Hemant Mehta of The Friendly Atheist has a post today that started a really fascinating, thought-provoking thread:
He doesn’t say much in the post; the importantly thing is that he links to a clip of an episode of The American Life dealing with moral choices. Here’s what he links to: Link. The part in question starts about 5 minutes in, and the entire show is interesting. But the “trolley” part is an only 10 minute abridged version of an entire “WNYC’s Radio Labs” episode on morality found here:
I highly recommend listening to it. They discuss the development of morality, ethics. Both through evolutionary development within our species as well as the finer points of ethics we learn as we grow up.
Listen to that program, and I dare you not to think. Ponder. Contemplate. What does it mean to be “moral”? Where do we get our morals? Nothing more I can say here can add to what this fascinating program says. Go listen now.
But, for my opinions, I will continue for you masochists. Some of the points made: general morality, don’t murder, don’t steal, share, cooperate, are behaviors we share with our primate cousins. These are general, innate social behaviors we have evolved because they help us and they aid our survival as a species. As social groups. Anyone who studies or watches chimps for five minutes can see behavior in these often violent animals that we would call “ethical” and wouldn’t seem “natural” to animals. Behaviors which we find “light up” the more primitive, emotional regions of our brains when looked at by neuralscanning devices when the subject is asked moral dilemma questions. When we are posed with situational questions that require logical reasoning and “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”, the frontal lobes of our brain, the uniquely human regions, become active–especially when those choices include actions that might be “remote” acts of “evil”. Such as flipping a switch that causes the death of one person to save a few people.
But, when the choices require “evil” acts that are more direct, more “primitive,” such as directly killing a person by your own hand in order to save more people, the whole brain lights up in activity as the various parts duke it out. The logical, analytical human brain and the emotional, primitive “monkey-brain” that screams “No! Killing is Wrong!”
And I find myself thinking, isn’t that ironic. The more primitive parts of our brain that we share with the chimps is the part that tells us general morality. Don’t kill; cooperate. It’s our uniquely human brain part, the part that “separates us from animals,” that allows us to rationalize possible “evil” acts if it’s for the betterment of more people. What would religious people say to this? People who refuse to accept evolution as a fact? When neurologists, biologists, anthropologists, psychologists all say that our capacity for ethical behaviors is biological, evolved in us for the betterment of the species, they’re ready to say, “OK, thank you science, for pointing that out–we’ll take that as proof that God has given us humans the ability for ethics above the animals.” But when you point out “Wait. Basic morality we think of as ‘absolute’ is actually the part of ethics we share with our differently evolved primate cousins,” then they no longer accept science and refuse to accept reality.
The program also has a section involving children and the development of ethical behavior. How kids develop from being little sociopaths to ethical humans through empathy. Through seeing the results of their actions and internalizing them. Interestingly, the section also has an audio essay about a woman who’s sense of ethics were highly informed as a kid during the fall-out from a rather nasty game of “Homestead”. her, and her later compatriots in the game, started a trend of uber-capitalism in this economics role-playing simulation game, that got to the point of incredibly unethical behavior that ended up having to be stopped. And her defense: “But, you never said we couldn’t do X, and I was winning the game.” And in addition to the lesson on morality, this also made me think of true capitalism. Where profit is the entire motive for all capitalist ideology, and anything goes so long as it makes profit. Capitalism is devoid of ethics. It is economics inherently without any sense of morality. It is abuse and extortion as its core for the purpose of material gain–and this child’s game presented this truism in its purist form without pretense. Nothing, so long as it’s run from the profit-motive, can be ethical.
But that’s my take–not the show’s.