Prof. N. Doran Hunter


When discussing with my colleagues at the university the possibility that science might be on the cusp of declaring that the human brain is hard wired to make moral decisions, a gasp of rational unbelief and theological skepticism fills the room with miasmic laughter and Augustinian bemusement.

Wait a minute, you idealistic innocent they say, haven’t you experienced life, followed the stories in the newspapers, read theology and history, and absorbed the philosophers of the Western experience? Yes, I respond, but the advocates of neuroscience and game theory are suggesting, and rather strongly, that there does seem to be in the contemporary human brain a “deep moral structure driving … certain common values … and an intuitive moral sense” that can direct human activity.

That’s nice, my colleagues respond, but what about the current meltdown of Western economies driven by the personal greed and exploitation of others by unprincipled financial service scoundrels who profess to be simply applying the laws of capitalism: unfettered rationality, utility maximizing self-interest, and free will.

Yes, the neuroscientist will retaliate, and the “deep moral structure” built into the human brain can be overridden by the dorso-lateral pre-frontal cortex and the ventral-medial pre-frontal cortex of the brain, those parts of the brain that can mediate or curtail the emotional aspects of the brain that are the centers of moral sentiment.

And so it goes, we are either tainted with original sin and sated with self interest or we are innocent beings corrupted by unprincipled, venal leaders, and a culture that has been subjected to the diseases of concupiscence, libido dominandi, and avarice. Either way, the concept and practice of moral capitalism seems to be doomed. My colleagues need to consider the following information coming out of the studies produced by contemporary neuroscientists and game theorists.

Today neuroscientists are confirming what Plato and Aristotle taught us, namely that human beings are social and political creatures – that we have a natural desire to live in communities and to treat each other with respect and even some deference. Yes, some cognitive processes supervise us but our dominant guidance for human interaction is found in our lesser and higher forms of emotion.

Some lesser forms of emotion create problems and protections for us (fear, aggression, happiness, sadness, surprise, disgust), and some of the higher forms of emotion are critical for community building and continuance (trust, fairness, shame, guilt, embarrassment). Neuroscientists are suggesting to us that these emotions are at the center of our ability to experience the feelings and intuitions of what is right and wrong, good and evil, immoral and moral, when we engage in actions with others. In other words, our emotions are telling us how we should live with one another, and how we should do business with each other, and how governments should govern the governed.

Beyond our natural emotions of preserving life over death, the emotional buzz we get when helping someone else, the feelings of guilt we incur when lying about something important, the staggering emotion of love for another person, and the feeling of elation when successfully completing a complicated project, there do seem to be some universal moral emotions (feelings) that are critical to community integrity and personal interaction. These emotions are the moral glue that hold a community together and make an economic system work successfully, and cause governments to treat citizens with respect and individual dignity.

These emotions are translated into community myths, culture, institutions, processes, and the ordering of social and economic groups. The anthropologist and neuroscientist Donald Brown, in his important book Human Universals, has identified 373 universal moral emotions, of which 202 (54%) are directly related to individual moral conduct and are vital to the social, political, and economic success of the community. The neuroscientist Michael Shermer, in his book The Mind of the Market: Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans, and OtherTales from Evolutionary Economics, has attached some of Donald Brown’s universal moral emotions to the attributes and characteristics necessary for community formation and development, social amity, and economic prosperity.

For example: affection (necessary for altruism and cooperation), attachment (necessary for friendship and mutual aid), crying (expression of grief and moral pain), empathy (necessary for moral sense), generosity admitted (reward for cooperative and altruistic behavior), judging others (foundation for moral approval-disapproval), and the moral senses of shame, pride, and self-control. All of these, and many more, universal moral emotions are targeted for successful group life, and for each individual in the community to judge what actions are good or bad, right or wrong, immoral or moral.

Some universal moral emotions are reserved, according to Shermer, for the maintenance of the social system. For example: age status (social hierarchy), collective identity (basis of zenophobia and group selection), conflict mediation (foundation of much moral behavior), etiquette (enhances social relations), gift giving (reward for cooperative and altruistic behavior), law (rights and obligations), redress of wrongs (moral conflict resolution), sanctions for crimes against the collectivity (social moral control), and many other universal moral emotions that relate to social amity.

Shermer also demonstrates the relationship between basic universal moral emotions and the functioning of a successful economic system. For example: cooperative labor (part of kin, reciprocal, and indirect altruism), fairness (equity), gestures (signs of recognition of others, conciliatory behavior), promise (moral relations), redress of wrongs (moral conflict resolution), turn-taking (conflict prevention), and many other universal moral emotions that relate to a functioning economic system.

The point here is that universal moral emotions drive human beings into communities, it is universal moral emotions that create functioning social arrangements, and push for economic systems that lead to a prosperous polity, and it is universal moral emotions that allow human beings to make judgments about right and wrong, good and bad, and what is moral and immoral behavior.


A flourishing and prosperous society has many foundational elements, but two very important elements are a basic trust that people in the community have for their institutions and processes, and in each other; and a shared sense that each individual in the society is being treated fairly by the social, economic and governmental systems. Human beings seem to have a built in sense of what is and is not fair treatment by others, and a natural desire to trust others until such trust is found to be not worthy of such deference.

Social and behavioral scientists have been investigating the importance of societal trust and have come to some interesting conclusions. Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist, has written that trust is the hidden principle that makes for a good and prosperous society. “This is the unspoken, and unwritten bond between fellow citizens that facilitates transactions, empowers individual creativity, and justifies collective action.”

Richard Dawkins, a behavioral geneticist, has demonstrated that the human brain is “hard wired” to trust, at least initially, the actions of other people. Natural selection, he argues, led early human beings to form loyalty groups for the purpose of survival. For children to survive in a hostel world it was necessary for them to believe whatever their parents and tribal leaders would tell them. Such trusting credulity and obedience were critical for survival and necessary for the creation of group institutions that would continue generationally. Credulity is the road to trust but trust requires human beings to understand the intentions of others.

Dr. Daniel Dennett, a philosopher who has studied neuroscience, has written that natural selection has configured the brain to rapidly determine the intentions of others. It is through understanding the intention of others that human beings can figure on trusting some and not others. Our minds have been naturally ordered to understand the world around us and to know that nature has designed animate objects for purposes. Social, political, and economic life of a society is predicated on the successful application of our natural inclination to trust others and our institutions.

The sense of fairness also seems to be a natural part of the human condition. Researchers have often raised the question about the origins of our natural sense of justice. Marc Hauser, a widely published neuroscientist, has pointed out that fairness assumes the practice of reciprocity. Just thinking about one’s own emotions when engaged in typical interpersonal relations proves the point of how natural it is for each individual to sense what is fair and what is not fair.

When I give you a $5.00 loan the expectation is that you will repay the loan. When I give you a piece of my orange why do you feel the need to give me a piece of your apple? Why does every one get angry when someone crashes the long line at the movie theater? When your neighbor borrows your lawn mower why do you expect him to return it and to loan you his lawn mower when you need one? There appears to be no specific gene or part of the brain that would explain where the sense of fairness resides, but the fact remains that the brain seems to be “hard wired” to react to actions that are fair or to respond to actions that require reciprocity.

The neuroscientist and game theorist Collin Camerer, in his book Behavioral Game Theory, has concluded through a number of game experiments that the sense of fairness is one of the most important aspects of human behavior and critical to the functioning of a successful society.

One game, the Ultimatum Game, plays out as follows: In this two partner game, one partner (A) is given $100.00 to divide as he sees fit with partner (B). Whatever the division of the $100.00 by partner (A), if partner (B) accepts it, both will be richer by that amount. If partner (B) rejects the offer then both players of the game receive nothing. If partner (A) suggests $90.00 for himself and $10.00 for partner (B), both would be richer by that amount. If partner (B) is a rational, self-interested and utility maximizing, free willing partner, he will not turn down a free $10.00.

However, after hundreds of applications of the game, it has become clear to the game theorists who practice this particular game, that any division where partner (B) receives less than $30.00, with partner (A) keeping $70.00 or more, will be rejected by partner (B). Since partner (B) is receiving free money why would in almost all cases partner (B) not take anything less than the proffered $30.00? In interviews and in questionnaires, partner (B) respondents answered in unison – because it isn’t fair!

The researchers have concluded that the demands of reciprocal altruism require that the exchange partners be treated fairly. I will scratch your back if you will scratch mine. Exchange partnerships work only if partner (B) knows he or she will be treated with something close to parity. In other words, the moral sense of fairness is hard wired into our brains and is an emotion human beings seem to share with all primates. Trust and fairness seem to be an integral part of the human personality and natural makeup. No society can be successful without large doses of these emotions permeating the social, political and economic fabric.


Capitalism is simply a medium of exchange – something for something – engage in by people who trust they are being treated fairly by their exchange partners. Researchers from various academic disciplines generally agree that to achieve material progress in this new century a variety of policies should be followed by nation states. Some policies are strictly economic: a strong private sector, low rates of inflation, balanced budgets and price stability, low tariffs, allowing foreign investment, getting rid of monopolies, reasonable regulation of capital markets, making currency convertible, hiring and promoting workers on the basis of merit, and increasing domestic economic competition.

Some policies are more societal in nature: eliminating government corruption, creating a strong educational system based on competence and merit that is open to all who can meet rigorous entrance requirements, political and social policies that promote gender equality and eliminate discrimination based on irrelevant criteria, and finally, policies that assure the rights of property and the guarantee of personal liberty against tyranny, crime and disorder.

The question is: can any or all of these goals be achieved by having persons of whatever kind acting contrary to their basic nature? Must the concept and practice of moral capitalism be an oxymoron? As the contemporary biological and social sciences are teaching us, the answer to the question could be – no!

These scientific disciplines are suggesting that, indeed, human beings are social and political creatures, endowed by nature with strong feelings, driven by a cast of universal moral emotions, of which two of the strongest are the emotion of trust and the emotion of fairness, and we human beings also seem to possess a natural sense for what is right and wrong, good and evil, and what is moral and immoral.

Capitalism can flourish only when the manufacturing, pricing, marketing, and distribution of goods and services are grounded on the basics of human nature as described by contemporary biological and scientists. The worker is to be paid a fair wage, the capitalist must receive a fair return on his investment, the commodity purchased at a fair cost, the good or service be of a high quality, sold at a fair price. The contracts for goods and services must be based on trust that the contracting parties will adhere to the agreements made in the contract, and that other promises made will be kept.

Why is it that the great majority of people in any country will identify the following virtues are good and moral, and their opposites as bad and immoral: temperance, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, honesty, cleanliness, etc. Of course, all of these virtues are broken at one time or another, but most people would say they are good and moral and should be followed.

Could it be that these virtues and the emotions discussed in this essay are really at the base of human nature and that deviation from them is just that, deviation from standards that comport with the most basic of traits and characteristics that are endemic to the human animal?

Could it be that moral capitalism is not a contradiction in terms but rather a mirror of the attributes of human nature that periodically get side tracked by odious ideologies that represent the interests of the few against the “better angels of our nature?”


Prof. N. Doran Hunter, Minnesota State University – Mankato, Retired

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 30 Jun 2009.

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