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Andrea Diem-LaneAndrea Diem-Lane is a tenured Professor of Philosophy at Mt. San Antonio College, where she has been teaching since 1991. Professor Diem has published several scholarly books and articles, including The Gnostic Mystery and When Gods Decay. She is married to Dr. David Lane, with whom she has two children, Shaun-Michael and Kelly-Joseph.

The Neural Basis of Morality

A deeper look at Braintrust By Patricia Churchland

Andrea Diem-Lane

Introduction: Science and Ethics

The author clearly rejects an anthropomorphic view that only humans have the building blocks of morality.

What is moral? Why should we be moral? How should we be moral? And, most significantly, where did morality come from? These questions have dominated philosophy for over two thousand years. When surveying the history of philosophy we come across various ethical theories, from Plato's and Kant's position that ethical behavior must be grounded in reason, to Hume's claim that it is connected to sentiment and overall human nature, to morality as having super mundane origins or invented as a way to control the masses. While the various philosophical theories of morality have offered interesting perspectives, what they lack (certainly understandable for their times) was a brain based explanation of morality. Today, we can for the first time in history attempt to answer these profound questions of morality with not just arm chair philosophical speculation (or, in some cases, religiously fueled doctrines) but with a modern scientific understanding, specifically drawing research from neuroscience, evolutional biology and genetics, and experimental psychology. Patricia Churchland in her 2011 book Braintrust does just that.


Brilliantly written, Churchland starts off her text with the “trial by ordeal” scenario of medieval times. When, for instance, an accused witch was placed in turbulent water the innocent, it was believed, would drown, while the guilty would survive, only to be hauled off to be burned at the stake. The author points out that as a young student hearing about this in her history class, she could not help but feel how unfair and “wrong” it all seemed. The sense of right and wrong appeared to be instilled within her, but Churchland wonders where did this sense come from? Was it culturally determined? While such questions may have intrigued her through her young adult life she confessed here that in her career as a philosopher she shied away from the topic of morality since most moral explanations, both past and contemporary, were simply grounded in “opinion.” This even included the naturalistic theories of Aristotle and Hume. However, this all changed when she approached the topic from the position of the biological sciences. With new developments in neuroscience and an informed understanding of evolution what was once puzzling and out of reach, that is the origins and purpose of moral systems, began to gain clarity.

In the opening material of the book, Churchland addresses that some are uncomfortable connecting the insights of science with morality, extrapolating David Hume's is-ought distinction (that an “is” does not imply an “ought”) to mean that science should stay out of moral concerns and not venture into “scientism.” Yet, Churchland rejects this interpretation and contends that it actually misrepresents Hume's position. She explains: “That you cannot derive an “ought” from an “is” has very little bearing so far as the in-the-world problem solving is concerned.” Instead, much like E.O. Wilson's consilience concept where the disciplines build upon each other, she suggests that science along with all of the humanities develop a scaffolding of knowledge to better grasp the subject at hand. In terms of ethics, we will have a much fuller understanding of it when we embrace the insights of the many disciplines, science definitely included.

Evolutionary Ethics:

To begin with, evolution offers us profound insights about the origins of morality. According to Churchland, its roots may be connected to animal sociability. When animals live together and help each other the chances for survival are stronger than those living on their own. Thus, nature may select for social behavior traits over individualistic ones, and over time this many lead to the restructuring of the brain and neural anatomy. That sociability and morality seem to be connected can be supported with fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) data. When one is asked to reflect on a social task or a moral one, fMRI research shows activity in the same part of the brain. Churchland points out “a 4 dimensional scheme for social behavior that is shaped by interlocking brain processes, namely: caring for offspring, mate, kin and kith; recognizes the psychological state of others with the benefit of predicting other's behavior; problem-solving in the social context; and learning social practices, often by imitation.”

Imitation is an important social trait and Churchland addresses why. As we imitate the other we are telling them, albeit unconsciously, that we are friend and not foe. This may lead to a more amicable relationship with the other, as one is perceive “like me.” The act of imitation can be found in other species as well. Churchland shares with the reader how her new pups imitated her old dog, Max, by not going in the sand traps or putting greens while on walks on the near-by golf course. These young dogs, without any formal training, copied the behavior of their elder dog friend.

The author clearly rejects an anthropomorphic view that only humans have the building blocks of morality. Nonhuman mammals (and some species of birds) display sociability and problem solving, and these are ingredients to morality. The writer asserts: “That all non-human mammals have social values is obvious; they care for juveniles, and sometime mates, kin and affiliates; they cooperate, they may punish, and they reconcile after conflict.” Declaring them amoral is misrepresenting the complexity of morality, she says. This line of thinking seems to fit well with the research of primates by Frans de Waal, a primatologist and ethologist. Primates, he confirms, demonstrate reciprocity, fairness, conflict resolution, consolation and empathy.

Neuroscience and Ethics:

Furthermore, Churchland extensively investigates the latest research in neuroscience and how it interplays with evolutionary view of morality. In a bottom up approach to morality she clarifies her overall thesis thusly:

“The main hypothesis of this book, that morality originates in the neurobiology of attachment and bonding, depends on the idea that the oxytocin-vasopressin network in mammals can be modified to allow care to be extended to others beyond one's litter of juveniles, and that, given the network as a backdrop, learning and problem-solving are recruited to managing one's social life….cooperation and trust are sensitive to oxytocin levels.”

Certain neurotransmitters in the brain, specifically oxytocin and to some degree vasopressin, appear to play a key role in promoting attachment and bonding, caring for others, and pro social behavior in general. Though the hormone oxytocin, produced by the hypothalamus and stored in the pituitary gland, is known to play an essential maternal role in childbirth and breastfeeding, according to the latest research, it does more than that. It reduces social anxiety, bonds mates and friends, and helps develop trust.

Perhaps one can think of “caring for the other” (Peter Singer suggests this is what ethics is all about) as actually arising out of an extension of the parent-child bond. And perhaps empathy for the plight of others may arise out of fear of separation from such a bond. In other words, caring for the well-being of offspring, of which oxytocin plays a role, may have been extended out beyond kin and mate to kith and even strangers. Think of a circle which at the center is the parent-child bond but a circle which can widen to encompasses others, and not only in one's social group or species but perhaps other species as well (and some might argue the planet itself). Many ethical philosophers have argued that expanding the circle of compassion is what morality is all about.

Though often accused of being a pure reductionist, Churchland is keen to point out here that she is not. Instead of reducing morality down to a chemical within the brain (some have referred to oxytocin as the moral molecule), she acknowledges that “the platform is only a platform; it is not the whole story of human moral values.” Morality, she confirms, arises within complex cultures which needs to be considered. And she continues to add that despite the plethora of evidence that our physiology plays a powerful role in morality, one must be careful not to exaggerate claims of innate capabilities, inherent genes for morality, or the role of mirror neurons without deeply scrutinizing such research. In other words, evidence matters.

Microtus montanus
Microtus montanus

Intriguingly, such evidence that oxytocin performs an important part in sociability (and one can argue morality) is found in the study of praire voles when compared with montane voles. Praire voles have a high level of oxytocin and a density of receptors for this bio-chemical when compared with montane voles. Praire voles are social, monogamous, bond for life, and care for their young (even the males do). Montane voles, on the other hands, are the opposite—they are promiscuous, the males do not guard their pups, and in general these animals are fine to be left alone. When animals with low oxytocin are given high doses of it, their attachment behavior appears to change, matching that of the praire vole. That animal sociability is connected to brain states seems evident.

Further evidence of the fundamental role of oxytocin was illustrated in the text when Churchland summarized the results of many thought provoking experiments, whose experimental design was based on game theory. In order to evaluate the oxytocin hypothesis, subjects in these “trust” game experiments were given nasal oxytocin. The general goal in these studies was to see if administering oxytocin to subjects increased one's trust level (and sociability) to the other. On the whole, the various experiments proffered statistically significant data, substantiating the claim that oxytocin, along with other neuro peptides and an intricate neural circuitry, is an essential hormone that helps establish a neural basis for morality.

In a recent Ted talk, Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist, also discusses research on oxytocin, and he too agrees how it plays a significant role in developing trust, empathy and sociability. He adds that improper nurturing, abuse, or high levels of testosterone can reduce it and discloses that 5% of the population does not seem to release it. But if one with a normally functioning brain state wishes to experience a surge of oxytocin daily, which Zak contends can lead to a burst of happiness, here is a simple prescription he proposes: 8 hugs a day.

As a word of caution, Churchland does warn that the neurobiological understanding of the relationship between this neuro peptide and trust could possibly lead to cases of abuse, as oxytocin could be sneakily released into the air to manipulate trust from the unknowing consumer. Yet, on the other hand, awareness that such manipulation can exist may help curb it in the first place, as societal rules can be put in place to prevent it.

A Prescription: Eudaimonia and Compassion

Even though morality from a neuroscientific perspective is not grounded in absolute truths, this does not mean that “anything goes” either. As the Greeks suggested, eudaimonia, translated as flourishing or living well, is (or perhaps should be) our general focus. Perhaps one can add to this the simple idiom “play nice.” Though Churchland's goal is mainly descriptive, there seems to be a slight prescriptive assumption (and not just a purely objective agenda) that expanding one's circle of compassion may be beneficial to the organism and the world it finds itself in. This makes sense considering that the author herself is part of the pro social world in which she philosophizes and writes.

The message of compassion found in a biosocial view of morality is also supported in the work of psychologist George Boeree. He suggests that there are three main instincts for morality: kin selection and parental responsibilities; attachments to mates; and sympathy for those in the “in group” which expands (or at least should) to the universal. Those who expand sympathy/empathy to others are happier he contends. Highlighting the connection between happiness and compassion, he writes: “The great value of this biosocial view of morality is that it removes the issue from religious and philosophical debate and places it squarely in the realm of the pragmatic. Without denying the inherently subjective nature of our goals as human beings, we may be able to agree that one reasonable goal is the maximizing of happiness. The question is then how do we educate people to understand that it is in all our best interests to nurture our innate tendencies toward compassion.”


Throughout the reading, two past philosophers who Churchland consistently acknowledges as corresponding with her overall philosophical view of morality are Hume and Aristotle. Hume offered “considerable insight” with his understanding that the “roots of morality are in our nature” (and not reason). And Aristotle hit the mark when he rejected a “Platonic Heaven” where absolute moral truths reside and instead placed morality in the realm of the practical. Now, in current times, we can add to their insights brain research and this makes all of the difference. Instead of shying away from the topic of morality, as she did in her early days, Churchland has taken on morality as one of her main philosophical subjects.

Altogether, Braintrust is a marvelous book on a modern approach to morality. Just as Churchland advocates eliminative materialism to our folk psychology, so too does Churchland seem to promote an Ockham's razor approach to this branch of philosophy. She shaves away an outdated and untestable view of morality and in its place presents morality in a modern and enlightened perspective.

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