Moral Development

In London, a ground-breaking exploration into the science of morality

LONDON - Is there a scientific basis for morality? Is there a place in the brain where the capacity for morality resides? These were just two of many thought-provoking questions posed at a ground-breaking conference on the "Science of Morality" here on 8 and 9 February 2002.

Organized by surgeon Graham Walker and held at the Royal College of Physicians, the meeting sought to examine the scientific evidence for a neurological location, genetic basis and/or an innate capacity for morality.

"Wherever one looks inwardly and outwardly, one meets conflict, mostly because of the moral diversity caused by differing perspectives of culture, religion and age," said Dr. Walker, a prominent London head and neck surgeon and a member of the Bahá'í community of the United Kingdom.

"What happened on September 11 was a question of moral diversity," continued Dr. Walker. "Most people said this is the most awful catastrophe, one of the most inhuman things ever done. But some said it was the right thing to do, in order to rectify an injustice. This kind of problem will continue until we can establish a common moral ground. And one way to do that is to appeal to science and logic, which is independent of culture."

More than 60 delegates, representing a wide variety of medical, scientific and philosophical disciplines, attended the event. Among the speakers were Ian Craig, a renowned specialist on genetics from the Institute of Psychiatry in London; Baroness Susan Greenfield, a neurobiologist at Oxford University; Faraneh Vargha-Khadem, a professor of neurosciences at the Institute of Child Health, University College, London; Hossain Danesh, a professor of psychiatry and president of Landegg International University in Switzerland; and William Hatcher, professor of mathematics at Laval University, Quebec, Canada.

"This conference was historic in that it brought together some of the world's most accomplished researchers to explore, in an earnest, open and cordial search for truth, the biological, psychological and social factors that appear to be responsible for healthy moral development," said Dr. Michael Penn, a professor of psychology at Franklin and Marshall College, USA, who presented a paper suggesting that a necessary precondition for moral development is an understanding of justice.

"To my knowledge, it was one of the first times that scholars in biology, psychology, philosophy, psychiatry and some of the other social sciences gathered to explore what their disciplines and research can tell us about processes of normal and abnormal moral development," said Dr. Penn. "The hope would be that such conferences will multiply throughout the world as the moral dimensions of human life have not been much studied from an interdisciplinary perspective."

Dr. Danesh delivered the keynote speech, exploring the consonance between science, religion and ethics. His thesis was that humanity is moving from a self-centered, survival-oriented basis towards a peace-centered future.

"Due to the fact that all individuals and societies are subject to the universal law of development and progress, we are able to identify three distinctive worldviews that are present, to a lesser or greater degree, in all human societies," said Dr. Danesh. "These worldviews reflect the particular characteristics of three distinctive phases in the development of every individual and society, which are designated respectively as survival-, identity-, and peace-centred worldviews.

"This assertion is based on one of the fundamental laws of existence - the law of growth," said Dr. Danesh. "Evolution, at the biological level; development and maturation, at the psychological level; and transformation and transcendence, at the spiritual level; all are different expressions of the same fundamental law. Thus, everything is subject to the dynamics of change, development and creativity that result in ever-higher levels of order, equilibrium and harmony - in short, peace."

The general discussions that followed that presentation and other papers covered everything from research on how brain injuries sometimes affect moral behavior to the degree of self-consciousness among great apes to an exploration of the common "content" of near death experiences.

A center of consciousness?

Baroness Greenfield sparked vigorous discussion with her thesis that there is no specific location for consciousness and, by extension, for the capacity of morality in the brain. Her research suggested that our sense of morality is more a matter of life experience than genetics.

"There is no such thing as a center for consciousness," said Baroness Greenfield. "Autonomous brains within brains makes no logical sense. And brain imaging data on patients under anaesthesia reveals that multiple sites are involved."

Baroness Greenfield noted that our awareness of the world around us and our response to it evolves and develops from infancy, as the brain makes connections between neurons in response to outside stimuli. "As we go through life, personalized, 'hard-wired' circuits form in the brain, leading to the ability to be self-conscious and to exercise moral judgments."

Other speakers presented evidence that suggests the orbitofrontal area of the brain might be the location of a moral center. Specifically, Dr. Vargha-Khadem and Sean Spence, a senior clinical lecturer in psychiatry at the University of Sheffield, UK, said some studies show that injuries to the injuries to the orbitofrontal cortex in childhood may seem to heal only to reveal sociopathic behaviour at puberty."

"The late emergence of sociopathic profiles in children who have suffered early bilateral orbitofrontal lesions suggests that perhaps these regions assume their functional significance later during childhood, possibly after the onset of puberty," said Dr. Vargha-Khadem in response to questions after the conference.

Dr. Vargha-Khadem said research of this kind may "aid in understanding how these antisocial behaviors and their precursors develop during normal adolescence, how the normally maturing individual channels in acceptable ways the emotions and motivations that would otherwise lead to antisocial behaviors, and how the maturation of the underlying brain system normally allows for such control."

The effort of deception

Dr. Spence presented evidence, obtained from brain scans using modern neuro-imaging technology, that the act of lying can be associated with significantly increased activity in the bilateral ventrolateral prefrontal cortices.

"Lying and deception behave like 'higher' executive functions," said Dr. Spence in an interview. "The brain takes longer to tell a lie than to tell the truth. This is indicative of longer processing time and is the kind of finding often obtained with executive functions when they are compared with the 'baseline' condition, in this case 'truth'.

"Interestingly this accords well with St. Augustine's view that truthfulness was the ground state of man," added Dr. Spence. "Hence, it is consistent that we find 'higher' - i.e. prefrontal - brain systems activated preferentially on our model of lying.

Dr. Spence also said that lying and deception seem to "develop" in the course of normal human development - as opposed to those syndromes where cognitive development is impaired, such as autism. He also noted that some reports indicate that lying or "strategic deception" increases among those non-human primates with a proportionally larger prefrontal cortex.

"There is an implication that you need higher centers to develop normally in order to be able to deceive," said Dr. Spence. "My take on this is that deception is an example of the misapplication of a higher skill, while creative activity, such as improvisation, is its moral application."

Brain size and primates

Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at Liverpool University, reported on his work with primates, discussing the connection between the volume of the brain's neocortex and social cognition in great apes - and humans.

"In essence, neocortex volume has increased dramatically through the primates in the lineages leading to modern humans," said Dr. Dunbar in an interview. "This is closely related to the increasing demands of large group size within this group as a whole.

"The important point is that at the brain size of great apes, there is a sudden and quite dramatic increase in the volume of the frontal parts of the neocortex. This seems to be because there is no further advantage in devoting more neural volume to vision," he said, noting that the frontal cortex is "where all the clever stuff is done."

"It seems to be no coincidence that this is exactly the point where you start to find evidence for advanced social cognition, that which underpins everything we do," said Dr. Dunbar.

He added that the degree of social cognition required for a sense of ethics seems beyond the capacity of the great apes. But he said that patterns of moral behavior are evident among apes that form social groups.

"The costs of sociality are the need to forego one's immediate wishes or desires in the interests of achieving a cooperative social solution to the problems of life," said Dr. Dunbar. "In other words, social species like primates opt for a cooperative solution to the problems that beset them, but in doing so they are obliged to trade-off short-term costs for long-term benefits.

"That always leaves the cooperators open to exploitation by free-riders. Morality is one way we try to manage free-riders and reduce their impact - in other words, make people toe the social line so as to make the group work for us the way it was intended. These implicit social bargains are very unstable and need intense pressure to prevent the group being broken apart by too much cheating on the system."

Dr. Dunbar said that the discussion of science and morality - and religion - that took place at the conference was interesting. "I have argued, in a book currently in press, that religion itself is only possible with advanced social cognition, beyond that of which even apes are capable. In one sense, religion and its key component - our willingness to bow to the collective will in a way that no other species is willing to do - is perhaps the most intriguing - and unsolved - problem of human evolution. My guess, though, is that it is all part of the need to manage free-riding within large complex dispersed social groups."

Near death experiences

Dr. Peter Fenwick, a senior lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry in London and a consultant neurophysiologist at Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford, presented the results of interviews with individuals who have had so-called "near death experiences" (NDEs), wherein they often experience feelings of peace and joy, the apparent entry into another world and an encounter with a mystical being.

The research indicated that some of those experiences took place after the individuals had been pronounced "clinically dead," with little or no brain activity, suggesting that the mind or consciousness can survive the death of the brain, said Dr. Fenwick. Previous critics of NDE research have suggested that survivors experienced a physical manifestation of the brain's dying gasp as all of the brain's neurons fire at once.

"After studying over 2000 near death experiences and looking at the phenomena of the NDE, I have come to the conclusion that reductionist explanations may not give a complete account of the experience, particularly in those NDEs which occur in a coronary care unit, when the experiencer is clinically but reversibly dead," said Dr. Fenwick in an interview.

Dr. Fenwick added that near death experiences seem to be highly moral in their content. "They point to the basis of the universe being love and light - difficult for us to understand in our everyday world - and they also suggest that you are responsible for your actions and thoughts and you will judge yourself in the near death review," said Dr. Fenwick. "Thus there is a responsibility on every individual because they are human, and, whatever we do, the experience shows that we will be unable to miss this final reckoning."

Dr. Hatcher presented a philosophical viewpoint on human morality in a paper entitled "Universal Values." In that paper, he argued that there are indeed certain fundamental and universal human values, in contrast to currently popular notions of cultural relativity.

"The fact that knowledge (socialization) profoundly affects value judgments does not mean that all value judgments are arbitrarily or wholly social in nature, because many value judgments are rooted in that primal experience in which we all naturally perceived various aspects of reality as relatively pleasant or relatively unpleasant," said Dr. Hatcher, giving, as an example, the fact that all newborn humans recoil at the bitter taste of quinine but smack their lips at the sweet taste of honey. "This primary, binary experience of pleasant/unpleasant (pleasure/pain, good/bad) is rooted in essential and universal human nature, and is thus fundamentally transcultural."

Universals in human nature

The fact that humans respond positively to love, acceptance and kindness is "not just a dictum of moralists, but a scientific fact of human nature," Dr. Hatcher said. "We, therefore, posit, as a fundamental metaphysical truth, that there does exist an intrinsic, essential, universal human nature."

Participants said much of the research presented at the conference pointed to a twofold aspect to the development of morality: that it has both a physical and/or a genetic component, and also a component based on life experience or education.

"There was wide agreement that without the proper development of a specific set of neurobiological processes, moral development is very difficult," said Dr. Penn. "In other words, the conference seemed to show, from a variety of perspectives, that the natural world provides the necessary preconditions for the development of moral capabilities and that therefore, any attempt to redress deficiencies in moral growth will also need to attend to the basic biological needs of human beings. In addition, social factors that are not at all person-centered - such as social justice - would seem indispensable to proper moral development."

Dr. Walker, likewise, felt that participants reached a general conclusion that "there is a neurological aspect to morality, or the development of morality."

"This conclusion implies that if there is such a capacity, you can induce this with the right type of exposure to experiences," said Dr. Walker. Alternatively, he said, it seems that exposure to negative experiences might take an individual "down the other pathway to become immoral, and rather more likely to be criminal or sociopathic."

Dr. Walker said his practice of the Bahá'í Faith had inspired him to organize the conference. "While the connection between religion and science is not unique to the Bahá'í Faith, it is certainly a strong tenet," he said. "If indeed there is a consonance between science and religion, then it should be extendable to concepts like spirituality and morality, which are among the main pillars of religiosity."

Dr. Walker hopes to start building a body of respectable, affirmable evidence of a scientific basis for morality which can act as a locus where varied disciplines can meet and agree. He is already planning a similar conference next February, this time on the topic "Can lifestyle-induced disease help to define morality?" As well, a book of the conference proceedings has been commissioned by the Royal College of Physicians.

- Reporting contributed by Rob Weinberg