I recently (20th November 2013) attended a lecture in London entitled ‘How the Mind makes Morals’, given by Patricia Churchland as part of the series Mind, Self and Person organised by The Royal Institute of Philosophy. She has been working for many years in the interface between philosophy and neuroscience, and is particularly known for her contributions to the Philosophy of Mind. Here’s what she said in the publicity material for the lecture:
‘One tradition in moral philosophy depicts human moral behavior as unrelated to social behavior in nonhuman animals. Morality, on this view, emerges from a uniquely human capacity to reason. By contrast, recent developments in the neuroscience of social bonding suggests instead an approach to morality that meshes with ethology and evolutionary biology. According to the hypothesis on offer, the basic platform for morality is attachment and bonding, and the caring behaviour motivated by such attachment. Oxytocin, a neurohormone, is at the nub of attachment behavior in social mammals and probably birds. Not acting alone, oxytocin works with other hormones and neurotransmitters and circuitry adaptations. Among its many roles, oxytocin decreases the stress response, making possible the trusting and cooperative interactions typical of life in social mammals. Although all social animals learn local conventions, humans are particularly adept social learners and imitators. Learning local social practices depends on the reward system because in social animals approval brings pleasure and disapproval brings pain. Acquiring social skills also involves generalizing from samples, so that learned exemplars can be applied to new circumstances. Problem-solving in the social domain gives rise to ecologically relevant practices for resolving conflicts and restricting within-group competition. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that explicit rules are essential to moral behavior, norms are often implicit and picked up by intuition. This hypothesis connects to a different, but currently unfashionable tradition, beginning with Aristotle’s ideas about social virtue and David Hume’s 18th century ideas concerning ‘the moral sentiment.’
The arguments was persuasively presented with many examples of apparent altruism in animals, stemming from the social bonding necessary for bringing up young, hunting for food and so on.
Notice how utterly different this approach to morality is from that which stems from the application of ethical theories. When we engage in Natural Law, Utilitarianism or Kantian ethics, we are applying reason to data – assessing a rational interpretation of the purpose of an activity, or balancing probably outcomes, or looking at the implications of universalising the maxim that lies behind our action. More often than not, this is a subsequent rationalisation of an action that we choose for personal, intuitive reasons. We do not stop in the midst of a crisis and decide whether, on balance, it is right to intervene. We just go ahead and do something, recognising afterwards the way in which our action fits in with our habitual way of understanding the world – an important point made by Iris Murdoch at the end of her book The Sovereignty of Good. More often than not, we instinctively know what we should do, feel guilty if we go against that intuition, and subsequently rationalise our decision, either to justify it or to admit fault.
With Virtue Ethics, of course, the situation is rather different. Here we are examining those qualities that make for the ‘good life’ or ‘human flourishing’ – both of which then need to be defined in terms of the overall nature and purpose of life. But here the key thing, in my view, is less that we justify what we do because it leads to human flourishing, but that we naturally seek human flourishing and we wish to cultivate certain qualities because we recognise that they will help us to do so.
So morality is a reflection upon human behaviour; the application of reason to an evaluation of what we do. And that evaluation itself depends on more general ideas about the nature of life. But the way we behave is shaped long before we start to study ethics. We are born with dispositions, develop a character early on, and very soon learn how to deal with our environment – from yelling until we get what we want (seen in all stages of life, with varying degrees of subtlety, from babyhood to old age), to learning to manipulate those around us. We are social animals and learn the rules very early on in life. Our strategies and attitudes are in place by the time with hit school for the first time, as any infant teacher will tell you, we do not wait to study ethics in order to recognise the significance of behaviour.
It seems to me, therefore, that it is entirely right to examine the origins of our moral behaviour in the context of the behaviour of other animals. Okay, we know that we have a bigger brain, but why should we assume that animals do not have feelings and thoughts? Watch hunters stalk their prey, or parents grieve for lost offspring, or pet animals negotiate for attention, and you know well enough that species share a great deal in terms of patterns of behaviour and associated emotions. It can be argued that the behaviour of animals in instinctive rather than rational – but most of our behaviour is instinctive rather than rational. The idea that, of all the species on Earth, homo sapiens (arrogantly so named) is rational and the rest are simply automata is clearly a bias originating in our limited ability to communicate with other species. Why should we not share the basis of cooperative behaviour with other species, simply because we have the additional benefit of enhanced brain capacity?
What is more, the functional capacity of the brain develops over the first years of life, as new neural pathways are etched upon the cortex. The relationship between brain and social situation is an iterative process, our mental capacity develops in relation to our situation, and then it reflects upon it and shapes it. The development of our mental abilities, along with our morality, is a continuously evolving, interrelated process.
By the time we sit down and discuss ethical issues, we have reached a degree of sophistication that is not available to species will less developed brains – but the type of behaviour to which we give our attention is not utterly different from what is happening lower down the intellectual scale. We discuss morality and (perhaps) allow our newly shaped thoughts to influence subsequent behaviour, but is that so different from the reflection at a lower level when an animal realises that, if its behaviour leads it to be separated from the group, it is not going to survive, and it must therefore moderate what it does?
In any developing process there will be levels of complexity at which more sophisticated patterns supervene over the more basic ones. Human behaviour is more sophisticated than that of other species (as far as we know, of course, and judged on our own criteria) but to think that the origins of our social patterning are thereby changed would be naïve.
However, in discussing this issue, it would be all too easy to fall into the trap of identifying certain types of behaviour as ‘moral’ – as though morality were a pattern of behaviour in which only humans could engage. Morality (or ethics) is simply the term we use for discussing and evaluating elements of human behaviour, it is not the same thing as the behaviour it describes. We should only say that someone is acting morally if we have evidence that their action is informed by moral considerations – in other words, that their reason brings articulated values to bear upon their behaviour. In this sense, morality is unique to humans, in that it is only in the case of other human beings that we can appreciate the intellectualising of actions and outcomes that thinking morally involves. That does not mean that other species cannot, in theory, act morally; simply that, if they did so, we would have no means of knowing it. We can observe an animal in a quandary. I remember seeing an absolutely harrowing film in which a female elephant chose to remain with her dying calf, rather than follow the herd and leave it to die alone. By doing so, her own chances of survival were lessened. Clearly, we cannot say that the elephant weighed all this up and then made her choice, but it is clear that the deeply ingrained need for survival was battling with, and lost to, the need to nurture and remain with her young. We see that as morality, simply because – if intellectualised in human terms – it would indeed be a deeply moral altruistic decision. The elephant doesn’t think in those terms, because it is an elephant and has not taken an examination in ethical theory – but the impulses that lead an individual to act in one way or the other are hardly different. We cannot know what the elephant thinks, but equally we cannot know (and are presumptuous to assume) that the elephant does not think.
So how does this relate to oxytocin and neural pathways?
I think it is important not to fall into materialist traps here. Oxytocin may indeed be the hormone that allows levels of trust and intimacy in social interaction – true for both humans and other species – but which came first, the interaction of the oxytocin? Neural pathways may develop with ever-increasing complexity within the cortex during the first years of life, but is that the result of experience, or the means by which one can have experience? The answer, of course, is that it’s not an either/or. More likely some form of feedback loop is in operation. At the risk of an attack of Darwinitis (that wonderful condition, described by Ray Tallis, whereby natural selection is offered as an explanation for absolutely everything), increasing oxytocin might well be a sign that altruism, or care for the young, is generating better results in terms of survival. But that does not, in itself, suggest that we can abrogate all responsibility for our actions on the basis of a diminished quantity of a hormone; a lack of oxytocin is not a valid excuse for acting selfishly! More likely, oxytocin levels increase as a result of our being in situations where care is given and received.
David Hume argued that we have a natural ‘moral sentiment’, displayed by our natural revulsion at the sight of suffering and our natural altruism. Reason, slave to the passions, builds moral systems upon that natural intuition. Why has that approach – so obvious when you reflect upon it – not been more popular? I sense that it has been set aside because it does not allow the intellectual satisfaction of closure on moral matters. Most other theories give the possibility of arguing in favour of a particular course of action and thereby justifying it intellectually. Natural Law can battle things out against utilitarianism, but both sides are using reason and principles in order to establish an intellectual structure to evaluate (but not explain) behaviour. The reason it does not explain it is that it leaves out of account the deepest impulses that are the actual originators of what we do – modified by our social conditioning and (later) by our intellectual appreciation of what we hold to be of value in life.
But such intellectual considerations are not the same as the natural desire to do what others might describe as ‘good.’ Would you want to fall in love with someone who was 100% utilitarian? Or 100% rational, come to that? Of course not! Human nature is richly diverse, only partly tamed by intellect.
Our oxytocin level may indeed play a part in our behaviour, originating our impulse to care. If so, we can be happy that the origins of what we think of as moral behaviour pre-date the appearance of humankind. We may be the only species to rationalise it, but we are certainly not the only species to discover that altruism can get positive results.
What is more problematic, however, is the fact that nature can sometimes also benefit from the opposite behaviour. Ant colonies, so well organised in themselves, are in a state of perpetual war with one another. Groups of animals help one another, but do so by defining their circles of care and excluding others. Hormones play an ambiguous role in life – altruism at one moment, aggression at the next. In deciding how we should behave, and in controlling the behaviour of others, reason trumps hormones. Or so we hope – as we see in every sitcom depicting the relation between adults and their adolescent offspring. Hormones may ‘run riot’, generating unacceptable behaviour that reason attempts to restrain.
However, when it comes to ethical theory, it is worth keeping in mind the superficiality of any exclusively intellectual approach to human behaviour. If reason alone could determine behaviour, the world’s problems would long since have been solved. Sadly, or gloriously, human behaviour is more deeply and richly embodied. Pass the oxytocin capsules someone!