Here at Templeton, we have this week posted our newest Big Question series of essays from major thinkers, all answering the same question. The new one is:
“Does moral action depend on reasoning?”
Go here to read all the answers. Contributors include Robbie George, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Jonah Lehrer, Stanley Fish, Joshua Greene and others. Really good stuff there.
I found this passage from top neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga’s essay to be illuminating. He answered the question, “Not really.” Here’s the gist of why:
First, most scientific research shows that morality is largely universal, which is to say, cross-cultural. It is also easily revealed to be present in young infants. It has a fixed sequence of development and is not flexible or subject to exceptions like social rules. Indeed, recent brain-imaging studies have found that a host of moral judgments seem to be more or less universally held and reflect identifiable underlying brain networks. From deciding on fairness in a monetary exchange to rendering levels of punishment to wrongdoers, the repertoire of common responses for all members of our species is growing into a rich list.
Second, there are many moral judgments that are widely believed not to fall into a universal category. These appear to be highly influenced by local culture and learning.
Third (and perhaps most surprising to everyday experience), all decision processes resulting in behaviors, no matter what their category, are carried out before one becomes consciously aware of them. Whether driven by internally determined and evolved structures or by learning and experience, these behaviors are executed by the brain in an orderly and automatic way. Given this uniformity in moral choices and in brain processes, why, then, do experimental subjects supply such a diverse set of reasons for their behavior?
This question is answered by the fourth discovery. There is a special device, usually in the brain’s left hemisphere, which seeks to understand the rationale behind the pattern of behavior observed in others and/or oneself. It is called the “interpreter” and concocts a story that appears to fit the variable behaviors in question. It follows from this that, since everyone has widely different experiences upon which to draw, the interpretation one comes up with will vary widely as well.
Fascinating, that last bit. I had not heard that before. We tell stories so we’ll know how to live. This is why the sages taught in parables. This is why it’s catastrophic when a culture loses its stories. Gazzaniga goes on to say that that brain research does not mean people should not be held responsible for their moral choices. After all, we’re social creatures, and we have the right to accept or reject moral principles embedded within the stories of our culture. Still, do not miss the point, especially if you are the parent of children: everyone will fill up their brain’s narrative storehouse from somewhere. Will those narratives come from your holy book or faith tradition — or will they come from popular culture? This may not matter to you, but if it does, then you — we, because I am convicted by this — have a lot of work to do pushing back as hard against this culture as it pushes against us.
In his essay, neuroscientist Antonio D’Amaso gives the most concise statement of what I believe is true:
My answer is a strong “yes” because the actions we can truly call moral depend on the work of reason at some stage in the process leading to their execution. But my answer is also “no” because the moment-to-moment execution of actions, moral or otherwise, is not necessarily under the control of reason, even if reason has a role in the deliberations behind the action and in strengthening the control system that executes it. My answer is an even stronger “no” if the question implies that moral actions are invented by reason, springing fully formed from the consorting of knowledge and logic.
Read all the essays and tell us who you think gets closest to the truth.