In Review

Origins of the Moral ‘Ought’

By Arthur J. Dyck

My intense interest in moral development and moral knowledge has recently put me in touch with very exciting research in neurobiology, highly relevant to ethics. Indeed, neuroscientists began in 2002 to speak of “neuroethics” as a whole new field. What the neuroscientists are teaching is more accessible than you might expect, and the titles given here are a good place to start.

Very broadly considered, neurobiological research is providing support for regarding probability as a natural phenomenon that identifies and exhibits a common morality, present even in cultures that differ significantly in some of the ways what’s is moral is  perceived, expressed, and practiced. From a practical and political perspective, this research helps us legitimate our expectations that individuals, groups, and governments should be held responsible for protecting basic human rights. Second, neurobiological research has begun to enlarge our understanding of some of the natural phenomena critical for attaining and acting upon moral knowledge.

Without empathy, for example, it is not possible to make morally responsible decisions—if we do not know how other people feel, how can we benefit them, or avoid harm to them? Remark-ably, it has been demonstrated that there is a physiological substitute for empathy: Those who could most accurately rate the negative emotions of their spouses had physiological reactions similar to the spouses being responded to, and women and men did not differ in this regard. And human beings develop empathy very early, at 10-14 months of age, with the growth of the brain and with parental nurture. According to what is being discovered, the possibility of attaining moral knowledge, and acting in accord with it, is both biologically and environmentally determined, and cannot be linked to a purely linguistically or culturally determined phenomenon. The self and its moral role also emerge early, usually by the 18th month. At this stage, a child can represent to itself what “might be,” and encode a contrast between an actual and a possible state of affairs.

As Gordon Allport observed in 1955, the moral “ought” is experienced when individuals relate choices lying before them to their ideal self-image. These neurobiological depictions of the cognitive functions of empathy and our ideal selves accord very well with how I, as an ethicist, have come to view these natural phenomena.


Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter  More Than IQ, by Daniel Goleman.  Bantam Books, 1995.

Descartes’ Error:  Emotion, Reason, and  the Human Brain, by Antonio Damasio.  G. P. Putnam, 1994.

Affect Regulation and  the Origin of the Self:  The Neurobiology of Emotional Development,  by Allan N. Schore. Lea, 1999.

Arthur J. Dyck is Saltonstall Professor of  Population Ethics at the Harvard School of Public Health and a Member of the Faculty of  Divinity. A new edition of his book Rethinking Rights and Responsibilities: The Moral Bonds  of Community has just been published by  Georgetown University Press.

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