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Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality

Patricia S. Churchland
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    What is morality? Where does it come from? And why do most of us heed its call most of the time? InBraintrust, neurophilosophy pioneer Patricia Churchland argues that morality originates in the biology of the brain. She describes the "neurobiological platform of bonding" that, modified by evolutionary pressures and cultural values, has led to human styles of moral behavior. The result is a provocative genealogy of morals that asks us to reevaluate the priority given to religion, absolute rules, and pure reason in accounting for the basis of morality.

    Moral values, Churchland argues, are rooted in a behavior common to all mammals--the caring for offspring. The evolved structure, processes, and chemistry of the brain incline humans to strive not only for self-preservation but for the well-being of allied selves--first offspring, then mates, kin, and so on, in wider and wider "caring" circles. Separation and exclusion cause pain, and the company of loved ones causes pleasure; responding to feelings of social pain and pleasure, brains adjust their circuitry to local customs. In this way, caring is apportioned, conscience molded, and moral intuitions instilled. A key part of the story is oxytocin, an ancient body-and-brain molecule that, by decreasing the stress response, allows humans to develop the trust in one another necessary for the development of close-knit ties, social institutions, and morality.

    A major new account of what really makes us moral,Braintrustchallenges us to reconsider the origins of some of our most cherished values.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3808-0
    Subjects: Psychology, Philosophy, Health Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1. Introduction
    (pp. 1-11)

    Trial by ordeal seemed to me, as I learned about it in school, ridiculously unfair. How could it have endured as an institution in Europe for hundreds of years? The central idea was simple: with God’s intervention, innocence would plainly reveal itself, as the accused thief sank to the bottom of the pond, or the accused adulterer remained unburned by the red hot poker placed in his hand. Only the guilty would drown or burn. (For witches, the ordeal was less “forgiving”: if the accused witch drowned she was presumed innocent; if she bobbed to the surface, she was guilty,...

  5. 2. Brain-Based Values
    (pp. 12-26)

    Moral values ground a life that is asociallife. At the root of human moral practices are the social desires; most fundamentally, these involve attachment to family members, care for friends, the need to belong. Motivated by these values, individually and collectively we try to solve problems that can cause misery and instability and threaten survival. Since our brains are organized to value self-welfare as well as welfare of kith and kin, conflicts frequently arise between the needs of self and the needs of others. Social problem-solving, grounded by social urges, leads to ways of handling these conflicts. Some...

  6. 3. Caring and Caring For
    (pp. 27-62)

    What is going on in the brain such that an animal cares about others, or expressessocialvalues? According to the hypothesis on offer, it is the neurochemistry of attachment and bonding in mammals that yields the central explanatory element.¹ Therefore, to understand the brain-based platform for social values, we first have to consider the more fundamental question, which will lead us back to social values: how is it that brains care aboutanything? To put it somewhat differently, how canneuronsvalue something?

    The first and most fundamental part of the story concerns self-preservation.² All nervous systems are organized...

  7. 4. Cooperating and Trusting
    (pp. 63-94)

    The extension of caring to dependent infants, and then to mates, kin, and affiliates, marks the crucial shift that makes us social.¹ At the center of the intricate web of neural connections is oxytocin (OXT), a powerful peptide that in mammals has been recruited in organizing the brain to extend self-care to infants, and thence to a wider circle of caring relationships. Oxytocin has been associated with trust, owing largely to its role in raising the threshold for tolerance of others, and to its down-regulation of fear and avoidance responses. In conditions of safety, when the animal is among friends...

  8. 5. Networking: Genes, Brains, and Behavior
    (pp. 95-117)

    As a species of mammal, humans seem capable of impressive cooperation, especially among kin, but also among strangers, and especially when conditions permit and advantages are discerned. Regarding this capacity as “in our nature” has motivated a long list of evolutionary biologists and psychologists to speculate on the genetic basis for cooperation. One caution already on the table: quite a lot of human cooperative behavior may be explained by capacities other than cooperation biologically defined (i.e., as selected for). For example, strong sociable dispositions, along with the motivation to belong and learn social practices, may suffice to explain many cases...

  9. 6. Skills for a Social Life
    (pp. 118-162)

    The social world and its awesome complexity has long been the focus of performances—informally in improvised skits around the campfire, and more formally, in elaborate productions by professionals on massive stages. Among the cast of characters in a play, there is inevitably a wide variation in social intelligence, sometimes with a tragic end, as inKing Lear. Comedy too is often wrapped around the contrasts between the socially adept and the socially bunglesome. A painfully funny character, such as Basil Fawlty (played by John Cleese inFawlty Towers), reminds us of the agony caused by a foolish lie that...

  10. 7. Not as a Rule
    (pp. 163-190)

    So far in this discussion, rules, norms, laws, and their ilk have been waiting in the wings, while values, learning, and motivated problem-solving have taken center stage. This is a consequence of the logic structuring this project, which acknowledges that although social problem-solving may in timeculminatein explicit rules, antecedent and more basic are theimplicitstandards emerging from shared values—practices that most individuals pick up without much instruction but by imitation and observation.¹ For example, not offering to lend a hand in a circumstance where the offer could be construed as insulting is not explicitly formulated as...

  11. 8. Religion and Morality
    (pp. 191-204)

    Morality seems to me to be a natural phenomenon—constrained by the forces of natural selection, rooted in neurobiology, shaped by the local ecology, and modified by cultural developments. Nevertheless, fairness requires me to acknowledge that this sort of naturalistic approach to morality has often seemed insensitive to metaphysical ideas about morality, such as that morality is essentially dependent on a supernatural source of moral information and moral worth. Because this is a not uncommon view, it may be useful to consider what a supernatural approach can teach us.

    When asked, most humans can easily tell a story of a...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 205-234)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 235-258)
  14. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 259-260)
  15. Index
    (pp. 261-273)