This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

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Biology 202
2001 Third Web Report
On Serendip

Morality's Biological Nature: Implications for the Attribution of "Good" and "Evil".

Ingrid Solano

"A man who has no assured and ever present belief in the existence of a personal God or of a future existence with retribution and reward, can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones. . . . If he acts for the good of others, he will receive the approbation of his fellow men and gain the love of those with whom he lives." - Charles Darwin

In my last paper "Serial Killers: Just trying to feel normal, it's not my fault" (4) I addressed the question as to whether biology can make us murderers. In my paper I catalogued multiple instances in which biology seems to consistently differ between 'normal' people and individuals who have been dubbed the most immoral, inhuman and evil predators of society. Though I found many biological differences between the normal brain and the murderer's brain, it was not necessarily explained that 'morality' is a common, biologically based aspect of human behavior. The nature of my prior paper was to ascertain whether there is a difference in our brain from that of a killer, but in this paper I explore the biological function of 'morality' and its natural occurrence in the catalogue of human behaviors. Discussing 'morality' as a phenomenon that is inherent in humans will then allow the further exploration of the implications of deviation from this 'norm'. Can these individuals be labeled as 'evil' and be held accountable for their behavior?

As the former paper posed implications pertaining to the 'accountability' of a murderer, this paper proposes that these individuals have strayed from the underlying foundation of human nature that allows us to impose even the conscious and subjective qualities of 'accountability' (what is necessary in order to apply labels like 'good' and 'evil'). Being unfettered by these qualities of natural understanding and the willfull/conscious qualities necessary to use these labels, this paper proposes that not only are these individuals incapable of being called 'evil', but that their deeds are 'less wrong' than those individuals who do not have biological deficits in the 'moral norm'. Lacking this 'moral norm', these individuals are incapable of knowing the anxiety caused by guilt. In fact, these individuals are in a state of ignorance as to the 'intentional' nature of 'good and evil'. The biological deficits found in my prior paper cause these murderers to be individuals who commit their acts without the intent to cause distress/harm with the full faculties of emotion and understanding of their victim's state of victimization. How can we punish those who do not understand what they have done is 'wrong'?

Can one truly be "evil" without being cognizant of one's deviance and without the socially expected 'evil intentions' and 'ill will' that one automatically assigns with the very word 'evil'? In fact, is there something "less wrong" about the acts of these individuals who have been biologically impaired? This is particularly important to discover because noting these biological differences in the immoral and criminal brain makes punishment and treatment of these individuals a difficult situation. It was suggested in my former paper that perhaps the 'accountability' of serial killers might be able to be determined by brain-scans. Finding the biological differences may define who understands 'morality', and who does not. Would this indicate the existence of an immoral act where the individual who commits it is unconscious of their 'evil' intentions, and thus may not actually be committing an 'evil' act? (4). Without the knowledge of being 'wrong', is it fair to consider an individual 'evil'?

Even the 'insanity defense' clearly states that we can not punish a person who does not understand what they have done as being wrong. Indeed, changes or abnormalities in the brain indicate that serial killers do not understand the world as you or I. If morality is inherently a biologically based aspect of human behavior, then the abnormalities discovered in my former paper offer murderers (as well as a wide range of other individuals who are considered 'immoral') a crutch of unaccountability for their acts. These individuals may simply be impaired and 'hard-wired' incorrectly, in such a way that they do not fall into a category of 'evil' or 'wrong', but into a category of 'less wrong', and even 'unfortunate' individuals who have been denied the ability to empathize with others and understand the inherently (and mandatory) intentional natures of 'good' and 'evil' behaviors. As science begins to unravel personality, accountability unravels with it. "The person becomes his parts - some working, some defective through no fault of his own." (4)

"Morality is as firmly grounded in neurobiology as anything else we do or are," said de Waal (6). Morality must be seen as a state that is available to our species as a whole, and thus the biological impairment of not having morality would be seen as what allows us to throw off the drastic label of 'evil' for he who has impairment. The idea that morality might be a biological trait in the human nature dates even back to the father of evolution. In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin addressed the development of a moral sense from a naturalistic perspective (1). He implies that 'morality' could have arisen as a consequence of human beings' biological and social characteristics. This would imply that it is perfectly natural, if not expected and 'normal', to exhibit the desire to act kindly toward others, and to try to see the world as they might see it.

It is implied that any animal endowed with well-marked social instincts (including parental and filial affections) would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man. Social instincts supposedly led an animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them. These services may be of a definite and evidently instinctive nature; or there may be only a wish and readiness, as with most of the higher social animals, to aid their fellows in certain general ways. Natural selection would seem to select for species who 'care for' their young, in that those species who are more inclined to protect their progeny are more likely to have progeny that survive (1).

My former paper reports many instances of brain differences that can change the behaviors of a man. In the famous example of Phineas Gage, an accident at his job caused an iron rod to pierce through Gage's skull. Gage was able to stand and speak a few moments later. His intelligence was intact, but it soon became clear that this once model young man had been changed by the incident. He now cursed, lied and behaved horribly to people around them. Gage's doctor, John Harlow, said that Gage was no longer Gage, and that the balance "between his intellectual faculty and his animal propensities" had been destroyed. Can this example of brain-injury be used to explain the 'animal propensities' of murderers and the immoral? (4). My last paper implied that it could be, but how can it be used as evidence for a natural biological foundation for 'morality'?

De Waal also uses Gage as an example for showing how morality is grounded in neurobiology, and since human brains are a product of evolution, evolution must be a part of any satisfactory account of morality. de Wall outlines Darwinian dilemmas of pairing natural selection and morality. He argues that incorporating a social context into the biological explanation will answer these problems and explain how social interactions of morality can be attributed to evolution. (2). De Waal theorizes that human morality arose from the simple need to get along in order to survive. Already well-known for extensive research on how monkeys and apes reconcile after conflict, de Waal is now studying morality in their system of tit-for-tat sharing. De Waal's evidence of 'morality' in an animal model is a compelling piece of evidence for a moral biological foundation. De Waal is perhaps the most well known source regarding the pairing of morality with biology in an evolutionary psychology perspective (7).

A compelling example of attributing morality to biology is a study of two patients who incurred prefrontal lesions before the age of 16 months. Both children appeared to make excellent recoveries, but as they grew older, they began to display behavioral problems even more severe than is typical for those with adult lesions of supposedly 'moral' based portions of the brain. These behaviors included stealing, lying, verbal and physical abuse of other people, poor parenting of their illegitimate children, lack of remorse, and failure to make plans for their own futures. There were no obvious environmental explanations for their behavior; both children grew up in stable middle-class families and had siblings who were socially well-adjusted (3). de Waal claims that it seemed "as if the moral compass of these people had been demagnetised, causing it to spin out of control" (7). De Waal claimed that this incident provided examples of how conscience is not some disembodied concept that can be understood only on the basis of culture and religion. The cultural and religious implications of 'good' and 'evil' will find it difficult to label individuals who are incapable of comprehending 'morality' due to aspects of biology that govern the creation of the very concept of 'morality'.

The typical figure in literature and history that comes to mind as being 'evil' is the dark, violent, conscienceless person who commits acts for his own benefit and enjoyment. However, biological differences in the violent individual whom we see as bloodthirsty and fiending for the causation of pain in others suddenly forces us to see this person in a new light. The intentional focus of negative, inhumane behavior (what we consider to be the necessary structure of attributing the label 'evil' to) is suddenly attributed to a disturbance in a biologically based 'moral function'. The person should now be considered an individual who is stricken with a deficit that has denied them the capability of feeling and interpreting their actions like the rest of us can. Can we truly consider this person 'evil', or is he suffering from an affliction that has caused him to remain in the state of an unempathic child? This paper implies the former theory.

In conclusion, this paper implied that murderers and other morally-deviant individuals with biological differences aren't capable of being considered 'evil' due to the biological nature of their deficit. Due to these findings of neurobiology, and the deviance from the inherent, biological function of 'morality', there is an intrinsic new category of being 'less wrong'. This 'less wrong' is based upon the inability to attribute the inherent aspect of 'consciousness' and 'intention' that is needed to consider an individual 'accountable' for their acts. This consciousness, intention, and accountability is necessary for labeling things as 'good or evil'. The biological differences were explored in my former paper while this paper intended to imply that 'morality' and thus the feeling (and understanding/application) of 'guilt' is inherent in human nature. It is a biological malfunction in this natural social-behavioral 'function' called morality that would imply an inability to be labeled 'evil'. Individuals with these deviances are not any more guilty (or cognitively aware of the causes of their deviance) for their actions as those individuals with other cognitive deficits that cause behaviors like clumsiness or language disabilities (like those attributed to 'autism' or any sort of brain injury).

WWW Sources

1) The Basis of Morality:Scientific Vs. Religious Explanations , A religious heavy commentary, however it offered several interesting insights.

2) primate musings, A brief commentary and collection of facts.

3)Brain: The neurobiology of morals. , A small, applicable article.

4)Serial Killers: Just trying to feel normal, it's not my fault, My last paper.

5) Origins of Human Mind Revisited, A short article that touched upon some new ideas.

6) To the objectives for Good Natured., Commentary upon de Waal's book from a college class.

7) The Impact of Psychological Research on Christian Beliefs and Practices , A source of challenges, insights and reminders.