"If It Feels Good to Be Good, It Might Be Only Natural" 

Today's Washington Post reports that thinking about being good to each other makes us feel good, and therefore morality reduces to evolutionary hardwiring in our brains. Anybody see any small problems with this? 

Researchers at the National Institutes of Health scanned the brains of volunteers while they were thinking about giving money to charity or keeping it for themselves. Thinking about giving money "activated a primitive center in the brain that usually responds to food or sex." From that, says the report, researchers concluded that morality may be nothing but a product of naturalistic evolution. I'm sorry, but that's philosophically naive.

The report drew from other similar research to "discover" the same thing. Some key passages:

"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 Chicago.

"The research enterprise has been viewed with interest by philosophers and theologians, but already some worry that it raises troubling questions. Reducing morality and immorality to brain chemistry -- rather than free will -- might diminish the importance of personal responsibility. Even more important, some wonder whether the very idea of morality is somehow degraded if it turns out to be just another evolutionary tool that nature uses to help species survive and propagate.


"Joshua D. Greene, a Harvard neuroscientist and philosopher, said multiple experiments suggest that morality arises from basic brain activities. Morality, he said, is not a brain function elevated above our baser impulses. Greene said it is not 'handed down' by philosophers and clergy, but 'handed up,' an outgrowth of the brain's basic propensities.


"The reason people are slow to answer [certain difficult moral questions], the study indicated, is that emotion-linked circuits automatically signaling that killing a baby is wrong clash with areas of the brain that involve cooler aspects of cognition. One brain region activated when people process such difficult choices is the inferior parietal lobe, which has been shown to be active in more impersonal decision-making. This part of the brain, in essence, was 'arguing' with brain networks that reacted with visceral horror.

"Such studies point to a pattern, Greene said, showing 'competing forces that may have come online at different points in our evolutionary history. A basic emotional response is probably much older than the ability to evaluate costs and benefits.'"

The one really solid finding in all these studies is that morality has an emotional component. Now, just who is surprised by this? Did we need neural imaging to tell us it feels good inside when we do good? Or that it feels good to imagine ourselves (at no actual cost) doing good? Do we have a new finding here that overturns the wisdom of the ages?

So much of the time, "new" brain research tells us something we already knew. But of course "science" didn't know it, because it hadn't been measured, counted, or photographed. And our god of knowledge is Science: if Science doesn't know it, it isn't real. Therefore, until the last year or two, we didn't really "know" that our emotions and our moral sense are connected. Well, it sounds for all the world to me like some people need to take off their lab coats once in a while, and sit down with some Shakespeare, some Tolstoy, some Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, and yes, some Bible. (Some science journalists could stand to do the same.) Not all insights come out of laboratories and statistical analyses.

Speaking of the Bible, there's another explanation for these findings, and it's been around a lot longer than the evolutionary one. The WaPo article says they're discovering that morality is internal, not always "handed down from on high." Romans 2:14-15, speaking specifically (in context) of those who were not given the law of Moses, says,

"For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them."

Here we also see the internal battle over right and wrong. (This is one of many places these themes show up in Scripture, starting all the way back in Genesis 1.) Thus, these research findings agree with the predictions of naturalistic evolution's chief rival in the West, Christianity. (Or as Russell A. Cardwell pithily noted, "there is nothing new under the sun.") The studies reported here are very supportive of Biblical teachings. So why do people jump to the conclusion that they support an evolutionary tale, and undermine traditional morality and religion?

And why think that morality is in danger of being invalidated by these studies? Well, if a reductionistic interpretation is taken, that morality is just an outflow from pleasure responses in primitive brain centers, then that's a very real concern. It really does undermine the whole thing. But again, moral philosophy is not stunned by the news that the brain does something when we make moral choices. That's familiar territory, with familiar answers.

Morality is an internal experience we all share. It is an everyday reality, a datum of existence; it's nearly universal among humans. Does that count as knowledge? Why not? Because it's not "scientific"? Before now, morality has never been amenable to scientific analysis, but now we have brain-imaging studies on it. We've found the part of it that we can measure and photograph. So it's finally knowledge. That seems to be the story.

But morality does not reduce to primitive brain functions; it's not equivalent to sex and hunger. You knew that, didn't you? The knowledge god, Science, wants you to think that the part it can see is the only part that's real. I say, choose your gods wisely; for this one, this time, is trying to deceive you.  

Posted: Mon - May 28, 2007 at 08:20 AM           |

© 2004-2007 by Tom Gilson. Permission is granted to quote up to two paragraphs of any blog entry, provided that a link back to the original is included or (in print) the website address is provided. Please email me regarding longer quotes. All other rights reserved.

Weblog Commenting and Trackback by HaloScan.com
Web Analytics Web Analytics