Primal morality and torture

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The morality of torture is back in the news with the confirmation hearings for Gina Haspel as director of the CIA, a woman with ties to post-9/11 secret rendition sites. In short, on September 12, 2001, the general moral consensus of the United States reverted to what I call “primal morality,” throwing out a couple of thousand years of rule-based, principle-based and empathy-based models of ethics formulated by philosophers and theologians past. A longer post on this particular issue is in the queue, so please subscribe to this blog via the Facebook or Twitter icons, or via the box to the left.

The last few posts in this “Good People Disagree” series have looked at the most commonly-held vector of ethics and morality, which is the idea that it is all about rules and the duty to follow them, called deontology (and that continuing topic starts here). But the basic idea that some human choices merit the labels “ethics” or “morality” goes back much farther than any human recording of rules, perhaps even before we would have been called “homo sapiens.” If there was ever a thing we could call, “natural law,” then this is it:

As part of the process of performing the “brain-based calculus” required to capture prey and avoid the predator, the brain in a reptile is said to have four basic functions: obtaining food, fighting against perceived threats, fleeing from superior threats, and procreating. This overly-simplified categorization has become known among neuroscientists as the “Four F’s.” [1]

What these four functions have in common is that they all seek to expeditiously and efficiently reach particular “end states” required for survival – nourishment, safety, and perpetuation of the gene pool. Note that there need be no specific “purpose” to accomplish any of these. These are our basic responses to mortal threat.

There does not necessarily need to be any “reason” or “plan” for this “morality” to occur (the thought of which frightens many religious people). Instead, probabilistic randomness is sufficient. The organisms that accomplish these four functions just a tiny bit more successfully than their neighbors are probabilistically more likely survive to the next generation and pass on their genes. Genes, like history, are written by the winners. [2]

Humans also seek these same end states. The core part of the human brain right above the brain stem, the “oldest brain” from an evolutionary perspective (but itself evolved beyond the corresponding reptile brain) is very much involved in these same “Four F” functions. When we perceive that a person is “thinking with his fists” (or some other part of his anatomy), then it is likely that this part of the brain is “firing on all cylinders.” And yet somehow this part of the brain also appears to be “weighing probabilities” as to which of these functions to prioritize in order to best survive. Do I fight today, or instead do I cut and run? Primal fear for survival is at the foundation here.

A large degree of “cautious causation” is in order here. This common “reptilian” delineation of parts of the brain and their functions is grossly simplified. There are few clear boundaries, either physical or functional, in the human brain. But it is safe to say that some parts of the brain are more active during the goal-seeking “Four F” tasks than are others, and damage to this core region of the brain is the fastest way to human death. You can survive after a lobotomy severs your brain’s prefrontal cortex “logic and rules center.” But once your “basal ganglia,” a brain region included in this core brain region, is damaged, you are most likely now a corpse.

So ponder for a moment how much discussion of human morality is focused around managing these “reptilian” end states. I want to be safe, and I will run away if I can, or fight if I must. I need food and shelter. And, well yeah, sex. But revenge and fear rule the day when we feel our survival is threatened, and these two forces combine into our “primal morality” acceptance of torture, an act that every other system of human ethics rejects.

For many people and their religions, discussions of morality rarely go beyond these basics, especially the sex and fighting parts. No matter how much we layer on top of these functions the philosophical and theological languages we use to justify these actions, the push for an expeditious “good end” for me is a clear priority.

Note that there is a difference here between a good end for me and a good end for you. Adding the “you” requires some additional brain functions arising from different brain regions, as well as new layers of ethical language to articulate this expansion from me to you. That is a story for another day…


  1. I leave it up to the reader to figure out that acronym. A little neuroscience humor.
  2. Don’t confuse this with “survival of the fittest,” a phrase that was not coined by Charles Darwin as commonly thought, but rather later by philosopher Herbert Spencer. In evolution, it is not necessarily the strongest that survive, rather those species that find their optimal ecological “niche.” For instance, deer in the Americas and kangaroos in Australia have optimized the same ecological niche on two different continents where they did not need to compete with each other. Marsupials like kangaroos, in general, found and dominated their niches in Australia long ago in absence of other classes of mammals. We don’t have many common marsupials in the U.S. anymore except opossums, who would never be mistaken for being the “fittest,” yet they have found their niche (or at least they did before the existence of automobiles).

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6 thoughts on “Primal morality and torture

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