report as abusive

when, in matters of religion, people claim to believe in nothing, the above article shows well that they will believe anything. that regional brain metabolism changes per mental activity hardly proves causality; ie do those parts of the brain “control” the process, or do they but reflect a process in action? science refuses to accept the supernatural and hence is stuck in a materialistic rut vis-a-vis morality, emotion, and other immaterial aspects of life; it has nought to offer problems of living other than the spectres of change and control by material means (drugs, brain surgery, political oppression, etc). science is a great tool for analysing and addressing the material world, but worse than useless for matters of the (gasp! that word!) soul.

Posted by jd | Report as abusive

[…] More From Penn’s Neuroscience Boot Camp Scientists have joined the ranks of those seen to be qualified to speak about morality, according to anthropologist Mark Robinson, a Princeton Ph.D student. (Tom Heneghan, FaithWorld Blog, Reuters) […]

Posted by August 11, 2009 – Science and Religion Today | Report as abusive

The question is not which authority is to be believed, but should any authority be believed. Instincts are a powerful impulse that feels natural rather than reasoned. But if we have been conditioned to believe something is true, how can we tell if it’s an instinct or a product of conditioning?

There are things that man learns and there are things that man is conditioned to believe. It is my opinion that man conditioned to believe he is noble and moral. The universe is amoral. Man is the crazy one.

For a better understanding of the difference between learning and conditioning pleases visit Emulation vs. Conditioning @ anCivil/

Posted by Wayne Clement | Report as abusive

The algorithm of intelligence may inherently recognize the self-interested validity of serving the interests of others, within reason, even when our actions are secret. See Drescher’s book, Good and Real, MIT Press.

Posted by Pete Cann | Report as abusive

I believe that the forces of evolution have shaped our very complex and capable brains. Morality is very subjective. When groups of white “Christians” lynched runaway slaves in the American south, where was morality? People can be monsters. Thanks to evolution, our highly developed brains can decide, as a society, what morality is.

Posted by J Ward | Report as abusive

I wish everyone would grow up.God is the only Judge.Even
the Supreme Court Judges of Roe vs Wade and Even Barack
Obama over his Policies on Gays.Apparently you should read
The Book of Revelation in the Bible only the Christians
go to heaven. By the way Darwin is screwed into the floor
at West Minister Abbey until he goes to Hell

Posted by John McMackin | Report as abusive

I second the request for an explanation of the jump from “this area of the brain is also active” to “This area of the brain is the source of”.

We’re not told what “moral questions” the subjects were asked to consider during the study. It’s very possible that the questions were emotionally loaded (for instance, would you pull the plug on a brain damaged relative?).

The only way to actually prove the causality would be study someone without properly functioning emotional regions.

Posted by drewbie | Report as abusive

John Lamble, although we’re opponents, I must agree with your point about evolution wholeheartedly. Evolution defines itself. I certainly accept that we evolved, but we could annihilate ourselves within the next decade, and that, too, would be evolution. (Opinions have historically differed as to whether it would be a good thing. I think a number of Christians might be all for it, so long as they could take the rest of us with them.)

I also don’t condemn you for what you say about science. Something that does seem a little eccentric is that religionists don’t paint themselves blue and skip down the street backwards, jumping in front of busses and cutting off their own fingers. The reasons why they don’t do this are a part of science; much of how science is done; and yet religionists condemn science as soon as it disagrees with their lore.

Posted by Pete Cann | Report as abusive

Yes there is a moral instinct, It’s put there of God who has made us by becoming us. Many in public office and academia do their level best to try and talk people out of recognizing this instinct and the Higher Nature generally to keep people in line. Can’t blame them. Unless they succeed, mankind will abandon them to stew in their own juices. “The dead” will have to bury their “dead”. This attempt to mask this Higher Nature, as applied to finances, governance, foreign wars, et al means that the “wanna be” elites are actually scared that people might just decide that the Higher Nature of God is a “better deal” and go for that, instead of granite counter top consumerism, and then walk out on their “show”. The “wanna be” elites in academia and politics,etc. have to try and argue off any moral instinct, or any aspect of a Higher Nature or they lose it all. Tough spot to be in – against God essentially. God is all there is – perfect, whole, complete. End of story. The “pearl of great price”.

Posted by grandpa | Report as abusive

So does this mean that the GOP and former congressman Tom DeLay are less evolved because they ridicule such things as altruism?

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive

We’re evolving towards being more moral, compassionate, empathetic, etc.?? Are you aware of the news? Umm, try again. I’m seeing an evolution towards self and acquisition. Seems to me that the premise missed the boat and fell into the water!

Posted by Irene Abbott | Report as abusive

I was intrigued to post a question of grammer after going the post by Mr.John Lamble which talks about —> Evolution is circular in its fundamental argument: ‘that which survives is fittest, that which is fittest survives….>Now I believe in this case the superlative FITTEST is a function of time.The Level of fitness differs throughout the evolution …..What do we make of that?

Posted by andy | Report as abusive

Morality instinct consists of the following:

1. Our desire to comply with socially reinforced behaviours and norms.

2. Our desire to be part of a community/herd.

3. The effects of emotions on behaviour.

4. Our personal level of empathy.

5. Our personal needs and wants.

Everything else after that point is our attempts to rationalize the choices we make or do not make. Including a belief in a deity.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

Wayne Clement wrote that nature is amoral, that man is the crazy one.- and Irene Abbot mentions the decent into the mental disease of greed or acquisition, or exhibit obsessive compulsive stockpiling behavior; that humans are retreating back down the ladder.

I disagree, and think those people are stunted emotionally.

Some religious people feel religion is needed to teach morals, and that fear of punishment from God keeps them from participating in behavior outside of socially taught mores.

Humanists (Richard Dawkins) who identify with or feel empathy with only their own species may be acting on an instinct to insure survival of the species or race, or the behavior may be symbiotic and the behavior is mutually advantageous.

Universalists – can exhibit empathy with all life forms out side their own species, class or even kingdom that are part of the environment or earth, I believe, are further down the evolutionary or enlightenment path.

This is first year psychology, really, but how many Americans are even getting that in these times. If we are moving backwards It’s lack of education and embrace of cruel myths as truth.

Even animals develop a higher moral sense than religious fundies. article.php?id=608

Dolphins save man from sharks- or google it, there are pages and pages.
Some whales will do the same. -people-and-stories/shark-attack-dolphin s-save-surfer-from-shark/ ml

Here is a video of a chickens breaking up fight between rabbits. oY

Cat nursing a little of pups  /08/23/cat-nursing-litter-of-pups/

Posted by Kristie Mansfield | Report as abusive

Very good article on !Faith World!,and i have grasped more from it.
As per my knowledge goes,for major humans will inherit moral thoughts from his or her family circles.
For example,i am a smoker.But in front of women,except my wife!s presence, i will not smoke in any public places,near to places of worship and in front of unknown persons.
Being a Hindu,by tradition,i respect all religious sects.
I am a good reader of The Bible.
For certain persons,we have to teach moral ethics by books,discussions and quotes from social thinkers,authors and from experienced happenings by direct participation.
So many world notable personalities will have their own moral settings.For examples-Hitler!s preachings on a particular race,annexing many small kingdoms by How?
Where as Martin Luther King,Mahatma Gandhi,Jean Paul Sartre,B.Russel,Plato all have good morals on their teachings.
On every thing,Brain!s functions plays a very major roles for shaping,enlarging and continuous adhering of moral principles.

Posted by krishnamurthi ramachandran | Report as abusive

I think it is rather obvious that morality resides in our biology. All social animals demonstrate moral awareness, as can be seen when an individual in a social group attempts to lie, cheat or steal. This response is essential for the continued reproduction of social species and is therefore hard-wired into our biological make-up, just as the capacity to acquire language is, only with a longer lineage.

Posted by steve hayes | Report as abusive

All actions, thoughts including moralistic views are due to interplay between the mental disposition and the environment which shapes him up.Predispositios are accumulated in genes over a long period of time. This when interacting with environment brings out actions/views.Human beings by Nature are compelled to act;this depends on three Basic dispositions,that which is pure,passive knowledge,self contentment,Happiness,balanced in life/ emotions;second, aggressive behavior, pro active, emotional and anxiety prone;last, sloth,slovenly and inert,non reactive.These dispositions evolve and come out.These can be channelized by regular practice.

Posted by S.V.Ramanan | Report as abusive

Human existence cannot sustain peacefully without moral values being firmly ingrained into the persona of individuals consistently. Religion plays a large role in the contemporary world to reign in all, with the fear of punishment as a consequence for treading outside the realms of religion dictated conduct. Agree-Intelligent minds quickly realize the futility in blind belief in rituals of religion and brush aside the very logic of religion,although the very same minds chew on with some relish the spiritual aspects of religion. This cohort of people within the religion or out of it, say like atheists, bash religion imposed restrictions that segregate one individual from his neighbor. As one has an obligation to cleansing up ones own mind, one should additionally be vigilant that his neighbor remains clean, just so to save and prevent innocents from being hurt. Reforms in religions are mandatory to live peacefully on planet earth. Sometimes, unfortunately, reforms may become an existential threat (at least appear) to some religions and thus the reforms, when proposed, are ruthlessly stamped out as anti- religion.
Morality is the cumulative end result of the efforts of self, family, religion, society and law. A very moral individual does not need any certification from a religion (he can be happily an atheist). An immoral individual by default loses any claim of ones religiosity.
Kristie Mansfield, good post indeed.

Posted by Azad | Report as abusive

If all people were blind and deaf they wouldn’t see or hear or formulate the notion of harm. If this is true, then beacuse we see and hear, the manner to which we avert harm to others, is taught through cultural experiences developing over our evolved time on earth. Not even 4 million yrs.

War with clubs against other humans has now developed into bombarment from the sky, called air dominance over the battlfield. However, selective targeting is a factor a pilot can consider. Thus the advance of sciencec that
replaces and relieves a person of their “up close and personal” conscious experience, if it’s out sight then it’s out mind, so to speak, has simplified it for humans to now be more threatening and more immoral.

We seemed less compassionate to Muslims when it was announced that they sent plane into the WTC’s. The immoral act of bringing humans from one continent, enslaving them in another wasn’t out of loyalty to them, but loyalty to a “thing” called commerce. It was some scientists, legalists, theologians during slavery in America, who documented about the justification of the practices, even on scientific grounds.

I think as long as the pursuit of science which has replaced God in our days, morality and the knowledge of
right and wrong, replaces right for the wrong reasons, will be our future. 10% eats, 90% doesn’t in today’s world.

To build a home you need to destroy a tree. To run automobiles and all machines, you need to drain the earth of oil. To warm cities you need to mine coal, urainium for power plant and more oil. Top miming creates vast holes in the earth. To make medicines and chemicals so people can artificially live longer, you need to pollute the soil, oceans, rivers, lakes. To feed the growing populations, we need to extinct other species we feed on. This is what science has done in a short time of human history.

Native primitive peoples have lived in harmony with their world for thousands of yrs., the civilized do
not and historically never have. They seem to perceive themselves better than others. Like neighbors on the same block but one has a more expensive home. The perception is intuitive.
How can man ever get away from thinking he is better than another?

It was the evolved scientists who created the science and made atomic bombs, then tested two on innocent men, woman(some pregnant on those days)and children, killing them all. They used little religion to justify their causes, but alot of immorality to do their task.

Human behavior, its nature cannot and does not change.
Modification, is a human behavior and only applied when things go very wrong. A course correction if you will. Yet, the intended purpose of the human is survival first by all means, without which, the luxury of moral judgment and its extentions would give the human little time to ponder.

Posted by polondia | Report as abusive

Never forget the subconscious. A part of the brain and life humanity has but hardly touched.

Posted by C.D. Walker | Report as abusive

I am growing in the conviction that a greater understanding of THE MORAL INSTINCT may well be a critical pre-condition to humanity’s survival : ic.php?f=12&t=535&start=50

Posted by Richard W. Symonds | Report as abusive

I disagree with this theory as I am witness to MORAL DECLINE in our nation. I would imagine humanity to move forward with it’s adaptation of GREATER moral values but I see the opposite happening where greed and selfishness are overpowering the more noble virtues of humanity.

Posted by S. Janelli | Report as abusive

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