Morality is an instinct and a learned behavior

moralsby Mr. Kris

Where morality lives – The Boston Globe
[Via the Boston Globe]

What is morality? For millennia, the problem has bedeviled philosophers, who have debated whether it’s divinely inspired, instinctual, or an abstract set of rules that we should figure out rationally. Patricia Churchland, a philosopher at the University of California San Diego, thinks it’s time for a different kind of answer: Understanding morality, she argues, means understanding its roots in the brain.

Churchland, a former MacArthur “genius” fellow, has built a career trying to knit together neuroscience and philosophy, two fields that usually prefer competition to cooperation. In her new book, “Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality,” Churchland aims to combine the explanatory power of science with the caution and clarity of philosophy. She starts by explaining what’s most clearly known about how morality works in the brain. We know, she argues, that human moral behavior is rooted in the brain’s “circuitry for caring”—ancient biological circuitry that we share with other mammals. (When wolves care about their offspring, what happens in their brains and bodies is remarkably similar to what happens in ours.) Most mammals care only about themselves and their children. In human beings, though, the circle of caring extends widely, even to strangers.

These broad circles of caring are the foundations, Churchland says, for morality. They create the tensions that are the essence of moral life. Tension is inevitable, because caring broadly raises challenging, practical problems: All those competing moral obligations need to be balanced out. Churchland argues that we solve those problems the same way we solve other practical problems: sometimes instinctually, but also by drawing on our learning, reasoning, and culture. In the end, her picture of morality recalls Hume’s, or even Aristotle’s: Aristotle, she writes, knew that morality had its roots in human nature, but he also recognized moral problems as “difficult, practical problems emerging from living a social life.” In this conception, morality is rooted in our instincts, but it isn’t entirely instinctual.


The ability to expand our caring – our morality – to a wide range of other people and even other forms of life strikes me as one of the strong abilities that has produced our success as a species. We can create and maintain complex social networks that are unheard of with any other  animal. This permits a relatively unspecialized animal such as humans to excel in almost any area.

Because once someone figures out how to do anything, these social networks transmit that information much more rapidly than simple Darwinian evolution could permit. In many ways human society, with its enhanced morals, evolves using Lamarkian means, not Darwinian. In many ways morality is passed down based on what was successfully learned during a lifetime.

It could be argued that most of the sweep of human society the last epoch have been an ever increasing circle of who is cared about. That the increasing circles of caring have helped enhance our natural abilities.

The problems we face today is that this success also holds the possibility of harming future success. We face some tremendous problems if we hope to be as successful the next thousand years as we have the previous.

I would expect that our increasing circles of caring, and the enhanced morality that embraces, will help us find a solution.


3 thoughts on “Morality is an instinct and a learned behavior

  1. Then what explains the tendency to fall back into tribes if cultures are left alone? Family groups and tribes are always afraid of strangers. Most religions push the idea that only your very own people are worthy of trust. Morality may be instinctive, but laws are needed to over come the need to keep it in the family.

  2. That is why it is a balance between our hard-wired instinctual views and our more advanced higher level thoughts. In a situation where rapid action may be important, we may fall back on instincts. But, it seems to me that the course of most of human history has been an slow but detectable increase in who gets included in the family. Because those groups often end up being more successful in the long run.

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