Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A moral center in the brain?

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Brain scan
The moral compass, technically named the right temporo-parietal junction, lies just behind the right ear in the brain

Here’s a rather interesting report: scientists seem to have discovered a real-life “moral compass” in the human brain that, when disturbed with a powerful magnet, can actually influence one’s decisions and perception on what is morally permissible and what is not. Here’s how they figured this out:

The researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology used a non-invasive technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation to disrupt the area of the brain.

The technique generates a magnetic field on a small part of the skull which creates weak electric currents in the brain. These currents interfere with nearby brain cells and prevent them from firing normally.

In the first experiment, 12 volunteers were exposed to the magnetic field for 25 minutes before they were given a series of 'moral maze' style scenarios.

For each of the 192 scenarios, they were asked to make a judgement about the character's actions on a scale of 1 for 'absolutely forbidden' to 7 for 'absolutely permissible'.

In the second experiment, the magnetic field was applied to their heads at the time they were asked to weigh up the behaviour of the characters in the scenario.

In both experiments, the magnetic field made the volunteers less moral.

One scenario described a man who let his girlfriend walk over a bridge he knew was unsafe. The girl survived unharmed.

Under normal conditions, most people rate the man's behaviour as unacceptable. But after getting the magnetic pulse, the volunteers tended to see nothing wrong with his actions - and judged his behaviour purely on whether his girlfriend survived.

Another scenario described two girls visiting a chemical plant where one girl asks her friend to put sugar in her coffee.

The friend uses powder from a jar marked 'toxic' - but as the powder turns out to be sugar, the girls if unharmed.

Volunteers with a disrupted moral compass tended to rate the girl's behaviour as permissible because her friend was not injured - even though she was aware the powder came from a jar labelled toxic.

Throughout the experiment, irresponsible or deliberate actions that might have resulted in harm were seen as morally acceptable if the story had a 'happy ending', they reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

These sorts of findings can entail a vast number of meanings, yet I am not knowledgeable enough on the matter (and not by a long shot) to be able to give any substantive commentary. However, one thing that’s easy to notice is that the subjects didn’t actually seem to become amoral per se; rather, they seemed to change their “type” of morality to consequentialism (ie. whether or not an action is moral is determined by its consequence(s)). Of course, this raises new issues in itself, as consequentialism is an obviously inherently flawed moral theory that holds risk in disregard. Basically, consequentialism states that, for example, walking across a high-speed highway is an acceptable action if you make it across unharmed, despite the odds of making it being so dangerously low.

Another way these results could be interpreted is that perhaps it’s not a person’s morality that’s being affected, but their ability to properly process information and employ sound logic to reach “normal” conclusions and make the expected decisions. It’s quite possible that, to put it simply, with the magnets altering this so-called “center of morality”, they think about different situations differently. This could just indicate that the “moral compass” itself, the right temporo-parietal junction, may be more of a data processor than an area where moral judgment is developed.

For all the questions this research raises, it does potentially serve to settle a rather big one. First of all (and something you can state with the most gloating voice), if the right temporo-parietal junction really is a sort of biological moral center, then this could finally constitute concrete proof (er, evidence) to support what rational (and/or minimally knowledgeable) people have known for ages: that morality is not God-given, and nor does it originate from any external force, being or source of any kind. We already know how morality developed during our species’ evolutionary history, and we also know that one’s morality doesn’t simply disappear with a lack of belief in God, or else there’d be a shitload more atheists in jail, for one thing. If this truly is a sort of “biological moral compass”, then we can know that morality doesn’t merely stem from upbringing and society, but also from our biology, which would all the more validate the theory of morality having developed as humans evolved.

Now, of course, the next thing people will be wondering is how can this be used to control (or influence) people, and who will be the first to try – and possibly succeed?

(via The Daily Grail)

Quick note: I think it’s important to distinguish between consequentialism, ie. “if the consequences are positive, therefore the action is right”, and utilitarianism, which is more like “if the action is taken for the greater good, then it is right” (and which is, incidentally, the moral theory I adhere to, if only in theory). Consequentialism’s entire view depends solely on whether or not the end result is a positive or a negative one, which means that whether or not an action is morally right or wrong is determined after it’s already been undertaken. Utilitarianism is simply “for the greater good” – ie. sacrificing one life to save a dozen, and so on.