Until 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.
For 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.