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Morality tales

Neuroscience is helping us to understand the biological basis of human morality

At a very general level, morality concerns the nature of good and bad and the nature of right and wrong.

What kind of actions are right, and what are wrong? What kind of life is a good life, and what kind is a bad life? What makes a good person good? If we had true answers to these questions, we would have a pretty good understanding of morality.

Unfortunately, we often disagree with one another about what actions are right or wrong, and what kinds of lives are good or bad. We also often disagree about whether morality itself is absolute, universal and unchanging, or whether morality changes depending on what is socially acceptable.

The ancient Greeks might have seen slavery as morally acceptable. Many modern people strongly disagree. Is this disagreement about morality itself, or was morality simply different for the ancient Greeks? Is it possible for societies to make moral progress or not?

One way to try to understand the nature of moral disagreement is to study moral judgement – the mental processes that lead to our decisions about what is right or wrong and about what is good or bad. Although making a moral judgement is often an easy thing to do, understanding what happens in the brain during moral judgement is very difficult.

It is possible that a better understanding of the neural and psychological basis of moral judgement will help us to understand better the nature of morality: for example, whether it is universal and absolute, whether it is tied to what is socially acceptable, and why our moral judgements often generate disagreement.

Recently cognitive scientists have begun studying moral judgement in earnest, and the results are very interesting. For example, we know that our moral judgements differ according to our sex, religion and culture. They also change with age. Very young children can’t tell right from wrong. Toddlers base their morality around themselves. With age, morality shifts towards peer-group values, and eventually moves towards consideration of the wider social group.

These results pose difficult questions for philosophers and theologians. Why do we make the moral judgements we do? And should we believe that our moral judgements track the truth about morality? Do our brains come with some sense of morality already built in, or is morality something we have to learn? These questions are the subject of much debate between philosophers, theologians and cognitive scientists.

Lead image:

Thomas Hawk/Flickr CC BY NC


Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Thinking’ in September 2006 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Neuroscience, Psychology, History
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development