Monday, June 22, 2009

Is it Wrong to be Immoral?

I’ve been reading lately about the biological origins of morality. Researchers presented subjects in MRI machines with various scenarios. They found that thinking about altruism lights up the pleasure centers in the brain the same way that thinking about food or sex does. It is speculated that this reaction evolved because individuals who cooperated with the group were more likely to survive.

I think the biological root of morality raises two issues.

Firstly, it negates the claim that without divine laws humanity would descend into anarchy. It also comes down firmly on the “good” side of the “is man inherently good or evil” debate.

Secondly, if morality is a biological drive instead of a metaphysical imperative (whatever its source) is there any value in being good? There is a practical value in it, as it makes our group more likely to survive and pass on our genes. But suppose that I could get away with stealing money from the elderly, is there anything wrong with it other than a bunch of cells in my brain firing and causing an emotional reaction that says “don’t do that.” After all, we can and do suppress other reflexive reactions, and it is of no consequence or even good. If a nurse suppresses her gag reflex while treating a person covered in sores, we would say that’s good. But then, that may be because the circuits in her brain that trigger good feelings when she behaves altruistically are overriding the circuits that cause her to feel nauseas when she smells putrefying flesh (and that second set of circuits probably evolved to keep us away from disease-ridden rotting corpses).

There are pragmatic reasons to be moral, such as avoiding censure from society, creating social institutions that we ourselves benefit from, keeping society going and preventing it from descending into anarchy, etc. But when a cost-benefit analysis shows that we stand to gain more from being immoral, why shouldn’t we do what is best for ourselves?

We seem to assume that morality is metaphysical, and whether divine or not, there is a value in being moral. Yet if it is merely a biological drive, like the drive to eat, then why can’t we, as rational beings, override this biological drive in cases where it is in our best interests to do so?


  1. I had the same kashye and I asked the people on and none of them had a good answer.Here is an interesting article discussing the topic:

  2. Thanks for the link. An interesting article, though it spends most of its time atacking athiest authors for mythical thinking than it does discussing a basis for morality. It makes some good points though.

  3. Evolution favors organisms that can be vengeful when it's necessary, that can forgive when it's necessary and that have the wisdom to know the difference," says McCullough