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Surprising Science

Understanding Morality through the Brain

Patricia Churchland, a philosopher at the University of California San Diego, says understanding morality means understanding its roots in the brain, i.e. our “circuitry for caring”.

What’s the Latest Development?

Professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego and MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, Patricia Churchland felt unsatisfied with philosophy’s progress at understanding the mind, so she went to medical school to learn about the brain’s circuitry. What she learned there influenced her newest book: Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality. In it, she says humans’ brains are hardwired for caring, the feeling of compassion towards other beings, to an extent far more advanced than other species. Humans’ circle of caring extends beyond immediate loved ones to strangers and even animals. 

What’s the Big Idea?

The source of what seem to be generally agreed upon rules for human behavior has been debated by moral philosophers for centuries. Some believed we received moral dictum from God. Others thought we were slaves to our baser passions. Still others thought we arrived at moral rules rationally, through a process of deliberate evaluation. In light of current research into the brain’s makeup, that our moral behaviors are, to a large part, agreed upon, suggests a common source. This common source, according to those who look at the mind through the brain, is the biology of our gray matter. 


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