Ethics on the brain

Vincent Di Norcia theorizes how morality is generated by how the brain works.

“The time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized.”
Edward O.Wilson, Sociobiology – A New Synthesis

Why do animals have brains? In order to survive in uncertain, often threatening environments. Conscious sentience is helpful when they have to deal with “situations that require a novel, non-stereotyped response for planning and choices among multiple courses of action,” writes Christof Koch in The Quest For Consciousness (2004). Indeed, as Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote in his classic work,Evolution, Genetics and Man (1955), “there is scarcely any doubt that the development of brain power, of intelligence, was the decisive force in the evolutionary process, because brain power confers enormous adaptive advantages.” Neuroethicist Antonio Damasio agrees. His groundbreaking book on neuroethics,Descartes’ Error (2006), builds on Spinoza’s famous claim that the beginning of ethics is the human ‘endeavour to persist in his own being’: that is, with the biological drive to survive, enjoy wellbeing, and reproduce (I will use ‘wellbeing’ for all three). But it does not end there.

Damasio does not make clear what exactly it is about how the brain works that helps primates and humans adapt to changing environments. One suggestion, Sara Solla maintains (in PLoS Biology, April 2006), is that a “critical function of our brains is to provide an interface with the external world. This interface has two fundamental components: the processing of sensory information and the control of movement.” In fact, the brain supports a complex of sensory-motor interconnections, connecting our sensations with our movement. But we need to look at what the ‘processing of sensory information’ involves. It’s quite a challenge, for at every moment our eyes, ears, nose, and skin sense millions of messages about the environment and the state of the body. And the brain not only processes sensory messages from the external environment, it has to coordinate them with internally-generated information about the body’s organic processes and capabilities. (Internal conscious sentience, or proprioception, refers to awareness of one’s bodily states, what might be termed an inner sense.) So the sensory-motor intelligence of the brain seems to be largely a matter of interpreting messages about the body and its environment, then responding to environmental stimuli to secure the organism’s wellbeing.

What is conventionally called ‘information processing’ is in the brain a matter of neurons receiving and sending messages. Conscious experience is enabled and supported by shifting coalitions of neural networks (i.e. communicating neurons) and the action of the brain’s reticular activating system, which triggers waking awareness. How the brain processes the huge volume of messages both received by and sent to the body is, I submit, key to understanding how the brain enables humans to develop a moral sense. The high volume of high speed electrochemical synapses makes it possible for the brain to process and filter the volume of messages flowing through the body’s sensory receptors, then rapidly trigger the motor responses required to enable the organism’s wellbeing. Indeed, at every moment the hundred billion neurons of the human brain electrochemically activate trillions of synapses connecting one neuron to another, exchanging countless messages across multiple networks. Those high-volume neural communications are only possible because of the relatively high speed links between neurons. Simple electric pulses, supporting relatively simple reflex behaviours, take 0.2 milliseconds to cross the synaptic gap between neurons. More complex chemical messages, enabling more complex and flexible behaviours, take 2 ms to cross the gap.

Communication then is what brains do – not work. The body does work. It is therefore seriously mistaken and misleading to speak of the brain as a machine, as some do. The brain is an electrochemical communications medium, not a mechanistic system or device. Furthermore, logical or mathematical reasoning is too precise, rigid and mechanical to underpin the brain’s environmental adaptability. So that cannot be how it works. Nor is the communicative brain a digital computer, based on binary logic. Instead, a fuzzy, probability-based logic would be a truer reflection of the varying strength, times, locations and volumes of synaptic connections. Furthermore, neural pathways and processes continually rewire and recombine. This is the communicative brain’s well-remarked neural plasticity. Without that neural plasticity, I submit, the intelligence or sentience of insect, fish, bird, or animal species, including humans, would not be possible. Indeed, all psychological functions are only possible because of the brain’s capabilities, for all psychological capabilities are neurally enabled, whether conscious or unconscious, voluntary or automatic – including sensory and intellectual cognition, feelings and emotions, reflection, thoughts, reasoning, setting and pursuing goals, planning and deciding on a course of action, and self-actualization. Howard Gardner, a professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard, claims that there are in fact multiple intelligences: bodily-kinaesthetic; psychological (or intrapersonal); linguistic; logical-mathematical; spatial; temporal, and social (or interpersonal) intelligence – which latter is a close cousin to moral intelligence. And all are the work of the communicative brain. However, intelligent actors have survived less because of any psychological capabilities than because they enjoy multiple sensory capabilities for receiving and interpreting messages about environmental opportunities and threats. Consciousness is moreover usually focused on relatively simple objects, in contrast to the high volume neural processing of unconscious sensory inputs. Moreover, conscious sentience constitutes a much slower response to environmental and bodily stimuli than do automatic, unconscious sensory responses. Benjamin Libet’s research has shown the latter takes 150 milliseconds, more than three times as fast as conscious responses, which take 500 ms. Nor is conscious awareness equal to the countless tasks of automatic neural bioregulation or fine motor coordination. These demand a much faster and greater volume of automatic processes. Conscious sentience therefore is not always the most adaptive psychological response to environmental phenomena. Indeed, to the extent that inner-mindedness means environmental absent-mindedeness, one’s wellbeing is put at risk.

Decision-making, however voluntary and informed, suffers from the same speed and volume limitations as conscious awareness. Indeed to the extent a decision is informed and voluntary, it likely requires more time to integrate the multiple executive capabilities involved. In How The Brain Works (2002), Michael Dubin lists a variety of functions involved in making decisions: envisioning and intending goals, remembering relevant past experiences and decisions, choosing from available options, deciding on the best available course of action, performing it, monitoring gaps between actual outcomes and intended goals, and learning from one’s errors how to improve future performance. Given this complexity, Dubin notes, “no one [neural] region alone is the decision maker.” Nor is it possible that all these executive functions can be reduced or coalesced to a single simple power, like a will.

However, conscious reflection and voluntary decisions contribute to amoral and immoral as well as to moral behaviour. Nor is rational control of behaviour inherently moral. Actually, Plato deemed reason ‘virtuous’ because he tasked it with restraining the body’s morally dubious passions, emotions and appetites. In contrast, three hundred years ago, Baruch Spinoza held that the emotions are intelligent value-laden bodily feelings which contribute to the actor’s wellbeing, and as such are fundamentally moral. Modern neuroethics has supported Spinoza’s insight. In Descartes’ Error, for example, Antonio Damasio argues that the emotions contribute to the emergence of morality. He sees emotions as intelligent neurally-enabled appraisals of environmental stimuli evaluated in terms of their wellbeing implications. The emotions, on this reading, are central to both intelligence and ethics. There are six primary emotions: anger, fear, disgust, surprise, sadness, and happiness. The amygdala, for example [a part of the lower brain], helps a person to consciously respond to another’s expressions of anger, fear and disgust, by linking attention with emotion. The brain, Damasio adds, appears to be hardwired to evoke an ‘unpleasant gut feeling’ for imminent danger, which he terms a ‘somatic marker’. The negative emotions function as the brain’s defensive system, evoking a ‘fight or flight’ response to potential dangers. A sense of moral duty, I suggest, can be similarly interpreted as a form of motivation based on a fear of future punishment, harm, or loss. Yet while psychological powers such as conscious sensation, decision-making, and emotions lay groundwork for social intelligence, they remain personal. They cannot therefore enable or support interpersonal social intelligence, or related moral capabilities. In sum, a ‘theory of mind’ cannot explain moral intelligence.

The Moral Social Brain

In this section I will explore connections between the social and moral brain. What I say relates to what appears to be a plausible empirical theory of moral intelligence.

Moral intelligence is not a matter of logical precision in language. Rather, according to Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory, moral intelligence is a form of neuro-biologically-enabled social intelligence, driven by care for others’ wellbeing and concerned with how we treat others. Social intelligence then is perhaps the most important mental factor in the construction of moral intelligence. (Before proceeding, I would like to note that some forms of brain damage support the hypothesis that the brain is the seat of social intelligence: damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and orbital frontal cortex underlay Phineas Gage’s uncontrollable anti-social and amoral behaviour, for example.)

Frans De Waal suggests that moral intelligence involves two core social injunctions: to help others, and to not harm them. Damasio puts forward the credible claim that “ethical behaviours are a subset of social behaviours” (p.10). But, one must ask, what constitutes that subset? To the extent that they are social behaviours, Libet notes, moral actions involve bodily movements, for “only a motor act by one person can directly impinge on the welfare of another.” Actions, as the proverb says, speak louder than words.

The brain enjoys a suite of social communication capabilities: e.g., verbal language, body language, neural mirroring, and social emotions. The innovative research of Gallese, Goldman, and others showed, in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences 2.12 (1998), that in neural mirroring, the same neurons discharge when a monkey or human performs a motor action as when it observes the same motor action performed by another – to observe an action is in effect to neurally simulate it, using the same neural structures. So in classical evolutionary fashion, neural mirroring builds social intelligence on the already-developed platform of the brain’s sensory-motor intelligence.

Moral behaviours are often supported by social feelings. In fact, the brain supports several social emotions: empathy, understanding, care and compassion. In her ground-breaking work on women’s perspectives on ethics, In A Different Voice (1982), Carol Gilligan interprets morality in terms of one key social emotion: care for the wellbeing of others, which leads to and reinforces behaviours that pragmatically realize that care. Such feelings are moreover usually reciprocated: another’s joy cheers us up, their pain saddens us, and their humour is infectious. Securing the wellbeing of others is pleasant and enjoyable. Moral emotions can also take negative forms, with immoral behaviours provoking feelings such as shame, guilt, embarrassment, disgust and indignation.

Moral emotions like empathy and care are actively interpersonal: they enable us to “figure out how others are feeling, what they intend and how they are likely to act, in part by putting ourselves in their shoes” as R. Adolphs remarks in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 4, 2003. Interpersonal capabilities, Michael Gazzaniga suggests in The Ethical Brain (2005), enable moral agents to recognize others similar to themselves, and to communicate with them, which facilitates extending recognition of moral beings beyond kin and friends to strangers, foreign tribes and even to other species, as Darwin argued.

Plato saw the four ‘cardinal’ virtues (prudence, justice, temperance and courage) as connecting the individual and the social good. Moral intelligence involves exercising one’s social capabilities so as to enhance others’ wellbeing. This requires all the capabilities of the brain, partly because it involves other intelligences in addition to social intelligence, especially the bodily-kinaesthetic, psychological, and linguistic intelligences.

Moral Intelligence

Following up the close connections between social and moral intelligences, I suggest that we conceive moral intelligence as a socially-interactive form of intelligence – namely, moral intelligence is an intelligence which enables interactive social behaviours that benefit others as well as oneself. Thus conceived, moral intelligence is discernible in a variety of social interactions: communication, cooperation, reciprocity, exchange, trade, mutual aid, negotiating agreements, and mitigating conflict. Such intelligence has support in the brain, for, as Matt Ridley claims in The Origins Of Virtue (1996), the brain is “equipped with special faculties to enable it to exploit reciprocity, to trade favours, and to reap the benefit of social living.” And mutually beneficial forms of conduct involve positive feedback, tending to reinforce and increase the benefits enjoyed by those involved – which in turn encourages moral actors to repeat good social behaviours. As a result of the mutual benefit engendered, moral values, customs and virtues spread widely and rapidly by social groups. Furthermore, moral intelligence enables actors not only to commit themselves to living peacefully and cooperatively with others, but also to discriminate beneficial from harmful forms of social interaction, such as murder, theft, lying, and cheating. Fortunately, socially-harmful acts are not the most typical social behaviours.

This view of moral intelligence as ‘mutually beneficial social interaction’ finds support in Peter Kropotkin’s studies of mutual aid in animals and humans (Mutual Aid, 1968), in Jean Piaget’s research showing that cooperation and autonomy are key elements in the child’s moral development (The Moral Development of The Child, 1997), and in Kenneth Boulding’s fascinating theory that economic exchange is a more powerful organizing social value than threat – for example, from raiders, or the threat of invasion (Beyond Economics, 1970). In a similar vein, Robert Trivers has published a number of pioneering studies showing that altruism is reciprocated in insects, fish, birds, animals and humans, and between different species as well (see Natural Selection and Social Theory: Selected Papers, 2002). Altruism works best, Trivers comments, when it is reciprocated, and both agents and recipients benefit. It is, as he writes, “a matter of if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” ‘Reciprocal altruism’, as he terms it, is found in a variety of social behaviours: communication, resource-sharing, and cleaning symbioses. The preconditions for reciprocal altruism are several: repeated interactions with other social animals; the ability to recognize those of the same species; the ability to sanction those who do not reciprocate; interdependence; spatial closeness or density, and a long life. The first three are social capabilities; and the others the preconditions of social interaction.

The sense of duty to care for other’s wellbeing is not solely individual and psychological, but is rather a social practice, namely the practice of mutual obligations – the obverse of mutual benefit. Mutual obligations are found in all manner of social relationships: interactions between management and workers, officers and soldiers, governments and the people, man and wife, parents and children, and between friends. In each case, ‘duty’ means one is answerable and accountable (or response-ible) to others for one’s conduct. Neuroethics therefore offers support for a social deontology (a concept of duty) as well as for social utilitarianism (mutual benefit). However, social duties, obligations, or accountability to others are not always moral practices: the organizational structuring of duties is a commonplace in armies and in criminal organizations.

Moral intelligence increases one’s chances for wellbeing and helps lengthen one’s life, for it enables social life to be sustainable over time. Without moral intelligence, the wellbeing, even coherence of a social group would be at risk. Nonetheless, there are time limits on the realization of moral goods. Short delays in reaping benefits – a few hours, days, or weeks – are commonly accepted, as long as the benefits are realized. However, there is no moral value in delaying moral conduct. On the contrary, benefits long delayed are benefits denied, for long delays raise legitimate concerns that the benefits will never be realized. Conversely, the more immediate and numerous the benefits of moral behaviours, the more such behaviours are encouraged.

Moral intelligence is not a simple or intuitive matter. In fact, intelligent social and moral behaviours depend on many factors: one’s goals, needs, memory, plans, perceptions, preferences, feelings, psychological and social capabilities. As Casebeer and Churchland claim in Biology and Philosophy, 18:1, (2003), moral conduct involves coordinating “multi-modal signals… conjoined with appropriately cued executive systems… richly connected with affective and conative brain structures” and other neurally-enabled capabilities. Such findings cast doubt on the possibility that there’s a single brain region devoted to supporting a narrowly-defined moral competence. That’s why moral reasoning is not reducible to binary logic or technical precision. It rather involves the probabilistic logic favoured by social intelligence. Attempts to reduce morality to sociologically simple notions of duty, utility, the good, or the will, are similarly doomed to fail. Morality is also never a “relevance-free, value-free, skill free business” (ibid). I would like to stress the idea that moral virtues are social virtues: I accept the classical view that ethics builds on social customs (mores in Latin). And social values are relative: they vary with the needs of society at the time. For instance, it is mainly in warrior cultures like ancient Greece and Rome – not to forget the USA – that courage is a highly-ranked social virtue.

In addition, the brain’s extensive communicative and social powers and neural plasticity should caution us against thinking that moral intelligence is innate or hardwired (as Lawrence Tancredi contends in his 2005 book, Hardwired Behaviour: What Neuroscience Reveals About Morality). Instead, as Damasio maintains, it is more likely that moral intelligence is learnt in primary socialization. The only hardwired neural foundation for moral intelligence is likely social intelligence. They are certainly closely connected.


I have argued that moral intelligence is not constituted by neural bioregulation, sensory-motor intelligence, intrapersonal capabilities for conscious awareness, emotional feelings, or decision-making. Nor is it just a matter of duty, virtues, intentions, or logical-mathematical reasoning. On the contrary, moral intelligence requires significant interpersonal capabilities, which are supported by the brain’s impressive social powers. But moral and social intelligence are not identical. Rather, moral intelligence in addition enjoins us to carefor each other’s wellbeing, and so to reciprocally exchange goods, as we do in communication, trade and cooperation. Finally, Edward O. Wilson was right, as was Darwin: the social brain and moral intelligence are the product of biological evolution and natural selection. Morality is a truly successful evolutionary strategy.

© Dr Vincent Di Norcia 2011

Vincent Di Norcia is an Ethics and Sustainability Consultant and an Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sudbury, Canada. He is currently working on a book on 21st century naturalism, provisionally entitled Space Ship Gaia.

Phineas Gage

Phineas Gage 
Phineas Gage with the spike that went through his head and ruined his good manners.

Railroad construction foreman Phineas Gage suffered an accident in 1848 in which a tamping iron was blasted right through his head, destroying most of his brain’s left frontal lobe. Amazingly he recovered, but with various marked personality changes. Consequently his case interested scientists and philosophers as early evidence that the brain’s functions were localized.


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