Now we’re getting towards the end of January, Christmas may seem like a distant memory but cast your minds back for a moment. How did you feel when handing over your present to someone you’re close to when you were confident it was something they were going to love? Excited? Happy? Appreciated?
If you did experience any of these positive emotions does that mean your generosity wasn’t a morally good act (even if the present was really expensive!)?
According to some strands of philosophy, it does. For those who agree with deontological theories, most associated with the philosopher Immanuel Kant, acts are only moral if motivated by a sense of duty. There is much discussion on what qualifies as providing such moral motivation which I won’t go into here. However, Kant is clear on what doesn’t count. Acts are not moral if motivated by a desire for an emotional feeling or certain outcome (the opposing moral theory of consequentialism, better-known as utilitarianism).
So anything we do because it feels good or because it will have a positive consequence for others can’t (or Kant…) be moral. For example, a father who takes his child to the park is only acting in a moral way if it is out of a sense of his duties as a father. It is not moral if he does it because he knows he will enjoy spending time with his child or because he knows it will help his child’s development.
While the debate between deontologists and consequentialists may never be resolved, in my opinion, this is increasingly a debate about how we should act. Meanwhile, psychology and neuroscience may offer more objective answers about how we act and why we act this way. It is only by understanding both elements that we can start to close the gap between how we act and how we should act.
When faced with a moral dilemma such as the trolley problem we may feel it is worthwhile or necessary to consciously think through our moral duties or the consequences of our actions. However, to do this with every decision we ever make would be far too time-consuming and cognitively exhausting.
From stereotyping to cognitive biases, there is increasing evidence that our brains often do what is most efficient, sometimes unconsciously or automatically, even if it does not lead to the best action. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt and others have provided data which supports their claim that moral decisions are made based on emotion and intuition. Conscious reasoning comes after to provide justification for the decision which has been made but feels like this is what determines the decision.
The idea of a reptile or monkey part of our brain having to be restrained from wreaking havoc by our human brain areas is exaggerated and simplistic but can be a useful metaphor to consider. Parts of the brain which we share with other animals evolved to make very quick decisions in life or death situations so has been labelled the ‘fast route’. This is in contrast to the ‘slow route’ to decision making which involves the deliberative conscious thinking we would traditionally associate with moral reasoning. It is likely that we overestimate how much we use the slow route because we like to think that we are rational, when in fact the fast route may dominate in many situations.
Getting back to giving, we now have over a decade of evidence from neuroimaging studies that being prosocial, even when it costs you, activates areas of the brain also active when we receive primitive rewards such as food or see sex-related stimuli. If Kant was still around today this could be grounds for saying prosocial behaviour and generosity cannot be moral because it feels good.
Even within psychology distinctions have been made between “pure” and “impure” altruism with the “warm glow” reward of giving being considered an impure motive, compared to only caring about the outcome for others (in line with utilitarian theories).
All of this gives enjoying giving a pretty bad name. However, in the real world, I think those who experience happiness from being generous are considered moral people and we expect them to continue this prosocial behaviour. This fits with the role of reward activity in the brain to reinforce the behaviour which caused it, such as giving to charity again if it felt good.
I’m sure the charity shop volunteer who loves raising money for others will do a much better job than someone who is there from a sense of duty. And when we think of a friend, partner or family member doing something kind for us, this feels much more genuine if we know they enjoyed it, rather than feeling they had to.
So maybe don’t listen to the deontologists or anyone who tells you that being prosocial only counts if it feels like a chore. Especially with what is going on in politics at the moment maybe we all need to experience how good it can feel to be nice.