Morality and neurochemical impulses

Recently I was reminded of a book I read a while ago by philosopher Patricia Churchland entitled Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality. (A brief video of her explaining the book is here.) The book attempts to explain what scientists have learned about the brain in order to explain how it is that humans developed a sense of morality. One interesting idea she discusses is that the hormone Oxytocin is found in the brain and in the body. It has been shown to promote caring behavior in animals, and it is released during pregnancy, triggering “full maternal behavior” in humans and animals. Oxytocin also promotes trust in humans by “raising the threshold for tolerance of others, and to its down-regulation of fear and avoidance responses,” as demonstrated in experiments in which some research subjects are given a dose of Oxytocin and are asked to play games and interact with others in order to measure trusting behavior. Another interesting discussion is that, at the genetic level, behavior is complex. No single gene can be associated with any unique or specific behavior. In the “Parable of the Aggressive Fruit Fly,” Churchland explains how scientists are able to breed a fruit fly that is 30 times more aggressive than their natural cousins, but genetic differences between them are minor and do not seem to be related to any specific behavior. Rather, differences are in mundane physiological functions.

After discussing these ideas Churchland enters into a discussion of why various philosophers have not really gotten it right about morality and ends with a criticism of religion, or what she calls a “supernatural basis” as the source of morality. She denies the need to rely on God or religion in order to explain morality and how people come to know that something is right or wrong, focusing instead on a neurobiological basis for these. To this end she is particularly critical of religious tenets that imply or state an absolute standard of behavior or morality, such as claims about what someone “ought” to do or be. She focuses especially on the Golden Rule, the Ten Commandments and a God-given conscience. One reason she gives is that religious “absolutes” are just that—prescriptions that are intolerant of specific contexts. Another reason she gives is that absolute standards are invalidated because of the allowance of exceptions, such as when the Lord tells Moses “Thou shalt not kill” (see Exodus 20) and then later commands him to slay Israelites who worshipped false Gods (see Numbers 25). I note the inconsistency in these two objections. She is critical of religious intolerance as well as its tolerance. She also complains that people “with conscience” often advocate conflicting ideals. For example, some people feel it is wrong to eat meat while others feel it is morally acceptable. According to her, this means religion cannot be used to justify claims about morality.

I find her argument highly unsatisfying. If she is correct, then where does this leave us? A world in which morality is relative and where morality is created and defined by neurochemical reactions in our brains? If we live in such a world, then how is it that humans are able to make decisions of right and wrong and come to a consensus about many moral issue? Neurochemicals might explain in part feelings of affection we have for others, but that only accounts for the sociality of humans and animals. It is too far a leap to claim that it also accounts for the ability of humans to engage in complex moral analysis or to make and act on specific moral judgments. It also cannot explain how or why little children understand basics of right or wrong. If you ask a five year old child if it is a good thing or a bad thing to take a toy away from another child or to hit another person, they usually get the right answer (it is a wrong thing). Children have an innate sense of right and wrong that can only be described as a conscience. Neurobiological responses are too primitive to explain this ability of children. To accept Churchland’s view is to equate morality with sociality, and that is clearly insufficient for explaining actual moral judgment.

A stable society requires that humans accept a common morality and sense about what is right or wrong and that they are willing and able to police themselves by exercising moral restraint. This requires a belief or a willingness to believe that there is such a thing as an absolute standard of morality. History has shown repeatedly the horror that humans inflict on others when they disagree on fundamental moral issues and beliefs and adopt a mindset of relativism and situational ethics. The Nazi holocaust comes to mind. (Side note: I just finished Miklos Nyiszli’s book, Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account, which provides a stunning account of a Jewish doctor who helped the infamous Josef Mengele conduct experiments on prisoners in the concentration camp.)

Personally, I would rather live in a world in which people accepted the reality of a Divine Being and followed His dictates than one in which people acted only according to neurobiological and chemical impulses. It is because people ignore their God-given conscience that immoral behavior and human-on-human atrocities occur.


Author: Harvey James

Professor, Agricultural and Applied Economics, University of Missouri Editor-in-chief, Agriculture and Human Values

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