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The Morality Instinct

The latest neuroscience suggests that the choice between good and evil is not based on reason.

Molly Crockett

What can science say about morality? Traditionally, the distinction between good and evil has been the terrain of philosophy and of religion. But in recent years, scientists have begun to explore the complex subject of morality, with surprising results. Might morality serve an evolutionary purpose? Is it even unique to humans?

Molly Crockett is an American neuroscientist best known for her work on morality, altruism and decision-making. She is Associate Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford and is currently working on how harm aversion affects our decision-making processes. She spoke to the IAI about how neuroscience is changing the way we think about morality.

Could you outline your thesis on morality – what forms does it take and what evidence is there to show that certain elements of morality are actually instinctive?

It’s clear from research on both humans and animals that we have a very deeply rooted aversion to harming others, and this aversion to harming others infuses our moral judgment and also our moral behaviour. There has been work showing that even very small infants dislike puppet characters who harm other puppet characters. We see what looks like harm aversion in non-human animals, such as primates and rats. These suggest that the sense of harm aversion is very deeply ingrained, so could possibly be innate. Because we share it with other animals, it doesn’t seem unique to humans.

We have done some work recently which shows that people will, on average, spend more money to prevent a stranger from being harmed by electric shock than to prevent themselves from receiving pain. This study cannot say anything about whether harm aversion is innate or unique to humans, but we have shown a very striking level of altruism in the lab when it comes to making decisions about harm.

In terms of morality being instinctive, surely you cannot know if an action is moral until you reason whether it’s good or not?

There are different perspectives on this. Certainly some philosophical perspectives argue that truth is arrived at through reason. But given that we see the building blocks of morality, things like empathy and harm aversion, in babies and animals which clearly don’t have the ability to engage in sophisticated reasoning, then surely morality depends on more than just reason.           

A recent study claimed to find an evolutionary basis for selflessness because it plays a part in human cooperation, suggesting that there is a form of self-interest in any act of selflessness. Do you believe in altruism for its own sake?

I’d say it’s still an open question. There’s some really nice work by David Rand and colleagues where they actually looked at the transcripts of people who won the Carnegie Medal for heroism – these are people that risked their lives to save someone else. If you talk to these people, it looks like the thought process behind those decisions was really minimal: they didn’t really think about it in terms of the potential benefits to themselves; they just did it. That suggests that selfish motives, if they’re there, would likely not be conscious. Even though it’s true that a lot of people will behave altruistically for the sake of their own reputation, we know that people sometimes will give anonymously, that they will help others even when no one is watching. Whether that implies a certain level of selfishness in the sense that they behave altruistically because it just feels good to them, well, I suppose that’s a valid point but kind of a pointless argument. There’s a really nice piece by Jamil Zaki written on edge.org about this very issue – at a certain level, any behavior is going to be motivated and people do the things that they want to do. So you could boil down to the level that there’s no such thing as altruism, because I get some personal satisfaction from helping someone else. It just seems to me to be an unproductive argument.

If everyone has a different concept of good and evil, how do we go about testing the instinctive nature of morality?

One way to test instinct is to look at cross-species comparisons between humans and non-humans, and to study the development of babies – that’s all work that's being done at the moment. You can also look at how much time people take to make moral decisions, and you can make the argument that if people react quicker this is a more instinctive response than if people are slower. There’s some nice work, again from David Rand, suggesting that cooperation is intuitive and instinctual because people are more likely to cooperate if you force them to make a decision quickly. But our recent work actually showed that people who take longer to decide take the moral decision. I think it depends on the specifics of the choice involved, and more research needs to be done to tease out these mechanisms.

What are the limits of neuroscience in studying morality, selflessness and altruism, and how does an interdisciplinary approach help us find answers?

Neuroscientists who study the neurobiology of altruism are interested in very different questions than psychologists who study altruism: Neuroscientists are primarily interested in the brain and how it makes decisions. That is really potentially valuable information if you are trying, for example, to develop brain-based treatments for disorders like psychopathy, which is traditionally associated with very low levels of altruism. The limits come from the fact that our understanding of the brain currently is still very poor, and a lot of the work on morality hasn’t necessarily tested very high-level questions, because morality is such a complex phenomenon. It’s going to be quite some time before this high-level theoretical work bridges with lower-level descriptions of how the brain functions at the circuit level. This will have to happen if we are to build a complete picture of the neurobiology of morality.

How does your work combine neuroscience with philosophy?

We’ve taken a really interdisciplinary approach: we collaborate regularly with philosophers who bring a unique perspective to the study of morality in the lab. They can suggest approaches that are based in centuries of thought in moral philosophy. We also bring methods from neuroscience and behavioural economics to try and create quantitative measures of how much people care about avoiding harm to others versus themselves. We’re excited about these methods because we hope that they will provide a link between behavior and the brain.

How would you convince someone who is skeptical that evolution plays a part in morality?

I think they’re not mutually exclusive – of course morality is cultural. If you accept that behavior comes from the brain, then you have to acknowledge the importance of the brain in producing any kind of behavior – whether it be moral or immoral.



Image credit: Jeroen Kransen 

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worldnotworld 23 January 2016

The synopsis of this article –

"We like to think that the choice between good and evil is based on philosophy and reason. The latest neuroscience research is telling us to think again."

– is sheer nonsense. No one who has thought twice about what people do in real life would ever say we make life's moral choices "based on philosophy and reason." Such choices, made in the haphazard reality of life in "real time," are always, at each second, the result of a tremendously complex interaction of intuitions, self-interest, empathy, haste, delay, rationalization, deliberation, spontaneity, philosophizing, hatred of philosophizing, emotion, etc. etc., all in different proportions at different times. We don't need neuroscience to make us think again about this ludicrous straw-man.

When we sit with some distance from a moral puzzle, *then* we may begin to reason about it – and even then these same biases arise, but might be gradually superable with thought and skepticism and argument, until we arrive at something closer to what we hope is a moral truth in some objective sense. Philosophy and reason and reflective experience play a greater part in such considered discourse, in morality as in everything else.

As they do in, for example, physics per se as opposed to everyday "folk physics." A kid playing catch does not engage in physics per se, but if you sit down with him later and begin to think about the ball moves, some interesting patterns might be discerned, and maybe even a quantifiable, "objective" science – something close to what we hope is a physical truth, one which will sit quite outside our initial intuitions and rationalizations.

Of course we like to *think* we're being throughly reasonable/rational/philosophical when it comes to moral decisions. We like to think that about most of what we do. But we know it's largely false. Again, we don't need neurologists to tell us this. A second thought is all it takes, and the word is full of ethical and religious traditions that caution us to take pause.

The insidious implication of this article lies not in its suggestion that we have certain neurological (or psychological, genetic, culturally constructed, or what have you) moral biases – of course we do. The insidiousness lies in its implicit suggestion that morality itself is a sort of epiphenomenon of the neurological (ibid.). This is as nonsensical as saying that the physical (i.e. all the laws of physics) are essentially a sort of epiphenomenon of brain activity, only more dangerous, since it abandons objective criteria for morality, replacing them with brain states beyond moral index.

It would appear that Crockett's supposed "collaboration with philosophers" has been essentially unfruitful, or she would surely protest against such abysmal interpretations of her work as this article.

Tue Pho 10 December 2015

Ý thức của đứa trẻ nằm trong một tình trạng thuần nhất. Từ đó phát sinh cảm giác cộng sinh. Do vậy, theo thông thường, tính thiện là phẩm chất đầu tiên, từ một đứa trẻ đến con người. Cái ác nảy sinh do sự phân biệt, cũng nghĩa là ý thức bán khai của đức trẻ bắt đầu hoạt động và tiếp nhận từ những gì văn hóa, xã hội để lại. Một sự kế thừa không được chọn lọc theo hướng thiện...Quan hệ giữa não và các hành vi bên ngoài là một cấu trúc gương, đối xứng. Thực chất các anh hùng giống đứa trẻ ở chỗ, họ không suy nghĩ về bản thân trong các hành vi của họ. Từ đó, biểu hiện như một hành động vị tha. Một phản ứng, hành động tự nhiên hơn là các suy tính có tính cách vị ngã...

Sangita 4 February 2015

Science is the practical and rational way to understand these intangible aspects of the human race. Further studies will enhance evolutionary progress and take away the medium of religions which often tends to obscure our understanding of life and daily counter-production of emotional strains in out lives! However I will say we are primarily here to survive and will always look to what benefits us singularly. Therefore even acts of altruism will ultimately hold an aspect of self gain in the form of inner satisfaction of being in good stead with our fellow human beings. This applies to anonymous forms of altruism as well.

binra 15 January 2015

The prime motivation of choice is always toward pleasure and away from pain as one defines oneself to be in any given situation. Self definition operates largely unconsciously within the illusion of the freedom to operate as an independent agent - which also is an effect of self-definition.
The imposition of moral coercion upon consciousness may be part of acclimatizing to the culture one is born into, but it is a corruption of true moral integrity which is a congruence of thought, word and act.
The body-brain (they cannot really be understood in separation) operates as a communicating device for the physical mind of the total personality construct - which cannot really be understood apart from the higher or non physical mind or bridge to the Consciousness of which and in which everything is being experienced.
The mythological template realities of any given culture or individual embodying such culture, operate as perspectives of experience, and communication and relationship with of course a built in survival mechanism. But survival is not the goal, but the provision of continuity in time as the unfolding story. Non-local Consciousness is not subject to time or space but extends Idea expressions within which time and space are an integral aspect of an overall congruency.
There is no time in Now. One has to utilize mind to compare now with then - which is also a construct within an entirely present totality. identification within this separated construct mind of personal consciousness, operates a virtual reality within experiential template and the body-brain is somewhat like a deep sea diving suit that facilitates accessing such experience. All experience is valid but incongruent template definitions reflects conflicted experience of discord and regardless of applied ingenuity results in joyless sense of disconnection and disintegration.
Hence the call to wake up from the outer dream to the inner template and accept ONLY the congruency of the bridging with higher or non-local Consciousness.
Neuroscience can facilitate looking at template consciousness without the filters and distortions of some of the traditional mythological corruptions. However science itself operates its own mythological themes by inheritance and reaction AGAINST Consciousness. The idea of putting aside the personal so as to discern a wholeness without bias is correct, but the personal must first be noticed and owned, in order to be released. Otherwise it runs as 'hidden agenda' and may then serve, personal (or extension of the personal to its group) reputation and success, respectability and status, power over and predictive control over externals, others, world and Life.
Wholeness embraces and includes the personal and so both/and comes to replace the either/or, but if the part seeks ascendancy over the whole, ignorance and arrogance manifest appropriate reflections to waken and realign - which we call pride coming before a fall.

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