In 2010, Patricia Churchland gave a single Gifford Lecture, “Morality and the Mammalian Brain”. This lecture provided an introductory framework, grounded in neuroendocrinology, for her book Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality, released the following year. Evidence of her intent to provide a fully-orbed, naturalistic account of morality can be seen in Churchland’s bibliography which spans twenty-four pages; each chapter of the book heavily engages research in a variety of disciplines. The aim of the book is to walk the reader through how it is that neurons can be understood to attribute moral value.
Churchland states, “Moral values ground a life that is a social life. At the root of human moral practices are social desires” (12). She argues that navigating the social context relies, mostly, on the same mechanisms as the neural network of the brain. “Motivation and drive, reward and prediction, perception and memory, impulse control and decision making…build world knowledge or social knowledge” when existing in, what Churchland posits, the casual world (7-8). The material world constrains the social context in which decision making takes place; this constraint, instead of informing the individual what to do given a particular circumstance, instructs and gives substance to what one ought to do given that circumstance. Thus, what we call morality is rooted in the brain’s neural processes. To ground her thesis, “that morality originates in the neurobiology of attachment and bonding”, Churchland expounds on four processes in the brain: caring, recognition of other’s psychological states, problem solving, and the learning of social practices.
Churchland explains the brain naturally functions to preserve the wellbeing of the individual. Pleasure and pain are understood as driving and discerning factors regarding one’s wellbeing. Churchland argues that the addition of the peptide, Oxytocin, to the brain extends one’s self-care and preservation to the care of one’s infants, and, through extension, one’s larger social community. One’s natural urge to protect and provide for the self, expands and attaches to that which one identifies with oneself, or labels as being one’s own. Cooperation and trust within a group should be understood as aiding the attachment and bonding found in this new extended self.
After establishing a way for self-care to extend to a form of social-care, Churchland demonstrates how neuroscience continues to aid in the development of certain social behaviors and morals. First, she explains that a human’s prefrontal cortex is considerably larger than other mammals; it is believed this makes humans better equipped to predict behavior in both physical and social contexts. This skill not only enables humans to predict behavior but outcomes of those behaviors, facilitating the choice to defer gratification or willingly experience pain if a desired end requires it. Next, consciousness emerges as one witnesses and imitates (mirror neurons) the behaviors and the outcome of those behaviors in one’s environment. Finally, feelings of pain and pleasure begin to be associated with the conditioned behavior of the social context and one, as in attachment, extends these feelings, thoughts, and predictability to the minds of others.
For Churchland, social-problem solving serves to modify the social context and grant moral value to certain behaviors; hidden behind these behaviors are feelings associated with pleasure, pain, attachment, fear, and punishment all of which are sourced in neural response to the casual world. Social and moral behaviors are the same kinds of things, the only difference is the latter have more serious effects. Braintrust, is not an attempt to deny the existence of morality, instead having it grounded in the neural network, allows for the naturalist Churchland to declare, “Morality is as real as it can be—it is a real social behavior” (200).