Bite-Sized Musings: Morality

UPDATE: Sam Harris, noted Athiest, Author, Neuroscientist, and Philosopher, read this blog post and decided to write his own blog post about science and morality. His is complex and difficult to understand, so feel free to read this one instead.

Today I was listening to NPR and heard a story linking morality to brain processes - as opposed to one's morality being located somewhere in the "heart" or "soul" or what have you.

Participants were told two stories - one in which someone did something malicious by accident, and one in which someone did something malicious but failed in the attempt.

Normal adults judge the first person as relatively innocent and hold the second person accountable morally for their bad behavior.

But, with a little electromagnetic stimulation to a specific part in the brain,
"The stimulation caused people to pay less attention to [Person 2]'s intention and more attention to the outcome, Young says.

"If no harm was done, then subjects would judge [Person 2's behavior] as OK," she says, even if the story made it clear [Person 2] was trying to poison her friend. That's the sort of moral judgment you often see in kids who are 3 or 4 years old, Young says."
The study argues, sort of, that if moral judgments are brain processes like any other, then "it will be hard to argue that people have, or need, a soul."

I grew up believing that morality was God-given; that "good" and "bad" were defined by God, you could say. That humans aren't meant to judge others, that God would do the judging at the end of things.

This is a great theory; less judgment among humans is, generally speaking, a good thing. Not that Christians tend to take heed of this Biblical advice (Luke 6:37 among others) more than any other population, but that's neither here nor there.

This study, when extrapolated sociologically, suggests that morality is cultural, is society-driven. We learn to judge "good" and "bad" behavior like we learn to subscribe to other social norms.

This can be taken both positively and negatively - if we aren't to judge anyone but instead see behavior as subscribing to or not subscribing to our own culture's norms, are we allowed to judge anyone at all anymore? (See this post about drinking in the daytime) This seems swell to our post-modern, live-and-let-live liberal sensibilities. But what about things like some instances of murder, or incest, or ritual disfigurement (think FGM)? Can we still judge those?

I can obviously see why Christians, and in fact many persons of other monotheistic faiths and others, would balk at this idea. I kind of like it but part of me is a lil' dismayed.

What do you think? Do you buy the conclusions suggested by the study?
Do you think this discounts the argument for a soul?
Do you think the study suggests the sociological conclusion I've made?
Do you think morality is largely culture-specific or are there universal morals?
If morality's culture specific status were to be widely accepted, do you think that this would be a good thing or a bad thing?


  1. How do you define the soul? I've been thinking of a response to your post, but I don't in what sense you speak of the soul.

  2. Hmmm...

    I think it goes back to the post before this one - is the "soul" kind of a unique identifier of a specific person? Like, is identity just the amalgam of all of the various aspects of one's personality, upbringing, preferences, values, etc. or is there something deeper that is 100% individual for each specific person? if so, I think this is what I mean by the "soul."

    In the quote in this post that mentions the "soul," though, I think they are talking about the idea of something supernatural, maybe God-given, that is a basis for moral behavior.

    You might say, "I know in my soul that [certain behavior] is wrong." This study suggests that instead, we know as a result of culture and specific brain processes that something is wrong, not as a result of anything supernatural.

    I think that's what I'm trying to say. It's a much bigger question than that, obviously, but I think that's what I was going for here.

  3. Elliot,

    I'm taking a class called "Naturalized Ethics," which is the hottest topic in ethics in the last quarter century. I highly recommend the book "Moral Minds," which makes this case quite well.

    The basics: We live in a post-Darwinian world, but so much of our philosophy has yet to grasp the implications of Darwin, but we need to. Humans live at the end of a continuum with other animals, and although we have unique qualities, there is no sharp break on the continuum between us and them. Between us and other non-human animals is not a difference of kind, but of complexity.

    Thus, since humans are produced by natural selection and not divine creation, we need to explain human moral reasoning based on our evolutionary past. And, as it turns out, we CAN explain human moral reasoning based based on this model. We are moral creatures with moral intuitions, just like we are bipedal creatures with the natural intuitions of how to walk (built-in as it were). We can scrap metaphysical moral absolute and still retain (because we can't escape) the convergence of our unconscious moral calculations and our explicit moral and legal regulations that together govern our lives and activities.

    Anyway, this obviously deserves a must longer conversation. Interesting stuff!