How do we humans develop the values that permit us to classify objects as beautiful or ugly and to judge actions as good or evil? What is the basis for the moral judgments we pronounce? Where are good social conduct and ethical principles grounded? Humans have long been preoccupied with such questions informally, in their day-to-day lives, and quite formally within philosophy and anthropology. Recently, however, as cognitive science and neurobiology have succeeded in approaching a number of mind and behavior problems, these questions have begun to be asked from the cognitive and neurobiological perspectives as well.
A traditional answer to these questions assumes that there has been a historical process of values construction permitted by the extraordinary development of human intelligence. The intelligent constructions would have been perfected and transmitted through generations all the way to ourselves. Our aim here is to consider the degree of invention involved in that intelligent construction. Does the construction really spring forth from the perception of human interactions and the creative reasoning over such perceptions, with little or no antecedent in humans who would not have had human values and in nonhuman species? Or might it be that the intelligent construction resembles somewhat more a discovery of antecedents? The antecedents would have been present in biological structures long before humans acknowledged their presence and began manipulating them intelligently. The discovery would have been followed by abundant elaboration in a social space.
We favor the latter possibility. We believe that there was a biological blueprint for the intelligent construction of human values, and that the biological blueprint was present in nonhuman species and early humans. We also believe that a variety of natural modes of biological response, which include those known as emotions, already embody such values. They too were present in nonhuman species and early humans.
As will be made clear in the text ahead, we do not wish to minimize the role of social interactions and cultural history in the construction, refinement, codification and transmission of those values. We are not reducing human values to biological inherited instincts. We simply wish to suggest that the construction
1 University of Iowa College of Medicine, Department Neurology, Iowa City IA 52242, USA; e-mail: [email protected]
was constrained and oriented in certain directions by preexisting biological conditions. It did not enjoy infinite freedom. In no way does this view reduce the merit of the intelligent construction; neither does it oblige culture to follow biology blindly.
The biological blueprint for human values can be found in the machinery ofhomeostasis
In all life forms, there is a collection of systems that permits organisms to maintain biological processes within the range compatible with life. In complex species, the regulation of life depends on a close interaction between brain systems and body-proper systems, and it is, in effect, controlled by a specific collection of well-coordinated brain regions (see Damasio 1999 and 2003 for a review).
Life regulation is anything but a neutral process. It is through-and-through an active, committed, struggling process that seeks optimal parameters for the continuation of life. It involves choices and preferences, although at the basic levels those choices and preferences are automatic. The life regulation system is built to achieve certain goals, among them the maintenance of health, the prevention of circumstances leading to death, and the procurement of states of life tending toward optimal function rather than merely neutral or defective function. In other words, the life regulation system - homeostasis, for short - inherently embodies values in the sense that it rejects certain conditions of operation, those that would lead to disease and death, and seeks conditions that lead to survival in optimal conditions. Homeostasis has clear preferences, likes and dislikes, if you will.
The levers ofhomeostasis are defined by conditions that conscious and reflective humans can easily describe as states of pain and punishment, at one end of the spectrum, or pleasure and reward at the other. What we label as pain and pleasure is, in effect, the experience of particular configurations of the physiological state characterized by certain chemical parameters of the internal milieu, by the smooth muscle tone of viscera, by behaviors enacted in the musculoskeletal system, and by the distribution of neuromodulators in neural tissue. States of pain and punishment, if maintained over long periods of time without counteraction, lead to disease and death; states of pleasure and reward lead to health and well-being.
It is a demonstrable fact that what we usually call good and evil is aligned with categories of actions related to particular ranges of homeostatic regulation. What we call good actions are, in general, those actions that lead to health and well-being states in an individual, a group or even a species. What we call evil, on the other hand, pertains to malaise, disease or death in the individual, the group, or the species.
The same lines of thinking can be applied to the origins of our ability to classify objects or situations as beautiful or ugly. When we consider the range of operation of homeostatic processes, we can objectively describe states of efficiency, states of inefficiency and states in between. Efficient regulatory states are those, for example, in which the performance of regulation is not only adequate but timely, with minimal consumption of energy, minimal impediment, ease, and smoothness. Given the multi-tiered structure of the homeostatic process, the no tion of harmony is perfectly apt to describe such states. The inefficient part of the regulatory spectrum is characterized by higher energy consumption, inadequate and untimely performance, impediment, difficulty, raggedness, and discoordination. The notions of disharmony and discord are not far behind either.
We suggest that, at the dawn of human values, the objects we classified as beautiful were associated with efficient states, either because they occurred in life circumstances in which the homeostatic range was efficient or because, given the perceptual and motor design of an organism, the objects themselves were capable of causing efficient homeostatic states. By contrast, ugly objects were those associated with inefficient ranges of homeostasis, either by co-occurrence or by actual causation.
A cautionary note, comparable to the one we made earlier regarding the origins of the notions of good and evil, applies here as well. We are not trying to reduce esthetic perception to efficient or inefficient physiological states. There is more to the "sublime percept" we experience when we hear Bach or contemplate a canvas by Rembrandt. Without a doubt, there is an emotive and feeling state but there is also a particular kind of cognition associated with it, one that allows a highly coordinated, coherent, and rapid evocation of pertinent knowledge whose access is, in and of itself, the prelude to yet another wave of emotion and feeling. Again our intent here is not reductive. We are simply pointing to origins, to the moorings of the construction. We are not saying that the construction is the same as the moorings (see Changeux, 2005; Singer 2005 for related discussions).
Some natural modes ofbiological response embody human values
It is apparent that emotions - from the simple background emotions to the primary emotions such as happiness and sadness, fear and anger, surprise and disgust, as well as the more elaborate social emotions - are related to states of homeostatic regulation and bring together action programs that assist homeostatic regulation directly or indirectly. All emotions can play an important role in social processes, intervening to alert individuals to impending problems, to correct possible problems, or to reward effective solutions. These roles are especially apparent for the social emotions and their ensuing feelings. We are referring here to a large group of emotions, among which the prominent exemplars are compassion or sympathy, an emotion related to a concern for others that commonly results in feelings of empathy; the emotions of embarrassment, shame, and guilt, all concerned in one way or another with the blaming of the self for some action that violated social norms; the emotions of disgust, indignation, and contempt, all of which concern the blaming of others for a norm violation; and a remarkable and often forgotten group of emotions that include gratitude, awe and admiration, pride, and elevation, all of which relate to praise for others or for the self as a result of perceiving some highly efficient solution to a particular problem, one that tends to coincide with respect for a highly-prized set of social norms (see Haidt 2001, 2002 for reviews on the scope of social emotions).
Like all other emotions, social emotions are action programs, that is, packages of actions with a given pattern that succeed in modifying the state of the emoting organism and change the environment as well. Experiencing the social emotions results in social feelings and, as is the case with other emotions, leads to the acquisition of a baggage of related ideas, often referred to as "scripts," ideas that co-occur with the deployment of the social emotions. As is the case with other emotions, social emotions assist with learning, recall, and reasoning (Damasio 2003).
It is apparent from a consideration of the patterns of social emotions that they reflect profound human values that are commonly expressed in ethical and esthetic notions. For example, compassion is closely linked to kindness, forgiveness, generosity and the tendency to act in a comforting way; disgust, indignation and contempt are inseparable from the recognition of a violation of norms carried out by another, and the tendency to serve punishment on the violator; shame and guilt are inseparable from the recognition of self-committed violations and the tendency to punish the self preemptively; gratitude, awe, and elevation, all recognize, to different degrees, the noble (beautiful) action (or noble, beautiful object) along with the desire to reward the noble actor. Moral principles, including a budding system of justice, are patently embedded in these natural responses. So are some fundamental principles of esthetics.
It is also apparent that social emotions are present in nonhuman species. The great apes, some species of monkeys (such as the capuchins), wolves, bats, and birds demonstrate action programs that can be assimilated to those of human social emotions (de Waal 1996; Brosnan and de Waal 2003). This is especially clear with an emotion such as compassion, which appears quite fully fleshed in the great apes, but is also detectable in behaviors suggesting embarrassment, disgust and indignation, gratitude, and pride, found in numerous other species. We are not suggesting that these emotions are precisely the same in animals and humans, let alone the ensuing feelings. We are suggesting that a powerful precursor to those emotions is already present in nonhuman species.
How social emotions were biologically put together and became a fixture of so many nonhuman and human brains is not clear. Our suggestion is that they depended on the primitives provided by homeostatic regulation and by another set of related primitives concerned with both a drive for cooperation and a drive to serve punishments. The drive for cooperation is a means for delivering rewards to others and to the self, relative to actions conducive to the good and the beautiful, for individuals and for the community. The drive to serve punishments leads to pain, in the self and in others, as a consequence of actions that would have led to disruption of the homeostatic range in other individuals and, by extension, the group. Both the cooperative and the punisher drives would have been necessary to shape the sort of social emotions we developed (see Fehr and Gachter 2002; de Quervain et al, 2004). Other neural factors will have played a critical role as well. The expanded cognitive capacities permitted by the development ofhigher-order cortices in prefrontal, temporal and parietal regions are important examples (Fuster 1989; Dehaene 2005). And so is the arrival into the brain of the most complex species of a class of neurons known as "mirror neurons" (Rizzolatti and Craighero 2005).
Elsewhere we have outlined the mechanisms required for an emotionally competent stimulus (ECS) to cause an emotional state and a feeling (Damasio 1994, 1999; Damasio et al. 2000). From the processing perspective, we have postulated four stages: 1) the appraisal of the ECS; 2) the triggering of the emotion; 3) the execution; and 4) the emotional state. Feeling of the emotional state follows. Although these stages occur largely in sequence, there is evidence that the process includes recursions and reiterations that add to its complexity (Adolphs et al. 2005; Rudrauf 2005).
The key neural structures involved in the process are:
1) the sensory association and higher-order cortices in which appraisal of the ECS occurs;
2) the amygdala, ventromedial prefrontal cortices and the anterior insula, in which the triggering takes place and whose activity also influences appraisal;
3) the basal forebrain, hypothalamus, brain stem nuclei, and anterior cingulate cortex, which are the direct executors of the emotional state; and
4) the varied compartments of the body proper (internal milieu, viscera, musculoskeletal system) and central nervous system, in which the emotional state comes to be fully instantiated^
The feeling stage depends on a host of somatosensing regions in brain stem and somatosensory cortices and on higher-order cortices. The experience of body-proper aspects of feeling - whether actually implemented in the body or simulated in CNS - depends on the former brain regions. The aspects of feeling related to the evocation of ideas and scripts consonant with the emotion depends on the higher-order cortices. The diagrams in Figures 1-3 provide a quick summary of these mechanisms.
How could we have bridged the distance between social emotions and human values as we know them now? Here is one possibility. A suitable ECS - for example, the sight of an individual who is suffering or the witnessing of either violations or observances of established norms - would have been evaluated and triggered a social emotion and the corresponding feeling. A moral or esthetic intuition would have ensued. Over time, the intuition would have been culturally fine-tuned: debated by the collective, enhanced or diminished, or even suppressed. The products of this cultural fine-tuning would have been transmitted, first orally then by written records. Eventually, they would have been codified in the form of social conventions: ethical rules, laws and systems ofjustice, and esthetic canons.
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