UK Scientists Create Hybrid Embryos

Hybrid embryos were created in the UK. Scientists used bovine eggs that had the DNA removed and injected human DNA (from skin) into the eggs. The eggs grew for as long as 3 days. The researchers plan on working towards a 14 day lifespan, at which time the embryos would be destroyed. No, they aren’t trying to create a Minotaur or something of that sort; they are seeking for new ways to create stem cells. The researchers see this hybridization as one of the most promising ways. While the researchers on the team state that their research is completely ethical, a broader debate is occurring in the UK. If the research is completely ethical then there wouldn’t really be a debate. What’s ethical to one person is not necessarily ethical to another. Parliament will debate the issue in about a month. The Catholic Church, of course, has condemned the research.

It seems though that there are better ways to get stem cells that aren’t as controversial. I’ll admit that I am ignorant about this type of research but scientists already successfully can get stem cells from other sources, such as skin. There are very few people who believe that it is unethical to derive stem cells from such sources. I’m not saying whether or not I think that they should be doing this research I just think that those of us who are researchers think very carefully about the ethical and moral implications of our research. We can’t just seek consensus among fellow researchers either; we need to be willing to listen to people outside of science.

Read more about the issue here.

Moral Development and the Brain

Moral reasoning is the ability a person has to reason in and through social, ethical, and emotional situations. One component of moral reasoning is moral behavior, which is the intentional and voluntary acting in a prosocial manner (Walker, 2004). Moral behavior and reasoning are the foundation for “many human social and cultural institutions such as family structures, legal and political government systems that affect the lives of virtually every person” (Eslinger, Flaherty-Craig, & Benton, 2004, p. 100). Often situations in life are morally ambiguous and involve a choice between two actions that both have consequences that may or may not be in opposition to each other. Some researchers, such as Lawrence Kohlberg, believe that people will reason through these situations at varying levels or stages, with some in a very concrete and egotistic manner and others in an abstract and universal manner.

Lawrence Kohlberg was the first researcher to come up with a major testable theory of moral development. He formulated six stages of development, with most adults reaching stage four, a few five, and very few stage six. The first two stages are at the pre-conventional level (typically self-centered and concrete reasoning), stages three and four are at the conventional level (recognition of social norms and laws), and the last two stages at the post-conventional level (recognition of universal rights and responsibilities). While Kohlberg’s theory of moral development is a stage model, the progression through the stages is not necessarily viewed as invariant. This means that people reach them at different rates and do not always reason at a particular stage with any given dilemma. There is significant variability within and between people in moral reasoning abilities. Most research focuses on between-person variability.

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Moral Development

Reason and DesireLawrence Kohlberg developed a theory of moral development in humans that has been quite influential in emotion and moral reasoning developmental psychology. He believed that most adults reason at the 3rd or 4th stage level. A few reach the 5th and very few reach the 6th. However, people can reason at different levels at different times, with someone using stage 5 reasoning one day and stage 3 the next. However, people do tend to reason at one particular level more often than at other levels. The stages of moral development are as follows:

Rules outside oneself

Stage 1: Heteronomous morality

  1. Punishment-and-obedience orientation
  2. What is wrong is punished
  3. What is right is rewarded or not punished

Stage 2: Individualism, instrumental purpose, and exchange

  1. Naïve hedonism
  2. Egocentric or needs-based

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The charitable accumbens

CharityCNN posted an interesting article about how when people choose to be charitable (i.e., give money away) that the nucleus accumbens, which is termed the “pleasure center” of the brain, and the caudate nucleus showed heightened activity. It’s turning out that the nucleus accumbens is involved in far more activities than we’ve ever realized. It’s an area of the brain that is heavily tied to the dopaminergic system and is directly tied to drug use, eating, sex, and pretty much anything else that people can enjoy. In addition, assumed dysfunction or dysregulation of the nucleus accumbens is tied to addictive behaviors. It’s not surprising then that a behavior that is enjoyable to so many – being charitable – is related to activity in the nucleus accumbens. Maybe some people are just Scrooges because they have too little dopamine in their brains [pure speculation and meant to be slightly humorous but it is a hypothesis that could be worth testing].

Image courtesy of benevolink

Ventromedial prefrontal cortex damage results in impaired moral judgments

Click on the following link to read the news article from New Scientist: Moral judgment

The researchers found that people with ventromedial prefrontal cortex (which is involved in emotional regulation) damage have impaired judgment regarding moral dilemmas in which they are personally involved. Their judgment is not impaired compared to people without ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC) damage in situations in which they are not personally involved. The likely pathway of this impairment is: damage to VMPC –> impaired emotional regulation –> impaired moral judgment in personal moral dilemmas.