Emily Dickinson's Morality

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Biology 202

2006 First Web Paper

On Serendip

Emily Dickinson's Morality

Astra Bryant

Part 1 of 3 in a discussion of the biological implications of moral sense and action. Part 1 discusses the biological mechanisms behind moral action. Part 2 will discuss the evolutionary survival of morality, and Part 3 will look at possibly reasons behind the development of morality.

The concept of morality has long been a keystone of human thought and society. Throughout the history of philosophical thought, morality has retained its status as the principle which differentiates humanity from all other life. But how does morality really work? In this age of bio-imaging, can morality be neatly explained by the intricacies of our brain? Or is morality more than neurochemical signaling; is it instead a collaboration of social cognition and biological structures. This web paper will discuss the biomechanics of morality how our brain creates our morality.

In order to have a meaningful discussion of the origins and intricacies of morality, it is first necessary to define what morality means. Common dictionaries define morality as the quality of being in accord with standards of right or good conduct; a system of ideas of right and wrong conducts (1). The acting out of this conduct as directed towards others may be divided into three major subsets: Morality for Gain, Morality for Family, and Morality for the World (2).

Morality for Gain encompasses the acts of morality that are undergone with an ulterior motive in mind (even subconsciously). The saying "do unto others are you would have done unto you" is a prime example of morality for gain. Your moral behavior is chiefly governed by the expectation that if you act morally, others around you will reciprocate.

Morality for Family specifically defines your family as the targets of your moral acts. The reasoning behind this distinction is that you are more likely to treat those people close to you - especially blood relations, in a moral fashion that is not dependent on the likelihood of reciprocation. For example, you would be more likely to lend your sister $100, even if you knew she could not pay you back, than you would lend that same $100 to a complete stranger, who you would most likely never see again.

The third subset of moral action is Morality for the World, the treating of everyone and everything in a moral fashion, even if they will neither reciprocate moral actions, nor punish immoral actions. An examples of such action is a yearly anonymous donation to a charity the benefactors (in, say, a third world country or even in an animal shelter) will neither be able to return your donation (either with money, services, or gratitude), nor will they accuse you (or even know) if you decide not to donate.

In the context of a psychological/anthropomorphic analysis, the existence of these subsets could most likely be explained. But biologically, can the existence of these actions, of theses behaviors, be accounted for?

A biological explanation of morality must take into account two issues. First, if the overarching hypothesis stated so poetically by Emily Dickinson holds, then there must be a physical factor within the nervous system that causes us to behave morally. Second, for any serious discussion of biological functions, the evolutionary purpose and fitness of the function in question must be examined. (To be discussed in parts 2 and 3 of this series)

But before examining the evolution of morality (what does Darwinism have to say on the evolutionary advantages of morality), it is apropos to define the specific physical structures within our nervous systems that are involved in morality.

In terms of biological structures, there is not one section of the brain which propagates feelings of morality. Instead, several different sections combine their individual functions to create the moral sense. Chief amongst these sections is the prefrontal cortex. Located in the very front of the brain proper (right behind the forehead), the prefrontal cortex is responsible for the ability of the brain to integrate learned lessons of moral behavior with current situations (3). The functions that are generated within the prefrontal cortex can be grouped under the title of Executive Function. The Executive Function is a proposed cognitive system that is responsible for the regulation of other cognitive functions. Therefore, the executive function would be the driving force behind our ability to differentiate right from wrong, to choose between conflicting thoughts, to determine future consequences of current actions, and to have a level of social control (i.e. the integration of learned social mores with current behavior) (4). The ability to apply moral codes (as opposed to social) to our actions can logically be another ability regulated by the Executive Function. Damage to the prefrontal cortex would disrupt the Executive Function, destroying (or at least severely disrupting) our ability to differentiate between conflicting signals from the different areas of our brain that are connected to the prefrontal cortex.

One of these areas is the Reticular Activating System, which is believed to be the origin of arousal and motivation. The RAS is located inside the brain stem, between the medulla oblongata and the midbrain. The other major connected area is the limbic system. The limbic system is not a specific area, but instead is a generalized term for all brain structures involved in emotion. Specific structures within the limbic system include the amygdala (generation and control of aggression and fear), the hippocampus (long-term memory formation), the mammilary body (also involved in formation of memory), and the nucleus accumbens (generation of feelings of reward and pleasure; neurobiological center of addiction) (5).

The executive function is important in that it is involved in the processing of situations that lie outside the domain of our automatic processes. The executive function, therefore, is the area of the brain where decision making occurs. It is where the brain must take sensory input and process it to create a novel response, instead of relying on preprogrammed responses. If the executive function is then involved in moral decisions, logically, moral decisions, and morality, are not included in the set parameter of our brains. Instead, the ability to make moral decisions would be a new use of established structures a use only possible because of our highly developed of the prefrontal cortex. In addition, our moral ability is not yet hardwired into the human brain.

That morality is a learned characteristic which relies of the ability of brain structures, has been shown through a series of experiments which examined subjects who sustained damage to their prefrontal cornets, both during adulthood, and before reaching 16 months of age. The subjects who had sustained the damage during adulthood were unable to apply what they knew about social and moral standards to their own lives. However, they were able to answer hypothetical questions which required a factual knowledge of those social and moral standards. Subjects who sustained prefrontal damage before 16 months of age, as adults, were unable to answer the hypothetical questions that their adult-onset counterparts could (6). This division suggests that moral standards are learned during childhood and that humans are not born with an ability to know what "good" and "bad" is.

If moral codes are indeed learned throughout childhood, and then integrated with our actions via the prefrontal cortex, it must be considered that morality may not be as universal an idea as its use in separating humans from other animals would suggest. For if moral codes are dictated by the environment (i.e. the society) then different environments will have different moral standards. What then truly defines morality? If it is the ability to distinguish against right and wrong, then any healthy human brain has the ability to distinguish between contradictory inputs. But whether these inputs are defined as right and wrong is a judgment left to the society that has generated the moral codes upon which the brain bases its decision. Different societies may therefore look at the moral decisions of another society and see immorality. Morality as a behavior cannot be solely defined as a process of the brain unless we qualify Dickinson's thesis of behavior with the statement that while brain equals behavior, the brain also equals environment plus biomechanics.


1) The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin Company. Third Edition,1992.

2) Can Evolution Explain Morality?, A paper written for Macquarie University on morality and Darwinism.

3)Nucleus Accumben, The brain, showing neurological connection between the prefrontal cortex and the various components of the limbic system.

4)Working memory and executive function: evidence from neuroimaging., Paper for a neurobiology journal on the current opinions concerning the executive function.

5) Parts of the Brain and What they do, A Really good diagram of generalized brain centers from a BBC article.

6) Brain: The neurobiology of morals , A short review of an article that appeared in Nature Neuroscience see next citation.

7) Impairment of social and moral behavior related to early damage in human prefrontal cortex., The article reviewed in the above citation gives examples of interesting experiments with subjects with prefrontal cortex damage.

8) Social Cognitive Neuroscience: where are we heading?, A general influence, discusses current trends in societal neuroscience.

9) A Basis for Morality , A previous web report on morality a jumping off point for my thoughts.

10) The Human Brain , Some interesting facts about different parts of the human brain.

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