Moral relativity is the view that when it comes to morality, there are no absolutes and no objective right or wrong; moral rules are merely personal preferences and/or the result of one’s cultural, sexual or ethnic orientation. Well, a new study indicates that moral relativists may be half right — just not about the personal preferences, cultural, sexual, or ethnic thing. No, when it comes to moral relativity the key may just turn out to be magnets. The study, just published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists, discovered that by applying a magnet to a subject’s head, researchers could alter that person’s moral judgment, almost instantly.
The research team, led by Dr. Rebecca Saxe of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), asked volunteers to read a series of scenarios that involved moral decision-making. In one scenario, subjects judged if it was okay for a man to let his girlfriend walk across a bridge when he knew it was unsafe, even if she makes it across safely. In another scenario, subjects considered whether it was acceptable if a woman named Grace put a substance she believed to be sugar in her friend’s coffee, but it turned out to be poison. In another iteration of that same story, she believes she’s adding poison, and she’s adding that poison with evil intent, but it turns out to be sugar and her friend is just fine.
Normally, subjects forgive Grace for the accidental poisoning but condemn her for the deliberate attempt, and the same thing goes for the bridge incident and the two dozen other situations presented. But magnetic pulses seemed to change all that: when asked to judge the perpetrators, the subjects who had been exposed to magnetic impulses didn’t seem to find the risky forced walk across the bridge or the deliberate poisoning all that pernicious.
“If no harm was done, then subjects would judge [Grace’s behavior] as OK, even if the story made it clear Grace was trying to poison her friend. That’s the sort of moral judgment you often see in kids who are three- or four-years old,” said researcher Lianne Young.
To achieve the moral turnabout, the researchers used two different techniques, and both worked. In the first experiment, they stimulated a specific area of the brain known as the right temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) using magnetic impulses for 25 minutes before the subjects read the scenarios. Previous experiments had established that the TPJ, located just above and behind the right ear, becomes active when people think about the motivations and beliefs of other people. In other words, this is the part of the brain where moral judgment resides, and interestingly, the TPJ doesn’t finish developing until late teens or even early 20s in most individuals, which might explain some of the shockingly immoral behavior kids sometimes exhibit. (A point in favor of not treating children as adults when it comes to crime.)
In the second experiment, subjects only received magnetic stimulation to the TPJ in short, 500-milisecond bursts at the moment when asked to make a judgment. And those simple pulses clearly changed the way the subjects viewed morality, disrupting their normal ability to differentiate right from wrong.
For those who maintain that morality got handed down at Mt. Sinai and is the very thing that separates the saints from the sinners among us, the news may be hard to believe. “You think of morality as being a really high-level behavior,” says Dr. Saxe. “To be able to apply (a magnetic field) to a specific brain region and change people’s moral judgments is really astonishing.”
But her neighbor at Harvard University, Dr. Joshua Greene, says that in fact, it’s not so. “Moral judgment is just a brain process. That’s precisely why it’s possible for these researchers to influence it using electromagnetic pulses on the surface of the brain.” (When you think about it, Dr. Greene’s statement tips even further in the direction of moral relativity.)
It’s interesting to think about the implications. First, there’s the temptation to speculate about a future sci-fi scenario where morality gets bio-engineered. Already, some experts have considered useful ways to exploit this knowledge. For instance, Owen Jones, a professor of law and biology at Vanderbilt University says that knowledge about the biochemistry of morality might “enable sophisticated judgments about responsibility, harm and appropriate punishment.” According to Dr. Jones, “This study, and other recent studies like it, enable us to peer into the very brain activity that underlies and enables legal judgments.”
As for now, one may wonder if our increasing exposure to ambient electro-magnetic fields has any effect on moral development. Does the magnet really need to be pressed right up against that particular spot in the skull in order to influence morality, or are we all being gradually altered by long-term, constant bombardment from EMF exposure? Does talking on the phone influence moral development, given the EMF exposure near the TPJ? Given that studies show that in workplace environments, EMF exposures often are up to 10,000 times greater than the average exposure, it might explain some notorious corporate scandals so celebrated in the news. In any event, the next time you use a cell phone, you might want to hold it to your left ear, and even at that, you might want to invest in an EMF shielding device, unless you’re a moral relativist at heart.