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Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality

Patricia Churchland (photo by Becky Cohen

WHAT IS MORALITY AND WHERE DOES IT COME FROM? Neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland argues that morality originates in the biology of the brain: Moral values are rooted in family values displayed by all mammals — the caring for offspring. The evolved structure, processes, and chemistry of the brain incline humans to strive not only for self-preservation but for the well-being of allied selves — first offspring, then mates, kin, and so on, in wider and wider “caring” circles. Separation and exclusion cause pain, and the company of loved ones causes pleasure; responding to feelings of social pain and pleasure, brains adjust their circuitry to local customs. A key part of the story is oxytocin, an ancient body-and-brain molecule that allows humans to develop the trust in one another necessary for the development of close-knit ties, social institutions, and morality. Order the book on which this lecture is based from Amazon.com.

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