By Kai Terran
David Hume and naturalists since him such as Adam Smith have proposed that morality does not stem from reasoning but from a ‘moral sense’. Psychologists and other theorists have extended this line of thinking – humans have a moral ‘organ’ of functionality. This moral organ generates the perceptions, discriminations, and positive and negative feelings to do with the moral dimensions of a situation. Also important in this naturalist conception of morality is the insistence that it the moral feelings generated by this moral organ that motivate behaviour NOT the human faculty of Reason.
Empirical investigations have shown that moral decision making is remarkable quick. For example one can give the following hypothetical moral dilemma to a person and they are able to give you their answer within a couple of seconds: You and your baby child are hiding from enemy soldiers in a hidden basement with the rest of your village. If the enemy soldiers find the villagers and yourself in the basement then everyone will be killed. Your baby starts crying and you cover your baby’s mouth to silence it but it is not working. The soldier are about to discover your fellow villagers and yourself. You have to make a decision immediately – do you smother your baby and kill it to save yourself life and the lives of your fellow villagers, or not and be discovered by the enemy soldiers (which will result in the deaths of you, your baby and all your fellow villagers). What psychologists have discovered is that when they pose this scenario to people and measure there brain with a fMRI machine, the people who say they simply would not kill there baby are making that decision within a few hundred milliseconds and the decision is being made outside the cerebral cortex. The people who say they would kill their baby take slightly longer to make their decision (but still only several hundred milliseconds) and the frontal cortex is involved in overriding the primitive part which is screaming “NO! Do NOT kill your baby!”
I would like to make a small claim: that thought can impede the moral organs ability to rapidly perform a moral calculation thus making us less moral. For the moral organ to generate a positive or negative feeling and thus drive behaviour it needs access to ‘what is’. However a notion of ‘what ought to be’ can interfere with this access. It is likely there are multitudes of ways we can prevent moral action. One of the simplest is to insist that one needs more information, more thoughtful deliberation or just more time to make your decision. Another would be to actively avoid thoughts, conversations or physical circumstances that would directly stimulate the moral feelings.
One could postulate that ideologies could have evolved to interact with the moral organ, manipulating its functioning to suit the purposes of those same ideologies. My idea provides an interesting juxtaposition to the Humean conception of reason being the slave to the passions.