Is Morality Natural? Hitchens, God, and the Nature of Morality

altAfter a hiatus due to a move across country my weekly feature on science and religion returns with guest author Paul. J. Zak and his work on the science of morality, especially interpersonal trust and love. Paul J. Zak’s book The Moral Molecule: Vampire Economics and New Science of Good and Evil will be published by Dutton in 2012.  Follow him on Twitter @pauljzak

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Strident anti-theist Christopher Hitchens recently announced he will begin chemotherapy for esophageal cancer. The five-year survival rate for esophageal cancer is only five percent so things look quite grim. Hitchens has famously compared the three major monotheistic religions, with their top-down “thou-shalts” and “thou-shalt nots” to totalitarian political regimes. He logically deduced that these religions, like totalitarianism, must be responsible for much of the evil in the world. Hitchen’s presumption in this argument is that people are inherently evil. If this is true, paradoxically we may need a God to keep us on the straight and narrow.

Work from my lab (www.neuroeconomicstudies.org) over the past ten years has identified a brain chemical that causes people to engage in moral behaviors in the laboratory. This research has shown that most people, most of the time are moral, not evil. It even reveals the biochemical soup that leads to immorality.

Oops, how can one be “moral” in a lab? We test morality the old-fashioned way, tempting people whose privacy is guaranteed with virtue or vice by putting cold hard cash on the table. In our experiments, participants can either keep the cash, or under a specified set of rules, share it with another participant. A dilemma arises because they cannot see or talk to this other person. And, in some experiments, if the other person doesn’t like the cash offer, she or he can choose to burn the money and both people lose.

What would you do? Try to get away with being stingy or be generous?

Many people are, in fact, generous. But why? Especially when no one, not even the experimenters, are watching. By taking blood samples before and after these monetary decisions, we showed that when a person entrusts money to a stranger, the stranger’s brain releases a biochemical called oxytocin. Oxytocin motivates sharing resources with others. Our brains evolved to share.

That makes sense. We are social creatures, and sharing with others is a necessary part of being part of a social group. But outside the lab we typically share because cooperation goes around and comes back to us. We share with our family and friends and we expect them to share with us, too.

But in our experiments, people made a single decision involving money with a stranger. Nothing at all could come back to them. And yet nearly all of them choose to share. Indeed, helping complete strangers comes naturally to us. I got off a cross-country flight yesterday and innumerable other passengers held doors for me, helped me with my luggage, engaged in conversation and generally made my travel more pleasant. They are not friends, and there is little chance I’ll ever see any of them again.  I did the same. On my last flight, I sat next to a couple on a trip for their 50th wedding anniversary and bought them drinks to celebrate. I did not do this because I fear God’s wrath or was seeking to earn my way into heaven. It just seemed, well…nice.

Oxytocin makes us nice. In other experiments, I’ve infused oxytocin into the brains of hundreds of human volunteers. (This is safe, your brain makes oxytocin so I’m just increasing what is already there.) In these experiments, those getting oxytocin are demonstrable more generous with money than people given a placebo. And, they do not mind leaving the lab with less money–we asked about this and they had a c’est la vie attitude. The money involved was in the $30-$50 range, so it was not going to make them rich, but on the other hand these are hungry college students who are getting poked and prodded for two hours. They take the sharing decision seriously.

Oxytocin provides a reflection of what our actions would feel like if we were on the receiving end. It put us into the other person’s shoes. Since we tend to avoid pain, oxytocin makes us more sensitive to the pain others might feel. If we believe that our actions will produce pain in others, we typically avoid the action because it causes us pain. In this sense, morality is self-serving mechanistically, even if it produces virtue socially.

Oxytocin, and the larger brain circuit that it engages, allows us to crowd-source our actions. Because most of what is considered moral has to do with our behavior towards others, this ancient molecule keeps us focused on others. My experiments have revealed that oxytocin is the “moral molecule.”

So where is God in all this? Belief in God is not necessary for morality. But, I cannot disprove that an omniscient God created the universe in such a way that we would evolve oxytocin as the moral molecule. I have no way to test this so I must leave this in the “inconclusive” pile. Call it a matter of faith.

As social creatures we emulate those who have lived successful lives. Jesus, Muhammad, Moses, Krishna, and Mother Teresa can all be considered moral exemplars. We study them because they reveal how to live a virtuous life. A life that is fully connected to, and in service of, others.

I believe an example of such virtue (the virtue of compassion) is the report by Ross Douthat of the New York Times that a number of Christians are praying for Christopher Hitchen’s recovery. While those praying may be driven by their faith in God, they are certainly showing themselves to be virtuous and may have even raised Hitchens’ oxytocin level. Uncharacteristically, when asked about people praying for him, Hitchens said he was grateful.

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  • Les

    > when asked about people praying for him,
    > Hitchens said he was grateful.

    I appreciate it when someone gives me a present even if it is something I consider worthless because it is a token of caring. It would be churlish not to acknowledge the kind thought.

    A donation to the American Cancer Society is a better present for Mr. Hitchens. It would benefit both the man and mankind. He would get
    the glow of knowing someone cares. At the same time, the next tiny step of progress would be funded.

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