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Natural Moral Fiber

05/31/07

  07:47:30 pm, by Nimble   , 332 words  
Categories: Thoughts, People, Science

Natural Moral Fiber

Shankar Vedantam brings us news that doing good makes us feel good:

"You gotta see this!" Jorge Moll had written to his colleague. Moll and Jordan Grafman, neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., had been scanning the brains of volunteers as they were asked to think about a scenario involving either donating a sum of money to charity or keeping it for themselves.

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.

This is not surprising. I guess in many ways I would be surprised at those who would find it surprising.

We must not drift into the awful attitude, of course, of seeing all good behaviour as inherently selfish and therefore to be glossed over or dismissed. Understanding does not belittle us. Remember here, too, that the pleasurable response was recorded for those volunteers who placed others before themselves. How a person gets to a point where altruism is pleasurable enough to overcome greed or anger says a lot about them.

It always instructive, too, to look at those where the response is broken or totally absent:

When confronted with moral dilemmas, the brain-damaged patients coldly came up with "end-justifies-the-means" answers. Damasio said the point was not that they reached immoral conclusions, but that when confronted by a difficult issue -- such as whether to shoot down a passenger plane hijacked by terrorists before it hits a major city -- these patients appear to reach decisions without the anguish that afflicts those with normally functioning brains.

At some point in the future, we may have the ability to fix sociopathic defects. If the alternative was throwing these people away, would we not be morally obligated to fix them?

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