Morality & Neuroscience

An Ravelingien reports on the conference ‘Double standards. Towards an integration of evolutionary and neurological perspectives on human morality.’ (Ghent University, 21-22 Oct. 2006)

In Love in the Ruins, Walker Percy tells the story of Tom More, the inventor of the extraordinary ‘ontological lapsometer’1. The lapsometer is a diagnostic tool, a ‘stethoscope of the human soul’.  Just as a stethoscope or an EEG can trace certain physical dysfunctions, the lapsometer can measure the frailties of the human mind. The device can measure ‘how deep the soul has fallen’ and allows for early diagnoses of potential suicides, paranoia, depression, or other mood disorders. Bioethicist Carl Elliott refers to this novel to illustrate a well-known debate within psychiatry2. According to Elliott, the image of the physician that uses the lapsometer to unravel the mysteries of the soul is a comically desperate attempt to objectify experiences that cannot accommodate such scientific analysis. His objection carries back to the conflict between a sociological perspective – that would stress the subjective experiences related to the cultural and social context of human psychology – and a biological perspective – that would rather determine the physiological causes of mental and mood dysfunction. It is very likely that debate about the subjective and indefinite nature of some experiences will climax when empirical science is applied to trace and explain the biology of our moral sentiments and convictions. For most of us, I presume, nothing would appear to be more inextricably a part of our personal experience and merit than our moral competence. The conference ‘Double Standards’ questioned this intuition and demonstrated that the concept of ‘morality’ is becoming more and more tangible.

Jan Verplaetse and Johan Braeckman, the organizers of the conference, gathered 13 reputable experts and more than 150 participants to ponder one of the oldest and most fundamental philosophical questions: how did morality come into existence? For this, they drew upon two different scientific approaches: evolutionary psychology and neuroscience. In theory, these disciplines are complementary.  Neuroscientists assume that morality is generated by specific neural mechanisms and structures, which they hope to find by way of sophisticated brain imaging techniques. Evolutionary scientists, by contrast, want to figure out what the adaptive value of morality is for it to have evolved. According tot hem, morality is – just as all aspects of our human nature – a product of evolution through selection. Moral and social behavior must have had a selective advantage, from which the relevant cognitive and emotional functions developed. Through an interdisciplinary approach, the alleged functions can direct the neuroscientist in searching for the neurological structures that underlie them. Or, the other way around, the imaging of certain neural circuits should help to discover whether and to what extent our moral intuitions are indeed embedded in our ‘nature.’ During the conference, this double perspective gave rise to several interesting hypotheses.

It appears that neuroscientists have already achieved remarkably uniform results regarding the crucial brain areas that are involved in fulfilling moral tasks. Jorge Moll was the first to use functional MRI-studies to show that three major areas are engaged in moral decision making: the frontal lobes, temporal lobe and limbic-paralimbic areas. Other speakers at the conference confirmed this overlapping pattern of neural activity, regardless of differences in the ways in which moral stimuli were presented, and regardless of the specific content of the moral tasks (whether the tasks consisted of complex dilemma’s, simple scenario’s with an emotional undertone, or references to violence and bodily harm). Since these findings, several researchers have started looking for the biological basis of more specific moral intuitions. Jean Decety, for instance, has found the neural correlates that play a role in the cognitive modulation of empathy. fMRI-studies are also being used to compare ‘normal’ individuals with people who show deviant (and in particular criminal/immoral) behavior and to thereby derive new explanations of such a-typical behavior. As such, James Blair suggested that individuals with psychopathy have problems with learned emotional responses to negative stimuli.  According to him, the common neural circuit activated in moral decision making is in a more general sense involved in a rudimentary form of stimulus reinforcement learning. At least one form of morality is developed by such reinforcement learning: what Blair calls care-based morality. Contrary to psychopathic individuals, even very young children realize that there is an important difference between for instance the care-based norm ‘do not hit another child’ and the convention-based norm ‘do not talk during class’. In absence of a clear rule, ‘normal’ individuals will be more easily inclined to transgress social conventions than care-based norms. The reason for this, he proposed, is that transgression of care-based norms confronts us with the suffering of our victim(s). The observation of others in pain, sadness, anger, … immediately evokes a negative response, an aversion, in the self, from which we learn to avoid situations with similar stimuli. Blair offered brain images of psychopathic individuals that showed evidence of reduced brain activity in those parts of the brain that are involved in stimulus reinforcement (the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the amygdala). Adrian Raine gave an entirely different perspective on ‘immoral behavior,’ in suggesting that certain deviances in the prefrontal cortex point to a predisposition towards antisocial behavior. According to Raine, immoral behavior need not be a dysfunction of normal neural circuits; evolution may just as well have shaped the brain to have a predisposition for immoral rather than moral behavior. Antisocial behavior may have a selective advantage: it can be a very effective means of taking others’ resources. As such, the expression of sham emotions (such as faked shame or remorse) can be interpreted as a strategy to mislead others in thinking that they have corrected their behavior. Raine finds support for his hypothesis in indications of a strong genetic basis for antisocial behavior. He also offered brain imaging results that show an 11% reduction in prefrontal grey matter in antisocial individuals and reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex of affective murderers.

Will we one day be able to evaluate ‘how deep someone’s morality has fallen’? Will there be a ‘stethoscope of morality,’ that can measure the weaknesses of our moral judgments and behaviors? If so, will we able to cure immoral behavior? Or, conversely, will we be able to augment the brain processes that are involved in our moral competence? Perhaps most importantly, what do we do with the notion of moral responsibility when there is evidence of predispositions towards antisocial behavior?  Although there is still a long way to go in understanding the neurobiology of human morality, this conference was an important step in introducing some moral dilemma’s that may confront us as the field of research progresses. More information on www.themoralbrain.be

1. Percy W (1971), Love in the Ruins, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York.

2. Elliott C (1999), Bioethics, Culture and Identity. A Philosophical Disease, Routledge, London.

 

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An Ravelingien Ph.D. is a fellow of the IEET, and an assistant researcher in bioethics at the Department of Philosophy, Ghent University.

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