Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality

DSCN0107 “Morality seems to me to be a natural phenomenon- constrained by the forces of natural selection, rooted in neurobiology, shaped by the local ecology, and modified by cultural developments.” (Churchland 191)

Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality, by Patricia Churchland, is the perfect book for those keenly interested in psychology and philosophy. Of course, if one were to weigh the two subjects, as they are presented in the pages of this work, the balance would undoubtedly fall heavier on psychology’s side. To go even deeper than that, the topic Braintrust constantly comes back to is biology, because, as it is the case with any other human (or animal)-related conversation, it has its roots deep in the science of life. What Churchland is trying to prove, in a very eloquent manner, is the idea that morality exists because of the activity of neurons in the brain. This may, indeed, seem obvious, particularly for those who are adepts of Evolution; however, the road to proving this point is certainly not a straight or simple one.

As mentioned before, the idea holding the pages of the book together is that our brains are predisposed to morality, because evolutionarily, humans have evolved to be social animals (since living in large numbers provides more safety and security than living in small groups). Once one accepts this idea, it is by no means too big of a leap to assume that those who were inclined to respect others did much better (i.e. survived and reproduced at bigger rates) than those who didn’t.  With time, this respect for others turned into what we now think of as morality.

The book is relatively easy to read, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as good for bedtime, because it does require an alert mind to pick up on all the rich information found within it. Some knowledge of biology (and psychology) helps quite a lot, but it is not required because the notes at the end aid to the comprehension of the more complicated concepts.  The two last chapters have much more to do with philosophy than the rest, so one might find them easier to read.

For those interested in the topic discussed in the book, here is a sort of summary of the work presented by the writer herself:

Here are the lessons one could learn from reading Braintrust, but keep in mind that some of them depend on the theory presented in the work being true:

1)Morality is a result of our social nature.

Indeed, the large majority of individuals like to be surrounded by people, who will, hopefully, admire and approve of their behaviour. Well, when it comes down to it, nobody truly approves of others’ actions when those actions may harm them, because of fear for their  own wellbeing. Thus, in time, humans learnt to conduct themselves in a manner that isn’t dangerous to others (or, from an altruistic perspective, in a manner that is beneficial to others).  If it is true that morality is a by-product of our desire to be a part of a group, then we need to see it as depend on other individuals.

2)Morality depends on the amount of resources available.

Part of the argument in this book is that morality developed because humans had an abundance of supplies, which reduced competition for survival. When this occurred, we were enabled to start caring for more individuals than ourselves and our immediate relatives. There is, however, a dark side to this lesson: if morality does depend on  resources, then when these resources are taken away, so is morality. This idea can be seen in The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, and in many other apocalypse-themed stories.

3)Morality depends on both emotions and rational thinking.

Many have treated morality as if it were based only on our reasoning capacities, and had nothing to do with our feelings. This seems to be false, and a little observation of our own behavior will prove that this is the case. Nobody denies that there are instances when we have to think things through in order to come up with a sound moral solution, but more often than not, our answers come instinctively, without us having taken the time to decide whether the matter at hand is “good” or “bad”.  This means that we have to realize that much of what we consider to be morally correct comes from habit, mimicry and other things that are imprinted in our minds without us being aware of it.

4) There are no known moral rules that are without exception true.

Churchland proves this point by particularly concentrating on the Golden Rule, since this is the one people most often think as always being true. I would personally argue that in an abstract sense it would stand, but that would mean taking this blog post in another direction that it is meant to go. Nonetheless, even if the Golden Rule is always true, there are still many, many other moral rules that are only true sometimes. What this means is that we must be a little more careful when we judge situations, because we might fall into the trap of believing that one event is not in accordance with the rules of morality, because of a similar event that occurred in the past, when in fact the two situations might differ enough that the rule used for one cannot be used for the second.

Morality is a tricky thing. Although on basic matters it seems to be the same for nearly all individuals belonging to a culture, there are differences even between individuals belonging to the same group regarding some issues (such as euthanasia and abortion). However, it seems that the human brain, when developed normally, is predisposed to adhering to some moral code, which is shaped after birth by circumstances, culture and society.


4 thoughts on “Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality

  1. LOL …. I was waiting for the exception to the rule to be brought up (slipped in at the end!)

    That’s the main trouble with moral rules, they are ‘rules’ and any rule implies universality. And the universality of morality means you can’t advocate moral behaviour without automatically condemning the state – who are the only group in society who claim the LEGAL RIGHT to violate basic universal moral rules.

    In the real world we all recognise that it’s immoral to initiate force against other people (as distinct from force used in self defence). That is what we learn as children, and that is how our society is structured… with one exception.

    Governments are (by definition) a group within a geographical area who claim (and violently defend) the monopolistic legal right to initiate force (ie behave immorally) to achieve their objectives.

    They say history is written by the victors, and in the same way the most influential philosophers (the ones we learn about in government run schools) tend to be the ones who promote universal moral rules while simultaneously proclaiming the need to have a group in society who violate all of those wonderful and rational rules (ie a government).

    Strangely, all the philosophers who claimed universal rules should be applied, er, universally have not made it to the school curriculum or mainstream history of philosophy. Funny that.

    Morality in the context of Darwinism (dog eat dog) is where it gets really interesting. In terms of ‘resource acquisition’ the most cunning plan ever conceived in human history is to convince everybody else in society that stealing is wrong, but that YOUR stealing is OK … or even better to convince them that to NOT hand over their stuff to you is morally wrong!

    In this sense, the first thing we should do when presented with any moral rule is to look NOT at the rule itself, but at who is magically exempt from that rule.

    “Nobody is allowed to rape the women of this village. As your leaders will make sure of it!” – that is enforcement of moral rule.

    “Nobody but us is allowed to rape the women of this village. As your leaders will make sure of it!” – that is NOT enforcement of moral rule. That is a cunning form of exploitation.

    The confusion stems from the fact that when you create a monopoly on doing X you have to (by definition) prevent everybody else from doing X. This makes it look a bit like you are outlawing X, but in reality you are just ensuring that ONLY YOU get to do X.

    In reality a statist society has no rules forbidding violence or murder or theft. If it had rules forbidding these things then government would immediately arrest themselves for blatantly violating all of them. Instead a statist society has ‘laws’. A ‘law’ just means the willingness to use force. A ‘law’ can reflect a universal (moral) rule, but it does not have to. Plenty don’t.

    A statist society is a society without any rules. To actually apply genuine rules (such as theft, murder, coercion, kidnapping, violence are immoral) to a society would mean an instant end to coercive (ie immoral) rule by government and lead to anarchy (ie how most of our everyday society already operates today – except where government is concerned). This is the exact opposite of everything we are taught in (government) schools. And it’s worth pointing out that if the children’s parents don’t pay the teacher’s salaries they are kidnapped by the state and put inside a cage.

    Is it any wonder morality is so impossible to learn and talk about rationally?!

    Molyneux’s short (and painfully obvious) deconstruction of morality (previous link) is expanded in this wonderful lecture…. The Joy of Evil! The True History of Morality

    Personally, I view Churchland’s views on the subject as (yet another) cop out.

    Let’s not forget that it was only a few generations ago the ‘enlightened western world’ considered it socially acceptable to own slaves. This was NOT because owning people was generally considered morally acceptable – it was not! – it was because owning black people was considered the ‘magical exception’ to the universal (and bloody obvious!) moral rule.

    Another fascinating observation about morality is that when things like overt slavery were the social norm nobody could imagine a society without it… but the moment we get rid of it nobody, looking back, can imagine how on earth people ever tolerated such immoral behaviour.

    In the same way future generations will look back on our society and wonder how we ever tolerated having half our wages stolen at gunpoint every week, or how we tolerated allowing any group to take out loans in our children’s names so they could fund their wars of genocide, or how we tolerated hitting children even though we’d already banned hitting pets.

    1. Your response is very thought-provoking, and I do agree with your general idea: that governments do not abide by the same laws as their people.
      As far as Brainstrust goes, it most certainly has its flaws, perhaps the biggest one being that for many of the points it presents, there are still large gaps to be filled by the evidence or the research that just isn’t there yet. However, keep in mind that as I said, Churchland gravitates more towards the biological component of morality in this work, which is discussed in six of the eight chapters. Her philosophical argument cannot help but lack substance given the complexity of the topic, and the little time it was given. However, Braintrust was never meant to present a philosophical argument about morality, but an evolutionary one.

      1. “..However, Braintrust was never meant to present a philosophical argument about morality, but an evolutionary one…”

        Yes but I don’t see how the two can be separated for two main reasons.

        1. Philosophy is a natural process which arises from our natural ability to abstract, to create concepts, handle logic and determine truth from falsehoods etc. How can these natural abilities be excluded from any theory of evolution? There is no divide between philosophy and nature! I mean, to engage in philosophy (rational thinking, logic etc) is not to somehow ‘step out of nature’ and into a vacuum. Although, unfortunately, that IS how we are generally taught to view philosophy.

        2. Churchland seems to be talking about how ‘doing good’ or ‘being nice’ (such as nurturing a baby) makes you feel great, but that is not really what morality is all about even though nurturing a baby, or caring for the elderly are obviously morally virtuous ways to behave (they’re certainly not immoral!). But moral behaviour is really about our ability to distinguish between moral/ immoral behaviour *irrespective* of in-the-moment feelings generated by our biology/ physiology/ psychology or whatever.

        It is precisely our ability to abstract, critically analyse and, if necessary, override our more immediate or primitive urges that enables us to act morally. However, this does NOT mean we always have a natural propensity to behave immorally, and that we must override this (with ‘unnatural philosophy’) in order to behave with moral virtue. It just means that human relationships and transactions are highly complex affairs and often it’s not always immediately obvious what is moral behaviour in any given situation…. and often what may ‘feel’ like the moral way to behave is actually totally immoral.

        Talking about morality just in terms of biology is rather like talking about the railways just in terms of biology. Morality is really a social system – a social agreement – and what counts is the system as a whole as much as our individual actions. If theft was considered morally acceptable behaviour then society could adapt and we’d all have bigger locks on our doors and self-destructing phones – because we could no longer deter thieves with laws or compensate our loses with theft insurance (because theft was now morally acceptable). In other words, we’d adapt. Morality is, in this sense, like a language in that the exact words aren’t important as much as the fact that their meaning is universally understood and recognised.

        Language and morality can change, and as long as everyone accepts those changes society adapts (for better or for worse). A crucial aspect of all moral behaviour is the universal standard (the moral rule) and this cannot be said to be biological in nature because it is a social agreement. Moral standards have changed greatly over time (and flipped 180 degrees in many cases), but that can’t be because our biology has changed. Perhaps we are biologically hard wired to seek social approval, or go along with ‘alpha’ males and females or just follow the herd… that may or may not cause us to behave morally, but it has nothing much to do with morality itself ….. more often than not this kind of ‘hard wired’ social behaviour is the back door through which the most diabolical evil enters and takes over a population.

        Churchland also doesn’t seem to mention that some people lack *empathy* which is a crucial aspect of any moral system.

        Lacking the capacity for empathy can be caused by genetic factors or a violent, abusive or otherwise dysfunctional upbringing. There is evidence to suggest a dysfunctional upbringing can trigger a genetic propensity for lack of empathy and thus create a fully fledged psychopath/ sociopath. Unlike normal people, the survival strategy for these dis-abled people (who make up about 4% of the population if I remember) is to manipulate and exploit EVERYBODY ELSE’S empathy (ie use other people’s morality as a weapon against them).

        And that takes us neatly back to the ruling classes and the group who call themselves ‘government’!

        Not everyone in the ruling classes is a psychopath who has no empathy, but those with any power do tend to exhibit ALL of the traits of psychopathy/ sociopathy. (For example, being able to order drone attack with a 98% civilian murder rate is just one clue of many, which strongly suggests a total lack of empathy for other human beings). For most people murdering ‘just’ one child would be a life changing event with serious long term emotional ramifications. Empathy + immoral actions = harm to the individual. This ensures most of us stay within the bounds of moral behaviour. Empathy is our biological (or whatever) basis for moral behaviour. When empathy is missing this natural safeguard is no longer in operation – for that individual. If people then bestow that individual with ‘authority’, half of their wages each week and all the guns in the world the result is ALWAYS a bloodbath.

        Political rulers order the murder of other human beings routinely and they keep on smiling and waving as if they have absolutely no capacity to empathise with the victims of their violent and murderous actions (which they almost certainly don’t).

        Hollywood (as a propaganda arm of the military industrial complex) depicts baddies as overtly evil, socially awkward, sinister types. But in reality, the most destructive people in society (ie psychopaths with no empathy) are often charming, winning, funny, charismatic, natural ‘leaders’ and great to be around…. but if you go into business with one, or marry one or elect one to be president or have one in your family or circle of friends the chances are they will use you, deplete your resources (bleed you dry!), destroy the marriage/ business/ friendship / country – before moving on to their next naive victim who will see them as charming, winning, funny, charismatic, natural ‘leaders’ and great to be around….. and on and on it goes.

        We all understand that the survival strategy of a raving alcoholic or meth addict is going to be hugely destructive to themselves and everyone around them. An addict (who’s moral values have been overridden by the addiction) will exploit the empathy of others to obtain resources, and failing that they will just resort to violence.

        The same is true of sociopaths/ psychopaths in expensive suits. They may lack empathy themselves, but they sure understand how to exploit the empathy of others. And failing that they have no problem using extreme violence (they have no empathy after all).

        If we continue to worship these people, wave flags for them, ‘vote’ for them, give them half our earnings each week, allow them to take out loans in our children’s names and supply them with all the weapons in the world their dis-abled survival strategies WILL end up destroying the planet (what’s left of it).

        For these empathy-lacking people obtaining resources using force, fraud and deception is their preferred (and perhaps only available) survival strategy, whether they act this out in a marriage or a business or as political rulers.

        This strategy is obviously a ‘win – lose’ strategy. The voluntary, peaceful transactions which define the rest of society are ‘win – win’ strategies. In ordinary society when people try to impose their ‘win – lose’ strategies on us we correctly identify them as muggers, rapists, car thieves, fraudsters etc. In politics we’ve been trained to call them ‘leaders’.

        To support and participate in the ‘win – lose’ strategy of psychopaths when you are not even a psychopath is surely a completely idiotic thing to do and a recipe for disaster!

        Or to put it another way, for the average man on the street, supporting and participating in the survival strategy of society controlled by force (AKA ‘democracy’) makes about as much sense as giving your credit cards, house keys and gun collection to a bunch of meth addicts (and voting for your favourite meth addict from a choice of two or three is hardly going to make any difference).

        These unfortunate people have the excuse of being disabled (no empathy). Perhaps force IS their only strategy because they lack the empathy required to negotiate and engage in ‘win – win’ transactions and relationships. But what is OUR excuse for supporting these disabled people and allowing them to sell off our children into debt slavery and building a dystopian nightmare society for them to grow up in?

        Well…. our excuse is that supporting, championing and helping to facilitate the immoral behaviour of psychopaths in power benefits us in the short term. It allows us to publish books, get on TV, climb the social hierarchy, get rewarded in mainstream academia/ science/ politics (rather than getting ostracised). It allows us to keep our jobs as teachers, it allows us to become tenured professors living a comfortable life spouting propaganda and never challenging the system in public. This is how evil empires are built… NOT through evil imposing itself onto good people… but by good people tolerating evil for the sake of comfortable ‘hassle free’ short term living.

        Evil rarely imposes itself onto societies with an evil fanfare and a puff of smoke, instead it gradually entices the so called ‘intellectual class’ to condone it and make pathetic excuses for it by bribing them with status and comforts. Same goes for so called ‘artists’.

        Virtuous behaviour in a society ruled by immoral people means rejecting all of those bribes, and speaking the moral truth regardless….. and as a result probably living ostracised, victimised, persecuted and poor – at least in the short term. The most fundamental aspect of moral behaviour is the rejection of immoral behaviour – rather than making excuses for it, or ignoring it!

        It seems Churchland is only interested in the kind of touchy-feely virtuous behaviour which makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Nurturing your baby feels is its own reward and is the kind of moral behaviour which comes easily to most people (provided they are not psychologically damaged in some way).

        The kind of behaviour which offers an immediate moral ‘feel good’ fix is generally NOT the kind of moral behaviour which keeps evil at bay – which is kind of the whole point of morality, right? The most immoral agendas throughout history (and those operating today) are always disguised as ‘feel good’ moral crusades. Every dictator has been cheered into power. Obviously our in-the-moment feelings are NOT a good indicator for moral virtue!

        Luckily, evolution has provided us with the tool of philosophy (rational thinking, logic, objectivity) in order to see through phoney moral crusades and people trying to use our own morality against us. Philosophy is the only tool we’ve got against the evil and dysfunction which is wreaking havoc on the world right now. And it’s perfectly natural. In fact the philosophy of morality is so natural and comes so easily to us, that is WHY we are forced to undergo 12+ years of Prussian indoctrination from the age of four years old. It’s the only way to break this natural capacity for moral thinking and reprogram us with this absurd idea of universal moral rules but with one group having the magical right to violate them!

        A bit of a rant (sorry!), but I feel it’s an important (and fascinating subject).

  2. You are right in saying that morality and philosophy can’t be separated, but as I said, Churchland’s argument is mainly about how and why we got to be moral (which is an evolutionary argument). She does discuss morality from a philosophical stand point, but in smaller proportions. And yes, of course philosophy is in some proportions present in every discussion, even though it may not always be perceived as such, but when I said that Braintrust wasn’t meant to offer a philosophical argument, I was referring to a more abstract philosophy, which would need to be employed when discussing something as complex as morality, and where day-to-day philosophy would fall short.
    I think you misunderstood Churchland’s point: she wasn’t trying to say that morality means being nice. She was merely constructing her argument that being nice (first to offspring, then to our relatives, and then to those who aren’t related to us) might have been one of the first steps we took to being moral. You might personally disagree with her theory, and that’s perfectly fine.
    In regards to the point you made about rational thinking as part of morality: it is more or less what Churchland says in her book. She emphasizes the role of emotions in deciding whether something is moral or not a little bit more than you, but she also acknowledges the fact that we do indeed use our rational thinking in deciding what is moral and what not when the issue at hand is more complicated.

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