The Moral Molecule

Paul Zaks, in an entertaining lecture on the TEDS website, claims to have found the moral molecule. He claims that the neuropeptide, oxytocin, when released into the bloodstream, causes us to become more moral. He equates morality with empathy and compassion. We connect with other people and feel with them more, and so we are more likely to do good to them under the influence of oxytocin. So he gives a moral value to the effects of a chemical that promotes birthing and bonding in mammals.

I wish I could find him interacting with findings that oxytocin also brings about feelings of envy and causes people to gloat. Is lack of compassion more a blot on your morality than envy and feelings of schadenfreude? You hear people on the left claiming that capitalism is immoral because it is based on greed. And you hear people on the right saying that socialism and class warfare are immoral because they are based on envy. So is ideology just a matter of something secreted by the pituitary gland?

Maybe Zaks will come up with an answer for these kinds of questions. But for now here is my take. I think envy is just as wrong as greed. Rather than a moral molecule, I think we have an indifferent molecule. Once again, we don’t find anything morally real by looking inward. The Ten Commandments do not come down to “Thou shalt not block oxytocin.”

Human body chemistry has come about during ages of evolution. There has surely been a survival value in balancing oxytocin secretion with oxytocin inhibition. Practically, I can see oxytocin causing one to misuse credit during the Christmas season. And I can see the inhibition of oxytocin helping one to distrust scam artists. So I’m not sure I want to walk around in a cloud of chemically induced empathy. On the other hand, oxytocin is sometimes called the cuddle hormone and that’s nice.


About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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