Monday, May 28, 2007


From Hot Air:

“You gotta see this!” Jorge Moll had written. Moll and Jordan Grafman,
neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health, had been scanning the
brains of volunteers as they were asked to think about a scenario involving
either donating a sum of money to charity or keeping it for themselves…

The results were showing that when the volunteers placed the
interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part
of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Altruism, the
experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic
selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable…
What the new research is showing is that morality has biological roots —
such as the reward center in the brain that lit up in Grafman’s experiment —
that have been around for a very long time.

The more
researchers learn, the more it appears that the foundation of morality is
empathy. Being able to recognize — even experience vicariously — what another
creature is going through was an important leap in the evolution of social
behavior. And it is only a short step from this awareness to many human notions
of right and wrong, says Jean Decety, a neuroscientist at the University of

Marc Hauser, another Harvard researcher, has used
cleverly designed psychological experiments to study morality. He said his
research has found that people all over the world process moral questions in the
same way, suggesting that moral thinking is intrinsic to the human brain, rather
than a product of culture. It may be useful to think about morality much like
language, in that its basic features are hard-wired, Hauser said. Different
cultures and religions build on that framework in much the way children in
different cultures learn different languages using the same neural

The potential for moral thinking is hardwired. I have always believed that. (Romans 2:15 suggests that the "law" is written in our hearts.) However, clearly, it is not true that "people all over the world process moral questions in the same way." There is an element of rational analysis that goes into making moral decisions. I would be willing to wager that multiple areas of the brain are involved in moral thinking. Sure, some things tug at our heartstrings, and cause us to make certain moral decisions on a very base level. For instance, most everyone responds to cuteness by wanting to protect.

But, such a moral decision is not nearly on the level of the kinds of moral thinking we are required to do in modern, post-tribal society.

The story of the Good Samaritan from the Christian Bible is the kind of moral thinking I am talking about here. Check it out:

25 And a lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, "Teacher, what
shall I do to inherit eternal life?"
26And He said to him, "What is written
in the Law? How does it read to you?"
27And he answered, "(
28And He said to him, "You have answered correctly; (
29But wishing (
justify himself, he said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"
The Good
Samaritan 30Jesus replied and said, "A man was (
down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him
and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead.
31"And by chance a priest
was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other
32"Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him,
passed by on the other side.
33"But a (
who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion,
34and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them;
and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him.
35"On the next day he took out two [
and gave them to the innkeeper and said, 'Take care of him; and whatever more
you spend, when I return I will repay you.'
36"Which of these three do you
think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers' hands?"
37And he said, "The one who showed mercy toward him." Then Jesus said to
him, "Go and do the same."

This kind of moral thinking demands that we look beyond the allegiances of family and tribe. The Samaritans were among the most reviled of people in the society in which Jesus lived. Jesus' point, in teaching this story, was to tell us that decency, and goodness, can be found among all the tribes, and that we must look to such people as examples. Additionally, the question posed here was "Who is my neighbor?", and Jesus' answer is to tell us that the neighbor is defined as is the person who does good, and that we all ought to be concerned with doing good above tribal allegiance.

If such moral thinking were hardwired into the human brain, then atrocities such as the Holocaust, or the ongoing genocide in the Sudan, could never have occurred. All one has to do to know that we should step in in such circumstances, is do a calm, rational, analysis of the facts on the ground.

In other words, we need to add thinking from the analytical part of the brain, not just the "moral thinking" part of the brain which these scientists are studying.

But, honestly, we are too busy thinking with exactly that "moral thinking" part of our brain to be bothered with the man lying bleeding along the road.