From 2007. I like the moral dilemma Greene poses on page two.  - Dallas

If It Feels Good to Be Good, It Might Be Only Natural

The e-mail came from the next room.

"You gotta see this!" Jorge Moll had written. Moll and Jordan Grafman, neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health, had been scanning the brains of volunteers as they were asked to think about a scenario involving either donating a sum of money to charity or keeping it for themselves.

As Grafman read the e-mail, Moll came bursting in. The scientists stared at each other. Grafman was thinking, "Whoa -- wait a minute!"

The results were showing that when the volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.

Their 2006 finding that unselfishness can feel good lends scientific support to the admonitions of spiritual leaders such as Saint Francis of Assisi, who said, "For it is in giving that we receive." But it is also a dramatic example of the way neuroscience has begun to elbow its way into discussions about morality and has opened up a new window on what it means to be good.

Read the rest on The Washington Post.

Tags: biology, brain, ethics, evolution, morality, morals, paleocortex, reward system, right and wrong, science

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Replies to This Discussion

I find this study unsurprising. Many things considered "moral" behavior are beneficial to the survival of the species. I've always questioned the position of people who do not feel that doing good is its own reward.

Most people who I've badgered into volunteering are still volunteers because, once they tried it, they found it pleased them immensely. In my experience it also seems very beneficial for the volunteers in other ways. I've seen people who were miserably depressed experience profound positive changes in their outlook and level of happiness simply from volunteering.

In my opinion, to not do good or to not feel pleasure from doing good is something unnatural and perhaps a sign of having suffered grievous emotional harm.

I've worked with assorted charities all of my adult life and I've taken in a lot of homeless teens and young adults. It was all completely natural feeling and logical to me. It made me feel happy and fulfilled. It required giving up some luxuries but it wasn't a sacrifice any more than caring for one's own children is. I also, very naturally, "fell in love" with each and every one of them, even the few who were "difficult" kids. I wonder if our pleasure derived from doing good things is an offshoot of our maternal/paternal urges and, obviously, equally as natural and logical.

I've also felt for a long time that some types of religious dogma interfere with natural human empathy. Being involved in charity work, I've noticed that there seems to be a huge inverse correlation between fundamentalist religiosity and empathy. Most people have an incredible amount of empathy for their own children, however, the wrong sort of religion seems able to shut it right down. This is only anecdotal but most of my kids were discarded by their parents for being gay (or suspected of being gay) or for breaking (or suspected of breaking) religious rules of some other type. The idea of discarding children for any reason at all is completely alien to the vast majority of humanity.


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