Is morality hardwired?

The application of science can, according to AC Grayling, create serious ethical dilemmas. Indeed it can, but scientific data can also confound the designs of ideologues and cultural critics. Take, for example, recent neurological research which disproves the assertions of commentators who plough a moral relativist furrow when trying to convince us of their political prejudices.

In his fortnightly New Scientist column, Grayling the philosopher (not the Guardian Comment is Free wind-up merchant) discusses the implications of research which shows that across our species mirror neurons in the motor cortex of the brain fire in sympathy with what the individual perceives in the activity and experiences of others. That is, irrespective of ethnicity, nationality, gender or whatever, we create in our minds a model of what others are experiencing.

The essential point, says Grayling, is that mirror neurons underwrite the ability to recognise what helps or distresses others, what they suffer and enjoy, what they need and what harms them. Morality is therefore hard-wired into our neural network:

“So even when customs differ, fundamental morality does not; and if two societies differ over what they consider to be moral, one of them must just be plain wrong.”

Some of us already hold a belief that this is a defining characteristic of humanity, but this in itself is a prejudice. Or rather was. What the data now show is that the basis for morality is shared by all humans, and there is a universality to our being that crosses ethnic and cultural divides.