Posted on June 14, 2011

Rule Breaker

Christopher Shea, The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 12, 2011

Patricia S. Churchland, the philosopher and neuroscientist, is sitting at a cafe on the Upper West Side, explaining the vacuousness, as she sees it, of a vast swath of contemporary moral philosophy. “I have long been interested in the origins of values,” she says, the day after lecturing on that topic at the nearby American Museum of Natural History. “But I would read contemporary ethicists and just feel very unsatisfied. It was like I couldn’t see how to tether any of it to the hard and fast. I couldn’t see how it had anything to do with evolutionary biology, which it has to do, and I couldn’t see how to attach it to the brain.”

For people familiar with Churchland’s work over the past four decades, her desire to bring the brain into the discussion will come as no surprise: She has long made the case that philosophers must take account of neuroscience in their investigations.


Churchland, professor emerita of philosophy at the University of California at San Diego, has been best known for her work on the nature of consciousness. But now, with a new book, Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality (Princeton University Press), she is taking her perspective into fresh terrain: ethics. And the story she tells about morality is, as you’d expect, heavily biological, emphasizing the role of the peptide oxytocin, as well as related neurochemicals.

Oxytocin’s primary purpose appears to be in solidifying the bond between mother and infant, but Churchland argues–drawing on the work of biologists–that there are significant spillover effects: Bonds of empathy lubricated by oxytocin expand to include, first, more distant kin and then other members of one’s in-group. (Another neurochemical, aregenine vasopressin, plays a related role, as do endogenous opiates, which reinforce the appeal of cooperation by making it feel good.)

{snip}But oxytocin and its cousin-compounds ground the human capacity for empathy. (When she learned of oxytocin’s power, Churchland writes in Braintrust, she thought: “This, perhaps, Hume might accept as the germ of ‘moral sentiment.'”)

From there, culture and society begin to make their presence felt, shaping larger moral systems: tit-for-tat retaliation helps keep freeloaders and abusers of empathic understanding in line. {snip}


The biologist Sue Carter, now at the University of Illinois at Chicago, did some of the seminal work on voles, but oxytocin research on humans is now extensive as well. In a study of subjects playing a lab-based cooperative game in which the greatest benefits to two players would come if the first (the “investor”) gave a significant amount of money to the second (the “trustee”), subjects who had oxytocin sprayed into their noses donated more than twice as often as a control group, giving nearly one-fifth percent more each time.


Peter Railton, a philosophy professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, agrees. Our intuitions about how to get along with other people may have been shaped by our interactions within small groups (and between small groups). But we don’t live in small groups anymore, so we need some procedures through which we leverage our social skills into uncharted areas–and that is what the traditional academic philosophers, whom Churchland mostly rejects, work on. What are our obligations to future generations (concerning climate change, say)? What do we owe poor people on the other side of the globe (whom we might never have heard of, in our evolutionary past)?

For a more rudimentary example, consider that evolution quite likely trained us to treat “out groups” as our enemy. Philosophical argument, Railton says, can give reasons why members of the out-group are not, in fact, the malign and unusual creatures that we might instinctively think they are; we can thereby expand our circle of empathy.


Editor’s note: For more on oxytocin, including its relation to human ethnocentrism, see here and here.

7 responses to “Rule Breaker”

  1. Jupiter7 says:

    Patricia Churchland and her husband Paul Churchland have written interesting books in the philosophy science.They have been making the case for reductionism for quite a while. They make interesting arguments for scientific reductionism…across the board in all scientific inquiries. Definetly two philsophers who must be read and understood by anyone who wants make the case against reductionism.

    Now generally speaking, the case for reductionism in science is not without very serious-and scientifically based-counterarguments. Two of the best I’ve come across were written by Nobel Prize winning physcists Phillip Anderson and Robert Luaglin. I forget the name of Anderson’s famous essay-a rebuttal to reductionist Murray Gell Man. But you can find it easily on the internet. Laughlin made a compelling case for reductionism in his Nobel Prize address…this can be found on the internet also. So be very carefull-to anyone here-who thinks that scientific reductionism is obvious beyond the point of being beyond debate anymore.

    The oxycotin-morality research is very interesting. However, the question for Native Born White American Patriots is this:Do we really need scientific research to justify our gut-level racial- tribal preferences in a “debate” with the race-replacement enthusiasts? Answer:No. All we need to do is state our racial preferences and define the terms of the “debate” in terms of our racial preferences….to the complete exclusion of the racial preferences of high-fertility post-1965 nonwhites and blacks. Although I find Salterism to be interesting…and obviously true..I don’t think we need to go into a long discussion in public “debate” about Salterism.

    Here is the crucial point:keep it simple for our fellow Native Born White Americans:don’t overload the upper part of the cognitive system. Appeal directly to the lower part of the cognitive system….the gut level feelings about racial tribalism. There is actually compelling scientific evidence that we really do think with our guts…it’s called the extended central nervous system. This is the realm that Native Born White Americans must work in and appeal to in public “debates” with the race-replacement enthusiasts.

  2. Hirsch says:

    Not only has evolution rewarded species that reject outgroups and favor the in-group, evolution continues to do so. To understand the relationship between whites and non-whites in America, regarding post-racialism, understand that whites have been doing everything in their power to dismantle their own advantages and racial consciousness (and even numerical superiority) while other races work doubletime to achieve the exact opposite aim.

    A good analogy would be to imagine two birds (for the sake of this example we’ll give them anthropomorphic qualities). The smaller one says to the larger one: “Your wings are bigger and you are covering more ground and swooping down faster to catch all of the prey. My wings are smaller, and for the sake of fairness, we should confine ourselves to the ground and scavenge. That way we’ll be on an even keel.”

    The other bird agrees and promptly clips his wings with his beak. The other bird, sensing his weakness begins to fly higher and higher, laughing at the naivete of the first bird, who has ceded his advantages and made himself prey.

  3. Conrad says:

    “Railton says, can give reasons why members of the out-group are not, in fact, the malign and unusual creatures that we might instinctively think they are; we can thereby expand our circle of empathy.”

    Clearly more Leftist pabulum for those in favor of white genocide.

  4. elitist says:

    I disagree with Jupiter 7:

    Yes, it’s certainly true that people of European descent have the right to live in their own countries and in their own communities, and this should be stated as simple fact.

    But there is simply no way to avoid the controversy about racial difference – and no way to avoid the ways that science comes into it.

    The task is to bring scientific fact into public discussion in a way that is not elitist and hyper intellectual.

    Actually, biology and evolution are topics that are readily accessible to ordinary people (i.e., unlike physics).

    Once a gene for blue eyes her pale skin or lactose tolerance or higher cognitive ability pops up in a population (through random genetic mutation), it is then selected for by the (natural, but also social) environment.

    Over time, it comes to predominate.

    This happens quite simply because the gene is associated with a feature that fosters survival and hence reproductive success in that environment (pale skin in northern Europe helps us avoid vitamin D deficiency, etc.).

    There is no reason to think that cognitive ability or the capacity for empathy are distributed equally throughout all human races/populations.

    The problem for people who deny racial difference is that once they admit in principle that any kind of difference at all is possible (even skin color, which is a far from “superficial” difference, as explained above), then the whole thing starts to unravel, as hundreds of differences become evident.

    Once you stop muzzling your scientists, it becomes clear that blacks have a very different evolutionary history from whites, with different outcomes regarding intelligence and the capacity for empathy and cooperation.

    The truth about racial difference is scientific fact – which of course confirms everyone’s gut feeling that Africans are radically different from us.

    But gut feelings are unreliable, they should NEVER shape public policy, and they NEVER dominate public discussion.

    Science and rational thought are Europe’s main contribution to the history of human civilization.

    Science is also the tool capable of bringing into focus the truth about racial difference.

    Even the New York Times – notorious denier of racial difference -has a brilliant columnist on issues of human evolution.

    Nicholas Wade’s latest column even explains why Stephen Jay Gould was wrong about racial differences in skull size:

  5. Jupiter7 says:


    Millions of Native Born White Americans already know that there are racial differences a the gut level. This is why the move away from it when they can. Native Born White American Patriots at this point in time need to confront their Native Born White Americans with the very real posibility of racial minority status and all the very nasty consequences that will come with it. This should be the focus in public appearances. Native Born White Americans do not need science to justfy their racial preference for wanting to be among their own kind. Fight back smart.

  6. Ben says:

    @ Elitist

    You took the words out of my mouth.

    Science is about objectivity and seeking truth. There may be truth about similarity between racial groups and there may be truth about differences. Someone with integrity accepts both regardless of personal opinion.

    If truth is on our side it will show up. If it isn’t then we have to accept it.

    As Elitist said, Gould is a prime example of this and the danger that it brings to everyone.

    We can try to understand “gut feelings with science” but gut feeling shouldn’t be the formation of state policy. That is dangerous.

    It is easier to have an opinion and seek certain evidence to back that opinion than it is to find evidence that leads up to a fact about the world.

  7. Harumphty Dumpty says:

    Amren previously posted a NYTimes article that gave a good summary of the oxytocin results as interpreted by the chief researcher, Dr. De Dreu.

    “The love and trust (Oxytocin) promotes are not toward the world in general, just toward a person’s in-group. Oxytocin turns out to be the hormone of the clan, not of universal brotherhood. Psychologists trying to specify its role have now concluded it is the agent of ethnocentrism.

    “Dr. De Dreu said. ‘Ethnocentrism is a very basic part of humans, and it’s not something we can change by education.'”

    My opinion is the same as Dr. De Dreu’s statement in the second quote above, but I don’t see at all how his experiment proves such a scientifically sweeping statement. Oxytocin may just produce different reactions to whatever groups the subject regards as in-group or out-group. It may play no role at all in how the subject comes to select certain groups as out and others as in. And in fact I don’t see anything in the results of the experiment that precludes the possibility that a person may be educated to which groups he regards as in or out.

    My opinion is that such education only goes skin deep, but that opinion relies on other experiments and on observation.