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Neuroscience and Ethics

Getting Hard Science into Ethics

To truly grapple with the moral questions of our time, philosophers will have to get out of the armchair and into lab. At least that is what neuroscientist and philosopher Patricia S. Churchland argues in her recently publishedBraintrust: What Neuroscience Tells us about Morality. As a self-proclaimed “eliminative materialist,” Churchland believes that as more scientific discoveries are made they will gradually eliminate “folk” understandings of reality. She often cites the overthrow of the idea of “impetus” in Aristotelian physics by Newton as an example of this process. Many contemporary notions of morality, consciousness, and will, Churchland asserts, suffer from the same lack of scientific scrutiny as “impetus” did until the seventeenth century. Only recently have findings in neurobiology enabled science to weigh in on such questions, and how they do so is the topic of her book.

Oxytocin Increases Empathy

The findings by which Churchland is most impressed have to do neural compounds linked to human empathy. Among these are oxytocin, the main function of which in humans is to establish the bond between infant and mother. It has also been found in the extension of empathy to other family members, friends, and some strangers. Oxytocin, Churchland writes, “Hume might accept as the germ of ‘moral sentiment.’” Other compounds include endorphins that are released when we cooperate with others.


Churchland admits at the start of her book that we cannot, as Hume infamously stated, logically derive what ought to be the case from what is naturally the case. We cannot say, in other words, “because oxytocin plays a central role in human care and affection, its movements therefore determine or reveal what is morally right.” But there is a subtle difference, she argues, between deriving an “ought” from an “is,” and inferring one. “[Y]ou can infer (figure out) what you ought to do, drawing on knowledge, perceptions, emotions, and understanding, and balancing considerations against each other.” Even still, our inferences will not likely be perfect. “There is no simple set of steps to take us from ‘I care, I value’ to the best solution to specific moral problems, especially those problems that arise within complex cultures. It’s a messy practical business.”


Churchland seems to cautiously dismiss ethical theories that are too far removed from the “hard and fast,” or aim to arrive at “exceptionless rules.” These include variations of Kantian and utilitarian theories, and precepts found in religious texts. Neuroscience, she believes, seems to corroborate ethical views more like Aristotle’s, which deny rigid rules and lofty formulas in favor of cultivating moral wisdom or virtue. Instead of being a function of some kind of transcendental soul, however, or even a psychological component of an “interior self,” the basis of moral goodness is as mundane and material as the chemicals that comprise us.


Criticisms of the this Approach to Ethics

While findings in neuroscience and evolutionary biology may be interesting, according to philosophers Peter Railton (University of Michigan) and Guy Kahane (Oxford) they nevertheless fail to help us solve contemporary moral problems. While our innate empathic impulses may have been trustworthy moral guides several thousand years ago when we were still living in small groups, today’s complex world requires sophisticated, systematic methods for moral decision-making. Kahane has also accused Churchland of assuming that humans’ capacity for moral behavior is biologically determined, an assumption he deems unwarranted: “’Are humans capable of utilitarianism?’ is not a question that is answered by neuroscience,” he says.


While many more questions have been raised about the relative importance of biology in the consideration of ethical problems, and about the plausibility of Eliminative Materialism in general (see this article for more information), Churchland’s book is a provocative and original contribution to dialogues both within and beyond moral philosophy.




Churchland, Patricia S (2011) Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About

Morality. Princeton University Press


Shea, Christopher (2011) Rule Breaker: When it comes to morality, philosopher

Patricia Churchland refuses to stand on principle. The Chronicle [Online] Available at: <> Accessed: 20 June 2011