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How the Mind Makes Morals

Patricia Churchland, Professor of Philosophy, University of California, San Diego; Adjunct Professor, Salk Institute

March 20, 2011
53 minutes
Patricia Churchland


Self-preservation is embodied in our brain’s circuitry: we seek food when hungry, warmth when cold, and sex when lusty. In the evolution of the mammalian brain, circuitry for regulating one’s own survival and well-being was modified. For sociality, the important result was that the ambit of me extends to include others — me-and-mine. In some species, including humans, seeing to the well-being of others may extend to include friends, business contacts, and even strangers, in an ever-widening circle. Oxytocin, an ancient body-and-brain molecule, is at the hub of the intricate neural adaptations sustaining mammalian sociality. Among its many roles, oxytocin decreases the stress response, making possible the friendly, trusting interactions typical of life in social mammals. Two additional interconnected evolutionary changes are crucial for mammalian sociality/morality: first, modifications to the reptilian pain system that yield the capacity to evaluate and predict what others will feel and do, and notably in humans, also what others want, see, and believe; second, an enhanced capacity to learn, underscored by social pain and social pleasure, which allowed acquisition of the clan’s social practices, however subtle and convoluted.

Patricia Churchland is a pioneer in the field of neurophilosophy. Her recent work focuses on the implications of neuroscience for our understanding of rationality, morality, and the self.


Books by Patricia Churchland:

Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality Brain-Wise: Studies in Neurophilosophy Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-Brain