For a long time it was considered that emotions were mere physiological responses, basic processes, phylogenetically ancient, where the origin of «primitive» behaviour lies. In short, emotions were considered animal traits that had to be controlled by human reason. In recent years, however, there has been a real revolution and the way human emotions are perceived has radically changed.
Humans, like other animals, react innately to certain situations that directly affect our survival or reproduction by generating emotions. When our life is in danger we feel fear; rotten food causes disgust; when our appetite is satisfied or we are in good company we feel happiness. These are some of the so-called basic emotions (their number varies between five and eight depending on authors). These basic emotions are added to secondary emotions, also called social emotions because they happen through interaction with other individuals, and these include guilt, envy, compassion, sympathy… Since humans are highly social animals, we can assume that our emotional repertoire has been favoured by natural selection, as the likelihood of transferring our genes to the next generation increases.
Research has located emotions in a central place in human cognition and especially in social cognition (the mental processes that enable us to act efficiently while interacting with other individuals in the group). Functional neuroimaging studies show that brain areas that are activated when we experience emotions and when we face social dilemmas (e.g. sharing or not) overlap. A crucial component in this brain circuit is the ventromedial part of the prefrontal cortex, located at the front of the brain. People who have suffered bilateral injuries in this area have serious problems to manage socially and show a deficiency in solving moral problems, despite having other unaltered cognitive abilities and a normal IQ. For example, in a dilemma such as, «Your child has been infected with a very dangerous virus and has plans to infect others. You can avoid it by shooting him/her with a gun. Would you pull the trigger?» Most injured subjects answer they would. However, killing a child is deemed unacceptable to most healthy people.
Another classic moral dilemma: «An out of control tram is about to run over five people tied to the track. You can press a button to divert the tram to a secondary road where it will find a passer-by who will die. Would you press the button? And if the only way to save those five was pushing a very fat person to the track to make the tram stop, would you do it?» Most people give a positive answer to the first question and a negative one to the second. However, from a purely rational point of view, the result is the same: the death of one person saves five lives. People with injured prefrontal cortices see no difference. Why do healthy people deal differently with the two situations? There is no clear answer to this question. Perhaps our morals have evolved in the context of direct personal contact, face to face. The second dilemma fits within this context and triggers an emotional response of rejection: it is not acceptable to «inflict harm» on an «innocent individual», not even to save others. However in the first case the button acts as an intermediary, making the action more impersonal and thus less able to generate the emotion we associate with an immoral act. It is not our reason but our emotions that guide our decision-making and it is good that it is so, especially when we are confronted with moral dilemmas.
Ester Desfilis. Serra Húnter Professor at the Department of Experimental Medicine. University of Lleida.
«It is not our reason but our emotions that guide our decision-making and it is good that it is so, especially when we are confronted with moral dilemmas»