On the “Golden Rule”
Associated with every religious system I have read is a norm known as the Golden Rule. In essence, it requires that I do unto you as I would have you do unto me. This rule is so ingrained in our social behavior as to be intellectually invisible. As a result, we have rarely stopped to question where it came from. If pressed, I might have opined that its origins are lost in the mists of time – for example, when the first high priests figured out how to satisfy a sovereign’s demand for social stability.
But suppose, for the moment, that the Golden Rule is even older, that it is as old as our own biology. Moreover, while it might have acquired all sorts of socio-political decorations over the course of human history, it nonetheless is actually traceable to neuroscientific phenomena that we can identify. If this were so, we could understand why this rule and its many variations have survived in human ethical systems, philosophies and religions. In this book I want to explore a theory of the neuroscientific basis for the instinct toward fair play. I am not talking about religion, because not all statements of this rule are religious in their appearance. Instead, I will try to explain how a discoverable set of brain mechanisms can account for behaviors that follow this rule.
How can I dare try that? It is because complex behaviors do not always require the most complex explanations. For example, we were able to lay bare the biology underlying a sociosexual behavior at a time when we did not understand the simple act of walking….
Ethical behaviors treated as a natural biological development
… Among the first scientists to take up the call were cognitive neuroscientists such as Michael Gazzaniga, whose recent book, The Ethical Brain, anticipates the union of behavioral science with ethics. … Developmental psychologists, as well, have begun to study how a moral sense --- a capacity for empathy, for example --- arises early in the life of their human subjects. Children as young as three can make distinctively moral judgments, and by the ages of four or five can distinguish moral rules that transcend social setting. Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist whose thinking dominated this subject for years, took the position that a moral sense simply arose naturally during the early years of childhood in any normal social environment. On the other hand, Lawrence Kohlberg, at Harvard, proposed from his observations that moral understanding develops through a series of well defined stages that are universal. ... William Rottschaefer, at Lewis and Clark College, describes a series of behavioral studies of the development of empathy. Despite differences in detail, all these studies support the position that ethical behavior need not be treated as a purely religious or mystical subject, but is a product of natural causes approachable with scientific methods.
Hard-core neuroscientists have come on board. The late Nobel laureate, physiologist Roger Sperry, decried the traditional resistance to a scientific approach to moral values. ... In his view, social values depend on inherent traits in human nature that, during evolution of our species, have had adaptive value. Further, Sperry was ready to substitute an ethic based in science for mystical, other-worldly frames of reference.
Such a step is not necessarily for my present argument. Neural and behavioral science may not revolutionize ethical theory, but will certainly help to explain ethical behavior.
One of the techniques currently proving useful for exploring the neuranatomy of neural changes during ethically-guided behaviors is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Tania Singer and her team at the University College of London looked at brain activity while the subject experienced pain and compared it to brain activity while the subject witnessed a loved one suffering a similar pain stimulus. Several brain regions lighted up under both conditions. These probably represent cell groups whose activities are closely asssociated with a feeling of empathy. But other brain regions became active only during the time the subject himself was receiving painful stimuli. Therefore, Singer concluded that only part of the pain signaling pathways could be mediating empathy.
Other fMRI studies, by Joshua Greene and Jon Cohen at Princeton, challenge the longstanding emphasis on reasoning, instead of emotions, in moral judgments. In a pair of notable experiments, Greene and Cohen presented stories to their subjects. The stories posed moral dilemmas – a choice of actions that would kill only one person, for example, versus no action, which would allow five people to be killed. What brain regions were activate during the choices? Some were those traditionally associated with emotional expression. Greene’s work adds the biology of emotions to our developing understanding of neural mechanisms that give rise to our moral judgments….
Future studies will investigate the influences of genomic alterations on ethical behaviors. A simple-minded attempt to locate a ‘god gene’ once drew attention and derision, but that is behind us. Serious work will look at inherited variations in temperament and try to chart mechanisms by which genetic changes could influence behavioral changes. If a single nucleotide base is mutated in DNA region controlling expression of a specific gene, does the alteration in the amount of that gene’s messenger RNA, and thence its protein, influence important neuronal functions ? If the coding region of that gene is perturbed, would that change the chemistry and therefore the functional efficiency of the resulting protein ? Over the next few decades, this kind of painstaking work will document the genetic basis of ethical behavior as a natural develoment.