I spent a few days in the southern United States earlier this year. He was in Alabama, the heart of the Conservative constituency, when Republican Donald Trump supporters broke into the Capitol during the electoral college vote, confirming the victory of Democrat Joe Biden.
Alabama and Alaska had already cast their votes for Trump when the session was suspended to discuss the Arizona state census. Shortly afterwards the plenary was occupied.
On television, the scenes were scary. In the living room of the house I was in, my mother-in-law, a cute Latin American of almost 90, was talking on the phone. He supported the invaders and called out to the Democrats “who broke the law and gave Trump a coup”.
I was happy to be there at 46 and not at the height of my early 20s. Life has taught me, happily or unfortunately, to be silent – but it still does not prevent me from thinking.
And very quietly I realized that I was watching the paradox of morality live: We support the absurd precisely in order to fight what we consider absurd; We support violence against what we believe to be violent.
History is full of such examples. These are cases like activists bombing family planning clinics and killing volunteers in what they believe to be “defending life”. These are the protests that ended in dozens of deaths to call for an end to the deaths in the Vietnam War, for example.
When did that which was immoral became moral? How does our belief override the rational disapproval of extreme acts and begin to condone them because they serve purposes we deem desirable? What is morality and where is it in the brain – if so?
Some of the answers come from a study by the University of Chicago that was published in the last 2020 edition of the journal AJOB Neuroscience. In it, 41 American men and women between the ages of 18 and 38 answered various questions about beliefs and political engagement so that researchers could understand the moral values of the volunteers.
During a functional MRI scan, they each saw a printout (e.g. illegal immigration) and had to click the approve or disapprove buttons as they read. When the button was clicked, the same volunteer saw a picture of a conflict and was asked to reply, “How appropriate was the violence depicted there?”
The result shows that the neural circuits triggered by violence that we consent to (because they are supposed to fight something that we want to fight) are completely different from the brain circuits triggered by acts of violence we condemn, because they fight what we approve of.
When we morally condemn violence, we activate our dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a structure that knows and respects social norms (those that consider confrontation inadequate).
However, when violence reinforces our moral beliefs, we trigger more internal brain structures that make up our reward cycle and enable a response based on subjective values and kick off the prefrontal cortex. It’s the neuroscience of decision.
The political trial of Republican Donald Trump, who is accused of promoting acts of violence on Capitol Hill, begins next week. But every judge’s neural circuitry was built over decades. Yours and ours.
Do you remember Dexter (who, by the way, is returning in the second half) the family man and respected Miami police officer who acted like a serial killer at night and applied his own moral code?
In the book that made the series, Dexter relates how he feels after committing one of his crimes: “By 4:30 in the morning the priest was all clean. I felt so much better. Killing makes me feel good. (…) It’s a sweet release, a necessary release from all the little internal hydraulic valves. (…) It has to be done right at the right time with the right partner – very complicated, but very necessary “.
We are like this: We admit violence when it is at the service of what we believe in. Our neural circuits are Machiavellian at heart, and pretend that the ends justify the means.
The problem is when, like Dexter, we start to believe that violence is necessary.
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