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Altruism Is Hard-wired in Human Brains
Is morality not behind good deeds?
Rudy Ronald Sianturi (RudyS)     Print Article 
Published 2007-06-12 09:57 (KST)   
Altruism is not about the suppression of basic selfish urges but rather, evolutionary speaking, "basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable." At least, this is what emerged in the new findings neuroscientists recently published. The 2006 research by Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman of the National Institutes of Health that used brain imaging and psychological experiments at once challenges centuries-old conviction that has associated altruism with a higher moral faculty.

The research and other similar researches suggested that human brain is equipped with a built-in moral compass. This reinforced what scientists have discovered in other species like animals that are said to be able to sacrifice their own interests. In one of the experiments, for instance, scientists gave food to a rat while a neighboring rat got an electronic shock. Behaviorally speaking, the pain inflicted upon the rat next door was a reward for eating the food. Contrary to the popular assumption that animals have no moral capability, the first rat in the end surprisingly stopped eating.

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That morality is said to be biologically rooted poses a "threat" to other fields of studies especially theology and philosophy, two disciplines that have long struggled with the notion of free choice. Morality is defined as a capability to make a sound decision among the many choices available to an individual. If follows that culture and other aspects of human society especially religion and spirituality play a vital role in nurturing moral skills.

The findings, nevertheless, seem to be in a hurry to reduce morality to mere brain chemistry. True, the brain is automatically wired once a moral stance is required. But to think of morality as merely an evolutionary tool resulting from millions of years of survival instincts in both individual and species as well is troubling indeed. The research did prove that the subjects' decision to donate money, when asked to think of either donating it to charity or keeping it for themselves, activated a primitive part of the brain that usually responds to food or sex.

Precisely, the unexpected responses only reflect a strong relationship between generosities and pleasure. People make a moral decision not solely based on an imperative consequence of the deed but because it also gives them the pleasurable feeling. It is this self-serving action that becomes the rationale to perform an altruistic action on a higher level. In short, the research only shows that the course of morality to be successful should be first of all desirable. But it goes on along a continuum to be virtuous.

At this point, the findings echo the importance of emotions to moral situations. Scientists have long found that intellect never operates on its own but in collaboration with the limbic region (the emotional side) of the brain. Thus, empathy, the ability to recognize what others are going through, is the driving force for moral manifestations. In terms of a communal organization, empathy will then lead to the formation of social behavior which in turn has enabled the emergence of the right and wrong notion in the human society.

We can argue that the experiment does not apply in more complicated moral situations that involve different scenarios such as dilemma when decisions taken will not create any emotional satisfaction. For example, a rescuer has to choose either to save a woman or a child trapped under a ruined building. His course of action will undeniably cause a death to one of the victims and can scar his very soul for years.

But for the scientists, such a scenario only shows that there are different neural regions being lighted up simultaneously. These different circuits in the brain clash with each other, each is emotionally charged. Under such a pressure, the rescuer's safe way out is to let go of the cognition to take over the decision making. It will simply revert to which one is more profitable. It is the whole experience that gives the impression that morality is an abstraction of mental processes. In other words, whatever action eventually taken does not in itself change the basic workings of morality with its inclination to psychological pleasure.

The whole finding raises the question of personal responsibility for both the scientists and social thinkers. What is wrong and right seems to be unfixed. An old battle between science and social science seems to take a new level. The scientists gave cases of the people with brain damage on the area of so-called ventromedial prefrontal cortex who are proven to lack the emotional sensitivity towards moral solutions. They suffer an apparent deficiency with regards to social empathy. They loose the inherent ability to learn morality as in the case of language acquisition in which man is able to learn different languages but in fact use the same neural machinery. To this, experiences show us that even the most mentally disable people can learn a spectrum of linguistic skills.

More things will be inferred from these new findings as scientists aggressively pose critical questions to our long-held beliefs in different fields. Yet the findings in fact reveal man's best dimension. That there is a strong connection between moral decision and emotional pleasure does not necessarily annul the importance of culture, religion or other social forces in nurturing moral capability. On the contrary, given that human evolution does not stop on the primitive region for sex and food but goes on to the formation of much more complicated limbic system and intellect, there are still plenty roles to take.

This is what gives empathy its many faces, dimensions and unlimited manifestations. The scientists claimed to have felt uplifted that their findings finally explain why people who are willing to lend a hand are not as generous when it comes to people who are seemingly distant. They forgot to acknowledge that at this point, culture, religion and other social forces can refine the innate moral potentials extending it beyond its natural limits; a task nature can only provide the foundation. And still free choice or what values human society decides to propagate will determine if the natural inclination becomes only a path towards self-selfish pleasure-seeking or a gift to realize an empathetically civilized species.

Man is inherently altruistic. What is more relaxing than to know this?

©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Rudy Ronald Sianturi

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