A biological basis for morality?  

Posted by Denis Haack in , ,

Recently the oxytocin levels in Toad Hall have been rather high. This mainly has to do with the Angora rabbit, Honeysuckle, that lives on our back porch and the litter of 10 kits she produced after a weekend fling with a handsome young buck named Heathcliff. She is new to mothering, so she was helped begin nursing by an inoculation of oxytocin… well, this is probably more than you need to hear, at least on this blog. For more such news you can go here.

Anyway, oxytocin was suddenly a topic of conversation around here the weekend the baby bunnies were born. That weekend also happened to be the time John and Leslie Eddy, from Cos Cob, CT were here for a visit. So they too were swept up in talk about oxytocin, which really is not something I am prone to normally give much thought to. But there it is. After they returned home John alerted us to a fascinating TED talk on “Trust, Morality—and Oxytocin.”

I recommend this talk, and encourage you to watch the video and think through what Paul Zak is saying. I’d like to begin a conversation here—in the comments on this blog—about this video and Zak’s ideas, and so have appended a few questions that might be worth considering. My questions don’t cover all that needs to be discussed, but the ones I list here will get us started and prepare the way for the rest of what should be addressed.

Questions for reflection:
            1. How do you respond to Zak’s presentation as a talk? Consider what he communicates in such a brief presentation—how effective, interesting, persuasive, and informative is his TED talk?
            2. As objectively as possible, state Zak’s basic premise(s), and the reasons he gives for accepting it.
            3. What ideas did Zak make attractive in his talk? How did he accomplish this?
            4. With what in Zak’s presentation do you agree? Why?
            5. How do you respond to the notion that might be a molecular basis for empathy or other aspects of behavior we classify as “moral”?
            6. Assuming that all the findings in Zak’s research are valid and confirmed by more testing, to what extent and in what way does your understanding of morality need to change?
            7. Some Christians might express the fear that if some biological or molecular basis for moral behavior is identified, any claim for a divine basis for morality or law would be rendered implausible. How would you respond? What Scriptures would you appeal to? What Scriptures might they appeal to as the reason for their concern? How would you respond to these texts?
            8. Reflect on Zak’s prescription of 8 hugs per day. On the one hand, it can sound a bit sentimental and certainly is incapable of solving the intractable problems of our badly broken world. Even 108 hugs per day will not fulfill the deepest yearnings of the human heart. On the other hand, the corners of the world we inhabit are filled with lonely people who feel unnoticed and underappreciated, for whom simple human touch can bring a moment of respite and a glimmer of hope. How does Zak’s prescription resonate with the Christian mandate to love our neighbor?

Paul Zak’s bio (from TED): A professor at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California, Zak believes most humans are biologically wired to cooperate, but that business and economics ignore the biological foundations of human reciprocity, risking loss: when oxytocin levels are high in subjects, people’s generosity to strangers increases up to 80 percent; and countries with higher levels of trust—lower crime, better education—fare better economically.

I look forward to reading your comments.

This entry was posted at Monday, November 07, 2011 and is filed under , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


You've only given me two hugs today. I want six more.

November 7, 2011 at 3:30 PM
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November 7, 2011 at 3:32 PM

I'm interested to hear more of his mother's story - did she become a nun after having him? Was she disgraced if she had a baby as a nun? What is his position on religion? It seems he was distancing himself from religion, but it may just have been inappropriate to go into religion for his talk to that audience.

November 9, 2011 at 12:23 AM

May I note that there's a big difference between providing a biological basis for morality and merely explaining moral behavior in biological terms?

November 18, 2011 at 5:56 PM

Denis, sorry I haven't been around in a while. Thanks for posting this video. As I watched I began to wonder if Charles Finney might have had high levels of oxytocin as he introduced American Christianity to the altar call. As far as your question regarding the appeal to scripture in regards to Zak's findings...It would be quite a leap to believe that Zak has demonstrated any counter belief system. On the contrary it only seems that his findings reveal a deeper complexity that only points to a designer. But I do suppose presuppositions matter as one unpacks this. What I do believe that it demonstrates is just another attempt at man to be "good" and "moral". Problem is, as Zak's findings testify to, we all have some sort of oxytocin inhibitor; sort of the equivalent to a physiological depravity. Also if oxytocin leads to good moral decisions then it gives us another opportunity to worship the creation (oxytocin, scenarios which bring increased oxytocin or even ourselves) rather than the Creator (Romans 1). And further if oxytocin is the "morality" chemical and someone finds opportunity to administer oxytocin to humans as an attempt to create a better ordered society they would have to either continually administer it to all or figure out ways to naturally increase oxytocin. This can only lead to addictions to scenarios that create oxytocin or eventually we'll all have permanent nasal inhalers hooked to our faces. Either way it ignores the restorative nature of love, grace and forgiveness which is an inhibition of beauty.

November 30, 2011 at 10:38 AM

That would be interesting, I agree. TED is a place where anything can be discussed, so religion would not be automatically off the table. I suspect that his naturalism is such an assumption that his easy dismissal of "top down" morality is really just that: an assumption, not the considered result of his research.
Thanks for commenting.

November 30, 2011 at 2:41 PM

Quite correct, of course.
What is fascinating to me is not that he can make this leap without defending it, but that today no real defense is considered necessary by so many. In that sense, this lecture is really an example of scientism, and inelegantly argued to boot.
Always appreciate your comments, my friend.

November 30, 2011 at 2:44 PM

Very well said. (And welcome back--been missing your voice.)
I find your suggestion about Finney to be hilarious, though also quite insightful. On the one hand, we should expect there to be a biological (or bodily) response to religious liturgy for the simple reason we are embodied creatures. On the other, Finney's real significance was to make the manipulation of response a legitimate and expected Christian endeavor. A sad thing, and one important step in making the gospel something to be marketed.

November 30, 2011 at 2:50 PM

One more thought. I read this in the Foreward of Elyse Fitzpatrick's book Give Them Grace. The foreward was written by Tullian Tchividjian who was quoting from Michael Horton's book Christless Christianity where Michael presents to us an idea of what things would look like if Satan really ruled a city. Michael was quoting Donald Grey Barnhouse. (Just making sure I give credit here where it's due!) here's what Barnhouse described which addresses the idea of looking good or being good that Zak seemes to be concerned about..."If Satan took over Philadelphia (city where Barnhouse pastored) all of the bars would be closed, pornography banished, and pristine streets would be filled with tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other. There would be no swearing. The children would say, "yes, sir" and "no ma'am," and the churches would be full every Sunday...where Christ is NOT preached."

Rather profound.

Blessings to you and Margie as the winter weather begins to settle into the great upper Midwest.

November 30, 2011 at 10:58 PM

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