Morality and the Brain: An Interview with Neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland

BW: Is caring an aspect of survival?

PC: With large-brained mammals who are capable of problem solving, cooperation emerges as a natural way to solve many problems. Cooperation among wolves means you can bring down a caribou. Otherwise, if you’re not cooperating, you don’t have a chance to bring down a caribou — you’re back scrounging for mice. Every wolf pack would much rather have a caribou than a couple of mice.

The same thing is true of humans. Anthropologists are interested in early cooperation among human species. Homo erectus — who were upright, had smaller brains but were on the planet for 1.8 million years — seem to have traveled very extensively out of Africa into Asia, so they must have had nontrivial cooperation among members of the group. And probably early Homo sapiens would have had social practices that were not necessarily made explicit as rules — social practices that discouraged deception, discouraged in-group violence, that encouraged willingness to help. We can see those kinds of behaviors in hunter-gatherer groups and in nonhuman mammals.

BW: Is that moral behavior?

PC: I don’t think it’s easy to draw a line between social practices that involve cooperation and truth telling and helping and sharing where there are no explicit rules, and they gradually become explicit. Where do we draw the line? How does that help me understand it? There are many degrees of moral behavior, and it can be as refined and complex as a society with a criminal justice system and police force, or it can be in small hunter-gatherers like the Inuit, where they were moral in many respects. They were kind and decent, and they didn’t fight among the group, and they shared and cooperated and loved. Why not call that moral?

BW: Is there a gene for religion?

PC: I don’t think there is a gene for religion. Organized religion didn’t really appear among humans till about 10,000 years or so, and, before that, there could have been rituals that serviced the group, like rituals for eating, for marriage, for a large kill or a particular style of doing things, like washing or wearing certain kinds of clothes. But whether there was organized religion? It seems not to be the case.

BW: Didn’t people find a place in the brain where religion is?

PC: If someone has a religious belief that makes them very excited when they think about religion, there’s bound to be some place in the brain that’s pretty active. That doesn’t mean that religion is in the brain. The results of that experiment were interpreted in an odd way.

BW: What happens when someone is a socio- or psychopath or just plain immoral?

PC: When I say there’s a platform for morality, of course individuals still have the wiring for self-care. So we have both — the desire to promote our own well-being and others’. So, for example, if you have children, you have a desire to promote their well-being.

Sometimes, for reasons not entirely clear, people care very much for their own well-being but not others. But it’s a very complex story because people can get involved in immoral behavior for all kinds of reasons: They may be misled by propaganda, by mob excitement, and get carried away and do awful things.

People have gotten rather excited about the study of psychopaths. But there’s a whole lot of neuroscience that needs to be done about that. Some individuals, if they are terribly abused or terribly neglected as children, are apt to turn out rather mean and vicious — but not always. And we don’t know the difference between those who turn out to be extremely miserable and those who don’t.

BW: So what does that mean about personal responsibility if someone is defective because of their brain chemistry?

PC: There are a lot of people who are interested in the relationship between neuroscience and the law, but at this point things are moving very slowly. Maybe particular neurological conditions will not count as a defense in terms of being not guilty, but they may play a role in mitigation of sentence. It’s very important to distinguish between conviction and sentencing.

BW: What do neuroscientific discoveries imply for free will?

PC: The question about free will is really best understood within a framework of the neurobiology of self-control. The bottom line is that self-control is real. There are circuits in the front of the brain that connect between cortex and subcortical structures that are very important for self-control and self-discipline.

We know it can be compromised in many ways: People who are exhausted or brain damaged have compromised self-control. Young children who are not sufficiently mature have problems with self control — they don’t appreciate consequences of an action, they can’t resist temptation or delay gratification until they get somewhat older. In many ways, self-discipline and self-control can be taught — that is, children can get better at it.

BW: What do we learn if we learn that there’s a basis for morality in the brain?

PC: I don’t think that does help us solve these questions about how the laws should be changed, whether the tax system should be changed, should we have an opt-in or opt-out for organ donation, should we make people more responsible or less responsible for certain kinds of behaviors.

If you understand that morality has a biological platform, then the principles and social practices that we live by are really pragmatically figured out. My sense is that when the extremists don’t think that God is sanctioning their positions, the rhetoric will be softened, there will be willingness to listen to both sides. I think it tones down extremism. Or it ought to.

BW: You talk about caring for in-groups like family and kids — how do you explain that humans care about what happens to other people around the world?

PC: That varies hugely among individuals. There are some people who have a capacity for great compassion and caring that goes well beyond the family and those they know to strangers they haven’t met and never will meet. I think it’s relatively rare. I don’t want to sound cynical, but it also depends on resources. If someone is terribly poor and trying desperately to provide for their own family, they’re less likely to feel compassion for what’s going on in the Middle East than you or me. I have the luxury of being able to do that.

BW: Do you think the fact that we have Facebook and other social media connecting us globally makes us care about more than our in-group?

PC: I think that makes a huge difference. Bear in mind, in ancient times, certainly among the ancient Greek, ancient Chinese, Romans, those who were not part of the group were considered subhuman. It wasn’t necessary to treat them well.

The idea that we should care one and all for all of the individuals that make up humankind is very demanding, but it’s also very recent. It may be laudable. I don’t know how deep it genuinely goes — maybe not that deep. But I don’t know … for some individuals, maybe it does go that deep.

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