Morality: As Told By Neurophilosophy


Morality: As Told By Neurophilosophy


Neurophilosophy is a branch of philosophy that focuses on explaining the nature of the mind, mental functions, consciousness, and other elusive mental properties and their relationship to the physical brain. It is a growing interdisciplinary field that seeks to offer neuroscientific explanations and philosophical insight for concepts of contention in the philosophy of the mind, such as the topic of human morality. In the recently published Braintrust, neurophilosophy pioneer Dr. Patricia S. Churchland presents a series of valuable challenges and arguments in addressing the “roots” of morality. She provides thorough neuroscientific evidence of the biological components that play highly specific roles in morality. This challenges the current priority given to “absolute truth,” pure reason, and religion as explanations of the origins of morality. This is an exceptional example of how neurophilosophy deconstructs the philosophies that we hold dear and exposes the raw science behind some of our most cherished values.

Churchland posits, “Moral values ground a life that is a social life.” This goes to say an individual’s moral values offer solutions, strategies, and general beliefs when it comes to evaluating interpersonal interactions. Caring and theory of mind are two important social skills that have strong neuropsychological origins.


Caring

Theory of Mind, Source, Flickr Caring about the well-being of other humans is a trait that has evolved over millions of years. The simple, ancient peptides oxytocin and arginine vasopressin play significant roles in the perpetuation of attachment and concern for other people by interacting with chemicals in the brain that affect one’s mood (e.g. serotonin) and sex hormones. Oxytocin and arginine vasopressin are naturally released in the hypothalamus—a part of the brain that often acts as a control center of hormone excretion. After release, oxytocin and arginine vasopressin diffuse widely to other parts of the brain, including the nucleus accumbens (a part of brain that is involved in reward processing), the septum (a part of the brain that is involved in regulating sexual behavior), and various other areas of the brain that play a role in the regulation of parenting. Oxytocin and arginine vasopressin influence the pleasure of sexual intimacy and tending to one’s offspring and lowering stress levels. Therefore, the release of these peptides is often associated with positive emotions and recognition of familial duties.

Oxytocin is more prominent in females, and arginine vasopressin is more prominent in males. In females, the release of oxytocin bonds the mother to her offspring and signals the mother’s body to produce breast milk to nurture the offspring. Oxytocin is associated with trust, as it is known to raise the threshold for tolerating other people, therefore promoting cooperation. In males, the presence of arginine vasopressin is essential for mate bonding. It also induces defensive positions and increases aggression when the male is protecting his family. It causes the male to value the safety of his family over all else—adding a biological explanation to the socially constructed moral duty of a father figure.

It has been predicated that many mammalian neurons have evolved to accommodate oxytocin and arginine vasopressin receptors in specific areas of the brain, thus being able to extend their compassion and attachment to non-family members and even strangers. Through various mental processes, such as the ability to read other people’s psychological states, the parental characteristics incepted by oxytocin and arginine vasopressin can be applied to other individuals whom are in a helpless situation and therefore have the self-efficacy comparable to that of a dependent child. In a social context, many moral decisions involve other people; e.g. deciding to donate to charity or pulling over to the side of the road to help a nonlocal traveler with a flat tire. Our biological evolution to care for and coöperate with a wider network of individuals has allowed the human species as a whole to progress by establishing a moral norm of helpful behavior among unrelated individuals.


Theory of Mind

The developmental acquisition of theory of mind, defined as the ability to read other people’s psychological states, allows the growing human to apply morality on a whole different level. Once a child consciously recognizes the nuances of the physical characteristics of basic human emotions, along with learning to “put oneself in another person’s shoes” in perspective taking, neuropsychological processes extend these functions into social situations by activating a system that is likely comparable to the theory of “mirror neurons.” Giacomo Rizzolatti and his associates discovered the concept of mirror neurons in 1992 when they found a subset of neurons in the frontal cortex of rhesus monkeys that respond both when the monkey sees another monkey grasp an object and when it performs the action itself. This indicates subconscious imitation and intention interpretation fueled by this specialized subset of neurons, which were then dubbed “mirror neurons.” While a single subset of neurons has not yet been proven to solely serve as mirror neurons in humans, humans are constantly subconsciously imitating other people and interpreting their goals and intentions. This process is known as simulation.

As summarized by Churchland, the simulation theory says that the brain process for attributing an intention to another person is comprised of three steps: “(1) the observed movement is matched with activation in my own motor system; (2) the intention that goes with that particular movement in my own case will then automatically be represented and so made known to me; (3) I attribute that same intention to the observed person.” Research now indicates that empathy, a moral emotion, is made possible by the process of simulation. Empathy is characterized by understanding the emotions of others. This understanding often leads to caring. There is speculation that the acquisition of theory of mind enables an individual to feel empathy by releasing oxytocin to specialized areas of the brain when presented with a distressed person.

Additionally, humans subconsciously register other humans’ subconscious mimicry of their actions. Have you ever noticed that you reflexively smile when your conversation partner smiles, laugh when he laughs, and even temporarily adopt his hand gestures? A successful bout of subconscious imitation often leads a person to perceive that you are “like” him and other members of his in-group. Our tendency to affirmatively imitate other people can strengthen interpersonal bonds. This quite possibly plays a role in human compassion, as it allows other people become somewhat of an extension of the self.


Conversation, Source: Ellen

Philosophical

Rules, norms, and laws indubitably vary cross-culturally, thus making it exceedingly difficult to pinpoint an unconditional rule of human moral behavior. Moral inconsistencies are common (e.g. people abiding by the Biblical common “thou shalt not kill” yet supporting mortal combat in warfare). Any rule that one can think of has some sort of exception.

Countless moral philosophers have grappled with the challenge of determining such a universally applicable rule; a notable attempt made by Immanuel Kant through his idea of the categorical imperative. Kant proposed that in order for a rule to be universal, every single person must agree that this rule applies to oneself, even if breaking it results in death.

Churchland politely counters Kant’s categorical imperative by emphasizing the fact that many cultures believe that there are consequences worse than death; such as shame, dishonor, and shunning, suggesting death was an easy way out. This is because values become deeply ingrained into the chemistry of our brains: we are conditioned to make our decisions based on our morals, and the peptides that precipitate the formation of our morals are some of the most powerful in the human body. The social consequences of breaking a widely held personal and public value would cause stress levels to rise, and the higher the level of stress hormones, the lower the amount of oxytocin there is present in one’s brain.

The philosopher Owen Flanagan recognizes an individual should decide for himself whether or not a certain rule is moral in a certain context by adopting multiple perspectives, understanding history and human needs, and discussing its implications with other people rather than blindly adhering to the rules of self-appointed moral authorities.

Thou Shall Not Park, Source: Flickr

Dr. Churchland makes a clear case in Braintrust that morals originated from neurological evolution and are perpetuated by social institutions and their philosophical doctrines. Her work in neurophilosophy has provided much insight into the onset and function of morals in human life.

I recommend Braintrust to all moral skeptics, philosophical scientists, scientific philosophers, and curious intellectuals in general. For more of Churchland’s insight on the neurophilosophy of morality, listen to this podcast.

Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality is available on Amazon.com


Attribution

Churchland, Patricia Smith. Braintrust: what neuroscience tells us about morality. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2011. Print.

Images
Neurons, Flickr
Conversation, Ellen
Perfect Chemistry,Flickr
Thou Shalt Not Park, Flickr


  • Jon Catlin

    Great article! I’m interested in Churchland’s account of empathy. Does she look at it in evolutionary terms, or only causal as you have described? Specifically, I’m curious whether she considers empathy a “by-product” of some other evolutionarily adaption, such as the parent caring for the child as you mention, and empathy itself non-adaptive, or is empathy actually adaptive for the human species?

    This might seem like a minor issue at first, but I think the implications of the answer are huge. If empathy towards all other human beings is an active adaption, and it actually behooves us to follow it on the scale of a species, then moral behavior is given evolutionary justification. If empathy is only an accident, an extension of parental instincts into the rest of life, then morality is much less universal and also more fragile.

    • Erin Ford

      @Jon Catlin I am also wondering about how she discusses empathy…in what terms, framework, or perspective? She clearly sees it as significant, but I’d like to know more about how she interprets it’s role.

      Obviously, I must read this book (all the books by herself and her husband sound fascinating), yet I can’t help but wonder about her views of neurobiological accounts of human evolution…more specifically in her potential use of them as justification for morality. I’ve certainly seen the same research in these fields used to support and disprove sometimes contradicting ethical theories. While I could babble on about Jon’s observations and questions, it would be little more than a re-stating of his premise that the chance emergence of empathy in humans would have significant import as to the construction and relevance of morality.

      • mmcsweeney

        @Erin Ford@Jon Catlin Dr. Churchland discusses empathy in the chapter of her book called “Skills for a Social Life.” She addresses empathy as just that–a social skill that is also a phenomenon that is often constructed as a moral that also fuels other morals. Churchland strongly associates the roots empathy with mirror neurons, simulation and theory of mind, which I tried to address in my article on neurophilosophy. Empathy is mostly addressed in a neuropsychological context rather than a philosophical context in Braintrust.

    • mmcsweeney

      @Jon Catlin From how I interpreted it, Churchland views empathy as a by-product of adopting theory of mind, which is considered to be an evolved trait. However, even by-products must evolve: it wouldn’t have stayed with our species if it hadn’t proven beneficial to our survival (though I do recognize there are exceptions to that characteristic of evolution–however, I would argue that the onset of empathy in humans is definitely beneficial).

      Antisocial personality disorder, a disorder that causes an individual to *not* feel empathy, and therefore have the capacity to commit horrendous acts with no emotional repercussions, is a good way to measure the neuropsychological implications of the absence of empathy. Drawing from research on this disorder in rats, rats that lack oxytocin receptors on their neurons are more likely to commit violent acts than rats with oxytocin receptors (I read that in an article on psychologytoday.com a few weeks ago that now seems to have been removed from the website…I will try to provide an exact quote on a later date if you are interested in the logistics of that particular study). This shows that by preventing the neural transmission of oxytocin, a crucial chemical involved in caring about other people, empathy is not possible, because one would not be so significantly harmful to other members of the same species (in this case, rats) if one had the capacity to feel the pain and emotions of others. I think that Churchland and I both agree that moral behavior has generally been evolutionarily adaptive and therefore significant. Just imagine if nobody had oxytocin receptors and acted on violent impulses with no emotional repercussions: I would speculate that our population would be smaller and our world a much more chaotic and scary place to live…

    • mmcsweeney

      @Jon Catlin

      From how I interpreted it, Churchland views empathy as a by-product of adopting theory of mind, which is considered to be an evolved trait. However, even by-products must evolve: it wouldn’t have stayed with our species if it hadn’t proven beneficial to our survival (though I do recognize there are exceptions to that characteristic of evolution–however, I would argue that the onset of empathy in humans is definitely beneficial).

      Antisocial personality disorder, a disorder that causes an individual to *not* feel empathy, and therefore have the capacity to commit horrendous acts with no emotional repercussions, is a good way to measure the neuropsychological implications of the absence of empathy. Drawing from research on this disorder in rats, rats that lack oxytocin receptors on their neurons are more likely to commit violent acts than rats with oxytocin receptors (I read that in an article on psychologytoday.com a few weeks ago that now seems to have been removed from the website…I will try to provide an exact quote on a later date if you are interested in the logistics of that particular study). This shows that by preventing the neural transmission of oxytocin, a crucial chemical involved in caring about other people, empathy is not possible, because one would not be so significantly harmful to other members of the same species (in this case, rats) if one had the capacity to feel the pain and emotions of others.

      I think that Churchland and I both agree that moral behavior has generally been evolutionarily adaptive and therefore significant. Just imagine if nobody had oxytocin receptors and acted on violent impulses with no emotional repercussions: I would speculate that our population would be smaller and our world a much more chaotic and scary place to live…

      • mmcsweeney

        @Jon Catlin I just came across a quote in which Churchland addresses her view on causality and mechanism regarding empathy and its counterparts: it has not been officially established. The actual causation between empathy and phenomena such as simulation (which I mentioned in this article) has not been scientifically proven or disproven as of yet. It is difficult to pinpoint what came first. However, I still stand by what I said before about the evolutionary significance of empathy.

      • Jon Catlin

        @mmcsweeney Empathy on the species scale just seems too simple for me. I’m sort of playing the devil’s advocate, but I think the frightening truth is that empathy is more likely NOT adaptive in the tribal man v. man environment that comprised 99% of human history and correspondingly 99% of the human genome. For example, studies have shown that humans have a hard-wired capacity for racism and “us vs. them” thinking that is competing with the tendency for empathy Churchland suggets.

        Also, it’s important to remember that evolution isn’t perfect, and it’s never finished. For example, many humans have genes for cancer that are perpetuated because their negative impact isn’t strong enough to weed them out entirely. The same could be said for other traits like homosexuality, which almost certainly has no adaptive value. At least in men, homosexuality is often considered an “accident” by-product of a gene for being a caring father and appealing mate (in the heterozygous form) but also infrequently causing homosexuality (in the homozygous form).

        I see what you’re saying about the gene’s secondary effects being acted upon by evolution just as much as its primary, but It’s just not true that empathy wouldn’t have stuck with our species if it wasn’t adaptive. As far as I can see, Churchland only gives an account of how morality exists in humans, though an interesting one. She can’t defend it as the way we were “meant to be” that would justify moral authority. This is why science is so disheartening and pales in comparison to religious or other teleological accounts of morality.

        • mmcsweeney

          @Jon Catlin All excellent points, and I definitely understand what you’re getting at. However, I have to disagree with you for now.

          I touched on subconscious mimicry and the positive results when both conversation partners reciprocate one another’s positive gestures, forming a subconscious affirmation that they are similar to one another. Churchland indicates that Hume noticed that we extend kindness more easily to those who are like us. When people are similar to one another, it is easier to predict their behavior based on one’s own behavior.

          Perhaps I should have touched on this in the article, but on the contrary, people who interact and don’t mimic one another, possibly because of differences in cultural gestures and other sorts of personality differences, usually don’t form positive relationships easily. If I subconsciously detect that you’re not mimicking my expressions and gestures, it is more difficult for me to trust you because I can’t necessarily predict your actions. Perhaps this could partially explain the human capacity for racism and “us vs. them” thinking (though this argument would be more effective if ‘racism’ was interpreted as being biased against different cultures, not necessarily people of different skin tones).

          Empathy with this kind of subconscious discretion would be adaptive, as we would feel for people who are similar to us, which can include family, friends, community members, and other people who share similar interests. At the same time, we can protect people who are similar to us from people who are not like us (speaking very simplistically).

        • mmcsweeney

          @Jon Catlin

          All excellent points, and I definitely understand what you’re getting at. However, I have to disagree with you for now.

          I touched on subconscious mimicry and the positive results when both conversation partners reciprocate one another’s positive gestures, forming a subconscious affirmation that they are similar to one another. Churchland indicates that Hume noticed that we extend kindness more easily to those who are like us. When people are similar to one another, it is easier to predict their behavior based on one’s own behavior.

          Perhaps I should have touched on this in the article, but on the contrary, people who interact and don’t mimic one another, possibly because of differences in cultural gestures and other sorts of personality differences, usually don’t form positive relationships easily. If I subconsciously detect that you’re not mimicking my expressions and gestures, it is more difficult for me to trust you because I can’t necessarily predict your actions. Perhaps this could partially explain the human capacity for racism and “us vs. them” thinking (though this argument would be more effective if ‘racism’ was interpreted as being biased against different cultures, not necessarily people of different skin tones).

          Empathy with this kind of subconscious discretion would be adaptive, as we would feel for people who are similar to us, which can include family, friends, community members, and other people who share similar interests. At the same time, we can protect people who are similar to us from people who are not like us (speaking very simplistically).

          Of course, there is still so much research that has to be done in the evolution of empathy, and multiple fields of studies should be taken into consideration. For example, perhaps empathy was more adaptive in certain societies than others. There are so many possibilities for this topic right now, and it’s fascinating to consider all of the possible explanations. As of right now, though, I’m siding with Churchland.

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