In my previous post on morality, I argued that simply saying that people are inclined to be "evil" fails as an explanation for human cruelty – it not only fails to take into account certain facts about our biological inclination toward empathy, but it leaves important questions about how we make moral decisions – and how our empathetic hard-wiring can be eroded – unanswered. I touched briefly on the fact that many of our "moral" decisions are made impulsively, and we reason about them retroactively. In this post, I want to examine more thoroughly some of the processes involved in making moral decisions – including how our empathetic nature can both influence us and be eroded.
Empathy on the brain
In his excellent book The Science of Evil, Cambridge
psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen discusses the many regions of the brain
that are associated with our ability to empathize with others. What's
fascinating is that damage to specific regions of the brain cause
empathy to malfunction in highly specific ways. Damage one part of the
brain, and we can lose our ability to feel any empathy at all
(sociopathology); damage a different part of the brain and we may be
able to feel empathy, but be confused as to how to react appropriately;
damage yet another different part of the brain and we may have
difficulty reading facial expressions and accurately inferring others'
The list goes on, but what this shows
is that the physical state of our brain has a powerful effect on our
ability to make moral decisions. If we can't feel empathy or accurately
understand others' emotional states, for example, then our decisions
will be more utilitarian and egocentric. This is not speculation or
hypothesis, either – it is well documented in the behavior of those
suffering from personality disorders.
The causes of
personality disorders appear to be combinations of nature and nurture –
something which may seem obvious, but is now well substantiated with
research. Abuse and neglect during childhood can have an irreversible
effect on the development of the brain which manifests in antisocial
behavior during adolescence and adulthood. This has important
implications: the deck is not stacked the same for everyone.
Empathy exists on a bell curve, with individuals at one extreme being
highly extroverted, sensitive, and compassionate; and individuals at the
other extreme being literally incapable of feeling empathy. It's beyond dispute: our biology has a powerful influence on how we make moral decisions.
The brain in the environment
course, our brains don't just sit in vats all day; they're constantly
bombarded with sensory input from our environment. We live in an
environment in which competition over limited resources influences our
moral reasoning. Much like soldiers trained to de-humanize their enemy,
we can be conditioned to overcome our basic human empathy. And even if
we are relatively normal on the empathy bell-curve, desperate situations
may influence us to temporarily repress our empathy for others.
moral decisions take two forms: the impulsive, emotionally-driven
reactions I mentioned previously; and moral reasoning, in which we
attempt to dispassionately judge what is fair. The famous Trolley Problem illuminates the conflict between these two broad reason:
the first scenario, subjects are presented with a trolley on course to
kill five people; with a flip of a switch, the trolley can be
re-directed to another track, where one person will be killed. Most
individuals immediately judge that it is better to throw the switch and
kill one instead of five.
In the second scenario, there
is again a trolley headed toward five unfortunate souls. This time, you
are on a bridge where a large man is standing. If you push him off the
bridge, his corpse will stop the trolley.
In the second
scenario, most respondents hesitate – and it is precisely that
hesitation which betrays the fact that our moral decisions are not
entirely rational (quite the contrary, in fact). In utilitarian terms,
both situations are identical; but the second scenario requires us to
directly harm a bystander, which causes the empathic circuitry in our
brains to remind us that it is unfair to hurt another human being.
Interestingly, people low on the empathy bell curve due to lack of
development or damage to parts of the brain responsible for empathy
(their "empathy circuitry") do not hesitate, since for these individuals all moral decisions are primarily utilitarian.
we now know that emotions heavily influence our moral decisions, and
that individuals whose empathy circuitry in their brains have been
adversely affect by genetics and/or their environment will not make the
same moral decisions as most of us simply because they do not feel a
compulsion to nurture others, to ease or prevent their suffering, or to
otherwise respond to their distress. They are unlikely to value fairness
or self-sacrifice, as their inability to empathize with others creates
an egocentric form of moral judgment. Since moral norms are concerned
with how we ought to behave, it's vital that we recognize the
pivotal role our biology plays in shaping our relationships with others,
that we may properly understand how moral proscriptions are derived.
the final post in this series, I'll get away from the emotional
component and talk about moral reasoning specifically, and how we can
use information to make non-arbitrary moral judgments.