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What Neuroscience Can, and Can't, Tell Us About Moral Life

Posted by Josh Rothman  March 28, 2011 09:26 AM

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What is morality? For thousands of years, that question has divided the world's greatest thinkers. Is morality divinely inspired? Is it an instinct, built right into human nature? Or is morality, at its most pure, actually an abstract set of rules -- rules we could figure out if we only approached moral problems rationally? Patricia Churchland, a philosopher at the University of California, San Diego, thinks she has the answer. In her new book, Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality, she argues that a proper understanding of morality begins with an understanding of the brain. That doesn't mean, though, that morality is as simple as an innate instinct. Instead, she writes, morality is "rooted in skills and dispositions." Those skills and dispositions come naturally out of the neurological systems we use to solve the practical problems of social life.


Patricia Churchland

Churchland is a philosopher by training (and a former MacArthur "genius" fellow) who has argued for decades that understanding the thorny problem of morality means developing a "neurophilosophy" -- a combination of evidence-based neuroscience and ultra-clear philosophical reasoning. This seems like a sensible strategy, but it's made complicated by the fact that philosophers and neuroscientists come at the world differently. Neuroscientists are problem-solvers: they want to use what they know to solve big problems now. Philosophers are problem-nurturers, always wary of hubris and over-reach. The result, Churchland explains, has been a tendency for neuroscientists and psychologists to "wave vaguely in the direction of genes and innateness and selection" to explain morality, while philosophers insist that morality is more abstract -- a system of rules that's way more complicated than any single innate instinct.

Churchland, meanwhile, does what she calls the "modest" work of clearing a middle path. She starts by explaining what's most clearly known about how morality works in the brain. We know, she argues, that human moral behavior is rooted in the brain's "circuitry for caring." That circuitry is common to all mammals: it revolves around hormones, like oxytocin and vassopressin, that surge through mammalian bodies whenever we care about ourselves, our children, or our mates. This circuitry for caring is evolutionarily ancient: Human beings and wolves use the same hormones, brain areas, and even nerves when they care about their children. Human morality extends that circuitry. In human beings, the circle of caring is widened beyond oneself and one's children. Evidence shows that our caring circuits are engaged not only when we interact with family, but with friends, and even with strangers.

That doesn't mean that morality boils down to a few hormones and brain circuits, though. Caring about lots of people poses a challenging, practical problem: How do you balance out your many simultaneous directions of care? Churchland argues that we solve that problem the same way we solve other problems: not instinctually, but by drawing on our learning, reasoning, and culture. Morality, Churchland argues, is a problem posed by our broad circle of caring -- but it's a problem we solve using all our resources as human beings. We have moral lives because of our instincts, but that doesn't mean that human morality is instinctual.

In the end, Churchland's picture of morality recalls Hume's or even Aristotle's. Aristotle, she writes, knew that morality has its roots in human nature, but also recognized "moral problems for what they are - difficult, practical problems emerging from living a social life." Churchland, by insisting that morality is neither an innate instinct nor an abstract system, but rather a tough, practical problem posed by our instincts, is bringing together the best in both neuroscientific and philosophical thinking. Churchland will be appearing at Harvard Book Store on March 31st.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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