Why be moral?

There is a big debate nowadays about the subject of morality, it is a very complex concept, inasmuch as most of our moral judgements seem to be rational and they consciously arise from reasoning, at least that what most people think about morals, some scholars even argued that morals are acquired from religion, claiming that morals are absolute and have rational metaphysical roots, the argument raise a challenge by saying that in the absent of a moral law, and a higher authority that we acquire our moral judgements from, in the absent of all these things, why shouldn’t I kill you ? Why bother and help people? Why killing millions of bacteria is any different from purging an entire nation?
With all that in mind, in this article we will look at morals from a different approach, we will see how our biological system plays a big role when it comes to moral reasoning, we will talk about how intelligence of living things is also intrinsically connected to our moral system, we will also look at some moral dilemmas set by some philosophers and thinkers, and how they can confuse our decision-making and we will have a look at what evolutionary biology and neuroscience say about the evolution of morality.

Over centuries, transcendentalism was always the argument held by most philosophers and theologians, saying that moral judgements are essentially derived from some kind of universal natural law and are independent of human mind. In his book “Leviathan”, Thomas Hobbes wrote: “Justice and injustice are none of the faculties neither of the body, nor mind.” Thomas Hobbes believed that our moral judgements are originated outside of our physiological faculty. The philosopher Immanuel Kant held the same transcendental view, as he stated: “I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.” Kant argued that moral judgements are derived from pure reasoning, and only a universal law can provide a person with sufficient reason to act right. This is the path philosophers as John Locke and John Rawl pursued –with some differences in the details; the whole idea here is that all of them are transcendentalists.–
 In the other hand, the empiricist argument holds that our sense of right and wrong has roots in our biological systems and are completely wired in the brain, and as we will see, this argument has a solid background with the appearing of some new discoveries in neuroscience and evolutionary biology. A very simple version of the empiricist argument first adopted by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, in his book “Nicomachean Ethics”, as well as the modern philosopher David Hume in his book “A treatise of human nature”.

Historically, the topic of morality has never been a material of discussion within the domain of science, and one will never think about morality as a systematic behavior, that’s because we consider morality as a sacred concept, however, it has gained legitimacy beneath scientist nowadays and new researches have been conducted to study morality and its biological roots.
Moral judgements seem to be a product of well-reasoned processes; we always tend to think that we have good reasons behind our moral acts, however, that’s not always the case. To start with, consider the following scenario, originally set by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt:

Marie travelled in a summer vacation with her brother Alex, during one beautiful night, and to enrich their wonderful relationship they decided to have sex –knowing that Alex uses a condom so there will be no risk for pregnancy–, after that, they keep what happens between them as their little secret.

When confronted with this situation people will declare that sex between siblings –Incest– is morally repugnant, but when told to justify their saying, people will struggle, they will simply say something like –it just feels wrong– or –I can’t explain it, but it is definitely wrong–, so, people here are starting with their unconscious emotion, and use it as a rational justification.

Now, consider this dilemma set by the philosopher Philippa Foot; it’s called the trolley problem. John is walking near the trolley tracks when he noticed an out of control trolley heading towards five people walking on the track, fortunately, John is standing next to a switch that can turn the trolley onto a side track, however, there is one person on the side track. John can pull the switch preventing the trolley from killing five people, but killing the other person. Is it morally permissible for john to pull the switch? Almost all people say “yes”.

Consider now a different scenario of this dilemma. Adam is in a bridge overlooking the tracks and again he noticed the trolley heading towards five people, in order to stop the trolley, Adam should throw a heavy object in its path, the only heavy object within his reach is a fat man standing next to him. Is it morally permissible for Adam to push the man off the bridge to stop the trolley from killing five people? People will think longer this time about this dilemma, then almost everyone says “no”.

Here both dilemmas are giving you the option of saving five persons by sacrificing one, so, by the utilitarian standard both dilemmas are morally equivalent, but people will consider the second case as morally impermissible and the first one as permissible.
neuroimaging shows signs of conflict between different areas of the brain when faced with the likes of these dilemmas, in the second case of the trolley problem, brain scanning revealed that some parts of the brain involved in emotional processing are being active; usually some parts of the prefrontal lobe involved in emotions toward other people, and other parts involved in reasoning and rational analysis, that’s what makes this conflict between reason — killing one person for the greater good– and emotions –Killing is impermissible–, and that what makes you think for a while about Adam’s case whilst thinking intuitively in John’s. When the brain is faced with such conflicting options, another area of the brain called anterior cingulate lights up, as studies show, certain parts of this area light up when someone is caught between two stools. Think about the first case now, what makes it so intuitive to define whether it is permissible to sacrifice one person to save five? Again, brain scanning shows that in this particular case, only the parts that are involved in rational thinking in the brain are active, therefore, no conflicting options, resulting in intuitive and fast moral verdict.

The cerebral cortex

As we addressed, dilemmas like the trolley problem trigger the conflict between moral reasoning and emotions, showing in the importance of these two components. Emotions like sympathy and disgust play a central role when it comes to judging whether an act is morally permissible or not, sympathy for instance triggers a judgement that helping others is permissible and harming them is impermissible, it helps us know how it feels to be in other’s shoes and it allows us to recognize other’s pain or joy, and have some sense of what they feel.
When someone is harmed, we often simulate in our own brains how does it feel to be that person; in the case of psychopathy, however, psychopaths lack this ability, they feel temporal shallow emotions but they can’t relate to others when they feel the same, so they have no empathy towards others. 
A new discovery in neuroscience revealed a system called mirror neurons, that system turned to have an important role when it comes to feeling what is it like to be another person. Mirror neurons work like a simulation machine, whenever you watch someone acting in a particular way a substance of active neurons in his brain will be active also in your brain, your brain will react like you are performing the same action, the same system is what makes people emotionally invested in a soccer game and react almost like they were part of it. This mirrored relationship between the actor and the observer makes people think about the psychological consequences of their own actions. A great example uttered by Vilayanur S. Ramachandran; neuroscientist and author of “The Tell Tale Brain”, he stated: “Pretend somebody pokes my left thumb with a needle. We know that the insular cortex fires cells and we experience a painful sensation. The agony of pain is probably experienced in a region called the anterior cingulate, where there are cells that respond to pain. The next stage in pain processing, we experience the agony, the painfulness, the affective quality of pain. It turns out these anterior cingulate neurons that respond to my thumb being poked will also fire when I watch you being poked — but only a subset of them. There are non-mirror neuron pain neurons and there are mirror neuron pain neurons. So these [mirror] neurons are probably involved in empathy for pain. If I really and truly empathize with your pain, I need to experience it myself. That’s what the mirror neurons are doing, allowing me to empathize with your pain — saying, in effect, that person is experiencing the same agony and excruciating pain as you would if somebody were to poke you with a needle directly. That’s the basis of all empathy.”

Phineas Gage.

Provided that, what happens when an area like the frontal lobe is damaged? Is that will affect the behavior of the person?
In light of the evidence from several studies of the cases of frontal lobe damage, it has been proven that patients with damage to the frontal lobe lack the ability of consulting their emotions when operating an act that require moral judgements. To give an illustration, the case of Phineas P. Gage is a great example, Cage’s a railroad worker who survived an iron bar passing through his head and destroying much of his left brain’s frontal lobe, after his recovery, his friends reported a change in his behaviors and personality as they saw him as “No longer Cage”. The pre-accident Cage as described by his friends as responsible and a “great favorite”, however, after the accident he showed disrespect towards other employees and he became irresponsible of his actions.

The patients that have such damage can distinguish between what is permissible and what is not, but what they lack is the contact between emotions and the knowledge they have about certain situation, stated in another way, they don’t know what to do with their moral knowledge as they lack emotional feedback.

Let’s go back to our initial questions; I think it’s clear now that sympathy is what makes you behave morally with somebody else, but how about bacteria, can we empathize with such living creatures? Is killing millions of bacteria when washing your hands any different than purging an entire nation?
Well, yeah it is different, because it isn’t life we respect, we respect intelligence; neurosurgeon and the author of “The genius within” Frank T. Vertosick wrote in the same book: “Our ethical systems are based solely on intelligence; the moral worth we assign a creature derives from its intellect alone. Bears are smart and fish are dumb, so the welfare of a bear comes before the welfare of a salmon. A man can be imprisoned for incinerating a single kitten, yet earn a nice living torching entire nest of young hornets. Insects and other supposedly imbeciles beasts garner little of our pity; brainless life form — plants, bacteria, and viruses– don’t enter our moral paradigms at all.” Brainless life form don’t trigger our sympathy because we are not designed to that, we don’t know how it feels to them when being purged or so. In addition to that, we don’t recognize patterns of emotions in their facial expressions, a face without expressions will feel cold and emotionless, and will not definitely invoke empathy.
Having said that, it will not make any different for most psychopaths to purge an entire nation, as their empathy is reduced, or more precisely switched off, in the absent of empathy doing a terrible crime such as killing someone will leave you emotionally cold and basically feel no guilt, the only reason which will stop you from hurting anyone is the fear of punishment and nothing more.

If the idea of universal natural law given to us by God is true, then how can we explain such cruelty and immoral acts in the animal kingdom? Animals are behaving according to their instinct, yet immoral acts are common among species, did they derive these repugnant behaviors from God or are they the product of the selfish gene? Let’s take the “Brood parasites” as an illustration, –which are the organisms that rely on others to raise their young. — This strategy is common among birds, fish and insects. one of the famous brood parasites is the female of the “cuckoo”, when a cuckoo female lays eggs she distribute them among other bird’s nests, after that, when the cuckoo chick grows in the nest of the host – usually grow faster than other bird’s brood– it forces the host’s chicks out of the nest to die. If the natural law argument is plausible then God should be involved in these repugnant behaviors in the animal kingdom. Because ultimately animals have no free-will they act according to their instinct, therefore these immoral acts must be programmed in them.

Cuckoo bird

A relevant question raised about people with damaged prefrontal lobe and psychopaths; their problem is mostly genetic, and they have no control over it, therefore, what’s the point of creating a person with such deficits, and is the person must be judged for his immoral behaviors in such case?
In addition to that, a lot of religious scriptures adopted what we call immoral acts with today’s standards, such as “right hand possesses” –Sex slaves, usually women slaved at war time.–, in Islam for example Muhammad doesn’t stop slavery but he rather legislated it in war; we can’t blame him for that as those were the standards in that time –And that doesn’t mean they are morally permissible.–, However, he didn’t stated once that “right hands possessed” are immoral, which indirectly means, it’s an approved act by God; if such an act considered morally permissible in God’s standards, then God is evil.

Morality, therefore, doesn’t have to be derived from higher authority, we don’t need God to distinguish right from wrong either, what we need is a moral faculty based on both emotions and moral reasoning that evolution equipped us with, coupled with some daring acts that people accomplished to reach a moral state; a contract between people themselves, what Hobbes called the “Social contract”, a state which people reaches when they realize that morals are beneficial for everyone. 
Humans are social by nature; since the dawn of history, we gathered in small communities and ethnic groups, it is evidenced today by our bias toward relatives and persons of our communities, which make us more empathic toward them than toward a person on the other side of the globe. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt talked in his book The Righteous Mind”, about why some moral standards are different from group to group, he mentioned a great metaphor describing morality of tribes, he stated:“ …it’s like a tongue with 6 different moral taste buds.”, arguing that we all have the same buds of morality but our tastes are different; if you are born among a certain group you are more than likely to adopt their taste of morality. According to Haidt the six moral taste buds that influence our moral and beliefs are:


These moral taste buds as Haidt described them are universal, but people differ in which degree they value each trait, for example, the groups that value loyalty/betrayal tend to be more obeying to the authority and so on.
These social behaviors can also be understood from an evolutionary view since they play a significant role in the developments of culture.
In the case of traditional family, for example, a female tend to care for her offspring while acquiring protection and food from the male, therefore in order for the parents to ensure the survival of their offspring they should behave in a highly cooperative way and this is followed by rules and standards that must be held sacred for the interest of the species, and that’s the basis of cooperation among human.

Thank you for your time :))