Do We Have an Inborn Moral Sense?

Marilyn Walker, Open Journal of Philosophy, Mar 17, 2015
Commentary by Stephen Downes

When we want people to behave appropriately, either online or offline, to what exactly are we appealing? One school of thought argues that morality is based on reason - this, for example, gives us utilitarianism or the categorical imperative. But what if morality is more like a sensation, as Hume argued, rather than reason? What might it look like? This paper examines a number of possibilities suggested by recent neuroscience:

  • Altruism - "a neurological adaptation of the mechanisms that support maternal-infant bonding"
  • Emotional contagion - "a form of somatic mimicry; i.e., the tendency to automatically
    mimic and synchronize facial expressions, vocalizations, postures and movements..."
  • Attachment theory - "the initial caring by a parent for an infant and of filial and pair-bonding" and extensible to groups or ideas
  • Empathy - "to experience the psychological life of that person…"
  • Empathy Altruism - "empathic concern-other oriented emotion elicited by and congruent with the perceived welfare of others in need"
  • Fear - "tendency to freeze in place in mid-task was tightly correlated with their bodily reactions such as speeded-up heartbeat and elevated levels of stress hormones"

Clearly the different explanations of moral behaviour suggest very different strategies to elicit it. Until recently the primary mechanism was fear. But perhaps we can find our way to evoking less traumatic mechanisms.



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