Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality

Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality

Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality

Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality


What is morality? Where does it come from? And why do most of us heed its call most of the time? In Braintrust, 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, Braintrust challenges us to reconsider the origins of some of our most cherished values.


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, whereupon she was hauled off to a waiting fire.) With time on our hands, my friend and I concocted a plan. She would falsely accuse me of stealing her purse, and then I would lay my hand on the stove and see whether it burned. We fully expected it would burn, and it did. So if the test was that obvious, how could people have trusted to trial by ordeal as a system of justice?

From the medieval clerics, the answer would have been that our test was frivolous, and that God would not deign to intervene with a miracle for the benefit of kids fooling around. That answer seemed to us . . .

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