What can science tell us about morality?
While the slippery and subjective nature of morality makes it a troubling specimen, it remains a crucial part of our lives—and therefore a topic ripe for scientific research.
However, scientists are skilled at describing what is—the circumstances under which people are more likely to lie, for instance—which is not the same as describing how we ought to live our lives, like when it’s OK to lie. So it’s not entirely clear what scientists can offer here without overstepping their bounds.
Yet in Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality, Patricia Churchland carefully leads the reader through scientific findings with implications for morality and ethics, well aware of the pitfalls and rewards she may encounter along the way. Churchland, a professor of philosophy at the University of California, San Diego, quickly informs the reader that science cannot tell us what we ought to do to be moral, but that a review of findings from psychology and biology may explain how or why we do it. Her goal is to draw on these findings to build an objective framework in which to understand human morality.
Churchland argues that, deep in our evolutionary history, our early biological systems for self-preservation evolved to promote concern for others, as natural selection favored mammals that could better care for their offspring.
From here, she goes on to explain how basic biological systems—such as our brain’s systems for pain, pleasure, and learning—have interacted with more recent biological developments, such as neurochemicals like oxytocin, to expand our circle of concern beyond the self. Caring for kin and kith, for instance, induces feelings of pleasure and reward, making us more likely to value others’ well-being.
Churchland explains that the capacity to care for others allowed for trust, cooperation, and other kind, helpful (or “pro-social”) acts. In some cases, these benefits gave an evolutionary advantage to those who developed enhanced social skills, like recognizing other’s psychological states and solving social conflicts. Churchland suggests that the ability to understand and consider others’ desires or needs—empathy—is a prerequisite to morality and lies at the heart of moral reasoning.
All that said, Churchland takes care to avoid a narrow perspective that relies solely on biology to explain everything about morality. Although she proposes that morality developed in response to basic evolutionary challenges about how to get along with others and sustain our species, she duly notes that morality isn’t strictly a matter of biology and evolution; cultural and historical forces, like civics and religion, have played important roles as well.
Churchland’s main goal in writing Braintrust, then, is not simply to portray morality as a product of biology but to shed light on how our moral beliefs evolved. In doing so, she hopes to create some common ground for people who may hail from different moral traditions. By studying morality’s fundamental parts, especially its link to humans’ social interactions, she suggests we can learn what makes us live closer, more cooperative—and thus happier—lives with others.