Body Mind Morality


Many children have trouble sleeping because of visions of four-eyed monsters hiding in the closet. But when Bongrae Seok, Ph.D., associate professor of philosophy at Alvernia, was young, he lay awake thinking about penguins.

“I thought, the earth is round and the penguins are on the south side of the earth — they are supposed to fall off, but yet they survive ...” he recalls. “But then I discovered penguins didn’t fall due to gravity.” That was the end of Seok’s nighttime worries, and the beginning of his passion for philosophy. “From then on, I wanted to know more, and ask more and more questions,” he says.

Seok says one of the things he loves about philosophy is its focus on excellence. By forcing us to ask questions and fight the status quo, it helps us become better and better human beings every day.

His latest philosophical question gets at the heart of what makes us good people — our moral consciousness. From the time we are young, most of us learn we have the power to choose between right and wrong, and that we make moral decisions after thinking about them carefully, and weighing pros and cons in our minds. But according to the theory Seok proposes in his new book, there may be another critical factor at play in moral decision making — how we feel physically.

The book, “Embodied Moral Psychology and Confucian Philosophy,” combines ancient Chinese philosophy and contemporary cognitive neuroscience to deliver the message that our basic moral abilities are built into our physical bodies.

“We, of course, need careful analysis and deliberation for complicated moral issues. But for our everyday dealings with other people, we are very much moral animals as we are social animals, and our bodies tell that to us,” Seok says.

The power of other people’s pain

Seok uses horror movies to explain the connection between how we feel emotionally and how we feel physically.

“When we see other people suffering with physical pain (in these movies), we experience physical changes, such as perspiration, increased blood pressure, shortness of breath, etc. — and we feel as if we have similar pain in our bodies,” Seok says. “Brain scans show that the areas of the brain active in a person’s pain experience are generally the same as the areas of the brain active when we watch other people suffer. That is, we mirror other people’s pain,” he says.

Seok says this mirroring of others’ pain is important for two reasons.

“One, this mirroring experience is supported by brain regions that typically process information about physical changes in our body,” he says. So when we empathize with others in pain, we feel it in our bodily senses. “Therefore, the body is an important and necessary medium and conduit of our moral experience,” he says.

Secondly, when we mirror others’ suffering, we are naturally motivated to help them, Seok says. And this is the foundation of our basic moral motivation. So, in the end, empathy, physical sensations in the body and moral motivation to help others are combined. “This is my theory of embodied moral psychology,” he explains.

Crossing boundaries

The inspirational forerunner for Seok’s theory was the ancient Chinese Confucian philosopher Mencius. “Mencius carefully observed and reported this amazing human sensitivity (embodied moral emotion), and he used it as one of the foundations of morality,” Seok says.

“We have natural feelings toward others, and Confucian philosophers, particularly Mencius, believed these feelings are related to bodily changes — inspiration for the main idea of the book,” he says.

“My education was a true interdisciplinary experience for me, and I was lucky to learn how to combine different academic disciplines to tackle challenging questions of the mind, including consciousness, emotion, memory and reasoning,” he says. “The book is a result of my interdisciplinary research on the nature of the moral mind.”

This multidisciplinary research is limitless, and the book reflects the boundary-breaking efforts of philosophers. “Most things have boundaries, but true intellectual effort can transcend time, from ancient to contemporary, and space, from East to West,” he says.

With respect to modern-day technology, embedded within Seok’s message about the connection between moral decisions and bodily sensations is the importance of physical presence and face-to-face connections in our increasingly online world.

“Concrete physical interaction is the foundation of human existence, even though we spend more time in the bodiless cyberspace,” Seok says. “For example, the body is important as we know that online dating is not really dating.”

Ultimately, “Embodied Moral Psychology” teaches readers that morality and ethics are not only topics for philosophical discussions; they are also practical and physical issues we can feel and vividly experience in our bodies.

Catch Dr. Bongrae Seok's book lecture at 1 p.m., on October 8, in the Franco Library.

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