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Moral Intelligence
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© Vincent di Norcia 2007

A fundamental hypothesis of neuroscience is that the brain regulates internal bodily operations, and processes and enables intelligent, adaptive behaviour in changing environments. All this demands a rich suite of neural communication and control powers. They involve perceiving ever-changing phenomena, developing appropriate feelings, sending & receiving messages to and from other intelligent organisms, storing information in memory, and learning how to survive and reproduce in uncertain, fluid environments. It is powers such as these, I suggest, that make our Moral Intelligence possible.

Neuroscience research has in fact been exploring the (mostly unconscious) neural processes which underlie our bodily processes, movements, choices, feelings, emotions, thoughts, and behaviour. The high speed, great volume and countless cross-associations of neuronal connections, and their synergistic interaction in neural networks, not only underlie the brain's neural plasticity, they also explain our (multiple) intelligences, behavioural flexibility, and environmental adaptability.

Neuroscience has shown that our behaviour rests on a diverse, rich suite of unconscious, dynamic neural processes. Conscious awareness in contrast is notably slower and less information rich. How consciousness enables survival needs explaining. In general, conscious behaviours likely arise in response to perceiving new, different environmental phenomena, phenomena, beyond the capacities of our established behavioural habits or unconscious neural processes to handle. Here our emotions are significant. As conscious, value-laden feelings they arise in response to perceived environmental threats and opportunities.

Ours is a social brain. Neural processes support out interactions with other intelligent social actors, such as: 'mirror neurons' (neurally rehearsing intelligent behaviours we observe in others), reading others' body language (especially their voices), and developing social emotions (that is, feelings mirroring those we observe in others). The social brain, with its rich suite of neural processes and powers, is probably the last stage in the development of morally intelligent agency. It emerges, I suggest, from our recognition, in neural mirroring, that others' intelligent behaviours are similar to our own. We sense that they too feel the need to survive, avoid harm, and reproduce. This is likely soon combined with the growing feeling that we need to live together with them in order to survive. The moral sense has now fully emerged on the scene. It likely takes the form of mutually beneficial forms of social interaction: cooperation, trade, reciprocal altruism, etc. The social code in consequence becomes a moral code, internalized in early socialization.

In the century to come neuroscience, I expect, may lead to techniques for enhancing moral function, therapies for moral disorders-including brain implants as well as neural pharmaceuticals-, and neural process based models of artificial moral intelligence.

Vincent di Norcia.

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Vincent Di Norcia
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