Free Will and Brain Chemistry

Evidence continues to accumulate that the brain rewards certain behaviors and that we respond to those incentives. The Washington Post reports:

The results were showing that when the volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.

Their 2006 finding that unselfishness can feel good lends scientific support to the admonitions of spiritual leaders such as Saint Francis of Assisi, who said, “For it is in giving that we receive.” But it is also a dramatic example of the way neuroscience has begun to elbow its way into discussions about morality and has opened up a new window on what it means to be good.

The more researchers learn, the more it appears that the foundation of morality is empathy. Being able to recognize — even experience vicariously — what another creature is going through was an important leap in the evolution of social behavior. And it is only a short step from this awareness to many human notions of right and wrong, says Jean Decety, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago.

The research enterprise has been viewed with interest by philosophers and theologians, but already some worry that it raises troubling questions. Reducing morality and immorality to brain chemistry — rather than free will — might diminish the importance of personal responsibility. Even more important, some wonder whether the very idea of morality is somehow degraded if it turns out to be just another evolutionary tool that nature uses to help species survive and propagate.

Joshua D. Greene, a Harvard neuroscientist and philosopher, said multiple experiments suggest that morality arises from basic brain activities. Morality, he said, is not a brain function elevated above our baser impulses. Greene said it is not “handed down” by philosophers and clergy, but “handed up,” an outgrowth of the brain’s basic propensities.

Marc Hauser, another Harvard researcher, has used cleverly designed psychological experiments to study morality. He said his research has found that people all over the world process moral questions in the same way, suggesting that moral thinking is intrinsic to the human brain, rather than a product of culture.

These results turn previous brain chemistry arguments about homosexuality on their head.

Compare these results to the strong evidence that sexual preference is hard wired. That, to my mind, is not an argument that homosexuality is moral; that argument has to be made on other grounds. Otherwise, we have given away the notion that we are responsible for any behaviors that are preference driven.

What about this evidence that moral decisionmaking is brain chemistry driven? It could be that the cultural and religious proscriptions of homosexuality have their roots in survival of the species through propogation. These mores do not fit today’s world.

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5 Comments
  1. Just have to say that what truly upset me in that article was this sentence:

    “One experiment found that if each time a rat is given food, its neighbor receives an electric shock, the first rat will eventually forgo eating.”

    I consider that sick behavior on the human end. Even from a utilitarian point of view, is what is learned worth the coarsening that such an experiment assumes?

    Jan Adams

  2. Anthony Willard

    “It could be that the cultural and religious proscriptions of homosexuality have their roots in survival of the species through propogation.”

    Someone else’s homosexuality will not prevent another individual from having offspring. I think a more likely evolutionary explanation is in terms of the empathy mentioned at the start of the post. The capacity for imagining what it is like to be homosexual does not seem to be “wired in” to the minds of most people. Hence homosexuals inevitably seem to them alien and difficult to trust.

  3. JasonC

    I agree with JB that the “morality” (by which I understand him to mean acceptability) of “homosexuality” cannot be tied to scientific evidence either for or against whether same-sex desire is “hard-wired.” As Andrew Sullivan points out in his book “Love Undetectable,” science–and I would add, the Church–cannot argue with GLBTQ persons who report that their sexual desire is involuntary. In other words, even if science were able to “prove” that same-sex desire is a choice, the more important evidence lies in the experience of many GLBTQ people who claim that their affectional and sexual desire is not a choice.

    One further point: I disagree that with JB’s proposal that “the cultural and religious proscriptions of homosexuality have their roots in survival of the species through propogation.” This seems logical, given our culture’s advanced understanding of sexual reproduction and the way we construct sexuality generally. However, I would argue that (usually male) same-sex sexual relations (NB–not “homosexuality,” a modern sexual construct that has existed only since the late 19th century) are so vehemently prohibited in the Bible because of the way these relations violated the patriarchal and misogynistic sexual constructions of antiquity (constructions that were written in to the Biblical text). For a man to “lie with a man the lying down of a woman” (a better translation of what is prohibited in Leviticus) was to shame and dishonor the receptive partner, not becuase of anything inherent in same-sex affection, but rather becuase it made the receptive partner a “woman,” and therefore not worth very much within that culture.

    Since we now view both women and sexuality differently (on good Biblical principals: see Gal. 3:28), it is very difficult for for scripture to speak to us clearly about what is moral or immoral for “men” and “women”–not to mention gay and straight.

    Jason Cox

  4. I think that we need to be very careful that we don’t over-read this scientific evidence. While it does not surprise me that a social animal like human beings have some alturistic/moral behavior “hard wired” in our brians, there is very strong evidence that cultural, philisophical and regligious norms play a much more important role.

    Steve Pinker recely wrote a very interesting essay in the New Republic, which pointed out that human behavior has become much less violent and cruel since the 1600’s. No serious geneticist would argue that biology offers any explanation–instead, we need to look at culture, philsophy and religion for an explanation for this change.

  5. Anthony – Are you sure? If empathy is an evolutionary trait then why not antipathy? Survival of traits isn’t simply through the individual. Someone else’s homosexuality will prevent the success of a group if size of the tribe matters. There is some evidence survival in the past depended on plunder (zero sum) more than creation of wealth.

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