A 29 January article in "The Independent
" by John Walsh provides details of the discovery by Oxford scientists of "a region of the brain that makes you wonder if you've done something wrong, and whether you'd have been well advised to do something better." This region has been identified as the "lateral frontal pole" and is described as being "the size of a large Brussels sprout." Professor Matthew Rushworth is quoted as saying, "This region monitors how good the choices are that we don't take; how green the grass is on the other side." It might be described as a sort esprit de l'escalier. It's that feeling you get after eating that extra helping of mashed potatoes and gravy or having told your boss that he's an ass.
In fact, Walsh notes, "This isn't some minor breakthrough of cognitive neuroscience. This is about good and bad, right and wrong. This is about the brain's connection to morality. This means that the Oxford scientists, without apparently realizing what they've done, have located the conscience."
Interestingly, the study shows that only humans possess this physiological feature that governs morality and that we have two of them, one behind each eye brow. In the humorous spirit of his article, John Walsh speculates that these features may be the "Good Conscience and the Bad Conscience, the angel and devil traditionally thought to reside on human shoulders, to tell us either a) it's absolutely fine to steal that money/pinch that bottom/kick that beggar; or b) it's absolutely wrong even to think about any of them."
This research, if correct, raises serious moral questions about how we determine the difference between right and wrong, perhaps even different ideas of where our "inalienable" rights come from. Many Americans are fond of considering our rights to be "God given" and therefore immutable and not subject to the whim of our politicians. Atheists and separation of church and state folk disagree and would prefer to substitute a secular humanist origin of the rights we enjoy as human beings.
I've always seen a serious flaw in secular humanist reasoning. First, taken to its logical conclusion it would mean that not all humans are entitled to the same set of rights, but rather that their condition is determined by their particular society. This is the type of thinking that leads to moral relativism.
If God is not the origin of human rights (life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, etc.) then they must derive from humans themselves and evolved into what sociology defines as social mores. And if the rights we enjoy are determined by humans, then it would seem logical that they can be altered or taken away by humans, as well. In other words, our rights are dependent on the caprice of the moment, the zeitgeist. This phenomenon is evident today as the moral norms of our not so distant past are shoved aside by libertarians and libertines, the "if it feels good it must be right" types, one worlders, and moral relativists of the ilk who proclaim that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." In other words, for these people, there can be no right or wrong, only what suits their agenda at the time. At last, these people can grasp the Brussels sprout to their bosoms and say, "You see, we had it in us all along!"
If, on the other hand, human rights are "God given," then they are universal and non-relativistic. Admittedly this is a Western point of view, fostered by our Judeo-Christian/Greco-Roman roots. But it is comforting to believe that we are not morally subject to the arbitrary whims of others who would deny us what we consider basic rights because they "know what's best" for us and take it upon themselves to define right and wrong.
This is not to deny free will. Even under God's law we are each endowed with this faculty, and we are at liberty to make whatever decisions we like, but perhaps with a couple of Brussels sprouts in our unique human brains to remind us that some decisions are right and some are not.