Is morality coded in our brains?

What is morality?

Really, what is morality? Is there any inherently good or bad out there? Is it innate or learned? These questions have been keeping the philosophy of morality busy for a very long time. However, the relevance of the topic is not limited to the field of philosophy. We perceive, we feel, we think, and we act with our brain. Hence, we make our moral judgements with our brain as well. This brings the theme of morality into the interest of biology, psychology and neuroscience. Neuroscientists have been investigating cognitive processes utilized in moral behavior, if there is a specific region of brain responsible for moral judgements or how we learn moral structures. Imagine how much it would affect our understanding of morality, justice and even religion if there was evidence for inherently coded moral values in our brains. Or try to think what would happen if morality of an individual was highly shaped by their genetic information. Even thinking of it is giving me a stomachache and shaking the grounds of my understanding of free will.

It is not always an obvious decision that what is right and what is wrong

When we need to make a decision including a moral value, sometimes it feels automatic, as if you deep inside know what the right thing to do is. We hear in the news of some heroic stories, in which for example a person who saved a child from drowning in the sea jumped into the water without even thinking for a second. On the other hand, think of an overwhelmed white-collar employee on the edge of committing a fraud but her conscience giving her second thoughts. Probably, she is plying between justifying her reason to actually committing the crime and turning about because of the moral rules. There is so much mental effort and evaluations going on. It requires a lot of cognitive processes and skills. Sometimes, it is not that clear what is right and what is wrong. Thousands of pages can be written on this subject, yet here I will focus more deeply on one specific universal moral judgement: preference for prosociality. We usually approve actions which are friendly and helpful to others, and we don’t like people who are mean and hurting someone.

What is the role of evolution?

There are possible evolutionary explanations for reciprocal altruism. We can easily see how cooperation is important in human life as a social animal. We do not act solely selfish, so the others will not be acting selfish too. In return, the system protects and benefits everyone in the group. One can argue that cheating can provide evolutionary advantage to the individual. However, considering the possible consequences of being caught, feeling guilty and ashamed, we can say that the possible advantages come with possible risks and psychological costs. Here comes the fundamental role of punishment, which is one of the basic mechanisms of learning at the same time. So, it wouldn’t be a surprise if we had been got genetically inclined to be prosocial through the natural selection. It is not that different from being afraid of spiders and enjoying the smell of food in its essence. Still, we cannot undermine the dominant effect of learning and culture.

Is it innate?

So, is there any evidence that we are born to be altruistic? In 2006, Warneken and Tomasello showed that infants as young as 18 months old which are mostly pre-linguistic, display altruistic behavior in many different situations. This means that infants are able to understand the goal of others and are willing to help without any obvious benefit. More strikingly, this is not restricted to human infants. Three young chimpanzees in a similar experimental setting were observed and results revealed that they also demonstrated altruistic behavior with lower skills and motivations, though. Our dear close relatives, chimpanzees, have roughly the same mental ability as a 3-4-year-old human child and the complexity of their social life is one of the closest to humans. This finding shows us that altruistic behavior requires a certain cognitive capacity accompanied by social living skills. Maybe, acting selfless is not being naïve as it is usually called, but instead it is a higher skill coming from an advanced mental level.


Altruistic behavior is observed in early ages implying an innate predisposition

Another study on infants in 2007 by Hamlin, Wynn & Bloom demonstrated that we are not only predisposed to act altruistically, but we also have a preference for others acting helpful. In the study, infants preferred a helpful individual over one who hinders another. They also preferred a neutral individual over a hindering individual. It is so fascinating to see that 6-10-months-old infants are able to evaluate others in social context and find out who is good and who is bad? Or maybe simply who is a friend and who is hostile. Does that make something/someone good or bad in its essence? This is good question for all of us to think of

Here is the link if you want to see how the experiments on infants conducted regarding prosociality:

The following study provides more insight into this issue. In general, we can say adults prefer individuals acting prosocially over antisocial ones. Yet, in certain situations where the target of the antisocial behavior is disliked, the whole story is reversed. In such cases, the overt antisocial behavior targeting a disliked individual is regarded as appropriate and those who perform that way are seen positively. Results of the study showed that 5-months-old infants preferred the ones who acted positively regardless of the status of the target. However, 8-months-old infants displayed a selective preference for individuals who acted positively towards prosocial others and the individuals who acted negatively towards antisocial others. This means that we learn how to evaluate actions in context as we grow up. Actions are no more good or bad in their essence, but we decide what is appropriate and what is not.

ice cream
Altruistic behavior is preformed and preferred by infants

Free will?

We see that there is an innate predisposition to prosociality. However, it is very immature and transforms in time as we grow up. Overall, all these findings lead us to the question ‘How do we decide what is moral?’, which points to the conditionality and subjectivity of our moral judgements. Do we base our judgements on our liking? Or do we obtain the information of the conditional appropriateness from the society? Both ways, it means there is no single universal foundation for our moral judgements. Even though it sounds controversial, we find things moral if in the very end it serves our individual benefit, which in most of the cases is the stability or the welfare of the social group that we are in. This social group and its dynamics are fundamental and most important survival tool, at least in my opinion. How healthy our society works right now is debatable for sure. Personally, I am not a big fan of the modern living style right now. Yet, trying to understand my intentions, actions and judgements helps me a lot to discover who I am and what actually the world outside is.

simpson brain
How morality is coded in the brain is not yet known

I want to leave you with another question. Consider a baby born with an abnormal brain, which is not wired as ours. So, she is not bringing the innate information we do. Moreover, her ability to learn is also impaired. Neuroscientists have been investigating the altered moral judgements of people with autism for some time. It has been found several times that the inability of the autistic people to make correct judgements is highly linked to their impaired cognitive abilities. This might be an extreme case but also each one of us is limited to the mental capacity of our brains. We come to the world with our innate predispositions and develop as much as our cognitive skills and our opportunities to train them allow. So as Maturidi asked centuries ago, “Is it possible to talk about free will, if one does not have the knowledge of what is good and bad?”

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