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The Evolution of The Moral Brain

Drawing upon the narrative of his new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Dr. Jonathan Haidt from the University of Virginia gave a lecture entitled “The Rationalist Delusion in Moral Psychology,” on April 24 to members of Teachers College at Columbia University.

An adult monkey, the Olive Baboon (Papio anubis), grooms a kid at the Ngorongoro conservation area in Tanzania. Photo: Muhammad Mahdi Karim

Building upon discussions at the 2012 Bioethics Conference: The Moral Brain at New York University, Haidt elaborates on his own research in moral and cultural psychology, part of the growing body of automaticity research in cognitive neuroscience and social psychology, to frame discussions on moral instincts—the rapid, highly emotional moral judgments we make about our actions and those of others.

Consider the original premise of the famous trolley problem proposed by Philippa Foot:

A trolley is hurtling down a track toward five people. You are standing beside a lever that, when pulled, will turn the trolley onto another set of tracks where there is only one person. Would you pull the lever?

Most people invoke a utilitarian judgment and decide to save five people at the expense of one. Now, consider an alternative version of the trolley problem proposed by Judith Jarvis Thomson:

A trolley is hurtling down a track toward five people. You are standing on a foot bridge beside a very large man. You can stop the trolley by pushing this very large man onto the tracks in front of the trolley. Would you push the very large man?

Though the outcome is mathematically the same in both scenarios (saving four lives), the latter version elicits a different intuitive response—in fact, most people think it is morally wrong to push the very large man.

By tweaking various moral dilemmas, researchers lead individuals to experience what Haidt refers to as “moral dumbfounding,” where people have highly charged moral reactions but fail to determine a rational principle to explain their reaction. Though the rationalist model purports that we derive our ethical decisions from our powers of reasoning, Haidt advocates for the “Social Intuitionist Model,” which states that fast and automatic intuitions are the primary source of moral judgments; conscious deliberations merely lead to post-hoc justifications for judgments that were already made.

To understand why morality varies so much across cultures yet still shows many similarities, Haidt and several other social and cultural psychologists propose that there are six innate and universally available psychological systems that compose our “intuitive ethics.” These include: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. They illustrate the evolutionary significance of these moral intuitions by linking our reactions to issues in contemporary politics to challenges commonly encountered in our ancestral past, such as foraging, avoiding predation, and hunting. For example, the mental module that produces moral outrage toward cheating may serve to restrain individual selfishness and build more cooperative and cohesive groups. According to Haidt, we experience similar outrage toward cheating in more modern domains, such as when a vending machine cheats us, failing to dispense a purchased bag of chips, or when we perceive a policy as unjust.

Though Haidt provides a biological basis for the emergence of these moral instincts, invoking traditional perspectives on evolution and adaptation, he concludes with a largely polemical notion: Natural selection operates not only on genes (selfish gene theory, coined by Richard Dawkins), but also on groups as well. Proponents of multilevel selection theory argue that while genes compete for survival and reproduction, groups also strive to out-compete one another. Groups with the greatest cooperation and cohesion will out-compete inferior groups and ultimately increase in frequency.

Though debate still rages over whether natural selection can operate on groups, the scientific community does have a better understanding of how rage evolved in the first place.

Interested in learning more about the evolutionary origins of complex behaviors? The Center for Environmental Research and Conservation offers a course on Evolution: Darwin to DNA as part of the Certificate in Conservation and Environmental Sustainability. This course provides an overview of concepts of biological evolution, from pre-Darwinian attempts to describe life through modern genetic theory. It emphasizes the history of evolutionary thought and science, reviews the basic principles of evolutionary theory, and discusses their implications for modern life as well as state-of-the art technologies, such as genomics. Topics covered include natural selection, types of fitness and variation, speciation, reproduction and the transfer of genetic traits, the structure of DNA and a look at evolution over the long term via introductory systematics.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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