If asked if it would ever be OK to kill your own child, you don’t have to think very hard before answering, “No.” And no matter what arguments someone offered, you would probably wince at the idea that even consensual, safe sex between siblings is anything but bad. Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, believes these initial reactions are based on five intuitions, deep-wired in the brain by eons of evolution. Cultural norms and practices are based on these instincts, he says, much as cuisines are built on the five taste receptors.

Haidt believes that moral judgment begins with these intuitions and that only later do we search for a reason to justify our reactions. That doesn’t mean we can’t change our minds or that we’re trapped by our primitive instincts; reasons given by other people and unspoken social pressure can change our minds. “It’s just very hard for people to challenge their gut feelings by themselves,” he says. “Once they have a feeling about an issue, people are bad at looking for reasons to oppose it. And when feelings are strong, it almost hurts to think about things from your opponent’s point of view.”

Haidt isn’t saying you ought to follow your gut—only that people generally do. What happens when we try to decide? Go back to the idea that you should never kill your child. A group of researchers at Princeton University gave research subjects this dilemma: Enemy soldiers have taken over your village and will kill civilians they find. You are hiding in the cellar of a house with a group of towns-people, and you hear the soldiers enter the house. Your baby starts to cry, and the only way to quiet him is to hold your hand over his mouth and, eventually, smother him. But if the baby keeps crying, the soldiers will discover your group and kill everyone, the baby included. What should you do?

Emotional brain. The subjects were about equally divided on whether to kill the baby . More interesting was what their brains were doing—measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, during the decision process. Obviously, this scenario appeals to    emotion, so it’s not surprising that parts of the brain involving emotion showed activity. But so did an area involved in monitoring conflict and another involved with abstract reasoning and cognitive control. In re- search published last fall in Neuron, the researchers hypothesized that these findings suggest a conflict between the emotional responses and higher cognitive processing. When a tough moral question is posed, the reasoning processes of the brain conflict with the more automatic emotional response, and the decision takes longer (as opposed to a faster response to a more straightforward question, like “Is murder wrong?”).

Like Haidt, the authors speculate that this conflict has evolutionary roots. The more abstract reasoning goes on in the more recently evolved parts of the brain. The “gut” response isn’t always the wrong one, but it’s not automatically right because it “feels good” either. Conditions have changed since we automatically followed our more primitive brains. Perhaps we were hard-wired to feel this genetic sympathy for close relatives but not for people living thousands of miles away (our ancestors didn’t even know they existed).

Joshua Greene of the Princeton team proposes that a moral judgment is ultimately a balance of several different considerations— the initial, primal reaction; empathy; cultural or religious norms; and individual reasoning. Sometimes these will all be in line and make the decision an easy one, but often they will conflict. It makes for exciting science (and philosophy), even if it doesn’t offer easy answers to the toughest questions of how to live.

-----Katherine Hobson



February 28, 2005. (Pgs. 60-61)

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