Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Is there a biological basis of morality and if so, what ought to be the implications?

http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/98apr/biomoral.htm- please read this article by Edmund Wilson, written in 1998. (look up who Wilson is if you don't already know)

Pivotal Study, 2004:
How (and where) does moral judgment work? by Joshua Green and Jonathan Haldt

This article is not included in your organization's subscription. However, you may be able to access this article under your organization's agreement with Elsevier.

Joshua GreeneE-mail The Corresponding Author, a and Jonathan HaidtE-mail The Corresponding Author, b

a Dept of Psychology, Green Hall, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544-1010, USA

b Dept of Psychology, University of Virginia, P.O. Box 400400, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4400, USA

Available online 4 December 2002.


Moral psychology has long focused on reasoning, but recent evidence suggests that moral judgment is more a matter of emotion and affective intuition than deliberate reasoning. Here we discuss recent findings in psychology and cognitive neuroscience, including several studies that specifically investigate moral judgment. These findings indicate the importance of affect, although they allow that reasoning can play a restricted but significant role in moral judgment. They also point towards a preliminary account of the functional neuroanatomy of moral judgment, according to which many brain areas make important contributions to moral judgment although none is devoted specifically to it.

Recent work in cognitive neuroscience suggests that moral judgment is more a matter of emotion and affective intuition than deliberate reasoning.


  1. I completely agree that intrinsic personality characteristics and anatomical pre-disposition impact moral decision making, however, to suggest that this would have an overall greater influence than deliberate reasoning would be an overstatement and inaccurate generalization. The logic behind my rebuttal originates from the notion that we as humans derive our morality from a balance between what we are taught is "right" and what we innately feel is right. Subconsciously, we decide for ourselves what is more important and what takes precedence in our moral decision making process. Sometimes the answer is clear and we react instantly, yet other times we may contemplate the implications of our actions long before we act on them. Regardless, the assertion that “reasoning can play a restricted but significant role in moral judgment” does not account for individuals who do carefully evaluate a situation objectively and thoughtfully, instead of acting solely on the basis of emotion and intuition. I do not doubt that biology plays an important role in this moral decision-making process, but I would be reticent to agree that it always overshadows the function of logic and reasoning.

  2. I do agree that there may be a biological basis of morality. Darwinism is centered specifically around the idea that one must continue to pass his/her genes on to the next generation in order to be considered biologically successful. It is through this idea that 'survival of the fittest' forms and determines that dominate or more successful genes continue to be passed through generations. When discussing genes associated with morality, one must consider the different personalities which may lead to moral or immoral standards of thinking. For example, when one questions the morality of a sociopath usually one determines that he/she is immoral due to his/her actions or thoughts. However, it would be negligent to not consider that the genes of the sociopath may have affected his/her outcome. These immoral genes would establish the initial thought patterns within the individual. The individual would then be more likely to associate with immoral environmental factors, making it less likely for his/her genes to be passed through generations due to the fact that the sociopath may be hospitalized, in jail, etc. Moral genes, however, are more likely to be passed through generations as moral people generally do not have constraints that would limit their reproduction success. These moral ideals established by genes would be the initial basis for morality within a person, only to be changed by possible environmental factors experienced later in life.

  3. I don't think that there is a biological basis for morality. Morality is an ideology, meaning that it comes from society. To say that genes play a role in morality is completely ridiculous to me. Through environmental factors, parenting, and the rules of society, an individual develops their own personal morality. Morality has nothing to do with genes at all. If your parents are moral people, that doesn't mean that you should be and vice versa. From your personal experiences, you learn the difference between right and wrong, moral versus immoral. It is then your choice to live your life according to what you believe is morally right for yourself. While our parents may teach us how to be moral or the rules of society that guide morality, their genes are not responsible for our morality. I just can't understand how we can now say morality is biologically based. I feel like pretty soon everything will be biologically based and that will give us an excuse as to why we act certain ways. Biology is only responsible for your physical attributions. The way you think is what makes us all different from one another and thus our morality differs as well. To conclude, it's absurd to me to think that biology plays a factor into morality since morality comes from society and the laws that govern us all.

  4. I think that there is definitely a biological basis of morality, and I think that it occurs within the human mind as well as from the experience of society, as the empirical belief goes according to Wilson. Certainly the decision-making process is developed and executed in the brain. Different choices and events effect different receptors in our brains, which encourage or rather discourage certain behaviors and associations. The article, “Major Moral Decisions Use General-Purpose Brain Circuits to Manage Uncertainty” (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/08/100825131552.htm), is interesting because it states that everyday decisions are weighed and calculated similarly to moral decisions, in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

    However, just as our mundane decisions, like what we choose to eat one day, are affected by our culture and how we are socialized, so are our moral choices, in my opinion. A well-functioning society will learn what behaviors lead to its higher functioning based on experience, and attempt to promote that particular way of life to the rest of the community. Why else would there be the action of teaching children our morals? So if we feel the need to teach the morals, are the genes resembling morality really passed on?
    Whether these “cooperative” traits are heritable and we were made moral by a sort of Darwinian natural selection, I’m still waiting for more solid evidence. Morality has a strong biological base, but to the exact extent, I cannot say; like Wilson says, “Explaining the ineffable is difficult.”

  5. There have been many studies emphasizing the importance of emotional intelligence on decision making. I believe that intuition is an important factor of making ethically sound decisions, so long as emotions are not overriding and can be substantiated by logic and reason. Instincts and gut feelings, perhaps, are biological adaptations that help guide our decision making by pointing us in the direction of what we ought to do. When faced with an ethical problem, we are not always sure of what the right thing to do is. For example, if through reasoning we find that the different choices in our ethical dilemma hold equal weights of moral righteousness how then are we supposed to choose? I feel that emotions and intuition fill in the gaps of reasoning by picking up on the subtleties that logic alone fails to consider.

    -Andrew Schiff

  6. I believe that there is a biological basis of morality since our brains are primarily involved in how we make decisions and also enable us to feel different sorts of emotions (our brain releases endorphins etc). However, I also feel that morality is also brought upon by nurture, growing up, our experiences and people around us have taught us what is right from wrong.
    Therefore, morality is both a combination of nature and nurture, and that biology and cognitive thinking are both factors of morality.