Morality and the Mind


By Oliver Engel | Blogger | SQ Online (2013-2014)

Imagine if we could take a hardened criminal—a murderer, for example—and alter their brain in a way that would allow them to be rehabilitated and become a moral and valuable asset to society once again.

First, let’s discuss what constitutes morality. You may have certain ideas about where this comes from: religion, culture, or parental influences are some of the common sources. But there is one more source of morality, one that is hard-wired into our characters: the amygdala. Roughly defined, the amygdala is the portion of the brain that is involved with experiencing emotions. The two most important functions of this portion of the brain are experiencing fear and empathy, two emotions that essentially hold our notion of society together (try to imagine a society where nobody fears anything and is apathetic towards everyone else!). Daniel Reisel of the University College London describes the role of the amygdala in the formation of morality in children, and its further implications, in the TED talk below.

So we’re not quite a tabula rasa like John Locke once said: we have an innate sense of morality that is a part of who we are, no matter the conditions in which we are raised.

It turns out that abnormalities in the amygdala are one major influence in the minds of psychopaths, and that their actions actually have a neurological basis. Naturally, upon discovering a biological factor for this phenomenon, scientists have been working on ways to “fix” the amygdala in psychopaths as a form of regenerative justice. Reisel also has an interesting article on the neurological basis of morality here. The TED talk below also provides support for the idea of the ingrained nature of morality by looking at moral behavior in various species of animals.

But these advances in neuroscience bring up some ethical questions. Take for example the processes of electroshock therapy and transorbital lobotomies that were used just decades ago to “fix” people who were considered emotionally unstable (and electroshock therapy is still used is psychiatric hospitals as a last resort). And although we have a much more comprehensive understanding of mental illness today, this process of regenerative justice still promises the alteration of a human brain in order to conform to our societal expectations. Current approaches towards amygdala alteration are still in early development, and are limited to situational socialization, but pharmaceutical methods are currently being researched.

Electroshock therapy and other invasive techniques were often used to treat mental illnesses in the 20th century.

This is a gray area that has both its benefits and drawbacks in terms of future applications. On one hand, the goal of amygdala alteration is to allow criminals to contribute to society instead of sit in a jail cell. But this sets a troubling precedent: is it ethical to force change on a person based on the results of an MRI scan (and how can we determine who should be treated)? And what if this process is extended beyond criminals, to children who show signs of early amygdala deficiencies or unruly teenagers?

Is it ethical to alter the brain chemistry of other people to fit societal standards?

Our society has the ingrained urge to force uniformity on the population, a problematic trend that discriminates against those who do not fit in with social norms. And now that we have the tools and the drive to alter the brain, to change the personality of others to be more socially acceptable, we are starting to face difficult moral conflicts. There really isn’t a right answer here, which is what makes regenerative justice such a controversial subject. Nonetheless, these innovations in neuroscience will undoubtedly be improved and become increasingly prevalent as we learn more about how our brains work. It is then up to us to define the limits of our scientific progress and face the ethical questions that come with it!

Sources/Additional Reading

Daniel Reisel’s website that focuses on morality and how we can alter it

UC Berkeley article on the origins of morality

Technical article on the neural basis of morality


Oliver is a first-year human biology major from Muir College, who loves everything from science and literature to music and art.