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Agony

How We Stay Good
Merely being equipped with moral programming does not mean we always practice moral behavior. Some­ thing still has to boot up that software and configure it properly, and that something is the community. Hauser believes that all of us carry what he calls a sense of moral grammar—the ethical equivalent of the basic grasp of the structure of speech that most linguists believe is with us from birth. But just as syntax is nothing until words are built upon it, so too is a sense of right and wrong useless until someone gives you the tools that allow you to apply it effectively.

It’s the people around us who give us those tools. One of the most powerful strategies for enforcing group morals is the practice of shunning. If membership in a tribe is the way you ensure yourself food, family and protection from predators, being blackballed can be a terrifying thing. Religious believers as diverse as Ro­ man Catholics, Mennonites and Jehovah’s Witnesses have practiced their own forms of shunning—though the banishments may go by names like excommunica­ tion or disfellowshipping.

Sometimes shunning emerges spontaneously when a society of millions recoils at a single member’s acts. Casey Anthony, the Florida mother acquitted— wrongly, most people believe—of murdering her 2-year-old daughter, fled into hiding following her release after receiving death threats. O.J. Simpson’s 1995 acquittal of double-murder charges may have outraged people, but it did make the morality tale surrounding him much richer, as the culture as a whole turned its back on him, denying him work, expelling him from his country club, refusing him service in a restaurant. In 2007, when he attempted to publish a book about the murders, the outcry was so great that not only was the book pulled but also the publisher who commissioned the book was fired. She later sued her ex-bosses, alleging that she had been “shunned” and “humiliated.” That, the bosses might well have responded, was precisely the point.

“Human beings were small and vulnerable to predators,” says Barbara J. King, biological anthropologist at the College of William and Mary and author of Evolving God Avoiding banishment would be important to us. With so many redundant moral systems to keep us in line, why do we so often fall out of ranks? Sometimes we can’t help it, as when we’re suffering from clinical insanity. Tilings are different in the case of a serial killer, a cool and deliberate criminal who knows the meaning of his deeds yet continues to commit them. For neuro-scientists, the iciness of the acts calls to mind the case of Phineas Gage, the Vermont railway worker who in 1848 was injured when an explosion caused a tamping iron to be driven through his prefrontal cortex. Improbably, he survived, but he exhibited stark behavioral changes— becoming detached and irreverent, though never criminal. Ever since, scientists have looked for the roots of serial murder in the brain’s physical state.

TIME Your Brain: A User’s Guide Article on What Makes Us Moral ?

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