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Morality, society, and the brain

Paul Grobstein's picture

Welcome to the on-line forum associated with the 2008 senior seminar in Neural and Behavioral Sciences at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges. Its a way to keep conversations going between course meetings, and to do so in a way that makes our conversations available to other who may in turn have interesting thoughts to contribute to them.

Thoughts this week about

and our conversation based on them ....
Paul Grobstein's picture

morality as a brain construction

Its an interesting thought indeed that morality isn't something "out there" but rather something that is constructed by and within brains. And an even more interesting thought that it is largely something we construct without "thinking about it" and then provide rationales for after the fact. The parallels to language are intriguing. Perhaps we're born not with a morality but rather with an inclination to build one reflecting our experiences with people around us?

From that follows several further interesting questions.

  • How much variation is there in our unconscious morality (follow Rebecca's suggestion and let her compile our responses)?
  • Can we build a more deliberate, ie conscious morality? (follow Ian's suggestion of reflecting on some earlier discussions about moral issues?)
  • What would such a morality look like, and why?
Serendip Visitor's picture


there are many variatios of the human behaviour and many of these have shown sigs of morality, but based on the behaviour of crimials and canibals if this was true wouldnt they have a negative view on what they are doing as we have a negative view on on the way they live thier lives. if you have the ability from brth to have morals than wouldnt his be a peaceful world.

krosania's picture


I thought that this was a really great topic, and one of the more challenging to discuss. One of the things that frustrated me a bit during our discussion is that we kept coming back to defining morality as a set of universal rules that we all just somehow know to follow. I don’t think that it would be possible to define morality in this way, since it would be impossible for us to be born with knowledge about social interactions. More useful, I think, is to view morality as a mechanism, something that allows us to learn how to engage in behaviors that will help others and refrain from behaviors that would cause others harm based on social cues. What helping and harming others means specifically varies from culture to culture, which is why there does not seem to be any universal morality. What is universal however, at least for the majority of us, is our ability to read the responses of others to our behaviors to develop an internal code of which behaviors are acceptable and which behaviors are not. This internal code, I believe, is based entire on one’s experience of the feedback they receive in response to their past behavior, and thus it varies not only from culture to culture, but also from person to person. There are some behaviors that I consider morally correct that my sister does not, and vice versa, even though we were raised by the same parents in the same society. I don’t believe either one of us is immoral, but that we have received different cues about these behaviors and have learned to value them differently.

I think this idea of defining morality as a concept rather than in terms of a finite set of rules is an important one when considering cultural differences in moral standards. I believe that everyone, no matter their culture, has the innate desire to do what is right by the people around them. The differences come about in how they have learned to do this, and we must be respectful of these differences and recognize they are not a reflection of someone’s character, or whether they are moral beings or not.

To address the issue of animal morality, it seems to me that since morals develop as a result of social experience, animals that engage in social behaviors likely do develop a set of morals as a result of their social interactions. Even if this morality develops out of a desire to remain a part of the group, rather than an inherent desire to do “the right thing,” it isstill morality. And actually, this makes me wonder where our own sense of morality comes from. Do we learn the difference between right and wrong and act accordingly because we want to be good people, or do we do it because we want to be accepted by society? If the latter is true and a person is shunned by their society, what happens to their morality? Does this internal code somehow remain even though it is no longer being reinforced by social cues? I think this is a pretty interesting thing to think about.

Amelia's picture

Evolution of Empathy, Survival Mode

I agree with Kara, that while our research shows that female mice can show empathy for another, I don’t necessarily believe that it is because they feel as though that is what they should do because it’s moral. They simply do not have the brain ‘power’ to understand if something is right or wrong. While I would still say that empathy is a part of morality, the mouse (and other animal) forms of empathy are not based on moral principles, but more likely empathy has evolved because of its adaptiveness of what an animal can learn about the environment from the other animal it is empathizing for and protect its relatives and social group. Empathy may simply be an understanding of another’s emotional state, and if that is the case, can then be modulated by the relationship of one animal to the other.

These same mice that show empathy will eat another cagemate if there isn’t enough food or water. When this happens in humans, we are quick to be disgusted by the person who ate their friend because there was no other food since we see it as immoral. Some people in this situation won’t eat their friend, but many do. While we view this as wrong, it is simply the individual attempting to survive. It seems that even in humans, when it gets down to survival vs. death, morals can go out the window and we return to a state where survival is all that matters.

It seems, from this return to a survival mode, that morality is indeed formed by our social group. Since our group tells us that it is wrong to eat another human, we don’t do it unless we are in survival mode. Even something as grotesque as this, was at some time in some cultures still seen as a normal way of life. These people were not immoral, since that is us putting our moral code on their society. Someone, however, who ate a human in the USA in modern times because he wanted to, he would be immoral. I’m actually surprised that I’m arguing this since I do feel so strongly that not killing (or eating) another human is incredibly immoral, but our discussion made me realize the constraints of morality on us through our societies.

K. Smythe's picture


       How do we define morality?  This was one of the problems I found myself struggling with during our conversation on Monday.  Is morality simply a social construction or is it an innate series of actions?  I also struggle with the idea of whether something can be judged under the moral sphere if it does not affect others.  I think that whether or not morality is learned, it can only be applied to social situations or situations involving other lives (human or otherwise).  To me morality has to do with the abstract concept of kindness or “right and wrong” in terms of other living beings.  I do believe that our individual (or cultural set) of morals are mostly a social construction.  It seems however that having morals at all is well conserved cross cultures, which lends itself to a biological mechanism.

            Is morality also a developed mechanism for survival?  Our morality often benefits other indirectly (or at least doesn’t negatively affect them)-we don’t kill, steal, cheat etc. which benefits those around us. Could it be that our morality, justifying our actions that help perpetuate the survival of the species, is evolutionarily evolved to preserve the species?  Contrary to this however morality does not seem to be evolutionarily adaptive in terms of an individual’s genes.   

            Another concept of morality I found particularly interesting in our conversation is that of a universal morality.  It was interesting to me that we were ready to agree that there was no universal morality; however we still judge others by our own moral standards.  If we had agreed that there is no universal morality then how can we judge others actions as moral or immoral unless we are judging their sense or concept of morality rather than their actions?  Morality in some senses seems like a strange extension of ethnocentrism.  If we judge our morals as correct, is holding others to our morals inappropriate?  Is there a situation where morality can be set aside (ex. murder etc.) when we can really say that our morals, being generally the majority, are correct and we can judge others by them?  As a society it seems that we have done this with actions that cause physical injury to other people.  As we discussed in class this is not the case for every culture, though we are moving toward a more globalized set of morals it is interesting to think of morals as simply part of a culture.  In most senses we are concerned with preserving cultures as they are, however there are some morals (human rights for example) that I personally think it is okay to try to universalize.  This is, admittedly an ethnocentric position and I am projecting the moral part of my culture onto others as the most “correct” one.


ehinchcl's picture

I wanted to respond to

I wanted to respond to Alex’s post—as a lot of the things she touched on are interesting to me. The idea of morality as defined by the intentions behind the act is somewhat how I look at it—but I would actually say that an action would be considered moral more in the case of doing something good just because they want to rather than due to an obligation. For example, is community service morally good if its done only because its mandatory? While an action itself may be good or bad in its own right, I think that to define the “morality” of the action we need to look at the intention behind it and that without proper intentions it is impossible to say that a person is morally right. Another example: If we kill someone out of self defense I think we would all say that this is morally okay, but if we kill someone because we wanted to I think we would all argue that the action is morally reprehensible.


Another thing that was interesting to me that wasn’t brought up all that much yet is the question: can there be rational thought separate from our emotional intuition? This question is incredibly hard to handle—because if the answer is no, then there is no way that we could ever figure it out because you can’t process without the lens of emotional intuition. Therefore, a more relevant question might be to wonder if there is a way to understand what our emotional intuition was telling us and then factor that in to our decision making process (which somewhat assumes we are capable of determining our emotional intuition in the first place, which is a bold claim to start out with). I think this is something that is really important that we start to do: I think as a society in general we need to question our preconceived notions of the world (as with all our neural diversity talks!) and try to parcel out what is societies influence on our decision making, what is due to our emotional intuition (and how is THAT shaped and molded by society), and then lastly how our genetic biological makeup contributes. To critically analyze all that is pretty much impossible, but I think it would definitely do the world some good if we could start to shape our emotional intuitions (and therefore our moral judgements) based on a critical analysis of the world, society, and our interaction with the two.

atuttle's picture

A response to a response...

The problem with trying to derive an operational definition for what constitutes a "moral act"is that people do things for a great number of different reasons. In many instances these individuals believe that they are doing the "right thing," either because others in their immediate social environment laud these actions to be good/right/just, etc., or because they themselves believe that they want to do things that are generally right. In both of these cases the individual is fitting her actions into a social framework regardless or whether the locus of judgment is internally or externally derived. Basically, I believe intention is irrelevant to the definition of morality because the action is ultimately judged by the pre-existing standards set by society.

Addressing Emily's second point, I would hesitate to say that any human decision can be defined as completely objective or "rational" because emotions help to set all of our goals. Think back to our example of Spock or AI-- even these seemingly rational beings are emotional on some level. I agree with Emily that rather than claiming to be devoid of emotion, we focus on how our feelings help to compose our moral standards, and how these standards differ between societies.


~Alex Tuttle

Haverford '08

aamen's picture

I think I was most

I think I was most interested in our discussion last week by the idea that whether or not an action is morally right or wrong depends on the intentions behind the act.  I think that in class, we talked about this in terms of the difference between someone doing a good deed because they want to versus doing it because they feel they should, or they know it’s the right thing to do.  The argument made was for the idea that this action would be considered moral if the person was acting out of a sense of obligation (the idea that it’s the right thing to do), but not if they were doing it simply because it’s something they wanted to do.  I’m not sure how I feel about this – I can imagine arguing the case in a situation where we’re talking about a good deed being done, but not in a case involving something that is considered morally wrong.  If someone committed murder but did it because they wanted to, not because they realized it was the wrong thing to do, I’m sure most people would still think that they were acting amorally.  We often talk about people in terms of their morals, and a person’s morals reflect what they do or do not do based on what they feel is right and wrong.  If you want to do something it probably feels right to you, and if you don’t want to do it it probably feels wrong, so I would argue that wanting to do something and doing it because it’s the right thing to do overlap to a very high degree.


Somewhat related, I was also interested by the idea that something is only amoral if it is affecting other people, and therefore what you do when you’re alone cannot be going against our moral standards.  My emotional reaction to the idea of morality is generally that the worst thing someone can do is purposely hurt another person/animal without a good cause, and therefore if what you are doing isn’t affecting other people, maybe it’s not amoral.  However, what about the case where someone cheats on a take-home test?  To me (and probably to most of us, given the honor code) this seems morally wrong, but it’s being done in private and it’s really not affecting anyone but that person (unless you’re thinking about it in terms of grading curves, but that seems like a bit of a stretch).  Can you really make the argument that this wouldn’t be amoral, or is it just another type of amorality?

kbrown's picture

Animal Morality

Hi guys,

    I really enjoyed our discussion on tuesday on morality and thought that some really thought provoking and challenging ideas were brought up during the period (I especially thought the incest example was pretty interesting and made me think twice about my response).  While reading through the comments I found some interesting points about the presence or absence of an animal morality.  This is a topic that is actually fairly involved with the thesis work that I am doing with Wendy Sternberg, Amelia and Alex.  We are studying behavioral correlates of empathy in mice, specifically in response to another mouse in pain.  There is really a wealth of studies and anecdotal examples of the presence of empathy in animals, that is, their ability to understand the pain of another animal and react in an appropriate manner (by caring for the animal or protecting the animal)  Even mice have been shown to exhibit empathic behaviors, and I am pretty sure that if any of you attended the talk by Dr. Jeffrey Mogil earlier in the year you heard him talk about the presence of empathy in mice. 

So as far as I am concerned it seems pretty certain that animals are able to exhibit empathy, which I think may have been one of the key words that Ian and Rebecca displayed under the heading of morality.  However, although I think there is ample evidence to say that animals can be empathetic, I'm not sure whether this is actually moral action as their motivation for such actions seem more motivated by ideas of inclusive fitness and survival of the species than by an actual understanding of right and wrong.  I thin kin the end this is really what seperates our sense of morality from an animal's, because even though I do feel that human morals in their most fundamental sense are intrinsically linked to evolution (not killing other humans probably evolved from an idea of survival of the species etc) I think nowadays, with more and more actions deemed a-moral for purely religious or otherwise non-life or death reasons, we are defining morality less in terms of its basic evolutionary sense.  Because animals do not seem to have actions which are punished or avoided that are not involved in some way with the survival and well-being of the species, I would say that animals do not have a moral structure, at least in the human sense of the word. 

ebitler's picture

Animal Morality

Of all the different topics that have come up thus far, I’m definitely most interested in the questions about animal morality. I do think that there’s enough evidence at this point to say that some species other than our own posses the capability to act in moral ways. And yet, I still want to make the argument that animal morality is very different from human morality. I think it was Tamara that pointed out that one of the reasons we anthropomorphize is because when we describe the actions and experiences of animals we only have our own actions and experiences with which to explain them. I absolutely agree with this, but I think it highlights a need to proceed with caution when we apply terms for human experiences to animals because we can never really know that their experiences are the same as ours.

So for example, one of the recent trends in pain research is looking at empathy in animal models (if you’re interested in this talk to Alex T., Kara B., or Amelia- their thesis has to do with empathy and they know a ton more than I do about it). Mice that see other mice in pain are more susceptible to pain themselves, and this phenomenon is even stronger if the mice were cage-mates. In this way there is evidence that mice are “in tune” with the experiences of other mice. But at the same time we have always defined empathy as having a sense of introspection that comes into play, which likely is not a component of mouse empathy. In other words, the mouse isn’t sitting there thinking, “Oh no, that mouse is showing pain behavior, he must really be in pain, and I feel bad for him because I know that pain is unpleasant for me.” Mice don’t even have a sense of self, so that’s just not what’s going on with mice empathy. I’ve always felt a little uneasy with using this very human term for a mouse experience, because even though some of the aspects of the experience are the same, not all are. And that’s exactly the same point that I’ve gotten to with talking about animal morality. (Sorry that my example was so long and tangential, but if you’re interested here’s a short article about animal empathy and some brief discussion of issues with using the term empathy: )

Ok now getting back to animal morality. I would say that the two examples that Marissa and Danielle gave (punishment in primate society for behaving in a way not consistent with the society’s rules and drowning to try to save another society member in danger) do provide enough evidence (to me anyways!) that animals do behave with some sense of morality. But I think that the sense of morality with which they behave is different from our sense of morality in some ways. They may have an innate sense that they should behave in accordance with the norms of their society. And they may also behave with emotional motivations, such as trying to help another chimp in danger. But I don’t think that they have the introspective aspect of morality that humans do. The rationalization that you will have your toe bitten off if you do something that your society says you shouldn’t do is not necessarily the same as the rationalization process that goes into deciding whether or not you think abortion is okay. I’m not saying that it definitely isn’t the same, just that it isn’t necessarily the same and we should be cautious not to over extend the term morality.

It also seems to me that there’s a spectrum of the capability of morality. Almost all organisms that are capable of interacting with others of the same species also act in accordance to their species (I’m thinking of those simple organisms from hc bio 200 that all pulse together and form a little swirling pile to accomplish some goal that I can’t remember). But I don’t think that an ant that goes out and gathers food to take back to the colony, what could be argued is a moral task, has a sense of right and wrong. And I don’t think that animals that don’t have a sense of self are capable of introspective rationalization that we associate with morality. It’s interesting that as a human I’m placing humans at one end of the morality scale… But then again we’re the only species (to my knowledge at least) that is capable of discussing morality and thinking about the moral experiences of other species.

Emily Alspector's picture

Morality as a universal

Hey gang,

Sorry I couldn’t make it to lecture this past week, but it looks like you guys had a really interesting discussion. I will try and pick up on some points that seem to have come up in class.

Being a linguistics minor, the thought of a universal language is an intriguing one, and I think Andrea’s point about the idea of a universal grammar of morality. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like a universal grammar for language is easier to comprehend than one for morality since morals are a very personal thing and language is something learned. Of course, there are social and situational effects on one’s morals, and they are absolutely not static, but it still seems that ones morals are formed independently of a set “grammar” and are highly dependent on social situations. Language, on the other hand, seems to have more rules and is less flexible with how one learns.

I think it’s also important to differentiate between morals and altruistic behaviors. Rebecca’s post mentioned that chimps have been shown to adopt social rules, but does this mean they are moral beings? To me, having morals means having the ability to show remorse for going against those morals, but also being able to articulate (not literally) what your morals are. I don’t mean to say that because chimps can’t verbalize (to us, anyway) that they think cannibalism is bad, but more along the lines of being aware that they think it’s bad…bad for them personally and bad for society. Altruism, on the other hand, seems more like, I’m doing this but it’s not that I’m doing it because I feel bad if I don’t, but because I know something will go wrong if I don’t. I'm not saying that animals are incapable of morality, in fact I dont think that's something we can determine. But in discussing the topic, we should clearly define morality and altruism.

I also agree with Stephanie, I think there has to be an emotional component to morality as well as a rational component. As Elliot said, there are different situations where your morals lead you to make certain decisions, and depending on your current mental state as well as the surrounding situation and what makes sense rationally at that time. I think as far as gut reactions go, they go hand in hand with our morals. When you make a quick decision and trust your “gut”, it’s like a shortcut to your morals. Usually if you overanalyze and overrationalize, you’ll just get lost in the process, and won’t really even know where you and your morals stand in the situation. It’s interesting that we think our rationality is what separates us and makes us “human”, but its also what drives a lot of us to insanity and makes us question our selves and our morals.
Jenna's picture


I agree with what Felicia said about one of the only things that is universal about morality is that most people have a moral code.  I think that purpose of a moral code is to govern our actions and help us choose the action that coincides with the moral code we live by.  However, the specifics of that code are very individual and although different groups adopt the same general ideas there is still always individual variation in those groups.  I think this variation is important because it makes sure that one group will not always be persecuted since the variation will allow for acceptance of everyone.  


I believe that morals are meant to help guide people to choose the “right” action, therefore I think it is very interesting to think about how people choose the “wrong” action.  Perhaps as one of the articles stated, people choose “wrong” when they put their own needs ahead of the group needs.  However, I think this is problematic because not all morality deals with ensuring group or self survival.  If your morals tell you to act one way and you actively choose to act another perhaps by changing you actions you are actually redefining your morals or those were never your morals to begin with.  Perhaps for this situation the morals you currently have no longer fit with your own developed sense of right and wrong so you are changing your actions and your moral beliefs will also change.  Rebecca asked if you are most moral when opposing the group, however if your morals are developed by society than are you acting immoral when you oppose social pressure?  In this case, can you do the right thing and also act immoraly?

Felicia's picture

Moral diversity?

After our discussion, I found myself confused as to a definition of morality. I guess it's a sense of "right and wrong"or "good and bad" but those words in of themselves are not easily defined. Simply because morality is defined by so many subjective words, I don't believe we could ever come up with some universal moral principle. The closest thing I can think of that would hit on this "baseline" possibility would be to think about evolution and what traits would be beneficial, but even for these - helping other members of your species, etc - there are quite a few exceptions. I think that if there was some baseline "genetic" morality, it's been taken over by our ability to have rich social interactions. This isn't to say we are amoral, but that the social component has a much greater impact on moral development in humans. When I think of primates, I think more of those baseline traits because they are necessary.

I think there’s a lot of moral diversity, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say that maybe it’s a good thing. Just as we talked about earlier with neural diversity, maybe there’s some advantage to having differing views. I’m not talking about extremes here (persecution, murder) and I suppose you could argue that moral diversity inevitably leads to some forms of persecution, but I think there are also instances in which this could have a positive effect. I’m struggling to come up with an example, but I’ll keep thinking about it and post later…

I also find it really interesting how morality is formed. Again, we talked about genes and the social environment, and I’m going to have to lean heavily toward the social aspect of this as well. There may very well be some genetic “predisposition” towards radical moral values, but just as in the “nature/nurture’ debates in education and other issues, I think the environment is the key factor.

Something else I was thinking about when we were talking about animal morality, and this sounds silly, is pets and their owners. I’ve definitely heard stories of dogs going for help if their owner is injured, dragging them out of a fire, etc… and when I think about it, there are a lot of things I’d do for my pets that I wouldn’t bother with for other people I don’t know. The idea that morality can cross species is a fascinating.

Stephanie's picture

some thoughts on morality

During our conversation on Tuesday night about morality, I began to think about how individual morals can be.  How each person can have slightly different or even drastically different morals.  Maybe sometimes our morals are more similar to one another if we grew up in the same family or same town or same country?  This idea of people having their own individual morals seems to conflict with this idea of universal morality.  It makes me think that maybe there isn't one universal morality to fit all people.  Maybe there are some guiding universal principles & guidelines from which most individuals base their individual morality upon or from which most people agree on.  But, I find it hard to believe that everyone could have one universal system of morality.  

I also found the struggle or dissonance created by reasoning & emotion when thinking about morality to be an interesting one.  Once again, I think morals have to do with some reasoning and some emotion- for some people maybe the scale is more tipped with reasoning and for others maybe more emotion- but I don't think we can make a blanket statement that all morality is emotion-based or is reason-based.  

And, finally as far as morality of animals- I think it may definitely exist- but finding out if it really does I think it a difficult, and maybe impossible challenge at the current time given our current resources.  As I mentioned in class, I think we need to be careful or at least not forget that we are projecting our human words & ways & thoughts of morality onto these animals- the idea of anthropomorphism.  I personally think some animal behavior definitely makes it seem as though animals can be moral beings, but I have to stop myself and think about that is a conclusion I am drawing from their behavior.  I have no idea if the animals even know if they are moral or not- but as for now, with our current resources, projecting our own thoughts and words onto animals behavior is the best we can do- and I understand that.  But I'd like to remind everyone to always remember these are our ways and thinking we project onto them and these are simply our own human inferences- not direct evidence from the animals themselves.  And, since we have such a hard time describing, defining, and thinking about human morality, I think we should first focus on figuring out human morality before we jump to make conclusions about animal morality. 

Marissa Patterson's picture


As I was reading the articles, I was very struck by the fact that many of the authors tended to comment on great apes as if they had aspects of morality but were NOT fully moral beings because "People enforce their society’s moral codes much more rigorously with rewards, punishments and reputation building. They also apply a degree of judgment and reason, for which there are no parallels in animals." However, just a few paragaphs before they were saying that if young Rheus monkeys do not behave properly they may get a finger or a toe bitten off. I would definitely say that is punishment! I would agree with Danielle that they indeed do show morality. We do not know for certain about what causes them to behave in the seemingly moral ways that they do, and so it could be that they DO have a form of judgement and reason. If we observe them behaving in certain ways that in humans we would characterize as moral, why then is this not just "chimp morality"--species specific, perhaps, as Danielle says?

I also was so interested by what Natsu said about "morality class." If she (who had been raised by Japanese parents but NOT in Japan) had similar feelings about morality as the students that were being taught it from books, then it makes me wonder if the books/class were necessary at all. If they had been taught by their parents as well, would they still have similar ideas about morality? Personally I never took an organized class on morality, but I would say that I have a sense of what in my opinion is right and wrong. What about a class (and a text book) would change those beliefs?

I wonder though, about more informal teachings about morality. In a classroom setting there are certainly plenty of times a child is told that something (like sharing) is the right thing to do and something else (like fighting) is not, which is a moral lesson. Perhaps her experiences in Holland (that I am guessing had only informal morality lessons) ended up teaching the same lessons as she would find in Japan in the more organized setting? I would be very interested in finding more about the ways in which these experiences were different and how the situations they learned about differed from what I might call moral from what I learned from my own experiences in American school.

Danielle's picture

Morality at birth?


   In response to the ideas of chimps and unborn children having components of morality, I believe that the idea of morality and what it means must be discussed. Does morality refer to a behavior or a specific mindset when in a specific situation? Is morality an innate motivational behavior that begins at birth or is it something that evolves from social interactions and communications? So much of how morality is viewed is through how other people influence our opinions of our own actions. Also I think different people view different situations/actions/feelings as moral. Everyone has an individual interpretation of what should be identified as being moral because each person has a moral spectrum for which they apply different situations that require a moral analysis. I think these moral spectrums start at birth and are developed, improved, and expanded upon throughout life based on social interactions. If morality begins in utero or at birth, then I think we are all born with the ability to conform to social rules that mold our views on morality. From these social interactions at birth and throughout life, our morality is every changing. If morality begins in utero then I do think that these gut intuitions, in response to the environment in utero, indicate a very important social connection starting between mother and baby, which then expands to include baby/child/adult and the universe. The connection between baby and mother, primes the baby, from the start, to respond to society, especially in terms of morality and gut feelings. These gut feelings and interactions throughout life add more to an individual’s moral spectrum. I think that chimps, like any other animal can develop morality that is based on the social and behavioral interactions among that given species. We use chimps to model our moral behaviors because they can more easily acclimate and understand our social cues as humans. This does not mean that other species do not have the ability to develop morality, the difference is that we cannot understand or relate to another species’ form of morality. In one of the readings, a chimp jumped into a moat to save his friend even though the chimp could not swim. This example shows a morality, a loyalty among the chimp family that involves self sacrifice. In the human opinion this seems ridiculous being that the chimp cannot swim and as a human we might think it more intelligent for the chimp to grab something that might help his chimp friend float or get out of the moat. This just highlights the differences in morality and the morality spectrum according to social interaction within a given species. Even if the chimp cannot swim he will attempt to save his friend because as his chimp friend, he has a moral obligation to save him. I think that morality is species specific and depends on social interactions within the given environment starting in utero.

natsu's picture

How are our sense of Morality formed?

It was interesting to see just how much the concept of morality seemed to have relevance to some of our previous conversations.  I wish I could respond in some way to Ian's question about whether discussing and directly addressing the concept of morality has influenced my thinking about any of these topics, but to be honest, I am not sure at all.  Something about morality that is so strange, at least for me, is that no matter how much I learn about different moral perspectives (from reading, discussing traveling etc.) my sense of morality does not seem to change very much. 

As I mentioned briefly in one of my comments during class, I used to work at a Japanese elementary school.  About twice every week, the children had "moral class" and since the children I was responsible for (the children with "special needs") were not expected to do much during this time, I was often able to observe the classroom and listen to the teacher talk as if I were one of the students.  Since I had spent most of my elementary school years in Holland, I had never had the chance to be a student in a Japanese "moral class" as a real elementary school student, and I was surprised at how interesting the class actually was.  The students had a "moral text book" but instead of just lecturing from the book, the teacher often came to class with interesting stories to read or activates that made students think about moral issues and learn what was morally correct.  Or at least, what I thought of as moral.  That was what surprised me so much - I almost felt as if the teacher was teaching the students my sense of moral to the students!  It is true that I was raised by parents who are completely Japanese, so it is not entirely surprising that my sense of my morality is quite Japanese. However, for half of my life I lived outside of Japan, and I studied at an international school during most of elementary school.  Thus, I was surprised that what the students were learning in their "moral class" seemed to talk so strongly to my sense of morality.  I was also so intrigued by these classes, because while the students were learning about moral from the stories and activities, I felt as if I was learning something about myself from them.  It also made me wonder if the children in the class would really end up with a different sense of morality if they did not receive these moral classes at all. 

 In class we exchanged some ideas about genetic and social contributions to our sense of morality.  As mentioned already, morality is often considered to be a mainly influenced by the society, but I think there must be some genetic contribution too, which is why people feel the most comfortable in their own culture and feel drawn to their origins.  I also think that difference in moral perspectives is what makes it sometimes so hard to live in a foreign country, or for people to live in a multicultural country.  Differences in culture like food, music and fashion is fairly easy to embrace, but it is a lot harder to accept different perspectives on moral issues.  I would imagine that it would be really difficult, perhaps impossible, to hold "moral classes" in public American schools.  People would never be able to decide on the contents of the "moral text book".


Andrea G.'s picture

The analogy to language, and morality in the brain

One of the topics that interested me the most in our discussion this week was the comparison of morality to language, and the assumption of the existence of some sort of universal grammar for both.  I've been thinking a lot about it in the context of what happens when this "innate faculty" (as we talked about it in linguistics) is damaged or doesn't develop properly.  With language, there are a number of aphasias that result in an impairment of language.  One of the most interesting of these, I think, is Specific Language Impairment (SLI), which seems to have a very strong genetic component.  The disorder is grammatical in nature, but the specific impairment varies from person to person (although it's generally the same within families).  Similarly, brain damage can often result in an acquired aphasia of some sort.  If we see language disorders universally, it seems reasonable that there might be parallel impairments in morality, if indeed there is some sort of universal morality.

Assuming that this comparison can be made, it seems that psychopathy might be good example of an impairment of morality from birth, while patients with damage to the frontal cortex could be a good example of acquired impairments in morality.  Psychopaths, who have no noticeable brain damage, show less activity in emotion-related areas of the brain when responding to emotional words than do controls.  Other studies have shown abnormal fear conditioning and fear-potentiated startle reflexes in psychopaths.  While I'm not aware of any studies that have looked into the heritability of psychopathy, if we continue the analogy between language and morality, it's likely that there is a strong genetic factor involved.  There have been numerous studies with ventromedial frontal cortex-damaged patients that have showed reduced skin conductance response and have performed poorly during the Iowa Gambling Task, the measure used most often in these studies.  Control subjects have an increased skin conductance response before they choose from the "bad deck" in this task, even before they know consciously that it is the wrong deck to choose from.  It's been argued that this anticipatory response is vital in making good decisions, something these patients often have difficulty with.

I haven't come to any conclusions about this analogy to language and whether it means anything with regard to the existence of a "universal grammar" of morality.  I just think it's an interesting idea to put out there, since we focused mostly on positive examples in class.  It seems like the discovery of the function of a lot of brain regions has come from looking at what happens when that area is damaged, so these patients seem like a good place to start in looking for morality in the brain.  I'd be interested to hear what everyone else thinks about this.
Ian Morton's picture

I would again like to extend

I would again like to extend an invitation to everyone to re-visit our previous conversations concerning moral topics such as euthanasia and experimentation on animals with our most recent conversation on morality in mind. Has our conversation on morality in any way altered your outlook or understanding of these topics?
Mawrtyr2008's picture


Hi, everyone. Thank you all for participating in a great conversation last Tuesday. Your contributions and insights enhanced my own understanding of this topic, and I was interested to hear that this topic affected the way some of your thought about other parts of NBS.

Comments outside these questions are, of course, welcome, but if you’re looking for a starting place, here are some topics to comment on:
- Comments on the public/private domains of morality and how that ties in to social cognition.
- We spent quite a bit of time discussing language and genetics. Do you think our discussion about the genetic basis of in-group language can apply to a discussion of morality? Is it a metaphor? What makes it different? What makes linguistic variance easier to talk about than moral variance across cultures?
- What is "universal morality"? Several different definitions were voiced in class...
- How far can you reduce a definition of morality and still have it mean morality? For example, chimps (ability to adopt social rules), unborn children (gut intuition in response to environment), have some components of morality. Is it sufficient to call them a moral being?
- Is action necessary for morality? (ie: Tamara's example about the disconnect between what people think/say/do)
- Are we our "most moral" when we resist social pressures around us? What role do social groups play in moral action?

Also, I invite all of you to take some of the quizzes available on The website is run by psychologists at the University of Virginia, and Jonathan Haidt is one of them. You must register to see your results, but all you have to provide is an email address. Once logged in, please take the “Moral Foundations Questionnaire”, the first option in the list. If you could please email me ( or Ian ( your response to the liberal/conservative scale and the histogram generated at the end of the quiz, that would be great.
Elliot Rabinowitz's picture

Morality: Initial Thoughts

There were a number of topics covered Tuesday night that grabbed my interest. Exactly defining what counts as moral, particularly a “universal” moral, obviously proved challenging throughout our discussion. I initially thought coming up with such morals would not be so difficult, and so the challenge was somewhat unsuspected and seemed very intriguing. Why is it so difficult to identify a set concept of what is moral? Is it simply because cultures are so different? Is there a biological component? I’m (obviously) not sure, but it’s something that I think deserves further research and discussion.

Much of our conversation also seemed to depend on personal anecdotes and feelings. This makes sense and seems completely natural, since the “beetle” analogy applies here (in addition to many of our discussion topics) – nobody can actually know what another person is feeling, experiencing, or thinking. These personal anecdotes are quite important – they present real examples where people experienced a moral dilemma or change in their moral reasoning. Personally, I find these kinds of “stories” fascinating. For example, Jessica’s story about how learning more about animal research changed her moral mindset and judgments shows that learning and contemplation (which maybe depends on a social dialogue with others) can actually change one’s future inner dialogue within one’s own mind. This is a powerful tool our minds/brains provide – learning can change not only how we reason after we act or think a certain way, but can also actually change those initial judgments and choices. As many people reflected in class (I specifically remember Jenna’s comment), this rationalizing part of forming our thoughts in moral situations seems crucial to individual growth and development of a social functioning society.

Finally, Tamara left me with a thought I still am not sure I can reason through. The idea that we can self-identify a moral, but not actually let that moral choice/gut reaction play out in our everyday actions/thoughts really interests me. Is it that we rationally reason what is moral, but our gut reaction leads us otherwise? Or is it the opposite – that our gut reaction tells us what is the right thing, but our reasoning leads us to not follow through. I definitely know I have personally experienced such situations, but I can’t figure out why I necessarily acted/thought the way I did. I do seem to always come back to the importance of context – situational factors always seem to make huge differences. But I’m wondering if anyone else has any thoughts…

Ian Morton's picture

Thank you for your

Thank you for your thoughts!

I think you hit on an important point by discussing the arrarent difficulty we all seem to face is clearly defining what qualifies as moral. Generally, it makes sense to view morality as inherently social, as well as to consider that it make have biological origins in addition to social construction. However, as you point out, owing to cultural relativism and the apparent lack of a universal code of morality, defining what exactly is meant by "moral" seems a difficult task. Could a biological or neurological definition of morality be of any value? Would these definitions be somehow "universal?"

Additionally, I think it is important to realize that our reasoning/learning offers the potential to redefine or alter our intuitions. This is a postive outlook on sociality, as it asserts a potential for social change in the face of unconscious and deeply ruited dispositions. Perhaps this notion can contribute further to the observed potential for intuitions and reasoning to arrive at different conclusions and thereby drive differentially drive behavior.

Finally, I am glad you believe that personal anecdotes were valuable in our conversation. While we typically consider science as an objective undertaken, here is seems that subjective understandings can offer important insight.