THE amoral BRAIN

David: What about the good? People sometimes feel that the good is also beautiful: that good things are beautiful and bad things tend to be ugly. Is there a…?

SZ: It is important to emphasise, I think we left out of the discussion a finding which is important, that moral beauty also correlates with activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex.

David: Does it? Really?

SZ: This is not our finding, it’s a finding from somebody in Japan. But in the sense of moral beauty, what I mean…

David: It lights up that same bit as mathematical beauty and…?

SZ: Yes, yes, yes.

Ard: But what is moral beauty?

SZ: Well, for example, if I put you in a situation where you’re very hungry and I can give you a very, very nice-looking steak, but you can give up that steak, and remain hungry, and give it to a child who is poor and hungry, then in the first case you have satisfied yourself. You had your reward and pleasure. In the second case, you have satisfied your moral sense, and in such conditions the activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex goes up. Sorry, I should have said that before. So there is a connection in terms of brain activity in terms of moral beauty, and visual beauty, and musical beauty, and mathematical beauty.

Ard: That’s fascinating.

SZ:-And the experience of someone beautiful as being somebody morally good probably reflects that.

Ard: So we get fooled sometimes by our brains, looking at somebody beautiful and thinking…?

SZ: You get fooled, that’s right.

Ard: But on the other hand, you get fooled because there is something to it. A true moral act, like sharing your food when you’re hungry, actually lights up the same part of the brain.

SZ: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

Ard: So, I’ve seen you write that the fact that we exploit people is part of our neurobiology.

SZ: Yes, yes, yes.

Ard: Would you say that’s true?

SZ: Well, you see, I think in terms of that, I’ve got great difficulty in terms of discussing these issues with people who have got no interest in neurobiology, because they think that hate is evil – it’s bad – and love is good. I don’t think that’s the way it works. I think hate and love are part of the makeup of the brain. Hate and love have both served their function in achieving great things, and also in destroying great things. So, to me, it is an amoral system. It’s not a moral or immoral system, it’s an amoral system.

Ard: Our brains, you mean? Our neurobiology?

SZ: Yes, our neurobiology. I don’t think a neurobiologist would have said, ‘Look, I must have a brain that loves. I must have a brain that hates.’ I think it’s just, ‘I must have a brain that survives, and I must have a brain that achieves.’

David: Well, love and hatred a bit like light and dark. You can’t have the one without the other?

SZ: Yes, they are.

David: No matter how lovely the light might be, if there was no dark, you wouldn’t see the light.

SZ: Yes, it’s part of our repertoire.

Ard: But I think what you’re saying is that these neurobiological states are neither good nor evil, in and of themselves.

SZ: Yes.

Ard: The category of good and evil is something outside of those neurobiological states. It’s a different category.

SZ: Yes, I mean, I would say that good and evil, and the urge to destroy, and the urge to love, and the urge to compassion, all have strong survival values.

Ard: But that doesn’t make them right or wrong?

SZ: In terms of neurobiology, it doesn’t make them right or wrong. It’s just these are states, and this…

Ard: But just in terms of us as human beings, right or wrong is a different category?

SZ: I don’t know. I mean, what is right and what’s wrong? I think the killing of millions of people throughout the ages has been tolerated and accepted, and indeed welcomed, rapturously. So, at that time, presumably people did not think of it as wrong.

Ard: Would you say that they were mistaken?

SZ: Well, who am I to say whether they were mistaken or not? At the time they did it, they did it without qualms.

Ard: Yeah, that’s true.

SZ: Equally, people have shown great compassion and sometimes have not asked themselves whether showing great compassion was necessarily a good thing, but they’ve done it. So I think that these are biological things. I’m not sure that they are written out there.

David: When I heard you talking about the brain trying to stabilise reality, like keep the leaf green, what jumped to mind was this tendency that people want to say that there are moral absolutes, moral reality – this is always good and that’s always bad – and I just wondered whether it’s ridiculous to wonder if that tendency derives from that strategy the brain has of trying to just keep things stable.

SZ: I think so, and there’s another similarity there such as you find with illusions, such as you find with the contradiction between the laws of gravity and the laws quantum mechanics. You accept them both; you accept they’re both valid in their own right: they don’t clash. So you would classify some people as good, some people as bad, some people as moral, some as immoral. You stabilise the world for yourself in this way. It’s a very easy pigeon-holing classification.

David: So it might not be that you can say this is morally, absolutely good and this is morally bad, but that whole drive to make a moral world in some ways looks, to me, like it leaps off from that very ancient thing that the brain does. It wants to say, ‘I must be able to categorise things as good or bad.’

SZ: Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, absolutely. I think it’s part of the imperative working of the brain to stabilise things or to categorise things, and if they come into conflict, you just put them into separate categories.

Ard: I think that the point is that you stabilise the colour green because that makes it much easier for you to understand what’s really there. So it may be that you stabilise…

David: …morals because they’re really there. You have an answer for everything.

Ard: No, no, no, no, not because it helps you. Even though it may not always be perfect, it helps you see more clearly what’s really there. It has a use. It has a…

SZ: But another word for stabilising would be categorising…

David: And making sense of.