Well, let's get back to that one. Here's a recap. Brain scans had
revealed that a small section of the brain called the right
temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) was at its highest level of activity
when people were considering the consequences of an act. This got some
public notice a couple of years ago when it was revealed that this
activity was absent in children, and usually didn't fully develop in
people until about the age of 25. I'm not sure if that provides much
solace to exasperated parents all over the world who ask the universal
questions, “What were you THINKING?” and “Didn't you think about what
would happen?” of children and teenagers. Knowing that the kids didn't
think it through because they didn't have the physical equipment to do
so may, or may not make it easier to be a parent.
At MIT, scientists learned to control the amount of activity in the TPJ
through low-level electric impulses delivered by electrodes. And by
deliberately disrupting the TPJ activity in adults and then questioning
them about specific matters, they discovered that not only did the TPJ
give people cause to pause and consider their actions, but also to
consider the rightness or wrongness of such actions.
In other words, the morality of such actions.
People with the electrodes in place were asked to rate the morality of a
woman who gives some coffee that she has reason to believe is poisoned,
but in fact isn't. Is it moral to attempt to poison and friend, but fail?
For most people, it's pretty clear that the effort to poison is, in
itself, an immoral act, and the fact that the attempt was unsuccessful
is irrelevant. If you rob a bank, don't expect to avoid prison just
because the cops showed up and stopped you.
With the electrodes engaged, that stopped being a fairly clear choice
for the subjects. Most either deemed it not immoral to unsuccessfully
poison someone, or didn't have an opinion on the matter.
The revelation isn't that profound. For millennia, we've debated whether
such things as morality, religiosity, ethics, and other behaviors were
based in physiological origins or spiritual. While most of us didn't
view humanity as purely spiritual beings whose bodies only provided a
distraction from our divine essences, we similarly didn't embrace the
Kurt Vonnegut view that we were all just meat marionettes, ordered about
by the chemical reactions in our bodies. (Vonnegut, to his credit and
readability, was amused by this concept).
Unfortunately for our self-esteem, Vonnegut was probably much closer in
describing the reality of the situation than the “fallen angel” theory.
We possess volition (as does all life—indeed, volition could be said to
define life), with enough variation in it that we react in seemingly
individual ways, and we have will (which I define as self-aware
volition), but we don't exactly possess free will. The universe, and our
role in it, may be chaotic, but our responses to that role are
prepatterned. To that end, we impose order on our universe, and attempt
to control it in our various ways. It's a good evolutionary path for
self-aware beings, or we would probably all just sit in puddles of our
own urine and not bother to mow the lawn on the weekend.
That morality and religiosity might be governed by physiological forces
is something of an emotional third rail for most people. They don't like
the idea that “God” might actually be nothing more than a few micrograms
of dopamine released whenever the brain feels a need to cope with an
uncooperative universe. Or that morality boils down to a few microwatts
behind the right ear.
For quite a few people, the mere fact that the experiment, and its
results, exists at all is disturbing.
So: if a sense of morality can be turned off, does this hold the promise
that it could be turned ON in people whose sense of morality is absent?
Leaving Antony Burgess' “A Clockwork Orange” aside for the moment, would
this usher in a brave new world of moral rectitude?
Short answer: no.
The problem with morality is that it, like religiosity, humor, social
mores and recreation, is a human predilection, and as such, is utterly
subjective, and controlled in large measure by the society an individual
is in, and his or her ability to adapt and coexist with that society.
Humor is entirely social in nature, and a joke that will leave an
American convulsed with laughter will leave an Englishman cold, even if
there aren't problems with the cultural referents. ALL cultures have
humor. They all vary, both by culture and by individual response. The
jokes are different, and even the responses. Where an American might
have a belly laugh, a Japanese will react with a polite smile, and a
Finn by grinning and cutting his throat. Religion is largely a social
function, and a lot of social mores get sucked into that. Even religions
that tend to be strictive and authoritarian find that cultural
variations cover the entire gamet. Islam as practiced as a social force
in Saudi Arabia is far different from Islam as a social force in
Chechnya, even though the “church language” (Arabic) and the teachings
are identical. Catholicism similarly varies by huge amounts from the
Caribbean to central Africa to Italy, much to the consternation of the
Morality is subjective, situational, and both cultural and individual,
just as all the other human proclivities are. In some cultures, it's
considered moral to kill your 14 year old daughter if she is found
having sex with a man not her husband. It wasn't all that long ago that
it would sometimes happen in the US. In the US, some people consider it
immoral to have sex before marriage, and some consider it immoral to
There's no such thing as absolute morality, despite what some bible
bangers claim. Indeed, the bible is an excellent example of just how
flexible morality – even in gods – can be.
There's also the fact that amoral people only cause a relatively small
fraction of the world's problems. Ninety percent of human-caused woes
stem, not from actual malevolence or amorality, but simple stupidity and
ignorance. And unfortunately, many people are stupid, and we are ALL
Think about the people living on your street. Chances are you have one
guy who pops off every so often about benefits, real or imagined, that
“illegal immigrants” get, and how these “illegals” should be stripped of
all rights and benefits.
He's proposing nothing less than a resurrection of the Nuremberg Laws,
in which Hitler excluded select portions of the population from the
protection of the law, and made them fair game for any and all types of
abuse, with predictably horrific results.
But your neighbor isn't Hitler, not even close. He hasn't thought it
through, obviously. Further, he is incensed that people are getting
privileges he can't enjoy because they broke the law. Never mind that
most, if not all of that belief is false: he believes it, and he holds a
belief similar to Hitler's, not out of evil, but because of a sense of
Collective morality usually does as much harm as good. Societies, by
their nature, try to impose a “one size fits all” morality. The American
government was revolutionary, not because of Democracy, which had been
around for 1,500 year, but by the earnest effort to divorce government
from the false moral certainties of religion. The effort largely failed,
and America is full of people who believe the best way to instill social
order is by inflicting shame on people—usually for things where there is
no legitimate reason for shame to be felt.
Another problem: is it moral to make people “be moral”? I can remember
as a kid reading comic books in which the hero would have some sort of
ray gun that he could use on villains to make them “good, productive
citizens”. Once zapped, the erstwhile criminals would wander around in a
gentle haze, wearing the same sort of unearthly grin that “Bob” has in
those “natural male enhancement” ads. Except with Bob, you can assume
he's actually having fun. Long before I read “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's
Nest”, I found myself severely creeped out by those types of stories.
Any parent of a young child would be thrilled to figure out a way to get
kids to take responsibility, and see consequences to their actions. But
suppose it destroys something vital in childhood—imagination, or
emotional growth? Do we REALLY want Stepford Teens?
I understand, and strongly support, the types of experiments they are
doing at MIT. I do believe the more we understand how our minds work,
the better the odds that we'll avoid destroying ourselves.
But when I consider the nature of morality, and the horrific results
that could come, either from turning morality off (think utter unfeeling
brutes for soldiers, as if there aren't plenty enough already), or from
turning it ON, I find the whole thing more than a little spooky.
Scientists discover how to ‘turn off’ brain’s morality center
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, March 29th, 2010 -- 9:38 pm
People's moral judgment can be altered by disrupting part of the brain, a
study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) disrupted
activity in the right temporo-parietal junction, or TPJ, which is above
and behind the right ear and is usually highly active when we think about
what we believe the outcome of a particular act will be.
The researchers disrupted the TPJ by inducing a current in the brain
using a magnetic field applied to the scalp and got study participants to
read a series of scenarios posing moral conundrums.
In one scenario, a person called Grace and her friend are taking a tour
of a chemical plant when Grace stops at the coffee machine.
Grace's friend asks her to get her a coffee with sugar.
Story continues below...
A container by the coffee machine is marked 'toxic' but contains plain
old sugar -- but Grace doesn't know that.
She believes the white powder in the container is toxic but puts it in
her friend's coffee anyway. Her friend is unharmed because the substance
Participants in the study were asked to judge on a scale of one to seven,
with one being "absolutely forbidden" and seven "absolutely permissible,"
if they thought what Grace and other protagonists in other scenarios did
was morally acceptable.
Two experiments were conducted: during one, participants were asked to
judge the scenarios' characters after having magnetic pulses sent to
their TPJs for 25 minutes, and in the other they passed judgment while
undergoing very short bursts of magnetic interference.
In both experiments, disrupting normal neural activity in the right TPJ
switched off the part of people's moral judgment mechanism that looks at
the protagonists' beliefs.
When the right TPJ was disrupted, participants were more likely to judge
as morally permissible failed attempts to harm another person than were
control participants whose right TPJs were not tinkered with.
"When activity in the right TPJ is disrupted, participants' moral
judgments shift toward a 'no harm, no foul' mentality," even though the
participants should have given characters like Grace a mark in the
forbidden range because they believed their actions would cause harm, the