Short review: Greene, J.D. 2003. From neural “is” to moral “ought”: what are the moral implications of neuroscientific moral psychology? Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Vol. 4, 847-850.

Text:

Greene, J.D. 2003. From neural “is” to moral “ought”: what are the moral implications of neuroscientific moral psychology? Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Vol. 4, 847-850.

Thesis:

More involvement of “emotional” structures of the brain when deciding about personal moral dilemmas is explained with evolutionary perspective. We evolved altruistic instincts that direct us to help others in dire need, but mostly when the ones in need are presented in an ‘up-close-and-personal’way.

Abstract:

The Author distinguish two type moral dilemmas;  the personal one (that it would be deeply wrong to abandon a bleeding stranger by the side of the road in order to preserve one’s leather car seats) and impersonal (that it is morally acceptable to spend money on luxuries when that money could be used to save the lives of impoverished people).

To explore difference between this two type of dilemmas the author,conducted a brain imaging study in which participants responded to the above moral dilemmas. The dilemma with the bleeding hiker is a ‘personal’ moral dilemma, in which the moral violation in question occurs in an ‘upcloseand-personal’ manner. The donation dilemma is an ‘impersonal’ moral dilemma, in which the moral violation in question does not have this feature. To make a long story short, he found that judgements in response to ‘personal’moral dilemmas,  compared with ‘impersonal’ ones, involved greater activity in brain areas that are associated with emotion and social cognition. Why should this be?

The Author uses an evolutionary perspective. As he noticed over the last four decades, it has become clear that natural selection can favour altruistic instincts under the right conditions, and many believe that this is how human altruism came to be. If that is right, then our altruistic instincts will reflect the environment in which they evolved rather than our present environment. With this in mind, consider that our ancestors did not evolve in an  environment in which total strangers on opposite sides of the world could save each others’ lives by making relatively modest material sacrifices. Consider also that our ancestors did evolve in an environment in which individuals standing face-to-face could save each others’ lives, sometimes only through considerable personal sacrifice. Given all of this, it makes sense that we would have evolved altruistic instincts that direct us to help others in dire need, but mostly when the ones in need are presented in an ‘up-close-and-personal’way.

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