I came across a very interesting article in the New York Times "The Moral Instinct" (Jan. 13, 2008), by Steven Pinker , a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and formerly a Professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT.
Pinker discusses research which seems to show that our moral instincts or intuitions are a result of evolution. He writes:
Today, a new field is using illusions to unmask a sixth sense, the moral sense. Moral intuitions are being drawn out of people in the lab, on Web sites and in brain scanners, and are being explained with tools from game theory, neuroscience and evolutionary biology.1. Moral intuitions are different than moral opinions.
. . . The human moral sense turns out to be an organ of considerable complexity, with quirks that reflect its evolutionary history and its neurobiological foundations.
The starting point for appreciating that there is a distinctive part of our psychology for morality is seeing how moral judgments differ from other kinds of opinions we have on how people ought to behave. Moralization is a psychological state that can be turned on and off like a switch, and when it is on, a distinctive mind-set commandeers our thinking. This is the mind-set that makes us deem actions immoral (“killing is wrong”), rather than merely disagreeable (“I hate brussels sprouts”), unfashionable (“bell-bottoms are out”) or imprudent (“don’t scratch mosquito bites”).2. Moral intuitions are felt to be universally true.
The first hallmark of moralization is that the rules it invokes are felt to be universal. Prohibitions of rape and murder, for example, are felt not to be matters of local custom but to be universally and objectively warranted. One can easily say, “I don’t like brussels sprouts, but I don’t care if you eat them,” but no one would say, “I don’t like killing, but I don’t care if you murder someone.”
3. Violations of moral intuitions are felt to be worthy of punishment.
The other hallmark is that people feel that those who commit immoral acts deserve to be punished. Not only is it allowable to inflict pain on a person who has broken a moral rule; it is wrong not to, to “let them get away with it.” People are thus untroubled in inviting divine retribution or the power of the state to harm other people they deem immoral. Bertrand Russell wrote, “The infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists — that is why they invented hell.”4. Moral intuitions sometimes cannot be explained rationally.
Pinker cites an example from psychologist Jonathan Haidt:
Julie is traveling in France on summer vacation from college with her brother Mark. One night they decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. Julie was already taking birth-control pills, but Mark uses a condom, too, just to be safe. They both enjoy the sex but decide not to do it again. They keep the night as a special secret, which makes them feel closer to each other. What do you think about that — was it O.K. for them to make love?Most people will have a moral intuition that a brother and sister engaging in sex is wrong. But why?
In the case of Julie and Mark, people raise the possibility of children with birth defects, but they are reminded that the couple were diligent about contraception. They suggest that the siblings will be emotionally hurt, but the story makes it clear that they weren’t. They submit that the act would offend the community, but then recall that it was kept a secret. Eventually many people admit, “I don’t know, I can’t explain it, I just know it’s wrong.”5. Apparently our brain has evolved to find certain behaviors instinctively wrong.
The idea that the moral sense is an innate part of human nature is not far-fetched. A list of human universals collected by the anthropologist Donald E. Brown includes many moral concepts and emotions, including a distinction between right and wrong; empathy; fairness; admiration of generosity; rights and obligations; proscription of murder, rape and other forms of violence; redress of wrongs; sanctions for wrongs against the community; shame; and taboos. . . . The moral sense, then, may be rooted in the design of the normal human brain.It could be that because incestuous relationships produce genetically inferior children, and are therefore counter-productive to human evolution, our brains have evolved to find that behavior instinctively wrong. Other moral instincts would also be derived from whether the actions under consideration were productive or counter-productive to human evolution.
We will examine this issue further in a future post.