The moral part of the brain

by Rob Horning

11 May 2007


Today’s WSJ had a story about neurological research into the brain areas held to be responsible for morality.

Using neurology patients to probe moral reasoning, the researchers for the first time drew a direct link between the neuroanatomy of emotion and moral judgment.
Knock out certain brain cells with an aneurysm or a tumor, they discovered, and while everything else may appear normal, the ability to think straight about some issues of right and wrong has been permanently skewed. “It tells us there is some neurobiological basis for morality,” said Harvard philosophy student Liane Young, who helped to conceive the experiment.

Further along, the deeper ramifications of this research are considered:

For Harvard neuroscientist Marc Hauser, the moral-dilemma experiment is evidence the brain may be hard-wired for morality. Most moral intuitions, he said, are unconscious, involuntary and universal. To test the idea, he gathered data from thousands of people in hundreds of countries, all of whom display a remarkable unanimity in their basic moral choices. A shared innate capacity for morality may be responsible, he concluded.

This seems to lead invariably to the notion that there is an absolute right and an absolute wrong that will eventually be decoded from our neurons—a premise that seems fairly ominous for those accustomed to a bit more liberty in matters of conscience. Also, it seems a matter of time before traders and the like would seek to have this inhibiting moral part of the brain removed, as it may provide them with a competitive advantage.

If you are wondering how you stack up in relation to universal morality, take this handy quiz. I discovered that I was much less likely to want to punish people than other test takers. Perhaps this means I am drifting toward amorality.

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