Consider the essential moral question, Is what I am about to do in keeping with my values, ethics or sense of meaning?
I’ve argued that the answer to this query comes to us first as a felt sense of “rightness” or “wrongness,” and only afterward do we explain to ourselves why this might be so. In Social Intelligence I described the mid-brain circuits of the “low road,” which manages such spontaneous, automatic responses to life. These neural systems are thickly connected to the brain’s emotional centers–-and the gut–but not to the thinking brain, the neocortex. Our first moral response comes as a feeling, not a thought. And in Emotional Intelligence I argued that our capacity for self-awareness and reflection lets us better attune to such signals, which can be subtle.
Now Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia (and author of “The Happiness Hypothesis”), offers a theory that explains just why this might be. Haidt views our moral sense at the outcome of two independent neural systems. The more ancient, lower-brain moral circuitry, he argues, evolved before language. It operates instantaneously, giving us a gut reaction that allows a split-second decision. He calls this “moral intuition.”
A more recent addition to the brain, with circuits in the neocortex, evolved along with language. This system operates more slowly, and lets us give words to our moral decisions, explaining our ethical rationale–or at least coming up with a plausible rationale for our gut reaction. Haidt calls this “moral judgment.” Philosophers write at the level of moral judgment; our day-to-day responses are more often enacted based on our moral intuition.
Haidt has a fascinating theory of the five main moral rules, found in most cultures, that the brain systems for moral intuition seem to enforce. Traditional ethical codes and virtues are built on these:
- Prevent physical harm, so we protect the vulnerable and restrain our violent impulses – and those of others.
- Do unto others what you would have done to you – the universal moral principle.
- Respect authority, so that we defer to those who hold social power – and protect those who depend on us.
- Be loyal, which leads us to act to protect the interests of our family or the groups we identify with most strongly.
- Respect sanctity – follow shared rituals and rules for living properly.
While the specifics of this list can be argued, it reveals the key role moral judgment has, too. For example, the maxim “respect authority” makes sense in most situations, but not if we live in the grip of a tyrannical government. The rule to “be loyal” to the group we identify with can be stretched – with extreme “Us and Them” thinking to justify terror or war.
These five neural principles evolved, Haidt argues, because they helped our ancestors survive together in a tooth-and-claw environment. And they also were essential for the rise of civilization–for social life to go smoothly, excesses in individual selfishness need be reigned in.