Brain Damage and the Future of Morality

Brain Damage, Evolution, and the Future of Morality

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.

If that quote doesn’t grab your attention I don’t know what will. Maybe this will instead:

Philosophers have a name for this calculating logic: utilitarianism. They’ve been debating it for 200 years. Some says it’s sensible; others say it’s ruthless. Lately, however, the debate has been overrun by neuroscience. According to the neuroscientists, philosophers on both sides are wrong, because morality doesn’t come from God or transcendent reason. It comes from the brain.

Now that is a very controversial interesting idea. Honestly, it makes perfect logical sense in my opinion. We are still fairly primitive organisms with the primary goal of surviving in life. Sure, we have all kinds of things that occasionally trump this overreaching goal to survive (such as random acts of kindness and compassion), but these are far and few between. Based on this primary goal to survive comes the idea of utilitarianism in which, basically, the greatest good for the great number of people should win out in a decision making scenario. A classic example this article mentions is the idea of pushing a fatally wounded person out of a life boat who would otherwise sink the life boat resulting in everyone’s death. It’s not pretty, it’s not friendly, and it’s certainly not politically correct, but it does make good utilitarian sense. If you want a good example that will make your brain hurt: you can only save one person. do you save your 90 year old father, or do you save a 22 year old doctor? From a strictly utilitarian perspective you should save the young doctor because 1. he’s young and your father isn’t and 2. he’s going to be able to save other lives and your father won’t. It is important to note that I am not suggesting that any decision should be made based solely on utilitarian ideas, but it should be a contributing factor. 

The authors say that “morality doesn’t come from God or transcendent reason”. That is incredibly intriguing if you think about it. A fair amount of people blindly assume that morality is some kind of innate set of rules that is set forth by some “higher being” that governs the lives of all organisms. This however is unrealistic, and to be blunt, completely wrong. Coming from someone who is a agnostic, claiming that some “higher being” aka God defines the morality of everything is sadly lacking because it leaves out anyone who does not believe in a particular “higher being” and therefore, in theory, the same set of moral rules would not apply to those non-believers. People would then argue that their particular moral rules as set forth by their particular “higher being” should apply to all because …well, because that is what is right, right? You now begin to see how this type of thinking breaks down. Who is to say that my moral rules are more important than your moral rules? Certainly my “higher being” has more morality than your “higher being” right?

Morality comes from society. It comes from what a given group of people determine to be acceptable practices that are then enforced and followed by the populous. Morality also comes from the brain. It has already been scientifically demonstrated that the brain has several areas that function in tandem to provide both an emotional side to a decision and to provide a numeric utilitarian side to a decision. Morality is the combination of these two (typically opposing) types of decision making.

p.s. One very small problem with an otherwise excellent write up. The author says “Last year, psychologists proved they could boost people’s willingness to kill in a utilitarian dilemma just by showing them a five-minute clip from Saturday Night Live.” Psychologists and scientists do not “prove” anything with scientific research. Scientists show that something is more likely than chance or less likely than chance, but they cannot never fully “prove” anything. It may seem like a small thing, but it’s an important difference.