US neuroscientists have demonstrated that moral decisions such as whether you would kill one person in order to save many others are strongly influenced by a part of the brain that involves emotion.
The study is published in the journal Nature.
The research team, comprising scientists from the University of Southern California (USC), Harvard University, Caltech and the University of Iowa, presented 30 men and women with dilemmas where they had to say which decision they would take.
Some of the decisions involved making moral judgements about whether to cause harm or death to one person in order to save others from immediate or future harm or death.
One example of a dilemma was: you know someone who has a deadly disease plans to infect others, some of whom will die. Your only options are to let it happen or shoot the person with the disease. Would you pull the trigger?
Most people would say they knew the logical choice is they should sacrifice the one to save the many, but they would not be able to bring themselves to pull the trigger.
The difference, say the researchers, is emotion; not emotions in general, but a particular combination of two emotions. One is a general aversion to the act of harming or killing another person, a sort of social compassion, and the other is a more specific compassion, or empathy, for the particular individual concerned.
Conservatives, on the other hand, might find this study counter-intuitive. Generally they consider themselves less plagued by an emotional view of the world than their leftist brethren as well as morally superior. The findings of this study run directly opposite to that worldview.
It brings to mind a number of conversations I've had over the years with my more conservative friends around religion and morality. They seem to have a hard time separating moral choices from religious beliefs. They are incapable of comprehending that correct moral choices can be made in the absence of a belief in a higher power of some kind and a moral value system built on religious foundations. As someone with no personal religious beliefs per se the idea that the only thing keeping me from robbing a bank or going crazy and shooting up the city is a belief in God incomprehensible.
There are a whole lot of things that would keep us from going on a murderous rampage among which are what I consider a societal moral structure that transcends religion. Our duty and belonging to the society we live in, our respect for the government and laws are just a couple parts of that moral structure. Most importantly - we don't harm our fellow citizens because we would just feel bad. Call in "conscience" or "empathy" or whatever but the bottom line is that there's something hard-wired into us as a species that normally prevents us from harming others.
Of course one of the downsides to the higher faculties we possess as a species is that conscience can be reasoned away and overcome. The professional military is very good at this. Citizens get that same opportunity when they serve on the jury of capital cases or vote. Usually we tell ourselves these decisions are for the higher good and they're not really decisions at all but necessary moral capitulations to the circumstances.
Then there are those which don't need to wrestle with these moral decisions. They're the ones that find these decisions simple, that have no problem making life or death decisions about others without giving it all that much thought. Ironically they usually consider themselves morally superior to others when in reality, as this study suggests, they're actually morally deficient when it comes to making choices of what's right and wrong.