A Moral Gene?
Morality is often considered to be the domain of philosophers, not biologists. But scientists have often wondered what role our genomes play in directing our moral compass. Today, a paper was published in the open access journal PLoS ONE which found moral decision making was influenced by different forms of a single gene.
Picture yourself standing at branching train tracks with a unstoppable train barreling towards you. On one side, an evil villain has tied five people, while on the other, he has tied only one. You’ve got the switch in your hands which chooses which track the train goes down. Do you feel it’s morally acceptable to choose to kill the one instead of the five?
The scenario above is an example of foreseen harm. When such harm is unintentional, like in the train situation, most people are willing to go with Spock and say that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. But previous research has found that people taking a particular group of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) were different – overall, they were less willing to say that killing the one person is morally justified, even if it’s unavoidable.
Serotonin is a chemical released at the junctions between nerves as a part of signaling in the brain. Since lower levels of serotonin are linked to sadness and depression, it is thought that by preventing the reuptake of serotonin, SSRIs fake higher overall serotonin levels and thus boost happy feelings.