Morality and Oxytocin  
     
 

 

Traditionally, morality is a concept based on duty, implemented with the help of our free-will against the malign influence of our emotions.   Anything which indicates that our free-will is compromised in some way is seen as excusing us from the results of our decisions.  It is seen as not being the completely free action of the individual - even though there is no definition of free will which actually makes any sense. 

We have known for may years now that oxytocin facilitates the creation of the link between mother and baby. But now we have evidence that it has a wider effect.  It is a chemical which it is not easy to study because it has a half life of only 3 minutes in the body, but a series of experiments* has shown that it also appears to accompany a wish to act altruistically in general.  The higher its concentration the greater the degree of altruism which will be engaged in. Its absence marks an unwillingness so to act. In fact its failure to appear in response to the stimuli which normally herald its appearance correlate with that person having a psychopathic personality.  Now, therefore, we can say that this molecule in conjunction with our mirror neurones is essential for our sense of empathy.  We feel what others feel and are motivated to act morally i.e. for the benefit of others.

It's not all good, however, as other experiments** have shown that the effect of Oxytocin can be looked at rather differently.  Yes, it promotes altruism, but that altruism appears to be particularly directed at other people within the same group.  This means that Oxytocin can persuade people sometimes to act badly towards outsiders, even act dishonestly, if this is required for the benefit of the group.

But from all this, we see support for the view that morality is not a dry duty but an emotion, or a group of emotions which interact with each other.  The production of oxytocin is much stimulated by social involvement and is associated with higher levels of happiness in general. So then, contrary to received opinion, both religious and philosophical, to act morally is, at least in part, an adaptation which makes us contented when we act for the benefit of others within our group.

Scientists have produced this new paradigm of morality for us, but how to explain it to the public in general? I suspect that it will not be by scientists. We need not just a bald statement of fact, but a comprehensible explanation which can set it all in context. It will be necessary at some point to explain to society how it can continue as normal but with a different view of what morality is based on and what it is for.  Perhaps this is what philosophy should be trying to do.  Philosophers must be useful for something.

* http://www.ted.com/talks/paul_zak_trust_morality_and_oxytocin.html

** http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/39595/title/Oxytocin-Boosts-Dishonesty/

 
 

 

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