Written by Patricia S Churchland,


Review by Gunnel Minett

To live by a moral code has always been a cornerstone of human interaction and socialisation. In order for people to live together in some kind of harmony there needs to be some form of shared values, some form of agreement of what is good and bad behaviour. From the ancient Greek philosophers onwards there’s been a continual discussion of morality in all societies around the world. The current war situation in Europe has also put the issue of morality at the very forefront of how we find a better way forward for humankind.

In this book, neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland discusses different aspects of morality. She starts from the premise that morality originates in the brain. Human behaviour has been modified by a combination of evolutionary pressures and cultural values: these are the forces which have produced what we would refer to as moral behaviour. This, she argues has the same basis as other forms of self-preservation, such as seeking food when hungry or warmth when cold. 

So morality in its original form resembles other forms of homeostasis, i.e. inbuilt mechanisms, regulating wellbeing and ultimately survival. Human beings at birth are very immature and helpless compared to most other species. We need a nurturing environment to develop into fully functional adults. Part of this process is to learn to trust others and to fit in to our environment, ideally in a way which contributes positively to the wellbeing of the group or society we live in. We need to learn the difference between right and wrong behaviour.

In order to establish what this inbuilt ‘morality mechanism’ consists of and where it comes from, Churchland discusses various experiments with hormones such as oxytocin, serotonin and other neurotransmitters. Animal experiments have shown that oxytocin decreases the stress response and facilitates the friendly, trusting interactions that are typical of the life of social mammals. These experimental results can, to some extent, be applied to human behaviour and illustrate how we differentiate our behaviour between people we know, e.g. friends and family compared to strangers. 

According to Churchland moral values are rooted in behaviour common to all mammals: caring for offspring. Brain processes and chemistry compel humans to strive for not only for self-preservation, but also for the well-being of others. Children in particular, then friends, relatives, etc, in expanding circles of people who matter to us. Separation and exclusion, on the other hand, tends to cause psychological and even physical pain. In this way, morality and conscience is formed, and moral values are instilled.

But this instilling of moral values is not an automatic process. Nor does it involve a fixed set of values that every human being will automatically share or even see as significant. This is something that has become increasingly obvious in the world today, where the movement of people from one country and culture to another is more common than it has ever been in human history. We may no longer share the same moral compass as our neighbour, who follows a different religious doctrine or belief system. We have for instance had to learn the difference between ‘freedom fighters’ and ‘terrorists’ and ‘liberators’ and ‘war criminals’. Moral values are no longer as black and white as perhaps in previous generations.  

In Churchland’s words: “..counting on pure rationality and consistency to undergird morality is mistaken” (p. 175). Living side by side with people from different cultural backgrounds cause problems that were unheard of in previously societies. Earlier generations often shared a belief in a higher order, a god or gods, teaching us right from wrong. But, Churchland argues, the idea that a supernatural being provides the ground for morality is not right. Nor is it right to assume that the idea of good and bad is rooted in human nature. It is far more complex than that. To Churchland morality is “a natural phenomenon—constrained by the forces of natural selection, rooted in neurobiology, shaped by the local ecology, and modified by cultural developments” (p. 191).

Although we still have a shared sense of morality in the world, we can’t take this for granted. It needs to be understood and cultivated to provide us with the necessary means to trust and get on with people outside our inner circles of friends and family. Global trading is one such example. Churchland writes: “Market-integrated individuals are more likely to show trust in dealing with strangers than are hunter-gatherers who have not experienced the benefits of cooperative conventions, and have not acquired the habits suitable to such interactions. When established institutions become unreliable or corrupt, trust is withdrawn, with suspicion of strangers, familiars, and even family members becoming the standard. In recent times, a stunning and tragic example of this breakdown in institutional trust occurred un the former Soviet Union under Stalin and thereafter.” (p 65)

With the risk of WW3 closer than ever in today’s world, we really need to understand where our morality comes from. We also need to understand  what is needed from us in order to maintain the best possible conditions to get through the uncharted waters of modern life. We need to learn to live side by side even with people who have a completely different moral outlook; we have to try to find common ground. Churchland’s book gives a lot to think about, enabling us to be more reflective about our own morality.

Published by Princeton University Press, 2018, 273PP, ISBN 978-01-691-18097-7