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Morality: Biological or Psychological?
2004.11.22 (Mon) 20:53
An article on Wired News, found via Stupid Evil Bastard, discusses fMRI technology and its current use in studying the functions of the human brain during a decision making process.
...the technique also holds out the promise of answering deep questions about our most cherished human characteristics. For example, do we have an inbuilt moral sense, or do we learn what is right and wrong as we grow up?
Greene, together with Jonathan Cohen, professor of psychology at Princeton, is using fMRI to look at the factors that influence moral judgment.
Already, our spider-sense is tingling. These researchers are discovering which parts of the brain exhibit more activity during the processing of particular decisions — that is an interesting question, as we can learn which portions of our gray matter contribute energy or thought to certain types of decisions.
However, the implication that morality is a trait that is hardwired into the brain belies a severe misconception of what morality is.
The American Heritage Dictionary's very first definition of morality is the "quality of being in accord with standards of right or good conduct." Note the word standards. In this case, standards are those rules with which we, as a society, expect all our fellow humans to comply. Therefore, morality is simply compliance with whatever we (the members of society) decide is correct conduct for a human being. There is no objective basis for morality, either; in fact, it changes from culture to culture, or from era to era.
The basic problem with either this research, or — if it is being reported incorrectly — the Wired News article, is that it purports to be about brain activity in relation to morality when it is actually about brain activity in relation to decision making. Someone is confusing the two concepts. Take, for example, one of the hypothetical decisions the researchers present to their subjects:
For example, imagine you and your neighbors are hiding in a cellar from marauding enemy soldiers. Your baby starts to cry. If he continues, the soldiers will discover your hiding place and kill you all. The only way to save yourself and the others is to silence your baby — by smothering him to death. What do you do?
Clearly, you would feel intense emotions, and this shows on the brain scan. But you would also be forced to make a logical assessment of the situation, and this shows up on the brain scan too. Areas involved in abstract reasoning and those that process emotions light up.
Killing your baby or not, when you're hiding in the cellar so the soldiers won't find you, is not a "moral decision" — it is affected by your sense of morality, but the decision is also affected by your instinct for survival. The survival instinct dictates that you kill the baby; your morality (we hope!) dictates that you do not.
The fact that morality is involved in this decision, however, does not suggest that morality is a function of biological organisms. What is suggested by this study is that decision making is an inbuilt mental process, which has evolved to take into account many different factors. Once we evolved to the point where we indulged, as a community, in the practice of conceiving morality and moral behavior, we simply added that factor into the mix, so it is one of the factors we consider when making a decision.
The only extent to which morality is biological is in the twin biological imperatives to: a) protect our genetic legacy; and b) protect our own existence. The concepts of cooperation and mutual benevolence simply aid us in achieving those goals. Our survival instinct and our drive to protect the genetic legacy are the only "biological basis" for morality — but morality also has a "societal basis" (which encourages cooperation) and a "psychological basis" (which encourages mutual benevolence).
People are having far too difficult a time defining "morality," and it leads even intelligent people to think that morality is anything other than a concept. Morality is not biological — even though it is influenced by our biological imperatives — and it is not an objective thing. It simply is whatever society as a whole decides it is. Frankly, it's a rather beautiful democratic process that results in a society's moral code and social mores; whereas some people feel the need to reduce it to a fascist dictatorship, with some magical invisible superhero in the sky dictating what is or is not moral. In an allegedly freedom-loving world, that's a rather discouraging thing to witness.
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[ Filed under: % Religion % Science & Technology ]
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