December 1, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Robyn Hopcroft explores the muddled world of morality

moral compass - paul downey  2892270262_91c53fd702_oThere is a runaway trolley on the railway tracks. Five people are tied to the tracks and the only way to save them is to pull a lever that will switch the trolley to a side track where it will kill one person. What do you do?

Another runaway trolley is about to kill five people. The only way you can block the trolley is to push a man off a bridge, killing him and saving the five. What action do you take?

Welcome to the world of moral psychology. Philosophers have been puzzling over morality for millennia and more recently, psychologists have become interested in the workings of our moral compass. Most people would pull the lever, but they wouldn’t push the man off the bridge. It seems we are repulsed by the idea of sacrificing another, but only when we get up close and personal. Interestingly, although most people judge moral dilemmas in the same way, they give different explanations for their judgments. Some think that rather than making reasoned moral decisions, we act intuitively and then make excuses for our choices after they’ve been made.

So if we have a moral gut instinct, are we are equipped with morality from birth? There is evidence of moral behaviour in early childhood, and a neurobiological basis for morality makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. We need to be able to cooperate to survive, so of course we should avoid immoral acts like hurting other people. But morality isn’t purely innate. Most people agree on core moral issues, like murder and incest. Yet views on other matters, for example women’s rights, vary across cultures and change over time. It seems that we are born with a framework for morality and build on this as we grow, internalising the values demonstrated by caregivers and wider society. Morality therefore forms an important part of social identity, strengthening our sense of belonging to social groups. Accordingly, people often use expressions such as ‘British values’ or ‘Christian values’ to link moral belief systems to specific communities.

Neuroscientists approach morality from a different angle, using medical imaging technologies and studying patients with brain injuries. Their work indicates that many areas of the brain are active during moral decision-making, and emotion is heavily implicated as a motivator for moral behaviour. Functional MRI studies show that the emotional and reward learning centres of the brain are activated when choosing to act on a moral judgment, and patients with impaired emotional arousal do not always react in agreement with their moral judgments.

As scientists gain insight into the biology that underpins morality, neuroethicists have started asking how we could use this knowledge. Can we manipulate morality through scientific means? To some extent, yes. Some antidepressants have been shown to increase cooperation and fairness. Medications used to treat children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can improve impulse control and reduce antisocial behaviour. But what if we had the means, in the future, to apply more sophisticated interventions to the wider population? Deep brain stimulation and other non-invasive methods are used to treat conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, but could potentially be adapted to enhance moral capabilities. Other suggested bioenhancers include embryo selection and genetic manipulation for favourable moral characteristics.

Some claim that applying extreme moral enhancements may remove our ability to decide how to behave, posing a threat to our freedom. If we can’t choose to act immorally, then we lose part of ourselves. Others are in favour of enhancements. They think technology could be used to provide people with better tools for making moral decisions, giving people the choice to change who they are – to be better people. They highlight that our moral capabilities evolved to suit living in small communities, but that rapid technological advancement means that our behaviour can now have far reaching implications. Think of atomic weapons and climate change. Researchers at the Wellcome Trust-funded Oxford Centre for Neuroethics maintain that it is in our interests to develop safe moral enhancements, and that ‘The future of life on Earth may well hinge on this policy.’

Robyn Hopcroft is studying for an MSc in Science Communication

Image: Moral compass pin by Paul Downey (Flickr)