May 30, 2007

OK, For The 50th Time, Morality Is Hardwired In Us

I've made a few posts on this topic previously, but I keep reading blog posts and articles by theists who keep on repeating the same garbage, that without God's word, or God's laws, humanity would become Sodom and Gomorrah like and even worse.
There are many theists out there who believe that the only thing stopping them from raping, murdering at random, and pillaging is the bible or the fear of God. They think that nothing holds atheists back from being "evil."
The reality is that morality is hardwired in our brains. And it developed long before we became humans. In fact, moral behavior is found all over the animal kingdom within like species at least. If social animals were only selfish and not hardwired to take a bullet for the group now and again, extinction would be the end result.
This morning I saw a mother sparrow feeding three near-adult offspring on my driveway (me and my wife always make sure there is birdseed and bread crumbs on the driveway, evil atheists that we are), I mentioned to my wife that this mother bird didn't need a bible to do the right thing.

The reason I'm bringing this up now is that more research has come out verifying the fact we are hardwired when it comes to morality:

“You gotta see this!” Jorge Moll had written. Moll and Jordan Grafman, neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., had been scanning the brains of volunteers as they were asked to think about a scenario involving either donating a sum of money to charity or keeping it for themselves.

As Grafman read the e-mail, Moll came bursting in. The scientists stared at each other.

The results were showing that when the volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.

The only thing I will argue about this is the idea of altruism. If doing good things for others gives us a positive brain rush, then it really isn't altruism. It becomes an act out of selfishness in a sense.

The reality is that the 10 Commandments for example, are just the result of writing down what was already hardwired in our brains, and we can easily substitute God with "nature" too, of course, to make sense of the Commandments by doing this, poetic allegorical analysis would be required.

Read the entire article on the new research.

Pat Condell on morality:

Here is a great way to overcome moral dilemma's:


  1. For the 50th time, if morality is hardwired into us, then why is there evil?

    Doesn't evil also have to be hardwired? And, if it is, then how do we tell the difference between hardwired evil and hardwired good? What is it about a particular piece of hardwiring that makes it 'moral'?

    It is interesting that the authors of the original report mention morality and lions in the same breath. Lions show that nature has no objection to wiring creatures to be predators - to exist off of the blood of others. What is the relationship between predation and morality?

    Is X moral because it is hardwired into us? If so, than anything hardwired into us would be moral. Or is X hardwired into us because it is moral? In which case, how do you explain the relationship between morality and genetic survival?

    Or is it the case, as I would argue, that the two are distinct. That which is moral, and that which is hardwired into us, are two different things - that sometimes overlap, and sometimes diverge.

    I mean, OF COURSE you are going to find that moral decision making occurs in the brain. It's also the case that every cruel and immoral act occurs in the brain as well. It is simply absurd to have people argue, "We found that the brain is involved when people do X. Therefore, X is right, good, moral, and just."

    How do you make THAT inference?

  2. Hi Alonzo.
    I put a quotation around "evil." What exactly would you call evil when it comes to chimps for example?

    The new study infers that we get a rush when we act unselfishly, and this can be defined by many as moral behavior.

    I've said before that the actual definition of morality, good and evil are all relative terms and they don't mean exactly the same thing to two different people.

    I agree with you that there are different things going on simultaneously. Our need to survive versus our need for the group to survive....selfish versus unselfish behaviour that probably has to do with different parts of the brain. Conflicts, depending on the situation always arise. The article I linked to points it out when it comes to smothering a baby who is loud and may endanger an entire group.
    The study also points out that some people who have a certain part of the brain damaged, will be a lot less "altruistic" than others.
    And I agree that "evil" comes from the brain as well. When a deplorable act is committed it is a time when selfishness wins over altruism.

  3. You should have a listen to this program:
    Richard Dawkins is a contributor.

  4. And for the 50th time, you're wrong. :)

    Morality is a matter of making choices. If we knew automatically what actions to take, we wouldn't need any moral principles.

    It looks as if you're trying to save altruism, which is untenable without religion. But the argument doesn't work. If we were hardwired to be altruistic, we would all be happily serving one another, ignoring our own interests. But it should be obvious that if we're hardwired for any kind of behavior, it's certainly not that.

    We need to know how to live. Since we're thinking beings who don't have an automatic program, we can't rely on hard-wired behavior. We have to learn what will lead to our survival and long-term happiness and act accordingly. People have been debating for centuries on how to do that -- or, indeed, whether we should do that or instead should dedicate our lives to serving God and/or other people.

    It would be nice to skip all that and discover we have automatic, inborn knowledge of what to do. But we don't. That's what makes us human.

  5. There's not much to say except I feel your anguish. It annoys me not only because of the obvious, but because religion actually teaches poor morals and ethics. ...Especially when taken seriously (as opposed to agnostic theists).

  6. Very valid points. But God states in scripture that he will "write my commandments on your heart" - elsewhere, Paul chews out some Christians for allowing sin of a nature even pagans wouldn't your conclusions are certainly not new.

    There is certainly a lot of mumbo jumbo in religion. And while "magic" is always intriguing, I have noticed a lot of "coincidences" occurring in my life.

    There are a lot of different types of Christians, some more spiritual than others. Some are all about judgement and power and control.

    I just wondered, religion aside, what do atheists think of the paranormal - ghosts and esp and all that - ???

    Because some people may be hardwired to have "spiritual" experiences (or are just nuts) - sensing things that others are totally unaware of. Whether those things exist or not is perhaps the big question. People didn't believe in germs until there was a scientific way to find them. Maybe there is something else that causes these experiences in some people but there is no way to check for it yet. What do you think?

  7. Gary, we are hardwired to make certain choices given identical circumstances. Many call these decisions either moral or immoral behavior.
    Our decision making process came way before religion was on the planet.
    Chimps have been known to punish other chimps that do selfish acts for example. What bible do chimps read?
    Who taught chimps that selfish acts are not to welcomed in the first place.
    Do chimps need to be told how to live? Why would humans need to be told how to live?

    Yes Hussy, religion teaches a specialness (for their believers) that none of us really has.

  8. Jeannie, I also believe we are hardwired to accept superstitions and this was a defense for when man realized he was mortal and tried to fathom death.
    Atheists actually have to escape the hardwiring tendencies.
    You must admit that many theists believe they would be criminals without the belief in God and they feel atheists can't be trusted because of our lack of having someone's wrath to worry about.

    As far as belief in ghosts and the paranormal is concerned. A few atheists that I know consider ghosts to be possible (not me though). They feel the human mind is capable of manifesting energy I think.
    I don't discount ESP, I do think our minds are capable of either having it or evolving it down the road.

  9. I heard Hitchens comment upon religion's claim that without it and god belief that human beings would be immoral.

    He basically said, (and I am paraphrasing this using my own words),that to believe this, one has to assume that the jews were all killing each other willynilly, rogering all sorts of animals with gay abandon, and stealing from each other whenever they felt the urge to do so; BEFORE the supposed appearance of god on Mt Sinai.

    It seems more reasonable to suggest that human beings were not acting without laws, codes or an ethical framework before the supposed appearance of a couple of stone tablets.

    Tribes would find it very difficult to exist without a system of laws, morality or ethics. I think that religions just claim these naturally occuring behaviours as "god given" in order to encourage certain behaviours and to discourage others.

    It would seem that religions picked out various human behaviours that were human behaviours anyway, and then used the idea of a god to try and give these behaviours more authority, or to give certain behaviours less authority.

  10. BTW

    The Hitchen's speech I was referring to can be viewed here. Dunno if it is available on youtube.

  11. RE: "For the 50th time, if morality is hardwired into us, then why is there evil?"

    Evil exists as a human construct. In the same way that goodness or "holiness" exists as a human construct.

  12. I don't know if I would say that morality is "hardwired" into us.

    I think that we are hardwired to behave selfishly, but that our ancestors long ago realized through experience that it was in their best interests to behave altruistically because it was advantageous to do so.

    Members of hunter-gatherer bands would take care of the elderly and infirm among them because they likely realized that they would one day be old and that they wanted to be taken care of too.

    Because not one person could do everything, bands of humans understood that they had to compromise and work together to get things done for their mutual survival. Thus, the idea of sacrificing for the good of the tribe because one's welfare was tied to the welfare of the tribe was recognized millennia ago.

    I don't believe it was something hardwired into us, but rather passed on from one generation to the next by teaching and by example.

  13. jeanie

    RE: "I just wondered, religion aside, what do atheists think of the paranormal - ghosts and esp and all that - ???"

    There is no precribed atheist response to the paranormal as the word atheist just describes a person who doesn't believe in the existence of a god or gods.

    So, this means that some atheists may believe in ghosts, souls, werewolves, fairies - or a mutitiude of other paranormal or supernatural entities. (or, they may not.)

    In my case, I don't believe in the existence of the supernatural - this includes all gods. I also do not believe in the existence of souls, demons, succubi or any other incorporeal mind or entity which supposedly exists outside of matter.

    I can't honestly say that these things do NOT exist, but that I don't believe that they do. In fact, I consider the probability of their existence to be so low that I do not consider it reasonable or rational to believe in any of them.

    However, a secular humanist would not believe in the existence of the supernatural.

    "Secular humanism is a humanist philosophy that upholds reason, ethics, and justice, and specifically rejects the supernatural and the spiritual as warrants of moral reflection and decision-making."

    I am an atheist who also happens to be a secular humanist. (Not all secular humanists or humanists for that matter, are atheists.)

  14. Tommy, you should read the article if you haven't already. There is a specific part of the brain that lights up when a "good unselfish deed" is done.

    Also, how do you explain moral/ethical/non selfish behavior by other animals such as chimps, etc?

  15. Within parameters, what we're really hardwired for is survival. Very few people are all good or all evil.
    Certainly, if we followed the strict teachings of holy texts, we'd do a hell of a lot of things that would be considered "evil" by today's standards.
    That, of course, is another thing: morality is a playing field that shifts depending on where and when you live.
    I don't believe for a second that morality is "hardwired" in us; nor do I believe, generally, that people live moral lives because of some fear of God.
    Some of the most perverted people who ever walked this planet considered themselves very religious - the many priests who buggered little boys being a fine example.

  16. I agree with Tommy, and yes I have read the article on the research. I think what is most important is to establish the idea that morality isn't dependent on religion. Human beings as social animals need morality to co-exist within a group. Individuals that are killing and stealing from others in the group cause disturbance and weaken the cohesion of the group. Whether morality is hard wired into our brains or has evolved as a survival mechanism doesn't matter to me. The point is, let's get religion out of the argument.

  17. I think that morality is an evolving aspect of human existence. I also think that our propensities for morality have a genetic compnent that may be traced back to our common ancestors.

    All tribal groups have codes of morality whether they believe in god, allah, jesus, the great ant god of africa or no gods at all.

    Generally, the tribes make rules about stealing, lying and killing. That is, they make moral codes about the kind of things that can cause disharmony and fragmentation of the tribe. They also make moral codes which can create ties or bonds within the tribe, thus increasing the cohesion of the tribe.

    This doesn't mean that these separate codes are identical in practice, nor does it mean that the codes apply outside the specific tribal group.


    Bad thing to kill a member of your own tribe. But maybe a heroic thing to kill a member of a competing tribe.

    So the macro view is that human beings no matter where they live, have a propensity to make rules and regulations concerning morality. Our ability to do this is probably related to the social patterns of our ancestral past, or our common ancestry.

    The micro view is that these codes may in practice be slightly different from tribe to tribe and may not apply outside of the tribe.

    So, all tribes have laws about when it is moral to kill other people, and when it is not, but these laws or moral positions may be different in each tribal culture.

    Anyway, that was a bit of a waffle.

  18. Hi BEJ,
    I guess this is my first comment on your blog.

    "The only thing I will argue about this is the idea of altruism. If doing good things for others gives us a positive brain rush, then it really isn't altruism. It becomes an act out of selfishness in a sense."

    I remember from my yeshivah days that the ancient rabbis already knew this. They interpreted the story of Abraham hospitality in a way that Abraham has been kind to his guests only to "spread god's word".
    It means that if you've been good for the sake of goodness or to give you some pleasure you're not better than an animal that follow its instincts.

  19. Hi Bacon,

    Just to modify my earlier comments, I would argue that our brains evolved so that we are hardwired to have the potential to recognize the advantages of behaving morally. But as reading the news every day shows us, many people either cannot or choose not to recognize the benefits to being decent and law abiding and promoting a civil society. Just as our brains have also developed so that we have the power of speech and can read and write, they are skills that have to be taught and learned. It takes an effort to overcome our selfish instincts to defer gratitude, engage in some measure of self sacrifice, or to compromise with others.

    The Palis, for example, fail to see that their lives would immeasurably improve if they stop suicide bombings and rocket attacks on Israeli citizens and recognize Israel's right to exist. As you are fond of pointing, if the Israelis laid down their arms, they would be exterminated, if the Palis laid down their arms there would be peace.

  20. Does it require extensive knowledge of anatomy and physiology, to find the spot on the brain that makes us moral?

    Like that God-Part of the brain. I didn't learn about it in anatomy.

    We are aware of our own mortality, as Atheists we know where we're going, about 6 feet under.

  21. Zumba,I like a lot of religious "morals of the story" stuff. They make sense, because they are written by man for man about man.

    Tommy, man is definitely the most evolved and self aware animal on the planet. But at what point do we have a sense of right and wrong (which can be called morality)? I mean animals such as chimps have self awareness too, not to the same degree as us though.
    Definitely morality is nature plus nurture, so there are different cultural acceptances of what is right and wrong. But what we haven't studied is degree of guilt from culture to culture regarding immoral acts such as killing an innocent person.

    Renegade Eye, we are learning more and more about the brain every day.
    This article states that there are places in the brain that if damaged could be the reason for sociopathic (immoral) behavior.
    I do believe we are hardwired for moral behavior. You could define moral behavior as natural behavior accepted by the masses.

    Interesting that lion males will sometimes kill the cubs of another male if that male shows weakness, as the new male tries to become the kingpin of a female. When the cubs are first killed, the female is first distressed, but then goes into heat quickly, and is receptive to the new male.
    We could call this immoral behavior from a human standpoint, but it is natural in the lion world, and by natural I mean it isn't learnt behavior because the cubs that might learn it are killed. Whether the new male experiences guilt for his action is unknown to me, but it is an example of behavior that bible or society has nothing to do with. What part of the brain makes a lion do this? Obviously it comes from the brain, and if it does with lower animals, urges to do things must be innate in us as well.

  22. It's clear that for most of Mankind's history (some 150,000 years) our species lived in unspeakable anarchy. But then came along Moses... Sorted!

  23. I just wondered, religion aside, what do atheists think of the paranormal - ghosts and esp and all that - ???

    We and other atheists in general seem to have a lot in common. Not believing in god/s is a sub-condition of not believing in the supernatural or the paranormal. Therefore the universe atheists inhabit is empty of demons, devils, ghosts, evil manifestations, gods etc. The atheist universe is remarkable peaceful and comforting place.

  24. Could it be that self pleasuring is hardwired in the brain, and that it doesn't matter whether the pleasure comes from being altruist or being evil?

    I think that there's not such a thing as (true) altruism because it's motivated by a selfish desire of well being. Christians are supposed to love their neighbors not because of the "higher moral precepts" dictated by a supreme being or something, but in order to avoid eternal damnation i.e. self preservation, an instinct even an amoeba is capable of.

    In a previous comment I read something about lions. Lets not forget that male lions kill cubs not sired by themselves to get the lionesses to mate and thus spread their own genes. This behavior is undoubtedly instinctive, and as animals can't be held accountable for their acts, does that mean god make them evil? I don't buy that crap about lions using their fangs to eat grass in Eden either.

  25. Skull, the lion thingy proves my point. That behavior to kill the cubs is instinctual and can't be learned, because the only ones who might learn and continue the tradition wind up dead.
    And I agree with the idea that there is no such thing as true altruism because we do altruistic acts to pleasure our brains.
    There may be a fix in our brains when it comes to doing evil things. Some people may have a larger evil part of the brain and a smaller guilt part of the brain.
    I remember when I was a very young boy, I got a rush when it came to stepping on ants. I think nurture combined with nature has turned me into someone who won't even harm an insect anymore.....except for maybe dirty rotten flies.
    But I still like my bacon, though I would never kill a pig myself or even be anything but third party to the murder.

  26. The "positive brain rush" was a result of generosity not the cause of it. Something else must be the cause.

  27. The positive brain rush could be compared to the satisfaction we have when we eat. Even a child doesn't understand hunger but knows it is hungry and when the child eats, that hunger is satisfied.