Morality and the Brain: An Interview with Neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland

Although many philosophers used to dismiss the relevance of neuroscience on grounds that what mattered was the software not the hardware, they have increasingly come to recognize that understanding how the brain works is essential to understanding the mind. Patricia Smith Churchland, professor of philosophy emerita at the University of California, San Diego, and an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, focuses on the interface between neuroscience and philosophy — or neurophilosophy. This is an attempt to understand the impact of development in the neurosciences on the grand old questions in philosophy: What is the nature of knowledge, are there limits to what we can know, what is the real basis for self-control and for decision-making, how does language relate to the world – and of course questions of the nature of morality—why we care and where do moral values come from?

“The point of neurophilosophy is to see whether neuroscience can shed some light on those questions,” says the author of “Touching a Nerve: Our Brains, Our Selves” and “Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells us About Morality.” “And of course, I think that it can. How much light depends on how things go.”

Brain World spoke to Churchland about where morality can be found in the brain, why it matters and if Facebook is making us a more moral society.

Brain World: How would you define morality?

Patricia Churchland: Roughly speaking, it has to do with the capacity or the motivation to care about others and to incur a cost to yourself in order to benefit someone else. And usually the person who is benefiting from a sacrifice of ours is someone who is known to us. Very often, it’s our children or our siblings or our parents or our cousins, but it can also be friends, and it can also be strangers. And morality is grounded in the neurobiology of parental caring for offspring.

BW: Morality is grounded in caring for your children?

PC: That is the huge change in evolutionary biology. Once you get these large-brained mammals who are not merely taking care of their own warmth and food and safety but are sacrificing some of these things to care for someone else, then you really get a very different stream of behavior. And that sets up the very elaborate social behavior that you see in some primates, particularly in humans.

BW: So do all moral behaviors stem from attachment?

PC: Attachment promotes caring. It promotes the willingness and motivation to sacrifice your own immediate well-being for the sake of the other. That’s why I think that this is the platform for morality.

Now, in the case of the large-brained mammals, the behavior can get more complex. It’s very natural in the case of wolves for cooperation to emerge in a group that feels comfortable with one other. Cooperation isn’t something that is unique to humans. Clearly, it’s there in nonhuman mammals, and it’s probably there in many bird species as well, so cooperation emerges quite naturally in context of sociality and caring, and there may be some genetic aspect as well — but that remains to be found out.

BW: Where can morality be found in the brain?

PC: The subcortical structures are very important for this, especially the hypothalamus, where we know that chemicals such as vasopressin and oxytocin are released. Some people have wanted to claim that oxytocin is the “love molecule,” but the brain is much, much more complicated than that.

BW: What do you know about oxytocin?

PC: We know that it is very important for infant-to-mother bonding and mother-to-infant bonding. We know that it’s very important for the attachment of mates to each other in those species that have bonding. In prairie voles, if the oxytocin levels are lower, you don’t see the same degree of bonding. But it’s very complex.

BW: So is there a genetic component for morality?

PC: There are two components. There’s the basic biological platforms that need to be there — the right biological chemicals need to be there — but there also needs to be certain environmental impacts on the brain. The infant rat needs to be cuddled and loved and licked in order to develop the right kind of circuitry. It’s not just the brain or just the environment. Everything has to interact in the right sort of time.

BW: Is there anyone born without these receptors? What would happen?

PC: When there’s a lower-density receptor for oxytocin receptors in prairie voles, you don’t see the same degree of bonding that you do in the other prairie voles. When receptors for oxytocin are blocked, then the male and female prairie vole can mate and mate, but that long-term bonding does not form.

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