Morality depends on genetics

Knowledge : Origin of morality

On January 24, 1989 at 7:16 a.m. in Starke, Florida, one of the most notorious serial killers in human history was pronounced dead. Shortly before, more than 2,000 volts had flowed through his body for two minutes, then the execution was carried out on the electric chair. Hundreds of people had gathered at the gates of Florida State Prison. When the prisoner's death was announced, not a few of them cheered: for them a piece of justice was "restored" with the execution.

If that was even possible in this case. The man, Ted Bundy, had brutally killed at least 28 young women. Probably the actual number of his victims is closer to 35, nobody knows for sure. Because no one could rely on what Ted Bundy said. He admitted some of his murders shortly before his execution, but only to postpone his execution. When asked if he felt guilty about his cruel deeds, Bundy said, "A sense of guilt? It's the mechanism by which people are controlled. It's an illusion. It's a social control mechanism - and it's very unhealthy. "

Ted Bundy was what is called a "psychopath" - someone who is blind to the feelings of others. Psychopaths only know their own well-being, they always act out of pure egoism, completely untroubled by that "social control mechanism" called guilt. If everyone were psychopathic, there simply could not be such a thing as a society.

Apparently the feeling of guilt or in general: moral feeling contributes decisively to the fact that we do not always ruthlessly pursue our own interests. We humans are so successful animals not least because we are not only a rational animal, but also a moral animal.

But what exactly is the basis of morality? Where does she come from? Does it arise from our nature, our upbringing, our culture? Is it a matter of feeling or mind?

In recent years, researchers have increasingly investigated these questions. In doing so, they made two key discoveries. First, morality is not just a matter of education. Instead, the basics of morality are already in our genes. Harvard researcher Marc Hauser even speaks of a "moral instinct" with which we are born - apart from perhaps some psychopaths. The second central finding is: The roots of morality, it seems, do not spring from reason, but rather from our archaic feelings and intuitions, which are only subsequently justified by reason.

Here is an example. Most people consider it reprehensible to leave a bleeding person lying on the side of the road instead of taking it to the hospital. It doesn't matter whether the injured person could ruin the leather seats of the car. On the other hand, many find it okay if you don't donate a certain amount of money (say, the value of a leather seat) to a medical charity in Africa, but instead buy something luxurious from it (for example leather seats). Why is that?

In terms of effects, the scenarios do not differ significantly. "In both cases you have the option to support someone who needs medical help," says Harvard philosopher Joshua Greene. And that at a relatively low cost. Nevertheless, we evaluate the two cases differently. Purely rational, says Greene, there is no conclusive explanation for this. Rather, it has to do with how our brains were wired by evolution.

A bleeding person on the side of the road - that is a personal matter, it affects one's own environment, one's own group. The donation for those in need in distant countries, on the other hand, is impersonal. Greene believes that our savannah ancestors had a clear survival advantage in their hunter-gatherer groups if they helped each other in an emergency. Evolution has given us a moral sense on the way that is calibrated to personal contact. Impersonal one-way donations to tribal groups at the end of the world, however, is something evolutionarily new. At least our instincts are not prepared for this situation. In this case we first have to convince ourselves with reason that they too are meaningful and moral.

To further substantiate this hypothesis, the philosopher placed test subjects in a magnetic resonance tomograph while they pondered the two scenarios. This showed: In the personal situation, emotional centers and those areas of the brain that we need in social situations were actually particularly activated. "We are compassionate to those in need who are close to us," said Greene. In the donation example, on the other hand, brain fields that are associated with the classical mind shone up.

So, at least some of our moral judgments seem to be the basis of feelings, not the deliberate mind. This is also supported by other empirical findings.

For example, US psychologist Jonathan Haidt from the University of Virginia told test persons the following story and asked them for their assessment: "Julie and Mark are brother and sister. One evening they decide that it would be nice to have sex. Julie was already taking the pill , but to be on the safe side, Mark used a condom. Both found it a nice experience. They kept it a secret and it made them feel even closer to each other. "

What would you say: was it okay that the two siblings slept together? Most people spontaneously shout “no!” At this point, as if they don't have to think about it at all.

It was the same with Haidt's test subjects. When the researcher then asked the people why they were rejected, some said that the siblings might suffer from the act, to which the psychologist replied that this was not the case, and that on the contrary, the siblings felt very comfortable with it. As the researcher reports, at some point most of them simply said, "I don't know, I can't explain, I just know it's wrong."

Apparently it is not primarily our reason or our conscious mind, but an unconscious instinct that makes us feel sex among siblings as "wrong" - an instinct against incest. Presumably, this instinct is nature's emergency brake, as genetically determined malformations occur more often in the offspring of siblings.

If our moral judgments were a matter of the mind, we should also be able to explain them with the mind. If they have an intuitive-emotional origin that is related to our development history, it makes sense if you sense that some behaviors are "wrong", but cannot fully justify this. Behind our moral feelings there is something like a "reason of nature" - but this is not necessarily adapted to our modern world.

Another example is our instinctive thirst for revenge. In an archaic society, it was probably important not to allow yourself to be underwhelmed. Without the state and the judiciary, there was little other way to bring a fraudster or criminal to justice than to resort to vigilante justice. In a constitutional state, archaic forms of revenge are largely superfluous from a rational point of view.

And yet that hardly seems to change our feelings. As Zurich researchers were able to show, we are deeply satisfied when we hold criminals accountable: in test subjects who were allowed to retaliate against a fraud in the magnetic resonance tomograph, the pleasure centers of the brain became as active as they usually do during sex.

With that in mind, perhaps one can understand the satisfaction some felt at the execution of Ted Bundy.

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