Last Monday, I had the pleasure of meeting The New York Times columnist David Brooks after he gave a talk on campus. He spoke primarily about the generational culture shift from humility to excessive pride that has occurred over the past 50 years or so. I was more interested, however, in his discussion of moral exemplars: He noted that “sermons don’t work; someone telling you how to behave doesn’t do anything — but if you model yourself after an exemplar, that kind of stuff works, no matter what your age.”

Why does this “stuff” work so well?  When one hears a compelling story about a moral person or simply knows such an individual, the exemplar’s behavior leaves an inherent effect. University of Southern California researcher Mary Helen Immordino-Yang recently found that effect to be manifested in a real, physiological response in both the body and brain. Immordino-Yang looked at subjects’ responses to hearing stories designed to invoke compassion and admiration of virtues. She saw that after hearing these tales of moral exemplars, subjects not only described feeling physical changes (in one case, a participant described the sensation of a “balloon or something under [his] sternum, inflating and moving up and out”), but also showed changes in brain activity. She now hypothesizes that the emotion-triggered physical response “co-opts” with the brain to ultimately change behavior — the emotions invoked by hearing the story inspire an individual to mimic those morally compelling qualities.

The definition of “morally compelling” fluctuates from person to person. Yet, the role of those initial emotions in making moral judgments is universal. Joshua Greene’s recent research at Harvard University has found that these variations in emotional engagement influence, and are therefore a great predictor of, moral judgments. Greene’s studies also showed that an increase in cognitive load causes an individual to revert more to this emotion-based morality. When given mental tasks in addition to the moral judgment task, subjects took longer to assess the morality of a scenario using utilitarian judgment than with one that was deontological — in other words, it is cognitively easier to think, “I wouldn’t do that, because I would feel bad,” than it is to think, “I would do that, because I would prevent more people from being hurt than would get hurt if I didn’t.”

Moreover, renowned neuroscientist Antonio Damasio led a 2007 study that found that damage to theventromedial prefrontal cortex — a region of the brain that is immediately behind the forehead and has been tied to various executive functions — increased the amount of utilitarian moral judgments, as opposed to more emotionally derived ones. The work of Greene, Damasio and many others suggests the notion that, in normal neurological conditions, the default morality system is more emotionally rather than rationally derived.

If these scientists are correct, the best evidence for it would be in babies. Developmental psychology research tells us that young children and even infants exhibit mastery of basic morality. Georgetown’s own Norman Finkel led a 1997 study that found 4- and 5-year-olds use a “proportionality principle” togauge appropriate levels of punishment to either “principal” characters in a scenario or “accessory” characters. Even more amazing is the research, led by Paul Bloom and his wife Karen Wynn at Yale University, which found that 9- and 12-month-old infants disproportionately prefer “helpful” characters (e.g. the cartoon that helped another up a hill) to “hindering” ones (the cartoon that pushed down the one trying to climb up) in a given scenario.

In his column, “If It Feels Right,” (The New York Times, Sept. 12, 2011) Brooks himself criticized college students for behaving a bit too much like these morally-efficient children, as they are “quick to talk about their moral feelings, but … hesitant to link these feelings to any broader thinking about a shared moral framework or obligation.” He believes that college students should “think more broadly about moral obligations, to check behaviors that may be degrading.” If these “behaviors” are actually degrading, the cause cannot be an increasing immorality in younger people, simply because they are just as moral as anyone else.

The difference stems from lacking an awareness of how one’s own morality works. As a generation, we need to be more metacognitive and understand the inherent emotional nature of our morality. The problem is not that we are lacking a shared “moral framework” but that we are not cognizant of the emotional framework that is already there.


Caitlin Gilbert is a junior in the College. THE CORTEXT appears every other Tuesday.

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