Moral judgment is just a brain process
A person’s moral judgments can be changed almost instantly by delivering a magnetic pulse to an area of the brain near the right ear…
That is a finding reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study, by neuroscientist Liane Young and colleagues, showed that manipulating a specific part of the brain (the right temporoparietal junction) with a magnet can change how someone morally judges a situation. Mature humans have the inborn sense to “know” that a person who intends harm, even when no harm is done, is more “bad” than someone who accidentally causes harm without intention. In this experiment, the pulse literally switched this mechanism in normal human participants, so that when judging a story, they found greater fault with the person who did unintentional harm.
Harvard psychologist Joshua Greene told NPR, “Moral judgment is just a brain process… That’s precisely why it’s possible for these researchers to influence it using electromagnetic pulses on the surface of the brain… If something as complex as morality has a mechanical explanation, it will be hard to argue that people have, or need, a soul.”
This is quite an astounding thing. It certainly puts a large dent in the claim that morality derives from a non-brain source, such as God or a soul. Of course, evolutionary psychology is making great strides in explaining how morality developed via natural selection, but it is this kind of experiment that illustrates evolutionary theories so vividly. As with every other branch of study, science continues to naturalize the brain and human functioning; we are moral creatures because we have evolved to be.
This is also a bit frightening. The study suggests that our moral reasoning is something not completely under our conscious control. This makes perfect sense, since it can be reasonably argued that nothing about being human is completely under conscious control. But there is something about moral judgment that strikes deeper. Our ability to think in terms of right and wrong, and then to act on those judgments even when it involves self-sacrifice, is one of our core traits that allows us to think of ourselves as noble. As being more than “mere animals”. Our brains have developed the useful cognitive illusion that everything we think and do is grounded in free choice. Obviously this is not the case, even when it comes to fundamental ideas about morality.
None of this lessens our obligation to act as moral agents. What it does do is demand that we inquire further in order to gain more insight into how we work. It also means that we will be well-served to think clearly and critically about our own personal ethics, and not to take any moral assumption as a given. And, you know, not to stand too close to big magnets…