Morality and neuroscience

A chimpanzee brain at the Science Museum London

Image via Wikipedia

There’s a very  good article in the July/August issue of Discover magazine, “The End of Morality” by Kristin Ohlson. (See link at the bottom of the page.) Much of the article focuses on the work of Joshua Greene of Harvard. He studies the brain activities of people as they struggle to resolve some classic moral dilemmas. Here is Wikipedia’s description of the Trolley Problem. Better still, here is a video . And a blog with interesting comments and some alternative solutions!

As Greene says, “Our moral judgments are sensitive to kooky things… There is no single moral faculty; there’s just a dynamic interplay between top-down control processes and automatic emotional control in the brain.” For example, with the Trolley Problem, people’s judgments are different if one has to use one’s hands to push someone off a bridge, versus flicking a switch that drops the person down.

I have no trouble with either of the decisions. Well, that’s not quite true – I actually would have trouble with both. But I can morally accept either one, as they are both somewhat logical, and I accept the kookiness (arbitrariness at times) of our judgements.

A simplistic set of moral rules is good if you don’t want to think too hard about the decision.

Following links took me to some good clips by Sam Harris, another neuroscientist and author. To my surprise, it was probably the guy I heard interviewed on the radio this week about his new book Lying but I didn’t catch his name at the time. Here’s his blog, which you should bookmark, Mom! By the way that’s the second time this week that my interest has been tweaked in a book that apparently will not be published on paper.