Not a giant Stephen Pinker fan. He's sort of the Madonna of the popular cog sci lit crowd and there are folks getting more interesting and ultimately more telling results. But the guy can write, and now he's turned his eye to the possibility of a human "moral instinct." I can track my interest in this area to the work a couple of decades ago of one of the most truly eclectic and consistently interesting scholars of our time, Howard Margolis (who?), but Pinker may get a tad more attention.
His basic point is that there is indeed biologically based and evolutionarily directed cognitive wiring that influences what we perceive as "right" and "wrong," and he rightly notes that the new MRI tech is in fact showing that different areas of the brain do indeed work when a subject considers moral problems and solutions. The frontal lobes in particular seem implicated in our ability to determine right action and to go forth and do such. There also seem to be cognitive grounds for our "do undo others," a point Margolis was making 25 years ago but now with more empirical backing.
It's not a real long article (note the "real long"), and it's definitely worth your time just for the overview of what researchers are thinking and doing about this right now. And it clearly raises the questions we need to be considering in corrections sentencing, particularly as we approach how we will deal with evidence that brain abnormalities, not free will, do "cause" criminal behavior. (Don't automatically assume I'm going to be touchy-feely on this.) I especially like this quote near the end, which is directly applicable to what we do and need to address:
. . . Our habit of moralizing problems, merging them with intuitions of purity and contamination, and resting content when we feel the right feelings, can get in the way of doing the right thing.
Far from debunking morality, then, the science of the moral sense can advance it, by allowing us to see through the illusions that evolution and culture have saddled us with and to focus on goals we can share and defend. As Anton Chekhov wrote, “Man will become better when you show him what he is like.”
(h/t Gene Expression)