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Identity, moral choice, and the moral imagination: Is there a neuroscientific foundation for altruism?

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Abstract

We review recent work in moral psychology, the neurosciences, and religion to explore the biological and behavioral foundations of altruism. Building on previous work on the psychology of rescuers during genocide (Monroe 1996, 2004, 2004), we describe the altruistic disposition as a feeling at one with all humanity, positing a perspective akin to Adam Smith's impartial spectator (1759/2004). Findings addressing the neuropsychology of religious experience, mindfulness-based psychotherapy and the psychology of terrorism can delineate the contours in the brain that might constitute a neuroscientific foundation for altruism. We close by discussing implications of our framework and suggest future hypotheses that could be tested as a result. This volume creates a reference for the interdisciplinary field of creative studies, and related fields dealing with topics such as imagination, giftedness, talent, and intelligence. Such an enterprise naturally raises intriguing questions for scholars concerned with ethical philosophy, moral psychology, and political theory. In this chapter, we ask whether there may be a relationship between identity, moral psychology and what we call the moral imagination, defined as the ability to conceptualize certain options in response to ethical dilemmas. Extensive work on moral choice during the Holocaust (Monroe 1996, 2004; S. Oliner and P. Oliner 1988; Reykowski 1992; Tec 1986) suggests identity acts as a cognitive menu, structuring the choice options found available to all actors, from supporters of genocide to bystanders and rescuers of Jews. One's sense of self in relation to others appears to limit moral choice by making some options available but not others, much as a menu in a restaurant presents the range of choices for diners or a computer menu limits the programs available. Just as it is hard to order sushi in an Italian restaurant, it is difficult to help victims of genocide without the prior ability to see that choice as an option available to the actor. This empirical finding highlights the importance of the moral imagination. Certain options simply may not be available because of the actors' idealized cognitive models about what it means to be a human being, what constitutes the good life, and what kinds of actions are appropriate for people like me. This chapter begins with a brief discussion of how this anomalous phenomenon served to limit choices during the Holocaust. It then uses this empirical finding to construct an intellectual framework linking work in moral philosophy and moral psychology to work in neuroscience that may - eventually - suggest how the moral imagination links behavior to cognition. We hope this framework will help later scholars develop a plan for understanding what may be critical neurobiological changes that occur when people engage in certain ethical activities. In particular, we hope to be able to explain acts of moral courage or extreme altruism, in which people risk their lives for strangers because they feel a sense of self-transcendence through a sense of connection to all humanity. We present our work in nine sections. In section 5.1 we begin by posing the problem, through reference to the empirical behavior that initially gave rise to our interest in understanding the moral identity. This empirical puzzle concerns what drove people to risk their lives to save strangers during World War II. In section 5.2, we discuss Adam Smith's concept of the impartial spectator, and its relation to absolute values. Recent advances in neuroscience, including the phenomenon of neuro-plasticity, hold out the possibility of biologically grounding Smith's theoretical ideas (section 5.3). Section 5.4 turns to recent work on the psychology of religious experience and its effects on psychological and moral development. This work may provide an entry point into understanding the way in which the normal ethical self is transcended so that, under certain conditions, the actor feels strongly connected to others through the bonds of a common humanity. Such ethical behavior - in the form of altruism - is the healthy, pro-social manifestation of self-transcendence. But a maladaptive form exists as well; this maladaptive form is described in sections 5.5 and 5.6 via recent literature on the psychology of terror and fanaticism, and how aspects thereof find parallels in models of non-altruistic bystanders. Finally, sections 5.7 through 5.9 weave these different avenues of inquiry into general conclusions about the moral identity of altruism, including concluding remarks in the form of hypotheses for future research. © 2009 Springer-Verlag US.

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Martin, A., & Monroe, K. R. (2009). Identity, moral choice, and the moral imagination: Is there a neuroscientific foundation for altruism? In Morality, Ethics, and Gifted Minds (pp. 73–87). Springer US. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-0-387-89368-6_5

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