Your Brain and Morality
Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 2, 2007
William Saletan of Slate has a thought-provoking piece on how activity in brain’s ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is associated with social-emotional responses, indicates to what extent one will regard a belief or action as moral or immoral. Saletan’s piece is based on a fascinating study published in last week’s issue of Nature on how damage to the prefrontal cortex has been found to make one more “utilitarian,” or more caluclated in logic and less cognizant of the emotional and social implications of one’s decision-making. We have excerpted portions of Saletan’s piece below.
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Imagine that killers have invaded your neighborhood. They’re in your house, and you and your neighbors are hiding in the cellar. Your baby starts to cry. If you had to press your hand over the baby’s face till it stopped fighting—if you had to smother it to save everyone else—would you do it?
If you’re normal, you wouldn’t, according to a study published last week in Nature. But if part of your brain were damaged—the ventromedial prefrontal cortex—you would. In the study, people were given hypothetical dilemmas: Would you throw a fatally injured person off a lifeboat to save everyone else? Would you kill a healthy hostage? Most normal people said no. Most people with VMPC damage said yes.
It’s easy to dismiss the damaged people as freaks. But the study isn’t really about them. It’s about us. Neuroscience is discovering that the brain isn’t a single organ. It’s an assembly of modules that sometimes cooperate and sometimes compete. If you often feel as though two parts of your brain are fighting it out, that’s because, in fact, they are.
Some of those fights are about morality. Maybe abortion grosses you out, but you’d rather keep it safe and legal. Or maybe homosexuality sounds icky, but you figure it’s nobody’s business. Emotion tells you one thing; reason tells you another. Often, the reasoning side makes calculations: Letting old people die is tragic, but medical dollars are better spent on saving kids. Throwing the wounded guy off the lifeboat feels bad, but if it will save everyone else, do it.
What’s moral, in the new world, is what’s normal, natural, necessary, and neurologically fit.
The catch is that what’s normal, natural, necessary, and neurologically fit can change. In fact, it has been changing throughout history. As our ancestors adapted from small, kin-based groups toward elaborate nation-states, the brain evolved from reflexive emotions toward the abstract reasoning power that gave birth, in this millennium, to utilitarianism. The full story is a lot more complicated, but that’s the rough outline.
And evolution doesn’t stop here. Look around you. The world of touch, tribe, and taboo is fading. Acceptance of homosexuality is spreading at an amazing pace. Trade is supplanting war. Democracy and communications technology are forcing governments to promote the general welfare. Utilitarians welcome these changes, and so do I. But utility unchecked can become a monster. The Internet is liberating us from visual and physical contact. Economic globalization is crushing resistance to the bottom line. Companies are sending employees to get cheap medical care abroad. Brokers are buying organs in slums. In a utilitarian world, you do what it takes. It’s all about helping people.
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