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Is morality located in the brain?

        Science | Emotions

The Moral Systems in Us All
Children from different cultures will have different morals.
Children from different cultures will have different morals.
iStockphoto.com/Jani Bryson

We might immediately chalk up differences in how people perceive morality to cultural influence or religious upbringing. Yet some scientists are claiming that morality is all in our brains and is merely shaped by outside forces. One such scientist is Marc Hauser, who draws upon subjects such as anthropology and linguistics to show that morality was around long before the first religions.

Anthropology comes into play when you consider that primates such as apes and monkeys exhibit behaviors associated with morality, such as forgoing food when it would harm another primate [source: Wade]. While we can't know the primates' motivation, they may serve as a model of how morality is necessary for the communal living that man would perfect. But Hauser's real leap came in linking the concept of morality to the concept of language.

In the 1950s, linguist Noam Chomsky hypothesized that we are born with a universal sense of grammar, but within each language, we have our own rules and quirks. Hauser believes morality is much the same. We are born with certain moral norms, such as "do no harm," but the norms are shaped by our upbringing. Hauser believes one reason for this type of unconscious wiring has to do with time constraints. If we had to juggle a mess of verbs, nouns and sentence diagrams each time we spoke, we'd never get anything done. Similarly, we don't have time to dwell on moral concerns each time one comes up. Just as we may know immediately when someone speaks incorrectly, though we may not be able to identify the specific rule, we know in an unconscious sense whether something is right or wrong [source: Glausiusz].

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has identified the moral systems that might be innate in each person:

  • Prevention of harm to a person
  • Reciprocity and fairness
  • Loyalty to a group
  • Respect for authority
  • Sense of purity and sanctity

[source: Pinker]

It's possible that these innate systems may have served an evolutionary advantage. For example, a sense of purity may have come about when faced with decisions of who made the best mate and which foods were the best to eat. Additionally, finding a group that believed the same way that you did would aid your individual survival, because the group would help you out in times of need. The group as a whole would also survive when strengthened by the last three principles.

These moral systems can be shaped by different cultures, which is how people can look at the same situation and come to a different conclusion about it. We have all five, but we place greater emphasis on one or another based on our upbringing. In the case of honor killings, in which a woman is killed for committing adultery or even speaking to a man in public who is not her husband, some Middle Eastern cultures see clear violations by the woman related to the areas of respect for authority and sense of purity, while other Western cultures can only see the woman's death as wrongful harm to a person.

Sometimes, Haidt argues, we don't even realize how our culture has trained these ideas within us [source: Wade]. That's because the more rational side of the brain, the side that lit up in Joshua Greene's imaging experiments (discussed on the previous page), may have evolved later than the emotional side that contains our sense of right and wrong. These brain systems may be in competition, with the rational side trying to figure out why the emotional side is reacting a certain way. When the rational side can't figure out what the emotional side did, it's called moral dumbfounding, according to Haidt [source: Wade]. Sometimes we can't explain why we think something is right or wrong, we just know that it is.

As you might expect, some philosophers resent the intrusion of scientists on this turf [source: Wade]. Both scientists and philosophers still have to grapple with what these findings could mean for our brains and for society. One thing that doesn't require grappling, however, is the decision to go to the next page. There you'll find lots more information on morality and the brain.