We now know that it is around the age of one and a half that the child distinguishes between what is felt by others and by himself: he thus gains access to empathy. He has not yet been influenced by the community, and his moral sense could then have its true value.
This is no longer the case with the adult, whose only presence dilutes the feeling of responsibility [in french] , because each person thinks that another will intervene if necessary.
This feeling, which appears very early in children, is nevertheless the result of a long evolution. What happens to it in adults?
A - The influence of the environment on the moral sense :
a - Learning through imitation :
In babies, the influence of the environment begins as soon as the ability to imitate [in french] , in fact from birth.
This is how babies imitate their parents' gestures and emotions and learn their language: the development of their moral sense will not escape this influence.
For their part, without being aware of it, adults perform the gestures that will be imitated: for example, when a mother feeds her child with a spoon, she opens her mouth.
The same mechanism can be found in theatres : as soon as an actor adopts a sad or happy expression, the spectators imitate it. At the same time, they look at what others are feeling to see if their reactions are shared.
If imitation favours the family bond at a very young age, it will later favour solidarity and social bonding.
Thus, through imitation, the relationship with others is strengthened, but very often today, the imitation of a bad model will disturb the child's learning.
This influence is found in all areas: experience shows that everyone is led to follow models : parents, friends, work colleagues, public figures, etc. Just as we learn the language of the people who welcome us into life, we learn their way of life. Society will later become the second host family.
The child learns from his surroundings : he will later use the same language as his parents.
This learning by imitation will determine the orientation of the moral sense: it will depend on the choices of each person, on the experience acquired, on cultural habits, even on thousand-year-old rites.
Experience to be gained.
Rite to be observed.
Initially guided by parental example, moral standards were later reinforced by the group in writings and legal texts.
Numerous moral prescriptions have thus marked out the history of civilisations, such as the epic of Gilgamesh 3000 years before our era in Mesopotamia, the Mahabharrata 1000 years before our era in India, the edicts of the emperor Ashoka 250 years before our era also in India, without forgetting the patriarchs and prophets of monotheistic religions.
In the 14th century, an anonymous author published "De imitatione Christi", one of the most widely translated and read works of religious piety in France.
However, apart from written prescriptions, moral behaviours are essentially acquired by observing and imitating the people who embody them.
Thus, when an adult greets a newcomer, opens a door for a person to pass through, the child who observes and has a natural tendency to such behaviour is more likely to maintain it.
A study by James Bryan and Marie Test of Northwestern University in Illinois found that the presence of a "model" seen by motorists shortly before they encountered a person to be helped on the side of the road changed their behaviour.
In this study a woman was stopped with a flat tyre.
In half of the cases, a few hundred metres before the place where she had broken down, motorists passed a first stopped car, whose driver was being helped.
After more than 4,000 motorists passed the broken-down woman, it was found that the mere presence of the model doubled the proportion of drivers who offered help.
Unfortunately, the learning of anti-social driving is based on the same principle : the primary factors that cause an individual to become delinquent are exclusion by the group, and the level of delinquency of those they associate with.
Animals are not exempt from this imitation mechanism since it is inseparable from learning. It is found within each species, but also between different species or kingdoms.
This mechanism can be observed everywhere in nature :
- between insects and other animals,
- between animals and plants, such as the chameleon, which reproduces the colour of the foliage around it, or the phasma, which looks like a twig.
Are human beings so different when they try to blend in with nature, to reproduce as closely as possible the clothing custom of their group or to follow the injunctions of influencers on all sides ?
« All living things imitate : colours, shapes, behaviors. »
b – All living things imitate : colours, shapes, behaviors. :
We now know that from an early age, children possess a moral sense that generates well-being. It seems that it is adult behaviour, which is all too often frozen by cultural achievements, that reorients this innate propensity to respect what is good, because it is experienced pleasantly.
1 - Indifference to the suffering of others and compassion :
However, the moral sense of the very young is difficult to grasp in the absence of language. It is therefore the study of its manifestation in adults that has enabled us to refine our understanding of it.
We see every day that human beings are capable of the best as well as the worst, of the most noble impulses of compassion as well as the most appalling genocides.
Why do such behaviours run counter to what can be observed in the very young ?
Two main neural circuits have been identified in the brain of the adult confronted with a person who is suffering: one leads to compassion, the other to indifference, or even to a feeling of pleasure. It all depends on the relationship between the subject and the person suffering.
Experiments conducted by the neurologist Tania Singer and her colleagues at the University of Zurich can be compared with the findings in the field of empathy. In these experiments, football fans were asked to observe a fan of their own team and then of the opposite team undergoing an electric shock.
They were given the opportunity to help the person who was suffering by deflecting part of the shock onto themselves. Alternatively, they could simply watch the scene or look away.
The experiment showed that the fans primarily sympathised with people wearing their team colours (and in this case they accepted to receive part of the electric shock), but preferred to watch a person who supported the opposite team suffer.
It was found that very different regions of their brains were activated.
In the compassionate situation, the emotional area involved was the anterior insula. In the opposite situation, it was the nucleus accumbens (involved in sensations of pleasure and the reinforcement of behaviours that allow us to satisfy our basic needs).
2 - Endogroups and the orientations of the adult moral sense :
There is a theory, the endogroup theory, which postulates that human beings show altruism towards people of the same social affiliation, and hostility towards other groups.
However, in nature, hostility is not a law, even if the necessities of life require killing for food. This necessity is imposed in the area of territory, but rarely results in killing. As for the supremacy of the alpha male over his pack, it is also a guarantee of protection.
In humans, on the other hand, hostility, when it is not the result of aggression, appears to be the result of living conditions that have favoured the inhibition of empathy. The resulting insensitivity reduces awareness of the real world... The individual then acts according to previous negative experiences instead of acting in accordance with the present reality.
The best example remains the persistence of the notion of race, linked to several factors :
- lack of knowledge of other cultures,
- lack of knowledge of the influence of the environment,
- ignorance of the migrations that have occurred since the appearance of man,
- ignorance of the origin of skin colour.
The existence of brain structures dedicated to these changes in attitude suggests that the adult human being is dual with respect to altruistic themes: a rapid evolution has therefore occurred since childhood.
The mobilisation of the nucleus accumbens in such situations suggests that hostility towards outgroups is a deeply rooted behaviour.
It would fulfil a survival function evoked by the Turkish psychologist Muzafer Shérif in the 1960s : he had observed that normally peaceful individuals, confronted with a situation of scarcity, quickly formed groups that competed for access to resources.
Natural selection would have favoured the ability to help those close to them, and to keep out strangers.
Indeed, the delimitation of territory is a common strategy in the animal world to ensure subsistence and the security of one's family or group. Any stranger appears as a rival that must be kept at a distance.
Wolf marking territory.
(Grey Wolf Urinating by William Ervin/science Photo Library)
In humans, the existence of universal feelings of altruism begin in childhood and go beyond the groups to which they belong. How can this be explained ? Since it is not possible to deny evolution, we can assume the influence of cultures : it is not man who is good or bad, he is subject to the cultural messages that the community provides.
B – The individual moral sense and the influence of society on its orientation :
a - The adaptation of the moral sense to vital necessities :
The child's moral sense is based on his ability to feel. At this stage, there is no need to reason in order to know how to behave.
However, as they become adults, we have seen that human beings feel the need to construct a model [in french] of the world capable of reassuring them. This model is based on reasoning, which is always based on feelings and sensations.
1 - Communication with the forces of the universe :
Today, more and more scientists consider that our brain functions like a "moral organ" which, capable of adapting to any situation, has adapted to life in a community.
In human groups that are close to nature and dependent on its gifts, there is the same natural inclination as in animals to take only what they need.
Curiosity and fear combine to find an answer to every new situation.
This curiosity, which persists in the adult, will favour analogical explanations of the world that allow us to understand, by comparing with what we already know. As we have seen, this is the mechanism on which animist religions were based : « a deity rumbles his threat during a storm », or « the tree is a beneficent genie that offers us its fruits ».
This is how certain aspects of the moral sense were constructed. Fear gave rise to respect. Similarly, protecting and nurturing the tree acquired the value of a thank you for the gift of its fruits..
The brain, "organ of morality"? In fact, could not what we refer to as "morality" be defined instead as "the set of capacities selected by evolution to develop and sustain life in collective communion", with the expression of life perceived as a pleasant feeling?
The brain would then become "the organ that generates pleasant feelings" when life is respected.
2 - Mythology and social laws :
Fears and attempts at explanations gave rise to a mythology and rituals that aimed to ward off unfavourable events, while offerings to the gods encouraged their benevolence.
Just as the child's search for the pleasurable sensation favours the establishment of links with the protective power of the parents, the same search has enabled the adult to ensure his or her relationship with the supernatural forces.
Thus, it is because we are naturally sensitive to well-being (i.e., "moral") that we so easily adhere to all the reform movements inspired by the prophets and at the origin of religions. Why is this? Perhaps simply because these figures, able to perceive injustices, attracted support by bringing about improvements in living conditions.
However, while in the child the natural impulse and morality are linked, the adult is rather inspired by self-interest and often delegates the responsibility of being moral to others.
Why this change ?
It is caused by the concern to maintain cohesion in larger societies whose members ignore each other. As direct, emotional communication disappears, rules that reduce freedom exacerbate individualism. Organisation replaces solidarity.
If proximity creates a surge of solidarity…
…distance imposes organisation.
Thus, in the course of this transformation, we observe the transition from sensitivity to reasoning, which allows the reorganisation of the innate moral sense to adapt it to life in society.
In order to understand the moral sense, it is therefore necessary to focus on the moral sense that arises from the senses and is based on the perception of oneself and others.
« Is the brain the organ of morality ?
Or the organ that promotes pleasant relations with others and with the World
thus orienting towards the best choices in life ? »
b – The moral sense of the individual and his adaptations to life in society :
1 - Guilt and strategies for relieving guilt :
In adapting to life in society, innate morality has had to conform to new constraints, and mental controls have appeared, including the feeling of guilt [in french].
What is this feeling that arises when we have committed a 'fault'?
It is also the result of empathy, that special sensitivity which makes us feel what the other person is feeling. If we bring them joy, we will share that joy with them, and the happiness and pride of having caused it. If we cause them pain, this pain will be shared and the discomfort experienced will be perceived as a feeling of shame since we are the cause.
We will then seek to alleviate this painful emotion.
However, in society, this emotion, called guilt, has to fit into the rules of behaviour and be influenced by those around us.
Conflict then arises. To escape from this, the individual will develop strategies to avoid guilt.
– The first of these strategies is distancing : the individual will, for example, develop a feeling of superiority due to his or her social status or ideology in order to feel less guilty about the consequences of his or her act.
The denigration of the victim may also justify the feeling of superiority,
The aggressor may even consider himself as a victim, arguing that this is due to old facts. God may even serve as a guarantor.
– Another strategy is to change the language. In this area, all justifications, proven or fake, can be exploited:
The perpetrator then speaks of "collateral damage", "surgical strike", "final solution".
The word ghetto is replaced by 'enclave' or 'territory', and 'refugee camp' will underline the shelter provided, evading the injustice of expulsion or deportation.
Thus the sense of guilt can be reduced, while the natural sense of empathy is erased.
- Guilt is also reduced when it is possible to justify a behaviour by a supposed benefit to its victim. Thus dictators will claim to be working for the common good, and slavery may have been considered a good for the 'savage' since he could be converted to Christianity.
It must be noted that most of the guilt-relieving behaviours used consist above all in weakening and even suppressing the capacity for empathy for the other.
2 - Guilt and avoidance strategies :
Magical rituals are also effective.
- For example, a feel-good ritual will relieve ongoing discomfort.
Taoist crystal ritual.
Tibetan sound ritual.
- Likewise, a protection ritual can alleviate an unreasonable fear.
Ritual of Protection by a spell in a bottle.
The same goes for all rituals to attract luck, money or love : no need to make the effort to question oneself, the ritual provides it.
3 - Guilt and atonement :
- Rituals of purification :
Guilt can also be alleviated by acknowledging the fault and making atonement. For this, a purification ritual is necessary. This ritual may consist of a symbolic act, such as bathing or washing one's hands. It can also consist of an acknowledgement of one's fault in confession, to the priest or to God himself, an acknowledgement that allows one to avoid any costly reparation personally.
Of course, the most just solution would be to ask the victim for forgiveness.
Failing that, a confession to the victim or to the courts, followed by compensation or imprisonment, will reduce the guilt of the person who has committed a fault.
- Immanent justice :
The voluntary act of purification can also be replaced by the certainty of an immanent justice that will work outside of any personal decision as well as any external intervention.
So it is with the walker who pushes and hurts another person. Later, if he stumbles, falls and breaks his wrist, he will experience this as a deserved punishment.
Why this spontaneous association ?
In a community, cooperation is based on reciprocity and fairness. Thus, we are inclined to believe that the misfortune that occurs after a mistake restores fairness.
However, this sense of immanent justice is lost if the misfortune and the fault are not proportionate: for example, if the subject who was not charitable is hit by a car and paralysed for life.
A psychological mechanism, based on empathy, makes it possible to understand the chain of cause and effect. When guilt has not been suppressed, it focuses thought on one's own discomfort caused by the suffering inflicted on others. The attention is then diverted from the external reality : if the subject walks along a path lined with obstacles, distracted, he will not see the one that will make him fall.
« All exculpatory strategies tend to reduce empathic sensitivity
and awareness of reality. »
C – The adult's moral sense, its deviations and pathologies :
Two major transformations linked to the development of societies have profoundly modified human behaviour : the need to find a universal means of exchange, and the need to put oneself forward in order to exist.
a - Money - from altruism to egoism - The transformations of the modern brain : 1 - From exchange to power :
For millions of years, in animal societies, cooperation has been the most efficient way to exploit the wealth of the environment. This cooperation, which is natural within the same species, can also be observed between species that are a priori competitors [see : Cooperation between different species - in french].
In humans, after the alliance of skills, another system of sharing, bartering, has become established between different cultures.
Complementarity of skills.
Complementarity of needs.
However, this innovative system had a drawback : the good offered was not always the one sought. A universal medium of exchange had to be found, which turned out to be money.
Use of a universal intermediary.
Today the power that its possession brings has put humans in competition and most cognitive resources are mobilised to appropriate it. Possession opens up access to all goods and all powers.
With it, happiness is no longer in shared feelings, but in the satisfaction that possession brings.
This is what experimental economics experiments show : economics students are more selfish than others.
Two processes are involved :
- Comparative studies of first-year students in various disciplines have shown that young people entering economics studies are more selfish than others from the start.
This predisposition is then reinforced during the learning process. The rhetoric taught in economics courses develops students' narcissism, self-gratification and sense of power over others and reinforces their egoism over the years.
The development of a certain "art of language" would therefore favour the goal to be achieved to the detriment of sensitivity.
This reinforces the thinking of those who believe in fundamental egoism, because, for them, true altruism means that those who act with kindness gain nothing psychologically, or even lose something.
Are all people selfish ?
The erasure of consciousness ?
A consequence of the domination of rhetoric over feelings.
Fortunately, this view of the human being is not a universal rule. Many traditional cultures see the human being primarily as a social and cooperative being.
In South Africa, for example, the term Ubuntu, which has no equivalent in a Western language, has a very broad meaning and covers a range of natural human feelings such as goodness, shared humanity, generosity, kindness and greatness of spirit.
How could the extraordinary invention of money, capable of enabling all kinds of exchanges, have altered the 'ubuntu' of the human being to such an extent ?
What about the narcissism and egoism that arise from its use in our time ?
2 - Money and the organised lie :
If money constitutes a real progress in the structuring of societies and in the improvement of living conditions for everyone, acquiring it can become an addiction, lead to abuses and jeopardise the future of these societies.
To acquire it, everything is possible.
We have seen that sales arguments do not hesitate to use lies [in french] to influence the consumer.
If the moral sense uses innate capacities of the brain, the same capacities can also serve it. These are :
- The pleasure circuits,
- curiosity : attention is drawn to anything new. The spectacular and the new are more attractive than what we already know,
- statistics : what is most widely disseminated is necessarily true.
This is how fake news can spread.
They exploit three flaws in the functioning of the human brain : the absence of a critical mind, the desire to promotoneself by relaying information, or the lure of gain.
Thus, an extraordinary event, put forward, will attract all those curious about novelty. Then, widely disseminated without any critical spirit, it becomes authentic…
So how do you acquire money? One creates a fake news website hosting advertisements aimed at selling.
This is how the fake news "A paedophile and cannibal condemned to death asked for a child for his last meal" was able to earn its creator €15,000.
It is known that all the false information disseminated on the Internet brings in 2.5 billion euros for its creators, hosts and distributors.
b – Narcissism and the loss of empathy :
Another pathology, narcissism, also seems to be specific to humans.
The narcissist is described as someone who is convinced of his own merit and superiority, certain that he does not have to follow the rules that constrain others.
While granting himself many rights, he is not bothered by any duty towards others from whom he expects flattery, admiration, recognition and submission.
1 - Loss of empathy :
One of the main characteristics of this personality disorder is the absence of empathy and compassion. The narcissist is able to recognise the feelings, thoughts and intentions of others, but this recognition is linked more to the cognitive areas of the brain than to sensitivity.
Stefan Röpke, a psychiatrist at the Charité University (Berlin), and his colleagues conducted a study on 34 subjects, half of whom had narcissistic personality disorder. After showing that the latter did indeed have a deficit in empathy, they observed a decrease in the thickness of the cerebral cortex in the insula, a region involved in compassionate processes.
This difficulty in feeling empathy leads to selfishness.
2 - Impossible anticipation :
In humans, empathy is complemented by the ability to anticipate these feelings : even before hurting another person, physically or morally, we can know how they will suffer.
For the egoist, it is impossible to anticipate events, whether they involve feelings or reality. Thus, the brain of the egoist, blinded by the satisfaction of his desires, will be indifferent, for example, to global warming. This future is too far away for the desires he wants to satisfy as soon as possible.
In an experiment conducted by Tobias Brosch and his colleagues at the University of Geneva, some thirty participants first filled in a questionnaire to assess the degree to which they were self-centred. Then, while their brain activity was measured by fMRI, they were asked to rate the severity of a series of climate change-related consequences, spread out to 2085.
The researchers found that self-centred people are much less concerned than others about what will happen after they die. These results are related to the activity of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which under normal conditions is activated when we imagine the distant future. However, in selfish people, no increase in activity was observed when they were told of a climate catastrophe in the year 2080.
This experiment can be compared with patients with a lesion of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, patients studied by the neurologist Antonio Damasio : having difficulty anticipating the consequences of their actions, these patients often make absurd decisions.
3 - The evolution of current behaviour - more narcissism and less empathy :
Several studies focusing on behavioural change in recent decades show both an increase in narcissism and a reduction in the ability to empathise.
Until the end of the 19th century, traditional societies maintained a certain stability. Everyone had their place, and there was no need to put oneself forward.
In the first half of the 20th century, however, the beginnings of industrial society and the race for progress led to more freedom and mobility. Each person then had to persuade others of his or her value, all too often forgetting the existence of the other.
A recent meta-analysis was conducted with 16,475 American students who answered the same questionnaire assessing their degree of narcissism. The results showed that the number of narcissists increased by 30% between 1979 and 2006.
In addition to these sociological causes, there has been an educational change.
Whereas in the past it was exceptional to pay attention to the needs of the child, a change in mentality has taken place, often giving the child a central place. This emphasis on the child and his or her needs seems to have facilitated the emergence of a generation with heightened narcissism. To this was added, very often, the renunciation by parents or society of their educational obligations.
Another study, conducted between 1979 and 2009, explored the empathy scores obtained by 13,737 students. It appears that empathy has declined significantly since the 2000s.
Sarah Konrath (a social psychologist at the University of Michigan) found that students currently score about 40% lower than their predecessors who were 30 years older.
In parallel with the emergence of the child king, the welfare state (every man for himself and the state for all) has developed in the West. Thus, people call the social services when they see a needy person on the ground, rather than looking after them themselves.
Today, to know the percentage of humans capable of empathy and compassion, one only has to look at how many people, at the height of a pandemic, wore a mask, a sign of care and respect for the most fragile.
c – Happiness and pleasure between sadism and masochism :
When making people suffer brings pleasure, we speak of sadism. On the contrary, when suffering brings pleasure, we speak of masochism.
Jean Decety, Carla Harenski and their colleagues (Universities of Chicago, New Mexico, Albuquerque and Wisconsin) were able to study, with the help of a scanner, the brain activity of sadistic criminals who were shown videos of people being tortured.
I like to suffer !
I like to cause pain !
They were able to observe that the sadist's brain was very strongly activated in the anterior insula, an area of perception of other people's pain, which is also linked to awareness of one's own body. Moreover, the activity of this area is accompanied by intense activity in the cerebral amygdala, the hypothalamus and the ventral striatum, three regions involved in sexual arousal and pleasure. Thus, in the brain, cruelty appears as joint activity between areas of pain perception and areas related to pleasure and arousal.
Another study has also shown that the sight of injuries inflicted on others generates an erection in the sadist.
The same brain link exists between masochism and pleasure
It is currently unknown whether this association between suffering and pleasure is genetic or whether it could be the result of 'learning'.
However, if we remember the effects of voluntary control of emotions, we have seen that, in the brain, the insula is the area of emotions and creativity. It is also the area of compassion.
But when emotions are repressed, the ability to feel decreases, the feelings of well-being and happiness also fade away, and pleasure replaces them.
In the other case, well-being is inseparable from the presence of the other person, whose absence arouses anxiety and jealousy. The disappearance of the person who "generates happiness" reveals an inner malaise which can lead to suicide or murder. We "need" the other person, and their absence reveals our inner emptiness for which we blame them.
... and need.
The same confusion exists between 'being happy' and 'experiencing pleasure'. We will simply use the definition in the "Le Robert" dictionary to understand that pleasurehas little in common with the inner peace that happiness brings.
In human relations, we observe that indifference as well as cruelty can give pleasure :
- earning money at the expense of the person who does not have what is needed,
- or hurting the other.
This link is found in the brain where the nucleus accumbens is activated during pleasure or cruelty.
While it is understandable that a region of the brain is involved in the sensation of pleasure, it is more difficult to conceive that pleasure can be experienced in cruelty, even if one has experienced this feeling.
However, if we accept that unhappiness can lead to acts of violence, we can understand that hurting the person who hurt us soothes the anger. It is the relief experienced then that is perceived as a pleasure ; it is therefore not linked to a real pleasure, but rather to the easing of a painful tension.
Freud described this phenomenon. A repressed childhood pain can resurface and express itself in cruelty... This is how repressed childhood memories increase the inner emotional pressure. Emotions need to be expressed.
To understand this phenomenon, we can compare it to the one that occurs when a maintained flame increases the pressure in a pressure cooker. A safety valve is essential.
Putting your finger on the valve and preventing the steam from escaping can lead to an explosion.
In the case of emotions, to control them is to deplete one's energy by preventing a vital function. The resulting unhappiness can lead to illness or, sometimes, result in an outburst of violence.
Hence the interest of research carried out in neurobiology to understand the mechanisms involved.
How then could we recognise an evolved and matured moral sense ?
It would be when everyone acts, towards themselves and others, with feelings of equality and brotherhood.
« Shared well-being is the sensitive expression
of what reason today calls "moral sense. »