Morality: Toward an Anthropological/Neuroscientific Conceptualization

Morality: Toward an Anthropological/Neuroscientific Conceptualization

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Few would question that we live in tumultuous times.  Our contemporary cultural upheaval comes in the wake of discoveries from revolutionary geniuses such as Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein who gave us the theories upon which modern science stands.  These theories have shifted the base of morality away from religious truth toward scientific truth. Furthermore, the application of science has created complex technologies leading us to globalization.  Globalization—fuelled by present biological, sociocultural, economic, and political influences—demands an awareness of the relational connection of all aspects of our planet (Morrison and Severino 2009). Awareness of our relational connectedness calls us to a new understanding of morality—one that will equip us to address the moral issues of the twenty-first century.

We have previously defined the morality of human beings as “our ability to determine whether our actions are right or wrong” based on “following rules but also on understanding the impact of our actions on another person” (Morrison and Severino 2003, 855).  In that paper we described how our morality flows naturally from the biological state in which we are living.  We have also previously traced the psychological development of moral values with particular attention to gender influences (Morrison and Severino 1997).

In this paper we will focus on what anthropology and neuroscience offer toward a twenty-first century understanding of morality.


The scientific groundwork for our conceptualization of morality resides in two areas—that of anthropology and that of neuroscience.

Anthropology.  Our psychobiospiritual conceptualization of the human person (Morrison and Severino 2009) traces moral development from birth when babies have an ability to respond to the emotions of others.  Babies not only can imitate the facial expressions of parents and caregivers but also burst into tears if they hear another baby crying.  At three months, they respond differently to happy or sad faces (Izard et. al. 1995).  One-year-olds show signs of distress, such as sucking part of their body or clothing, when shown videotapes of other children crying (Ungerer et al. 1990).

Also at one year of age, a child begins to show concern for others.  In a well-known study, researchers trained mothers to observe and record their children’s emotional responses to others, including the mother’s own feigned states of sadness and joy. Researchers also visited once a month to record their own observations.  The findings are noteworthy.  At thirteen to fifteen months, more than fifty percent of the children tried to hug, pat, or touch another person who was distressed (signs of empathy). Responding to perceived emotions, they tried to make the other person feel better.  At eighteen to twenty months, the responsiveness increased and was expressed in a variety of helping behaviors (moral behaviors), such as sharing goodies and bringing a shawl to a shivering person.  At twenty-three to twenty-five months even more children revealed empathy.  All but one child in the sample showed concern as well as helping behaviors, mainly toward mothers but also including strangers (Zahn-Waxler et al. 1992). 

Empathy, then, is a capacity to experience another’s feelings as if they were one’s own.  It appears in the first year of life and is an essential prerequisite to later moral development (Eisenberg and Miller 1987).  Biologist and ethologist Frans de Waal (2005) captures the essence of empathy in later moral development when he says, “If we could manage to see people on other continents as part of us, drawing them into our circle of reciprocity and empathy, we would be building upon, rather than going against, our nature . . . Empathy is the one weapon in the human repertoire able to rid us of the curse of xenophobia.  Empathy is fragile, though.  In our close relatives it is switched on by events within their community, such as a youngster in distress, but it is just as easily switched off with regard to outsiders or members of other species, such as prey” (p.  247).

In the second year of life, children become more mobile and begin to venture out on their own.  Now caregivers begin saying “No,” which induces shame (Severino et al. 1987) as the emotional response to a negative evaluation of the child’s self by another. The capacity for shame begins showing up in the second year of life and is another essential prerequisite to moral development.  Building on the capacity for shame, the child begins to understand that actions have consequences and can cause hurt.

This understanding allows the child to experience guilt in reaction to his or her own fault or action.  This achievement begins developing at three to five years of age (Sroufe 1979).

A more advanced state in moral development requires an awareness of relational connection, which typically emerges sometime during or after adolescence (Morrison and Severino 2007).  Now a person can experience both remorse (the gnawing distress arising from awareness that the injury of another is an injury to one’s own self) and altruism (the pleasure arising from awareness that valuing another is valuing one’s own self).

The visionary scholar Raimon Panikkar (2004), using the lens of relational awareness, describes three anthropologies of man: man as individual, man as person, and man as image of the divine.  Where Panikkar uses the word “man,” we prefer using gender inclusive language and will, therefore, use “human being.”  To develop his anthropology of human being as individual, Panikkar uses the scientific method.  For human being as person, he uses the psychoanalytic method.  And, for human being as image of the divine, he uses an experiential method.  The three methods complement one another.

Human being as individual.  This anthropological paradigm uses the words and works of the individual and the context for them as indices of the person.  It then considers the interpretation of the words, works, and context by means of relationality. Thus, Panikkar (2004) concludes,

It is only within ourselves that we can meet—and perhaps understand—the mystery
of someone else’s identity . . . I can know the identity of another only as I share his
identity . . . We need a knowledge impregnated with love; otherwise we touch no
more than the what and not the who of the person . . . In phenomenological terms,
love is a nondualistic experience . . . Love is neither equality nor otherness, neither
one nor two. Love requires differentiation without separation; it is a “going” toward
“the other” that rebounds in a genuine “entering” into oneself by accepting the other
within one’s bosom (p.  57).  [I]n order truly to know the “other,” the movement
must be reciprocal—a meeting must take place.  I must be loved by the other so that I
may be enabled to see him in the mirror in which the love of the other has
transformed my very self (p.  58).

The “other,” then, is not another thing.  It is another I.  We come to know the other I as an other myself but not as if the other I were myself.


Human being as person.  This anthropological paradigm considers a person as a knot in a web of relations.  According to Panikkar (2004), no such thing as an individual knot exists.

“[A]ll knots entail one another while retaining their unity.  Reality is the net, and the
net is relational . . . Because through all its threads it is in communion with the whole
net, every knot in a certain way reflects all other knots” (p.  61).  The relation I/thou
is not dualistic . . . There is no I without a you, and vice versa.  But neither is the
relation monistic . . . I and you are neither identical nor reducible to I (alone) or you
(alone) nor to a higher individual (of a higher unity) . . . The person is . . . a relation
64).  I am person insofar as I am communion . . . Communion means the
belonging (one to the “other”) as subjects (p.  65).  The I understands the other to
the extent that the other is a you; and this other becomes ever more a you to the
extent to which the I knows and loves it (p.  66).  The I and the thou are not only
interdependent but inter independent . . . We are able to know the thou, although
we will never completely penetrate an other consciousness, precisely because each
one of us participates in that same consciousness in a unique manner (p.  67).

Human being as image of the divine.  This anthropological approach consists in sharing not only ideas and ideals but also Being itself.  According to Panikkar (2004) the whole of reality is constitutively interconnected, an integral anthropology: “Knowledge of the other is . . . the knowledge that arises when one becomes what one knows  . . . Full knowledge is synonymous with a participation that allows us to achieve identity with the known” (p.  71).  In other words, we know the other by experiencing the other.

Clearly Panikkar’s three studies of human being are complementary and clearly they derive from a stage of moral development that recognizes the interconnectedness of all.

Neuroscience.  Building on the scientific discoveries documented in the attachment literature (Bowlby 1969; Ainsworth et al.  1978; Hesse 1999; Hesse and Main 1999; 2000), we are coming to understand how our human nervous system is organized through relationship (Schore 1994; 2000a; 2000b; Siegal 1999).  Our neurobiology depends on intersubjective encounters.  We will approach how this happens by focusing on two areas: motor cognition and social cognition.

Motor cognition.  There is accumulating neurophysiological evidence to support the proposition that we understand the actions of others by a direct mapping of the visual representation of the observed action into a motor representation in our brain of the same action.  Findings from various neuroimaging studies demonstrate that watching mouth, hand, and foot movements activates the same regions of the premotor cortex as performing those actions (Blakemore and Decety 2001).  Mirror neurons in the premotor cortex are possible mediators of this coding for actions performed by the self and by another person (Gallese 2001; Rizzolatti and Craighero 2004).

This coding for action—motor cognition—may be a new paradigm to study self-other interactions (Jackson and Decety 2004).  Motor cognition is more than the preparation for and production of actions.  It also includes processes involved in recognizing, anticipating, predicting, and interpreting the actions of others.  The process of motor cognition is the way we directly understand another’s actions without reflecting on them.

From the perspective of motor cognition, we understand that our sense of self emerges from the activity of our brain in interaction with another.  Intersubjectivity, thus, develops out of actions.  Through motor cognition we react to our environment and anticipate the consequences of our actions.  Marshalling evidence from neuroimaging studies of the neurophysiological substrate of shared representations between the self and others, Decety and Chaminade (2003) suggest that the inferior parietal cortex and the prefrontal cortex in the right hemisphere play a special role in the ability to distinguish self from others.  They suggest that to experience intersubjectivity requires four mechanisms: (1) a direct matching of neural mechanism between perception and action, (2) identification with the other, (3) a capacity to distinguish self from others, and (4) a capacity to be aware of the source of our actions.

Social Cognition.  Near-infrared spectroscopy studies of eighteen mothers and fifteen infants averaging 11.7 months of age suggest that the anterior orbitofrontal cortex plays a role in regulating and encoding the affect in the social attachment system (Minagawa-Kawai et al.  2008).  In this study, mothers posed with a neutral and smiling expression, which was video recorded from her neck up.  Each infant’s face was recorded when he/she was playing while caretakers or experimenters entertained the infants to elicit a smile.  Video images were edited to obtain twenty- to thirty-second movie clips of the mother and infants, respectively, under both the neutral and smiling conditions.  After the placement of near-infrared spectroscopy probes, mothers and infants served in two sessions: own infant (mother) and unfamiliar infant (mother) conditions.  After the recording, mothers rated the emotional mood of their response to both their own and unfamiliar stimuli on a scale of 0-6 (6 = most loving).  For the infant experiment, the infants were seated on their respective mothers’ laps and were subjected to the stimuli.  All experiments were DVD-recorded to assess the participant’s movement and attention to the stimuli.  For mothers hemodynamic responses to the target movie stimuli against the baseline stimuli with a neutral expression were observed for own and unfamiliar conditions.  For infants a significant difference in hemodynamic changes between the smile and neutral stimuli was noted in the prefrontal cortex for only the own-mother condition. 

The results of this study are consistent with those of Uddin and colleagues (2005) and Gallese (2006) with regard to a mirror network in the right hemisphere.  They are also consistent with Schore (1999; 2000a; 2000b) who addresses the importance of the right hemisphere in the attachment system.  Schore and Schore (2008) further postulate that the right hemisphere is the biological substrate of our human unconscious and our sense of awareness of self and other.  The non-conscious right hemispheric affective processes lie at the core of the implicit-emotional-corporeal self.  In their words, “individual development arises out of the relationship between the brain/mind/body of both infant and caregiver held within a culture and environment that supports or threatens it . . . attachment experiences shape the early organization of right brain, the neurobiological core of the human unconscious” (p.  10).  The fundamental role of these right hemisphere non-conscious attachment dynamics is interactive psychobiological affect regulation.   

Another approach to understanding social cognition is to study particular emotions.  For example, pain and disgust have been studied.  In studies of pain, seeing hands and feet in painful and non-painful situations elicited fMRI activation in the anterior cingulate cortex and to a lesser degree the anterior insula.  These regions are known to play a significant role in the processing of one’s own experience of pain (Jackson et al.  2005).  In another fMRI study, participants inhaled odorants producing a strong feeling of disgust.  The same participants observed video clips showing the emotional facial expression of disgust.  Observing such faces and feeling disgust activated the same sites in the anterior insula and to a lesser extent in the anterior cingulate cortex (Wicker et al.  2003).  The results of these studies imply that we understand the emotions of others by a direct activation of viscero-motor centers in our brain of the observed emotion.

These studies have led Gallese and colleagues (2004) to conclude,
“The human brain is endowed with structures that are active both during the first- and third-person experience of actions and emotions . . . Thus, the understanding of basic aspects of social cognition depends on activation of neural structures normally involved in our own personally experienced actions or emotions.  By means of this activation, a bridge is created between others and ourselves” (p. 399).  


These anthropological and neuroscientific findings affect how we understand morality.  For one thing, moral development is both a sensory and a cognitive process.  It begins with the earliest caregiver-infant interactions that are non-verbal visual-facial, auditory-prosodic, and tactile-gestural communications.  This has led psychologist Allan Schore to conclude, “The caregiver influences the trajectory of the child’s developing moral capacities by shaping the neurobiological structural system that mediates such functioning.  Neuropsychological and neurological studies suggest that the orbitofrontal cortex is centrally involved in empathic and moral behaviors” (1994, 354).

Caregivers shape the neurobiological structural system that mediates the moral functioning of their children directly—by inserting their motor and emotional knowledge into their observing offspring (Gallese 2003).  Parents write themselves—through mirror neurons—into the biology of their children (Gallese et al.  2007).  The children—using mirror neurons—live their parents inside themselves.  Through continuing moral development—from empathy, to shame, to guilt, to remorse and altruism—we continually build and rebuild each other’s brains and bodies (Decety and Chaminade 2003; Gallese et al.  2004).  As Schore (2003) so eloquently puts it, “It is important to note that the right hemisphere cycles back into growth phases throughout the lifespan . . . and that the orbitofrontal cortex retains a capacity for plasticity in later life . . . , thereby allowing for the continuing experience-dependent maturation of the right-frontal regulatory system within the growth-facilitating environment of an affect-regulating . . . relationship” (p. 107).

The long-standing philosophical position arguing that self and other are interconnected (Hume 1739/2007) finds support both from anthropological and neuroscientific sources.  Anthropologically, Panikkar (2004) states that we come to know the other I as an other myself but not as if the other I were myself.  Neuroscientifically, Decety and Chaminade (2003) posit that we learn not just from the other, but also through the other.  We know each other directly by seeing and experiencing the motor actions and emotional feelings of each other.

Our interconnectedness is, of course, more complex than right hemisphere to right hemisphere communication.  Communication between our right and left brain hemispheres is essential.  Their communication cascades through our bodies influencing our autonomic nervous system rendering us calm or aroused (Porges 2004).  Their communication releases neuropeptides: oxytocin regulates the output of the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus signaling safety and vasopressin works with sympathetic processes signaling danger (Moberg 2003).  Communication between the hemispheres influences our hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis determining how much cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine is mobilized (Heim et al.  2000; 2001; Perry 2001).  And it affects our immune system for health or illness (Henry and Wang 1998; Porges 1998; 2004; Wang 1997).  All of these physiological conditions are then transmitted to those about us and vice versa.

With regard to morality, what are the functions of our left compared to our right hemisphere?  We invite you to try two exercises to experience the similarities and differences.

For the first exercise, begin by sitting in a comfortable posture with your back straight and eyes closed.  Focus on breathing naturally.  In other words, breathe in and out without pausing between breaths.  Intend to breathe with one continuous breath.  Do this for a few minutes.

What did you experience?  Did you experience being in the present moment?  Did you experience being in your body?  Did you experience yourself focusing voluntary attention on doing?  You were willing yourself to connect your breaths.  This is primarily a left hemisphere conscious, cognitive function.

Earlier we defined morality as the ability to determine whether our actions are right or wrong based on following rules and also on understanding the impact of our actions on another person.  Now, to the degree that following rules is a cognitive process, we postulate that the left hemisphere facilitates this moral behavior.  We will ourselves to do what is right.  As transpersonal psychologist and Sufi translator, Kabir Edmund Helminski puts it, “This presence . . . connects us to the source of will.  Attention can be called the first act of the will.  It establishes the relationship between observer and experience (1992, 74).  An active attention . . . allows us to be receptive and whole by connecting us to a willing ‘I’”  (1992, 75).

Let us now do the second exercise.  Again sit in a comfortable posture with your back straight and eyes closed.  Listen to what your body says as you follow your breath.  Let your body lead you.  If your body wants to pause between breaths, allow it to do so.  Be aware of how your body feels.  Let your body tell you when to stop.

What did you experience?  As in the first exercise, did you experience being in the present moment and being in your body?  Unlike the first exercise, as you surrendered to what your body told you, did you experience yourself involuntarily aware of being?  This is primarily a right hemisphere non-conscious, sensing function.  It enables us to know implicitly who we are.

When we apply it to our definition of morality, we postulate that the right hemisphere not only facilitates our knowing who we are but it also facilitates our knowing how our body affects others.

In summary, both our left hemisphere—our conscious, cognitive determination of whether our actions are right or wrong—and also our right hemisphere—our unconscious, sensing of the impact of our actions on another—contribute to morality.  Our right and left hemispheres communicate with each other.  This affects us physiologically and the physiological effects on our bodies are then transmitted to others.

Our understanding of morality is consistent with that of neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga.  He says, “knowing that morals are contextual and social, and based on neural mechanisms, can help us determine certain ways to deal with ethical issues.  This is the mandate for neuroethics: to use our understanding that the brain reacts to things on the basis of its hard-wiring to contextualize and debate the gut instincts that serve the greatest good—or the most logical solutions—given specific contexts” (2005, 177).

Our understanding differs somewhat from that of Harvard professor of psychology, organismic and evolutionary biology, and biological anthropology Marc Hauser.  Hauser (2007) posits that humans have evolved a universal moral instinct, unconsciously propelling us to deliver judgments of right or wrong.  We would say that humans possess a universal innate moral potential.  Depending on our early interpersonal experiences—which are recorded in our right hemisphere in our non-conscious implicit memory—we will develop a morality based in love and/or a morality based in fear.  This morality—because of our brain’s plasticity—can be reshaped over our life-time.  Our challenge is to live in a physiology of love, which will shape a morality of compassion.

This understanding of morality changes our moral compass.  The question is no longer solely: What is right or wrong?  It also includes: How does my action impact the physiology of the other?  How may I not damage another?  If I do damage another, how do I repair the damage?


Our conceptualization has implications for us as moral beings.  We now know anthropologically and neuroscientifically that when we see something done, we’ve done it.  We live others inside our self.  We become written into the biology of another.  Our moral imperative, thus, becomes: How can I live in a physiology that will enable me to make moral decisions which will promote an intersubjectivity of compassion?

This moral imperative changes our regard for rules.  No longer are rules dogmatic judgments.  They reflect cultural wisdom in regard to what disrupts or preserves our intersubjective matrix.  Rules function as signals that call us to think about the impact on others of what we are doing.  They cause us to pause and question: Will my action cause help or harm to another or to me?

This moral imperative also underscores that intersubjectivity is not always a guide for doing what is right.  It is only a guide for what is right when it comes out of a physiology of safety—of right hemisphere implicit memories of being loved—and not out of a physiology of danger—of right hemisphere implicit memories of being maltreated and/or neglected.  The latter guides us into immorality, into behaviors that are not good either for others or for our self.  And, if we don’t know what physiological state we are in, we don’t know our moral compass at all.

Paradoxically, harmful behaviors may be considered morally right by the person doing them.  Because we move back and forth between living in a physiology of love and living in a physiology of fear, what we consider morally right in one state may differ from what we consider morally right in the other state.  A person in a state of fear might commit a violent act that they consider comes from a moral imperative for good.  The action viewed by someone in a physiology of love would be seen to be destructive. 

On the surface, this appears as if morality is relative—relative to the physiology that determines the interpretation of the situation’s context.  While there is truth in this, it misses the point that living in a state of security takes the relativity out of morality.  A morality of intersubjectivity based in a sense of security—in a physiology of love—generates compassionate behavior.  Furthermore, intersubjectivity as a guide for what is right requires—in addition to a physiology of safety—some clarity about the other’s reality.   

Another implication of our conceptualization of morality is that it changes the questions we ask about the moral issues currently facing us.  Being physicians, we will focus on three moral issues of modern medicine: the Roe versus Wade issue, the Terri Schiavo issue, and the euthanasia issue.

The Roe versus Wade Issue.  Abortion was legalized in this Supreme Court ruling of 1973.  Subsequently, the abortion issue has been one of: What is a human being?  Is a human being a morula, a blastula, an embryo, a fetus?

Now, however, given what anthropology and neuroscience are telling us, we must take into account the fact that a request for an abortion doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  Everyone is living from an intersubjective reality.  The question is whether the intersubjectivity is based in love or based in fear.  If man and woman are responding from love and commitment, then they will be responsive in loving ways to creating and rearing moral children.  If they are responding from fear, then they may be responsive to individualistic impulses, coercion, or misguided notions about bringing new life into the world.

In instances when a request for an abortion arises, the moral questions include: What kind of long-range effects will there be to having or not having an abortion?  If the child is born, what resources will be needed to raise the child in a loving and hence moral way?  Who will supply the resources?  Who will care for the child and the mother?  Who will care for the father?  If an abortion is performed, what effects will there be on the mother and all whose lives she touches?

The Terri Schiavo Issue.  When Terri Schiavo, a woman in a persistent vegetative state whose feeding tube was removed, died in 2005, the moral questions that had been grappled with in the months preceding and following her death were: What is the distinction between permit and inflict death?  What is human consciousness?  What is consciousness’s relation to humanness?

Now from an anthropological/neuroscientific perspective, additional questions emerge: How did Terri Schiavo’s form of life once she was on life supports impact the living tissues and the lived experience of those around her?  How did her form of life impact her husband, her parents, her health care providers, our national resources?   

Needless to say, these questions apply to all end-of-life interventions and to routine geriatric treatment.  What are their costs, their standards, and their impact on the physiology of those around them?

Furthermore, as anyone who saw the videos of Terri Schiavo in her vegetative state will agree, seeing her face and her eye movements triggered the mirror neurons of viewers as if her subjective state could be read.  Despite knowing that her brain stem caused the eye movements, the question arose: Is someone in there?  This raises a question that Decety and Chaminade (2003) allude to: How do we take responsibility for our mirror neurons?

We submit that taking responsibility for our mirror neurons requires an ability to respond in the moment. It requires recognizing the functioning of our mirror neurons when—in this case—we see the eye movements.  And, it requires that we stay balanced by holding two opposites together: (1) being moved to believe there is a person inside, and (2) knowing that the brain stem is generating the eye movements.  

The Euthanasia Issue.  As with Terri Schiavo, the moral injunction, “Thou shalt not kill” appertains.  The morality of permit and mercy also pertains.  Our conceptualization of morality, however, requires that we acknowledge our intersubjective world.  What we do with another has long lasting effects.  The issue is not that an encounter happens and we go back to who we were.  NO!  The encounter—or lack of encounter—changes all who were involved.

As with Panikkar’s (2004) paradigm of a person as a knot in a web of relations, a person in a physiology of love strengthens the entire net and a person in a physiology of fear threatens the entire net.  A person’s emotional state transmits to all in the web and all are changed.  To transform the fear of one person to love, transforms all who have been changed by fear.

More specifically, with regard to the euthanasia issue, what is moral encompasses more than ending the life of a person.  It also encompasses what happens in the world around the person who ends a life.  And, it encompasses what happens in the world around the person whose life is ended.


Anthropology and neuroscience seem to be moving us toward a conceptualization of morality that emphasizes our intersubjectivity.  Our actions and feelings impact not only us, but also those whose lives we touch.  Our intersubjectivity calls us to a morality of co-creating each other in such a way that we all thrive.

Our challenge, then, is to nurture a society in which the complexities of intersubjective morality can be held in tension long enough to look at them and think about them.  We need to promote techniques that help people get into a physiology of altruism and a right brain hemisphere implicit-emotional-corporeal self that has been built in love.  In such a bodily state, we can best decide what is moral for us and others, and act accordingly.



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