Posted on January 5, 2012
Neuroeconomist (yes, that’s a field of study) Paul Zak has been getting a lot of attention recently for his just-released TED talk, titled “Trust, morality, and oxytocin.” While you can watch the 16-minute lecture here, CNN has now published a short article by Zak that might be easier for you to digest. Here’s the intro:
The longest debate since humans have been having debates is whether we are good or evil. It underlies the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Jesus and Judas. What is our human nature? Of course, the answer is we can be both good and evil. But what determines which part of our character emerges?
About a decade ago, my lab made an unexpected breakthrough in the understanding of good and evil. We discovered that the neurochemical oxytocin makes people trustworthy. We then found oxytocin was responsible for many other moral behaviors, from being generous to sacrificing to help a stranger.
I was particularly pleased to learn that Zak is not the kind of neuroscientist who discards, or even discredits, ethics:
Morality has traditionally been the domain of theologians and philosophers, often providing prescriptions of what we must do. But in the past decade, neuroscientists have started analyzing brain activity while people think about, and engage in, moral or immoral acts. These findings have changed the inquiry into morals from prescriptive to descriptive. …
While neuroscience has provided new insights into our human nature, the philosophy of morality has not gone away. My talk identifies the philosophers whose insights and arguments are consistent with the way oxytocin works in the human brain.
Zak is correct: advances in science should inform our ethics, but philosophy still plays an important role in discussing, analyzing, and linking hard science and human thought and behavior.