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The Origins of Morality

Why do people have a sense of right and wrong?

Patricia Churchland’s new book, Touching a Nerve, is a highly readable combination of personal anecdotes and philosophical reflections on the implications of neuroscience. She mixes charming tales of her childhood in rural British Columbia with insightful reflections on the soul, brain death, aggression, sex, war, free will, and consciousness.

I plan to use this book as a supplementary resource in my introductory course on the philosophy of mind next term. Teaching the standard philosophical thought experiments about what the mind must be, ignoring evidence about how it actually works, is tantamount to teaching alchemy instead of chemistry, or astrology instead of astronomy.

An examination of neurophilosophy

Patricia Churchland is the pioneer of neurophilosophy, the attempt to use neuroscience in the development of theories about knowledge, reality, and ethics. Her new book shows the fertility and accessibility of this exciting approach to philosophy.

Churchland appreciates the centrality and indispensability of philosophical questions to human lives but provides reasons to think that they can be answered in ways that are intelligible, useful, and scientifically informed. Philosophy is sometimes slammed as providing incomprehensible answers to insoluble problems, but Churchland shows how it can be used to provide evidence-based answers to problems that are inherently difficult but open to real progress.

Brain processes behind morality

My favorite chapter in the book is on the brain processes behind morality. Churchland avoids simplistic explanations of the origins of ethics that are currently popular, such as:

  • Morality derives from religion.
  • Morality is genetic.
  • Morality is a social construction.
  • Morality results from rational choices.

Instead, she describes how morality results from a complex interaction of genes, neural processes, and social interactions. All organisms have genes that enable them to survive and reproduce, but mammals also have genes to produce the chemical oxytocin and vasopressin, which prompt them to care for their young. In some mammals such as humans, the same chemicals encourage animals to form long-term relationships and to care for each other.

Such caring is the biological root of morality, which also has many social roots.

Social roots of morality

Valuable social practices such as cooperation can develop when people care about each other. Early humans lived in small groups of around 100 people, but the expansion of groups as the result of agriculture and the development of intellectual ideals expanded compassion, sympathy, and empathy beyond people’s immediate group. Eventually, ethical theories were formulated that turned care for others into universal principles, as in the doctrines that morality is based on the rights of all people or on the consequences that affect everyone.

Churchland summarizes her views by saying that moral norms are shaped by four interlocking brain processes: caring, recognition of others’ psychological states, learning social practices, and problem-solving in a social context. Hence the origins of morality are both neural and social. Attempts to improve society by making it more responsive to people’s needs should consider all of these processes.

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