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Peeking Into The Brain To Explain Morality


Does your momma have tell you to do the right thing, or do you just kinda know? How do we form our moral values? Some would argue that religion and philosophy guide us toward morality. But new research into the brain is telling us our moral compass may be more complex and deeply rooted than once thought.


Patricia Churchland will discuss "Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality" at The Book Works in Del Mar on March 10 at 7 p.m.

What if a group of humans never heard about religion or any kind of moral philosophy? Would they still love their children? Would they still form friendships? Would they think it wrong to tell a lie? A new book argues that the basics of what humans call morality is not in books but in our brains. It's a complicated idea, which combines elements of biology, evolution and community to redefine where we get our deepest moral values.


Patricia Churchland, is a professor of Philosophy at U.C. San Diego who is considered a pioneer in the field of neurophilosophy. Her new book is called "Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality".

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

How do we form our moral values? Some would argue that religion and philosophy guide us into morality. But new research into the brain is telling us our moral compass may be more complex and deeply rooted than once thought. Plus, we'll hear from families living with the burden of the genetic illness known as Huntington's disease. That's all ahead this hour on These Days. First the news.

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. What if a group of humans never heard about religion or any kind of moral philosophy? Would they still love their children? Would they still form friendships? Would they think it wrong to tell a lie? A new book argues that the basics of what humans call morality is not in books but in our brains. It's a complicated idea which combines elements of biology, evolution, and community to redefine where we get our deepest moral values. I'd like to welcome my guest, Patricia Churchland is professor emeritus of philosophy at UC San Diego, adjunct professor at the Salk Institute. Her new book is called Brain Trust: What neuroscience tells us about morality. And Patricia, welcome to These Days.

CHURCHLAND: Thank you so much. It's a great pleasure to be here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, we are inviting our listeners to join the conversation. How do you make your moral decisions? Is it more based on dock tribute or instinct? Give us a call with your questions and your comments of our number is 1-888-895-5727. 1-888-895-KPBS. You know, Pat, let's start the discussion with just sort of an outline of what it is we mean when we say moral decisions, moral values. What are we talking about?

CHURCHLAND: Well, I think that one of the things that really is extraordinary about mammalian evolution is that brains were kind of rewired so that instead of just caring about your own well being and your own survival, you began to care about the well being and survival of others. And in the first instance, those others were your off spring. And so the circuitry in the mammalian brain is really organized with the help of neural regulators like a peptide called oxytocin and vasopressin. To make us feel pain when those others are threatened or lacking food, when we hear them squeal, with separation anxiety, and we feel pleasure below we're together, when we're with them, and when they're doing well. And this change in the circuitry we can see even in, as it were, simple mammals like rodents of but we also see it elaborated and elaborated in other mammals, especially big brained mammals.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So how do we get -- in your book, you outline how moral values seem to be built up from these very basic impulses in mammals' brains. Can you describe how one idea, one moral idea might grow into another?

CHURCHLAND: Sort of. Initially, I think we care about others for this kind of extension of caring for one's self. But what I want to do is to tell you first of all a story.


CHURCHLAND: And it's a story that had a huge impact on me when I was very puzzled about what could be the origin and the basis for morality. And it kind of allowed me to think of morality in a new way.


CHURCHLAND: So the story is about these other furry rodents called voles. Now, there are two species it's -- there are actually many species of voles, but I'm going to contrast prairie voles with montane voles. They're kind of like chubby mice. Prairie voles are quite interesting in as much as after the first mating, the male and the female bond for life, they stay further for life, they like to be together, they like to hang out together, the male guards the nest and helps take care of the off spring. Montane voles are completely different. There is no bonding, they are promiscuous maters, the male takes no part in raising the young. And so the question that was asked by the neuroscientists is what's the difference in the brain?


CHURCHLAND: And it turned out, there was an answer. And the answer, largely speaking was very simple. And that is that oxytocin and vasopressin played a different role in the brains of the prairie voles and the montane voles. Very specifically, the answer was this. Upon oxytocin needs to bind to a neuron in order to have an effect. And what it binds to is called a receptor. And what was found was that the density for receptors of oxytocin into very specific places in the brain were different in prairie voles and montane voles. And you could change this social behavior by changing the density of receptors. Now, there probably are other elements involved. But what this meantime to me was that a behavior that I had thought of as within the moral domain and a behavior that people would speak of as supported by or instituted by religion as independent of our biology, namely, monogamy, was actually seen in these animals and seen because of very specific aspects of their biology. So I began to think maybe that's true of us. Maybe there are aspects of highly social animals that have to do with the configuration of oxytocin and vasopressin and their receptors that make us care. Now, how exactly we care is going to depend on what we learn from our culture. And it will be steered in one direction or another direction.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is fascinating. I'm speaking with Patricia Churchland, and she -- and about her new book called brain trust, what neuroscience tells us about morality. We're taking your calls, if you'd like to join this conversation at 1-888-895-5727. You're call aid pioneer in this field of neurophilosophy. When you say you've put this together, this finding from the world of biology that these voles operated in different ways because of a hormone in their brains, are you basically the first person who has sort of put this together and saying, look, monogamy in human beings we think of as a rather high moral value, and here it is because of a hormone in a vol's brain. So where -- how do you put that together?

CHURCHLAND: Well, it was a big clue for me that certain aspects of morality can turn out to depend on these very deep values that have to do with caring. And that it -- especially in the case of mammals in contrast to, say, ants, we also have this really remarkable capacity to learn. And the reward system is acutely tuned to learning social practices, social conventions, and so forth. And that's because they are tremendously important for how the group manages to survive. So if we think of human ancestors that lived roughly 250000 years ago in very small groups, what we probably saw was caring relationships, first of all, for off spring, for mates, for kin, but also for affiliates because there can be really quite strong bonds that form, again, probably regulated by oxytocin and vasopressin between affiliates. And so there would be very strong bonding amongst members of the group. But there would also be -- and we can see this in other primates in other humans, [CHECK] ostracize those that cause social havoc or are a danger to individuals within the group. So sometimes in a baboon society, for example, they will simply run out of the troop, an individual who is constantly misbehaving himself.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So those first questions that I posed in the introduction about whether or not if you had no religion or moral philosophy would a group of humans still love their children, would they still form --

CHURCHLAND: Without a doubt. Without a doubt. And we know this because there are lots and lots of groups of humans who don't have a religion in the sense that they believe in a creator or they don't believe in a personal God. And yet, of course, what we do see is this tremendous attachment to off spring, to kin, to mates, and also a willingness to trust strangers when conditions are appropriate.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Devon is on the line from Encinitas. Good morning, Devon and welcome to These Days. Of.



NEW SPEAKER: I had a question about the evolution of the human brain in terms of morality and how humans are, I guess, generally pretty young animals. We haven't really been on the planet for very long compared to a lot of other types of animals. So I'm wondering what you think about how in our brains the complexity of, you know, morality sort of varies from person to person so broadly, and it's -- you know, we can be pretty flawed about it sometimes. And emotionally we can be very inconsistent and insecure or we may use morality in a -- you know, in questionable ways. And I'm just wondering what you think about where the human mind is now in terms of morality versus where it might be several, you know, several thousand years from now, if we are still on this planet in some --

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Devon, there are a lot of questions there, but it's fascinating. Thank you so much. And Pat?

CHURCHLAND: Well, so far as we can tell, the human brain now is probably in its aspects having to do with cognition and sociality, is probably not very different from humans as they were roughly 250000 years ago. So -- but what has changed enormously, of course, are cultural conditions. And so once agriculture really became a powerful way of organizing human groups, many things changed in the ecology. So instead of having small groups wandering about, are foraging and hunting, then you had rather larger groups with very stable organization. And that meant that there were new kinds of social problems. And now kinds of competition because not necessarily did everyone know everyone else. And the kind of moral suasion that you can put on one another in small groups is quite different from what you can put on one another in large groups of and so there was also the development of institutions. So a really important component of the story is that with large brained mammals, but actually with mammals in generally, the fact that we are born so immature allows our brains to learn all kinds of stuff about the particular physical environment and the social environment in which we find ourselves. So I'm guessing that where I born 250000 years ago in a hunter gatherer group, I'd behave pretty much like them. But since I'm not, and I'm born here and now, then I believe in things like universal human rights. But that isn't something that would have occurred to our ancestors then. So there is a kind of shifting and a development in the complexity of morality that we see as groups become larger. Nevertheless, what is, I think, quite remarkable is the degree to which people truly do care about their families, their friends, and even people they don't know. People give money to Haitians who are suffering from the earthquake, and so forth.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And from what I'm understanding is that what your book is arguing, basically, is that that kind of higher moral commitment we might have to people suffering from Haiti can be traced back to.



CHURCHLAND: I believe so.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The actual physiology of our brains.

CHURCHLAND: I -- absolutely. I believe so. But I think it also depends on ecological conditions. So that I think were we living in times where we were not at all prosperous, where there was a tremendous shortage of food, or a tremendous shortage of water, people's behavior would change. And they would become more tightly bound within their group and less able and less willing to cooperate across groups. And I think that's just a fact about the way we operate.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, in your -- in the introduction to your book, Patricia church hand, you go to great pains to address a concern that was voiced centuries ago by the grace philosopher, David Hume. He warned that science can explain what it is, and not what ought to be. Basically setting up a distinction between facts and moral judgment. So how does your book bridge that gap?

CHURCHLAND: Well, it's a complicated part of the story because, of course, there is no simple relation to know what is and what ought to be. I mean, what might say it is the case that the Inuit practiced infanticide, so it ought to be the case that we do. And that's too simple. On the other hand, where do the oughts come from? Now, in the physical domain, there are lots of things that we say we ought to do. We ought to keep yeast in the bridge or we ought to treat poison ivy immediately, we ought to floss our teeth, and so forth. And we don't word processor too much about the fact that we go from what is, namely your teeth will rot and you'll get gingivitis if you don't floss your teeth to you ought to floss your teeth. We've don't worry about that in the physical domain. And Hume, interestingly enough, thought we shouldn't worry too much about it in the moral domain. What Hume didn't like was the idea that you would like simple stupid inferences, like men are on average stronger than women, so women should be dominated by men. That he thought was a stupid inference, and he was right about that. On the other hand, there's a whole lot of other things that go into a moral ought, and because our society is so complex, they need to come in. So for example, you might think that it's a standard rule that we ought to help someone who needs help, but what you quickly learn as you grow up is that sometimes impulsive helping can take a bad problem and make it worse. Sometimes it can be insulting that the person who is helped doesn't really want your help because they are -- they have pride and intelligence and they don't want you to intervene. Sometimes you shouldn't help because there might be, if you really thought about it, better ways of doing things. And so I think that while it's important to recognize that there can be a social impulse to want to help, that that you feel people also realize that, ah, maybe we better think this through, that it isn't enough just to have an impulse.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And too, there are many cultures where that instinct is not as pronounced as it is in western culture because of various cultural values.

CHURCHLAND: Absolutely.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's take another caller. Aubrey is calling from Dana point. Good morning, Aubrey, and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, thanks for taking my call. Just two parts, I just wanted to thank the guest. I'm also a big fan of Sam Harris, and I just think there need to be [CHECK] that religion is our source of moral value, when it's just so not true. And it would be awful if it were true. And the second part, I just had a question, does she see a place for oxytocin in therapeutic treatment or would that -- should we start taking oxytocin to become a gentler, kinder society?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you Aubrey.

CHURCHLAND: Well, I think we need to be extremely cautious about using oxytocin as a therapy. First of all, bear in mind that it is a very potent hormone. And it works well when things proceed normally. Infants, whether they're humans or rodents or wolves, infants need cuddling and that produces oxytocin in their brains, and it produces oxytocin in the cuddler. And that's a really important thing. And we know that children who are not well cuddle and who are not treated in later life have social problems, and they also, maybe causally, maybe just correlationally, have lower levels of oxytocin. So we know that's very important. On the other hand, here's a funny thing that my friend, Sue Carter, discovered, if you take a female prairie vole and give her oxytocin, she immediately goes into estrus. That doesn't mean that would happen to humans, but it does mean that it's a very potent hormone. And that for certain kinds of psychiatric disorders, possibly autism, possibly posttraumatic stress disorder, it might be useful. But the people who are exploring that are sensitive to the need to be cautious. Now I might just pick up on your point about religion. Unlike Sam, who thinks religion has only a very negative role to play in morality, I think that if you actually look at the data that religion can be sometimes have a very positive role. It can serve as a basis for considering what the local practices are, for providing things of ritual importance, the mile stones of lifelike birth and marriage and death, and sometimes for bonding members together in such a way that they are able to defend themselves against attackers. Now, it's also true, of course, that we see instances where religion is very intransigent, where it fails to, as it were, change with ecological conditions, contraception being a very, very important case in point. But I think that it's important to actually look at the anthropological data on the role of religions and people's lives and in community bonding. And I think when you do that, it's not all bad.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call. Of Michael is calling from Pacific Beach. Of good morning Michael, and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, professor Churchland, I've actually taken your class on neurophilosophy at UCSD.


NEW SPEAKER: And I'm sitting here looking at your book, brain wise right now. What I wanted to bring up is the dangerous aspect of this concept that maybe your listeners aren't aware of that if you are argue that our brains are predisposed or bred to have morality in them then you basically give away free will. And you're allowing people to make decisions and not take responsibility for them if you have that as the case.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me get a --

NEW SPEAKER: Although, I think social animals do have compassion. There are those among us in our society that don't.

CHURCHLAND: Well, that's also true. That's also true. Did you want to say something Maureen?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: No, I just wanted to pass that along to you. What do you think? Does this idea have any implications about free will?

CHURCHLAND: Well, it depends on what you think free will entails. If it entails that we really all of us are kind of like people with obsessive compulsive disorder, and we have no flexibility about whether or not to go back and check and see whether we turned off the stove, then I think you're quite wrong. I think that in large brained mammals, and we certainly are that, one of the things that's very clear is how much flexibility there is in the system. How much capacity there is for impulse control, for weighing and considering. Now, we don't know exactly what that means in neurobiological terms, although I think ultimately we will. But decision making in mammals in general, but especially in large brains mammals like us and which I am pan gees and baboons, has tremendous flexibility. And it's like that, it evolved to be that way so that we could respond adaptively to changes in the environment. We don't just respond reflexively. And any mammalian predator has to be that way. It has to be able to respond to something completely unexpected that could not have been wired into the nervous system. So sometimes people think that because genes are important in building brains and so forth that in a way we're just puppets.


CHURCHLAND: And, well, a cockroach might be kind of more puppety than we are, but we are not puppets.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And I you want just want to -- you make the point if your book, and you just did, the fact that philosophy, religion really inform our moral decisions and have had a great deal of good influence on our process of -- in this human culture. But also just to be clear, you make the point that religion is not necessarily necessary, a belief in a higher power is not necessary.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In order to be moral beings.

CHURCHLAND: It seems so. I mean, here's one thing that I find very striking that my friend Owen Flanagan often remarks on, and that is that most Asian religions do not have a personal God, and they do not have a God that they think of as setting down lists of rules. What they do do is venerate wise people like the Buddha or Confucius or the great Asian philosopher Mensius. They also venerate their ancestors and sometimes they build shrines that venerate ancestors where they go to think about them. But they don't believe in a God in the way that many Christians or Jews or Muslims believe in a God. But their moral behavior is pretty much on par with ours. Of they believe in truth telling, in honor, in taking care of family. They believe in doing the right thing to cooperate, to build schools and sewers and roads. So it obviously isn't necessary.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, what kind of response you've gotten from your book so far.

CHURCHLAND: Well, you know, it's just hot off the press. If you touch it, it'll still feel a little bit warm. And so I haven't -- I haven't got really any reviews except a very short one from England which was very positive. But I think we'll just sort of have to wait and see. But I've given talks on this topic quite a lot over the past years. As I was working through the ideas and trying to make things make sense, or at least change things if they didn't, and by and large, people have responded very well. Aristotle said -- Darwin said we are social by nature, and we all kind of know that. We like to be together. We do care about each other. We are dependent on each other. Now, culture's a big part of the form that take, but you wouldn't have culture if you didn't have this basic biology of wanting to be together, caring about each other, feeling bad if you're alone or if you're ostracized.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to let our listeners know that Patricia Churchland will discuss Brain Trust, what neuroscience tells us about morality in the book works in Del Mar tomorrow night, that's March 10th at 7:00 PM. And there was another event that you wanted to tell us about?

CHURCHLAND: Well, I was going to mention that people can buy books on line now [CHECK] indie bound, and indie bound is a site for independent book sellers. And --

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Where can people find that?

CHURCHLAND: And just Google indie bound, and up it comes.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Patricia, thank you so much.

CHURCHLAND: Thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with Patricia Churchland. If you'd like to comment, please go on-line, Days.

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