The Theory of Moral Neuroscience

Modern brain science is confirming an 18th century philosopher's moral theories

"As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation," observed British philosopher and economist Adam Smith in the first chapter of his magisterial The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). "Whatever is the passion which arises from any object in the person principally concerned, an analogous emotion springs up, at the thought of his situation, in the breast of every attentive spectator." Smith's argument is that our ability to empathize with others is at the root of our morality.

Recent discoveries in neuroscience are bolstering Smith's insights about the crucial role of empathy in human sociality and morality. For example, in the 1990s, Italian scientists researching motor neurons in macaque monkeys discovered mirror neurons. As the story goes, a monkey's brain had been wired up to detect the firing of his neurons when planning and carrying out a movement such as grasping a peanut. One researcher returned from lunch licking an ice cream cone. As the monkey watched the researcher, some of his neurons fired as though he were eating the ice cream, even though he was not moving. The monkey's neurons were "mirroring" the activity that the monkey was observing.

Neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues at the University of Parma reported their discovery of monkey mirror neurons in 1996. Researchers soon found evidence for mirror neurons in human beings. Just like monkeys, it turns out that when we see someone perform an action—picking up a glass of water or kicking a ball—our mirror neurons simulate that action in our brains. Researchers have suggested that mirror neurons are crucially involved in the distinctive human development of language, morality, and culture.

Research looking at the brains of autistic people highlights the role that some neuroscientists believe that mirror neurons play in empathy. Normal people can implicitly, without thinking, identify the emotions and intentions of others. However, the symptoms of autism often involve a marked lack of awareness of the feelings of others and little or no social interaction or communications with others. In 2005, researchers at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) compared brain wave activity associated with mirror neurons in high functioning individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and in typical individuals. In normal individuals, mu brain wave activity is suppressed whenever they move their hand, imagine moving their hand, or see someone else move their hand. "The ASD group showed significant mu suppression to self-performed hand movements but not to observed hand movements. These results support the hypothesis of a dysfunctional mirror neuron system in high-functioning individuals with ASD," concluded the study.

Subsequent experiments by Jaime Pineda and his colleagues at UCSD found that individuals with ASD develop compensatory brain mechanisms that allow them to identify correctly the emotions of others and determine their intentions. Mirror neurons are not absent from the brains of ASD people, but they are misfiring. Pineda suggests that neurofeedback retraining might reduce some of the social symptoms of autism.

Up until recently the existence of mirror neurons in humans was largely inferred from the results of functional MRI and electro-encelphalogram (EEGs) studies. At the annual meeting of the Society of Neuroscience earlier this month, Marco Iacoboni and his colleagues at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) reported that they had detected human mirror neurons directly. His team inserted electrodes into the frontal lobes of people already undergoing surgery to treat their epileptic seizures. The patients were asked to perform activities and view videos that helped Iacobini and his colleagues identify 34 mirror neurons.

Mirror neurons are not the sole source of our moral sense. After all, ASD individuals are not notably immoral. However, they are an important part of it. Empathy, the ability to feel someone else's joy, pain, and gratitude, helps guide our pre-reflective moral values. So let's consider the limits of empathy for schooling us in morality. Harvard University psychologist Joshua Greene offers the case in which, while driving, you see a bleeding hiker lying by the roadside. You must decide between taking the man to the hospital or refuse to do so because the injured man would bleed all over your expensive upholstery.

Greene correctly observes, "Most people say that it would be seriously wrong to abandon this man out of concern for one's car seats" But what about the case in which you receive a letter from an international charity that promises to lift a poor family in Africa out of abject misery at the cost of a $200 contribution from you? "Most people say that it would not be wrong to refrain from making a donation in this case," writes Greene. What's the difference? In both cases, you can help meet the desperate medical needs of someone else at relatively modest cost to yourself.

Greene conducted fMRI brain scans on people while they considered these personal versus impersonal moral dilemmas. He discovered the first "involved greater activity in brain areas that are associated with emotion and social cognition." Why? Greene proposes an evolutionary answer. He points out that our ancestors evolved in an environment in which they could only choose to save people that they knew personally, not total strangers living continents away.

Greene's findings again buttress Adam Smith's insight from more than two centuries ago that empathy works to prompt us to help our neighbors but attenuates with social distance. "That we should be but little interested, therefore, in the fortune of those whom we can neither serve nor hurt, and who are in every respect so very remote from us, seems wisely ordered by Nature," writes Smith. Wisely ordered or not, modern neuroscience is showing that Nature has so ordered our moral intuitions.

But we do not have to be the slaves of our evolved moral intuitions. By showing us the neural workings of our moral sense, neuroscience is giving us the tools to understand and improve our moral choices. As Greene concludes, "I am confident that the scientific study of human nature will have an increasingly important role in nature's grand experiment with moral animals."

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His most recent book,
Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution, is available from Prometheus Books.

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  • GILMORE||

    Another, "When all you've got is neuroscience, every problem looks like a monkey's brain hooked to a supercomputer?" situation here? Dancing about Architecture?

    Again, no one argues it's *bad* to look to biological basis for ethics, but nothing makes it the most enlightening tool simply because it involves scalpels and protractors etc. It often raises chicken or the egg questions = can biology evolve for the needs of the conscious mind? Are we moral because we've got an Adam Smith lobe, or did we grow one because moral monkeys got more mates?

    In any case, EEG's be damned, it still says a shitload less than a few random excerpts from Marcus Aurelius

  • ||

    The bleeding hiker vs. starving family argument is pretty flawed, I think. The hiker is dying now, and, presumably, there's nobody else around who can take him to a hospital. The family in Africa is in danger, not actively hurt, wouldn't get the help immediately anyway, and there's always the rationalization that the charity can still send money even if I don't personally donate. The moral landscape's different in more ways than just distance.

  • SIV||

    < i>modern brain science

    At one time phrenology was the cutting edge of "brain science". How did that work out?

    Later, Moniz won a Nobel Prize for his contribution to "brain science":

    His method involved drilling holes in patients' heads and destroying the tissue connecting the frontal lobes by injecting alcohol into them. Moniz won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1949 for this work.

  • Russell Seitz||

    I empathize with Ron's identification with Adam Smith, but this work more mirrors the early neurophysiological work of McCulloch and Lettvin, who ascertained that the frog's brain, what there is of it, and its retina, are hardwired to recognize just four things: water,food, things that eat frogs, and frogs with potential as significant others.

    As for Moniz, he was a reptile's reptile:
    http://adamant.typepad.com/seitz/2007/10/the-penmanship-.html

  • Edward||

    Let's face it: everything confirms our sacred cows; otherwise they wouldn't be sacred cows.

  • LarryA||

    [cynic]When I help the bleeding hiker I know he gets the help. It's too easy for the $200 to be siphoned off by the government responsible for the starvation.[/cynic]

  • ||

    "Let's face it: everything confirms our sacred cows; otherwise they wouldn't be sacred cows."

    Are sacred cows the Prime Mooover?

  • ||

    Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. hmmmm. ok.

  • ||

    It seems to me that empathy is being confused with compassion or sympathy. Empathy, the ability to comprehend the feelings of others, can be used to harm or to help others. In order to act with the intention of harming another person the aggressor would have to empathize the victim's feelings. Schopenhauer in his treatise on ethics wrote, "...the pains and sufferings of others are for malice and cruelty ends in themselves, and their attainment is a pleasure." For a person lacking empathy, both compassion and malice would be impossible.

  • tsehov||

    > But we do not have to be the slaves of our evolved moral intuitions. By showing us the neural workings of our moral sense, neuroscience is giving us the tools to understand and improve our moral choices.

    This is BS. What difference does it make if there's a biological confirmation of a human charasteristic that's been known to man through out ages?

  • Guy Montag||

    This is BS. What difference does it make if there's a biological confirmation of a human charasteristic that's been known to man through out ages?

    Because it is an easier argument for grant money than 'I just want to hang around a lab all day'.

  • tsehov||

    Exactly. 'Gosh! means cash'. If there's no 'gosh!' better make one up.

  • ||

    "The family in Africa is in danger, not actively hurt, wouldn't get the help immediately anyway, and there's always the rationalization that the charity can still send money even if I don't personally donate. The moral landscape's different in more ways than just distance.
    "

    Indeed, I agree. Another thing that keeps me from donating is that most of these "charities" are just con jobs. When $199.00 of a $200.00 donation goes toward supplying mansions and Rolls Royces for the "CEO" of the charity, it tends to suppress one's naivity.

  • ||

    His method involved drilling holes in patients' heads and destroying the tissue connecting the frontal lobes by injecting alcohol into them. Moniz won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1949 for this work.


    I take my alcohol orally, on the rocks. It does seem to have the same brain destroying effects though. Where is my Nobel prize?

  • GILMORE||

    . By showing us the neural workings of our moral sense, neuroscience is giving us the tools to understand and improve our moral choices.

    I agree with Guy above - Neuroscience may be a "tool", but it doesnt "explain" anything aside from "ethics seems to be located on X part of Y lobe and responds to Z stimuli"

    How this leads to "improved moral choices" is a stretch. In the end, they're going to need far more from the soft sciences to make use of any 'information' gleaned. Information isnt knowledge, and science has a long way to go before replacing (or even practically complimenting) 1000s of years of ethical philosophy.

  • GILMORE||

    I learned a new word today which may apply to the facination with this kind of research =

    "Measurbation" - compulsive technical analysis that may or may not produce any meaningful data, but provides the practitioner temporary sense of self-satisfaction and purpose

  • ||

    "Gosh! for cash." I'm so stealing that.

    I look at the brain like a brand new computer motherboard. The capacity to become "something" is there. It just depends on what we add to it as we put it together (or grow up) that determines how the thing will perform.

    I think the neural science may explain how the brain works (like how we understand how a computer works) but there is so much INDIVIDUAL choice in how to put it together that determines what the end result is.

  • e||

    If I saw a bleeding hiker, I'd tell him to pull himself up by his bootstraps, start his own business, and make enough money to afford to get airlifted out of there. The nerve of some mooches who think just by lying there bleeding they are entitled to a claim on my car seat!

  • GILMORE||

    a lot of interesting thoughts here... aside from the previous post :)

  • GILMORE||

    meaning = e | November 22, 2007, 11:15pm | #

  • ||

    If I saw a bleeding hiker, I'd tell him to pull himself up by his bootstraps, start his own business, and make enough money to afford to get airlifted out of there. The nerve of some mooches who think just by lying there bleeding they are entitled to a claim on my car seat!

    No, being a liberal you'd tell him to go to the nearest welfare office then drive off.

  • Neu Mejican||

    Here's a related brain study:

    http://3quarksdaily.blogs.com/3quarksdaily/2007/11/men-motivated-b.html

    A wrong answer, and no payment, resulted in a reduction in blood flow to the "reward region". But the area "lit up" when volunteers earned money, and interestingly showed far more activity if a player received more than his partner. This indicated that stimulation of the reward centre was not merely linked to individual success, but to the success of others.

    This one is about incentives, but I can't help but think about the moral implications surrounding the issue of reward for competitive advantage.

  • ||

    I tend to think the African family is the condition i's in because of the collective social and political attitudes of all the African families in that country.

  • J Free||

    The last paragraph in this article is the rather typical result whenever science studies ethics/morals. Inevitably, those scientists make a leap into assuming that science can replace those morals -- based on nothing more than being able to describe how they might work. Shame really - because everything before that last paragraph was quite interesting.

  • Shezmu||

    Morality as a evolutionary advantage, eh? Well, there went another creation argument.

  • Guy Montag||

    Toady,

    I tend to think the African family is the condition i's in because of the collective social and political attitudes of all the African families in that country.

    Have you actually traveled that continant or are you just speaking from distanced knowledge?

    I have never been there, but since I was a child in the 1960s I knew that there were urban areas with cosmopilitan aspects in Africa and many "rural" parts too. Today, I undersand from the people I have met from there, that there are more urban areas.

    Oh, if you don't know, Africa is a continent, not a county.

    I happen to be a fan of rural areas, but still, your comment deserves expansion.

  • ||

    When one picks up the bike rider himself. He knows he will get him to the hospital. However, the $200 may or may not, get to or be used properly by the family in Africe. A ridiculous comparison. Also one meant to subvert the help of the bicyclist by alluding to an alleged racial factor that may or may not exist.

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