What is Morality?

By Wil Forbis

Jan 1, 2011

The Our Wacky Brain collection:

Sometime ago, I was sitting on a bench at the zoo and reading a book. I was enjoying myself until a woman parked a stroller containing a screaming baby right next to me. For several minutes, the infant screamed and bawled, increasingly getting on my nerves. Suddenly, with a jolt of inspiration, I arrived at a solution. "I should just toss this kid into the crocodile pit," I thought to myself, chuckling at the mental image of a pinkish human blob being set upon by steely toothed reptiles.

Of course, the wrongness of the plan immediately dawned on me. There was no doubt that the mother of a baby would begin freaking out the instant after I dispatched her annoying child, and it would still be impossible to get any reading done. It became clear that I would have to toss her into the crocodile pit as well.

Now, I think we've all had such impulses when dealing with the most egregiously annoying examples of our fellow man. But we never act upon them*. Why?

*It occurs to me that some of my readers may have actually acted upon such impulses. If so, I congratulate you on pertaining Internet service in prison. Or hell.

It's easy to bring to mind a rather predictable list of reasons as to why one shouldn't toss children into the open mouths of crocodiles. Let's review.

  • You'll go to jail. Certainly true. But is this the only reason we refrain from committing such acts? If we found ourselves in a situation where there would be no threat of imprisonment were we to kill someone, would we have no compunction about doing so? I doubt it.
  • You'll go to hell. This is less certain, and to an atheist such as myself, seems highly unlikely. But, if God did appear before you and not only permitted you to toss a baby into a crocodile pit with no fear of eternal hellfire, but even ordered you to do so, could you do it without discomfort? Again, I doubt it.
  • Killing is immoral. This seems like a sensible answer at first. Certainly every moral system created by humankind would agree. And the seemingly obvious axiom, "do unto others as you would have others do unto you," lines up with the sentiment. Moral behavior simply seems like the right thing to do.

But has this always been clear? It's obvious to modern man that slavery is wrong, but that wasn't the case for most of human history. The same could be said of women's suffrage, taxation without representation and war mongering. And even in current day moral behavior is defined differently by different cultures. Westerners would never consider eating a dog, but some Asians have no such compunction. Some Arab cultures feel the flesh of a woman should be almost entirely covered when outside, and view the bikini clad bodies at European beaches as an act of defilement. For morality to really work, it needs to be universal and absolute. It should apply equally to all. But the totality of mankind has had a hard time agreeing on an absolute set of rules.

However, while we may have a difficult time agreeing upon a perfect set of moral rules, very few of us would toss a baby towards a predator. Even without religious or philosophical reasons, most humans share a general "moral sense" --- an innate feeling for what is right and wrong. We may disagree, sometimes violently, on certain moral issues --- abortion comes to mind --- but we agree on the big-ticket items: murder, rape, theft etc. (You may be interested in this new research noting that even babies seem to have an innate sense of right and wrong. It's very possible that if you did throw an infant into a crocodile pit, he or she would be acutely aware of the injustice of it all.)

Of course, there's an obvious rejoinder to the above paragraph. If we all agree murder, rape and theft are wrong, then why do we live in a world that does contain murder, rape and theft? Such actions may not be "common" but they are common enough.

Okay, hold onto that thought. I want to revisit some of the points I made in last month's article, "What Is Emotion?" There I argued that emotions are physical sensations --- often sensations of our viscera, such as upset stomach, tight chest, internal electrical "jolts" etc. --- sometimes augmented by intellectual contextualizations*. These emotional states evolved as a means of steering us clear of situations that would be dangerous both to our individual self and our genes, and steering us towards situations beneficial to our self and genes. When our brain fires off positive and negative emotions/sensations, it is using a kind of "carrot and a stick" approach to guide our behavior.

* What do I mean by "intellectual contextualizations." Let's look at the example of guilt. When you feel guilty, you physically feel ill. But you're also aware of the reason you feel ill e.g. you cheated on your wife, or you ran over your daughter's cat, or you cheated on your wife with your daughter's cat and then ran them both over. The reason for your guilt is the intellectual contextualization.

How does our brain know when to offer the carrot, and when the stick? Partly through learned experience. You touch a stove and burn yourself as a child, and from then on, you experience the sting of fear when considering touching a stove. And certain aspects of our behavior (such as fear of snakes or spiders) may be "programmed" into our genes and DNA.

For such a system to work, the brain would clearly need a set of rules to reference when applying different kinds of emotions/sensations. One rule implied by the above paragraph would be "when the physical self is getting too close to a stove, fire off 'fear' (meaning: change the body state by releasing adrenaline etc.)" Another common rule might be "when the physical self is getting low on fuel, fire off 'hunger.'" We can easily envision hundreds, if not thousands, of rules* the brain can use to guide a living creature through the dangers and pleasures of the physical world.

* To be clear, I'm using the idea of rules in a metaphorical sense. I'm not saying the brain actually has a literal rule book imprinted somewhere in its neurons.

Now, many creatures, humans especially, are social in nature. They interact with each other and quite often are dependent on their fellow creatures for survival. Of course, socialization also requires rules. We need some basic rules as to how to get along with one another. Not killing each other is a good start. Not raping each other is also good. As is not taking each other's stuff.

You probably see where I'm going with this. Morality is the application of emotions/sensations to the realm of socialization. Morality is not reasoned, it is felt, in the same physical/visceral manner emotions are felt.

I'm not unaware of the controversial nature of such a statement. We want to believe that by being moral we are following a set of rules --- perhaps divine rules, or perhaps rules dictated by some kind of universal logic. But I* am saying morality is neither divine nor logical; moral rules are simply the rules of socialization that have evolved through the history of our species. Our brain applies these rules, much the same way it applies rules for emotions. When we are contemplating or performing an immoral action, we are prodded with a sting of discomfort, similar to the sting of fear. When we are contemplating or performing a moral action, we get a "good feeling," similar to joy or pride.

* I'm using the pronoun "I" in the most ego-less sense possible here. I'm certainly not the first person to make these arguments about morality. Generally speaking, the field of evolutionary psychology is based on similar presumptions. So is the philosophy of philosophers ranging from Nietzsche to Arthur Leff.

Can I prove such statements? Well, tracing the activity of our neurons through our brain, and also across the period of our evolution is close to impossible. But I would like to offer some interesting nuggets of food for thought.

The Nature of Psychopaths
If our moral sense is guided by the pleasures and discomforts of physical sensation, it would seem likely that people "out of touch" with their body states, would be prone to immorality. This does seem to be the case with the small percentage of often amoral humans classified as psychopaths. Psychopaths have trouble "feeling" as is noted in this article describing the work of Dr. Robert Hare.

For his first paper, now a classic, Hare had his subjects watch a countdown timer. When it reached zero, they got a "harmless but painful" electric shock while an electrode taped to their fingers measured perspiration. Normal people would start sweating as the countdown proceeded, nervously anticipating the shock. Psychopaths didn't sweat. They didn't fear punishment -- which, presumably, also holds true outside the laboratory. In Without Conscience, he quotes a psychopathic rapist explaining why he finds it hard to empathize with his victims: "They are frightened, right? But, you see, I don't really understand it. I've been frightened myself, and it wasn't unpleasant."
Psychopaths seem unable to feel certain emotions/sensations, specifically fear or guilt, that steer an individual towards moral behavior.

Moral Conundrums
Non-psychopathic people often seem to intuitively find a certain actions immoral even if they can't clarify why. Consider the following from 2008 New York Times article by Steven Pinker entitled "The Moral Instinct".

We like to think that when we have a conviction, there are good reasons that drove us to adopt it. That is why an older approach to moral psychology, led by Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg, tried to document the lines of reasoning that guided people to moral conclusions. But consider these situations, originally devised by the 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?

A woman is cleaning out her closet and she finds her old American flag. She doesn't want the flag anymore, so she cuts it up into pieces and uses the rags to clean her bathroom.

A family's dog is killed by a car in front of their house. They heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog's body and cook it and eat it for dinner.

Most people immediately declare that these acts are wrong and then grope to justify why they are wrong. It's not so easy. 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." People don't generally engage in moral reasoning, Haidt argues, but moral rationalization: they begin with the conclusion, coughed up by an unconscious emotion, and then work backward to a plausible justification.

Our answers to these moral questions come to us quickly and forcefully, delivered directly to our body state. But the reasons behind these answers are much more ethereal.

We intuitively understand --- and science has largely shown this to be true --- that different people feel emotions differently. We all know people who cry every time they see a sad scene in a movie, and we all know people who seem relatively unbothered by the horrors of the world. And if people vary in their ability to feel emotion, they are going to vary in their ability to feel the "carrot and stick" of morality. Some people, of course, seem particularly bothered by what they perceive as immorality or injustice, while others have a more blasť attitude. I posit that when "hyper-moralalists" encounter a moral transgression, their body state revolts (by this I mean their pulse quickens, their chest tightens, blood rushes to their head etc.) more so than other people. They "feel" morality on a more visceral level.

Why would the species of man evolve with a penchant for moral behavior*? Generally speaking, moral behavior is behavior that encourages the survival of its practitioners, particularly in the tribal environment in which humans evolved. Sociologists often use the term "reciprocal altruism," which essentially breaks down to, "I'll do you a favor, but I expect you to do me a favor sometime in return." People who violate this rule are thought of as selfish, or "immoral," and in the days of yore, stood a good chance of getting kicked out of the tribe, which seriously impeded their survival and the survival of their genes. You can see similar evolutionary logic in regards to our moral views on topics such as cleanliness, work ethic and sexual mores**.

* This question is the core question of what is sometimes called "Evolutionary Ethics." A good overview can be found at Wikipedia.

** The morality of sex is, of course, a complex topic, made more complex with the recent publication of the book "Sex at Dawn." I interviewed the author here.

The idea that morality is not bound to God or some universal truth, but rather belongs to the domain of the body is not without critics. And one of the main criticisms is that if you propagate the idea that there is no great "moral truth" people have no reason to behave morally. In the above mentioned article, "The Moral Instinct," author Pinker seems sanguine about this problem, arguing (unconvincingly in my view) that becoming aware of our moral instincts will make man more, not less, moral. Modern philosopher Sam Harris has argued (also unconvincingly to my mind) that science can answer moral questions.

If I'm unconvinced by their arguments, do I predict that society will become increasingly morally unwound, eventually arriving at the doorstep of violent anarchy? Well, no. The moral rulebook does, for the most part, benefit the vast majority, and I think most of us implicitly realize this on an emotional, rational, and most importantly, instinctual, level. But if it is true that morality is more instinctual than logical or divine, then sorting out the moral conundrums that face our species becomes more difficult. We presume to think that we can use religious texts or reason to solve the great debates of our time --- abortion, war, justice. And we presume that we can rely on such sources to handle the innumerable potential moral conundrums of the future --- robot rights, bioengineering, trans-humanism etc. But until we can confirm the existence of an absolute moral rulebook , I think we will be stumbling through ethical clouds filled with argument and discontent.

It may turn out that tossing the kid into the crocodile pit wasn't such a bad idea after all.

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