February 21, 2020

What Makes Us Better?

“…two new books give lucid, stimulating accounts of recent discoveries in neuroscience and psychology. Both authors aim to challenge antiquated views of the brain and human behavior. In so doing, they help us think through perennial debates about the sources of morality and the degree to which we inherit or can enhance traits like empathy. Both are careful to evaluate the cogency of the research they cite, noting when it remains inconclusive or unpersuasive. Jamil Zaki, a professor of psychology at Stanford, who also directs its Social Neuroscience Laboratory, usefully includes an appendix summarizing the evidence for the findings he cites and giving them a 1 to 5 rating, from weaker to stronger. Oddly, however, neither book mentions, much less rates, possible moral problems with some of the research, whether by neuroscientists injecting substances into the brains of rats or monkeys or by social scientists subjecting students to deceptive scenarios.

Early on, Churchland, professor emerita of philosophy at the University of California–San Diego, sets forth a working formulation of conscience as “an individual’s judgment about what is morally right or wrong, typically, but not always, reflecting some standard of a group to which the individual feels attached.” Later, she states that conscience “is a brain construct rooted in our neural circuitry, not a theological entity thoughtfully parked in us by a divine being.” The intervening chapters show in fascinating detail the path leading from the first to the second formulation. They explain the role of the cortex for mammals, culminating in the unusually large one of humans, and argue that an attachment to mothers—and in some cases to fathers, kin, and friends—is fundamental to social behavior and in turn to moral behavior. Human moral responses are therefore rooted in the cortex, supported by more ancient structures, such as basal ganglia and neurochemicals such as dopamine, sex hormones, and the neurohormones of oxytocin and vasopressin. Studies show how these factors combine, specifying their different roles, as for oxytocin in strengthening social bonds. When it comes to psychopaths, however—people with no moral compass who lack feelings of guilt or remorse and exhibit no empathy toward people they have injured—it has, so far, proved harder to locate specific brain abnormalities. The same is true of persons exhibiting self-destructive moral behavior, known as scrupulosity.

The subtlety with which Churchland describes examples of sociality and caring in different species, including humans, and her willingness to explore the “beguiling diversity” of how these species exhibit parental attachments contrast with her sweeping rejection of large swaths of moral philosophy. After devoting 10 brief pages to deficiencies in utilitarian and Kantian views of morality, she concludes that they “look a bit thrashed at this point.” Yet why should she not consider the diversity and ingenuity of her fellow philosophers with the same interest that she devotes to nonhuman species? In particular, why not look more closely into their writings about conscience and its origins? Immanuel Kant, for example, specified that conscience, along with moral feeling and the love of one’s neighbor, are “natural predispositions” of the mind that are necessary for morality, though not sufficient for its exercise.”

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