Where Morals Come From-And Why it Matters

author: Patrick Byrne, Boston College
author: Christopher Moore, Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: John Mikhail, Georgetown University
author: Beatriz Luna, University of Pittsburgh
published: March 20, 2014,   recorded: September 2007,   views: 1846

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A neuroscientist, lawyer and philosopher together manage to wrap their arms around the centuries’ old question of the origins of human morality.

Beatriz Luna’s behavioral and imaging studies of the human brain provide evidence of an innate circuitry supporting moral cognition, and of distinct phases of development that directly relate to a person’s ability to make a moral judgment. While the “cognitive control of behavior matures in adolescence,” there are limitations in executive processes in the brain “that may limit an adolescent’s ability to consistently determine and apply moral judgment.” Luna says she “doesn’t like people thinking adolescence is a disease.” Instead, she sees it “as the last stop we have to influence what the brain is going to look like,” and if we are interested in promoting responsible and ethical behavior, “maybe we need to sculpt the brain.” She notes that her research has implications for an often unforgiving juvenile justice system.

John Mikhail is working on a framework for a universal moral grammar that in some ways parallels the universal linguistic grammar of his mentor, Noam Chomsky. There’s plenty of psychological evidence that children appear biologically prepared to act morally. Mikhail cites studies showing three-year–old children able to distinguish moral rules from social conventions, and to distinguish lies from innocent or negligent mistakes. He points to other signs of universal morality, such as prohibitions against murder and rape, commonalities in criminal law worldwide. Mikhail is methodically constructing “an experimental version of Socratic methods,” in some sense testing the hypothesis that children are intuitive lawyers. The “scientific project here is to … flesh out in a comprehensive way what’s going on in our processing” that lies behind our moral principles.

There are four wellsprings of human morality, believes Patrick Byrne. Reason -- “the deep desire to know and do what is right” -- guides humans toward principles. Byrne sees an innate need in humans to solve problems and to conduct “critical conversations” with themelves on the best ways to act and live. Simultaneously, we selectively gather moral precepts from society, from what others say is right or wrong. The brain is yet another source of morality. Byrne invokes the work of animal behaviorists, who have traced the evolution of sympathy and empathy in socially organized animals. Here as well, humans apply reason “in deciding who to help, why and when.” Byrne cites the laws of God as another basis for moral conduct. God, says Byrne, “gives us the capacity to reason toward creative, critical and selective determination of what’s the best way to live our lives and act, in concert and in collaboration with others.”

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