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Good and Evil

Today I was listening to the "Good and evil" episode of the New Scientist podcast. It contains a lengthy conversation with cognitive evolution researcher Marc Hauser discussing he theories regarding a biological basis for the sense of right and wrong. It reminded me of the recent article by Shankar Vedantam in The Washington Post titled "If It Feels Good to Be Good, It Might Be Only Natural." A few excerpts:

...when the volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable. Their 2006 finding that unselfishness can feel good lends scientific support to the admonitions of spiritual leaders such as Saint Francis of Assisi, who said, "For it is in giving that we receive." But it is also a dramatic example of the way neuroscience has begun to elbow its way into discussions about morality and has opened up a new window on what it means to be good.

The more researchers learn, the more it appears that the foundation of morality is empathy. Being able to recognize -- even experience vicariously -- what another creature is going through was an important leap in the evolution of social behavior. And it is only a short step from this awareness to many human notions of right and wrong, says Jean Decety, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago.

Neuroscience research, Greene said, is finally explaining a problem that has long troubled philosophers and moral teachers: Why is it that people who are willing to help someone in front of them will ignore abstract pleas for help from those who are distant, such as a request for a charitable contribution that could save the life of a child overseas? "We evolved in a world where people in trouble right in front of you existed, so our emotions were tuned to them, whereas we didn't face the other kind of situation," Greene said. "It is comforting to think your moral intuitions are reliable and you can trust them. But if my analysis is right, your intuitions are not trustworthy. Once you realize why you have the intuitions you have, it puts a burden on you" to think about morality differently. Marc Hauser, another Harvard researcher, has used cleverly designed psychological experiments to study morality. He said his research has found that people all over the world process moral questions in the same way, suggesting that moral thinking is intrinsic to the human brain, rather than a product of culture.

Anyway, back to the podcast. In the course of the conversation with Hauser, several scenarios were mentioned (one of which is also mentioned in the WaPo article). Imagine that you are a doctor in a hospital. Five of your patients are critically ill and in desperate need of organ transplants. A mostly healthy person walks into the hospital. Should you kill the one healthy person to save the other five? Most people would say that would be morally wrong. Imagine that you work for a railroad. There are five people working in a tunnel and are about to be killed by a runaway train. You can flip a switch to divert to train to another tunnel where there is only one person who will be killed. Should you divert the train? Most people would say yes. In both cases the intent and result are the same (to save lives), but one is morally acceptable and the other isn't. Most people believe it to be morally acceptable for a doctor to withhold treatment (e.g. remove a patient from a ventilator) to end a patient's suffering by hastening death. Most people consider it to be morally unacceptable for a doctor to administer drugs to to end a patient's suffering by hastening death. Both doctors have the same intent and the end result is the same...but one is considered morally acceptable and one isn't. Why?


That sounds simliar to massive Red/Blue debates in our country.One group says that its ok to abort a fetus in order to save the mother, but its not ok to fight a war, even if the war will end up saving lives in the end.The other says the opposite. Its never ok to abort a baby, because its innocent life, but fighting a war to save lives is ok.Tough ethical decisions. I struggle with them every day.

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