In a recent rebroadcast from WNYC’s RadioLab show, listeners compare animal and human morality. As the brain is studied under morally stressful situations, scientists learn that a battle is being fought in our minds for the right answer to a difficult question.
Scenario 1: Before you are two sets of train tracks splitting away from a single, where a train is speeding along. One of the two tracks are 5 men working, oblivious of the pending doom. On the other, there is one man. You have a switch that will allow you to choose a track, which one do you choose?
Scenario 2: You are above a set of tracks on which five men are busily working, again oblivious to their environment. With you is one man, and below you is a train rushing into the group of workers. You realize you have two options: you can either do nothing and allow the five men to die, or push the man with you down onto the tracks before the train, thereby causing the train to stop and save the five men. Which option do you choose?
These scenarios are designed to achive a particular brain response and don’t allow for additional options. The ends are identical in each situation, but our brain has a very different response to the scenarios. As some hypothesize, morality is actually a trait engrained within our evolutional history. The first scenario demonstrates our logical minds. We weigh the casualties and survivors, and generally choose that our moral obligation lies in serving the greater good. In the second scenario, a different battle is waged. Another part of our brains is triggered and an oft-overwhelming response tells us that pushing the man down onto the track is morally wrong – even if it means saving the five down the line. Both situations give the choice to murder one individual to save five, but being an active particpant in the murder (as in the second scenario) heakens to some deeper root of ethical conduct in our bodies.
Experimenting on primates has shown scientists that they exhibit similar moral groundings. There seems to be an innate sense in both primates and humans to care for their kind. Perhaps this is no surprise to anyone, but it is interesting to conceive that our moral grounding actually stems from early seeding in our ancestral roots as primates. Once considered by many as strictly guidance from a social system, ethical traits could be as unavoidable and global as two arms and two legs. Of course, the question still remains; what makes us act immorally?
The final scenario demonstrates what makes homo sapiens trully unique in our place as advanced primates.
You are in a hostile country and the enemy is moving through your village to kill anyone they encounter. Your entire village is hiding within earshot of the enemy as they move. You are holding your baby to silence her, but she has a cold and surely cannot remain quiet for long. You risk the lives of everyone in your village if your baby makes a sound, or you can smother her to ensure that no sound is made.
In the last episode of M.A.S.H., the woman in this predicament does the unthinkable and smothers her baby to save the village.
It’s an unimaginable emotional struggle for human system because we have something that nothing else in the animal kingdom has. Shame. Humans have regret for their actions. We blush. We have humility. It sets us apart from everything we know. The physiological evidence of this unique trait shows up as focused brain activity just behind our eye brows. Two hot spots of brain activity like headlights turning on in the most difficult times of darkness. This activity only occurs during times of intense decision – something involving deep emotional scrutiny and analytical thinking. The decidng vote cast in this thought is largely unknown. Thousands of random people given this question were equally divided in the final decision. I’d wager that if you only chose parents to answer this question, you’d find that the emotional side of the argument wins.
The thing to take away from this is to embrace your humility. As a unique trait, it defines who we are and who we will become. Think of something truly humiliating in your life’s history. Why do you remember the event? Would you forget it if you could? Humility shaped your life into what you are today; could you risk losing that and not learning from the experience?