(This is the eleventh part of the ‘From Neural Is to Moral Ought’ series.)

47: The Missing Component

From what has been said previously:

Morality is about balancing the wants of oneself with the wants of others.

To do that:

1: We need to have a ‘theory of mind’ to understand that others may want something different from ourselves,

2: We need to have the ability to infer others’ wants from their behaviour, either directly (from words they say perhaps) or indirectly (tone of voice and facial expressions), and

3: We need to be able to apply the information available in order to make a good choice of action: (i) we need to have the ability to reason, (ii) we need to have the ability to imagine consequences, and (iii) we need to have the ability to solve problems.

All these are prerequisites for a moral agent. But there is something else:

4: We must also want to take the thoughts and wants of others into account.

In short:

We must care about others and their well-being as well as that of ourselves.

Caring doesn’t account for morality but it is an important precursor. It is not something that is rational or concerns intelligence. It is an emotion.

Princeton University Press

‘Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality’

Caring is the starting point of Patricia Smith Churchland’s 2011 book ‘Braintrust’. Like Mark Johnson just previously discussed, Churchland is an Ethical naturalist:

“what we call ethics is:

1. caring,

2. recognition of others’ psychological states,

3. problem-solving [generally not deductive], and

4. learning social practices”

I have discussed item 2 in ‘Others, Orders and Oughts’ and items 3 and 4 are the same as Johnson has made.   Churchland’s extra component is caring, which develops through the progression from (i) self-caring via (ii) the caring of those nearest and dearest, to (iii) caring for those in wider society.

48: The Origins of Caring

The starting point for caring is the maternal care of a mother over her new offspring which, although now outside the womb, can be seen as part of an extended self until eventually, they truly break away.

The next step for caring is in mate attachment (‘pair bonding’) – the caring for our partners. Humans are exceptional among mammals in pair bonding. Our closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos are not pair-bonding. And our pair-bonding may well be out of economic necessity (few males are able to support more than one wife) rather than out of nature. Only 3% of mammals pair-bond; 90% of birds pair-bond.


A Western Scrub Jay

Highly intelligent birds such as the Western Scrub Jay are permanently monogamous – they are together all year round rather than just at breeding time. Scrub jays also collect and then hide food away from other birds to be able to eat that food later on; they understand that what they know can be different from what other birds know. They have a ‘theory of mind’.  They therefore have many of the prerequisites to being moral agents.

Having a ‘theory of mind’ does not entail caring but caring does entail having a ‘theory of mind’.

Famously, there is the association between autism and failing the Sally Anne test  and so autistic children are thought to lack a ‘theory of mind’ although the disability for some may actually be in understanding complex social emotions and considering others’ viewpoints. Their ability to care is diminished.

In contrast, a psychopath does have a ‘theory of mind’ to make judgements in a social environment, but just doesn’t care what others want. Not as ends in themselves, at least. He may care but only insofar as it is of personal benefit to him in the long run. Does this lack of care make him immoral or amoral? Or does it actually make him moral in a way that ‘normal’ people are not? After all:

  • I cannot help helping someone else in great need because I empathize with them (consider Peter Unger’s example of the injured hiker by the side of the road). My response is emotional and I would find it difficult to overrule this emotion. I can do no other. (How competently I may deal with the situation is a different matter.)
  • In contrast, a psychopath has learnt (over the years) the appropriate responses expected of him in society. Since he feels no emotion, he seems to have a genuine choice about whether to do the ‘decent thing’ and help, or not. A psychopath doing a good deed would seem to deserve more praise than a normal person.

Whilst the brain scans of those with autism are not distinguishable from those in the normal population, brain scans of psychopaths show differences in regions associated with emotions such as the amygdala, insula and anterior cingulate cortex.

Whilst pair-bonding and social behaviour in mammals depends on many many factors, including the major neuromodulators dopamine and serotonin, Churchland focusses on the role of the two related hormones Oxytocin and Vasopressin.

49: Oxytocin

Firstly oxytocin then. Oxytocin is a hormone that acts as a neuromodulator in the brain.

Oxytocin molecular structure

There is much ongoing research into the effects of Oxytocin. The Wikipedia page provides a significant number, with various caveats about how complete research conclusions are. Churchland provides additional ones. Here I present many of these in which those caveats have been removed for succinctness, in order to build up an overall impression of its effects.

The following is a list of the effects of Oxytocin, selected from Churchland’s book plus Wikipedia. I have removed many caveats to present the information more simply and succinctly, hence any one item is to taken with a pinch of salt. But taken as a whole, a general impression of the effects of Oxytocin emerge.

The most well-known effects are those related to sex, childbirth and maternal care:

  • Sexual arousal.
  • Affecting the social distance between males and females, contributing towards monogamous pair bonding.
  • ‘Romantic attachment’: decreasing feelings of anxiety when separated from one’s partner.
  • Contractions during labour.
  • Enabling subsequent lactation.
  • Initiating maternal behaviour – with unfamiliar children as well as of their own offspring – as well as maternal behaviour in general.

With social support, and specifically when in the company of a mate, Oxytocin is associated with:

  • decreasing anxiety.
  • protecting against stress.
  • feelings of contentment.
  • reduction of anxiety.
  • feeling of calmness.
  • feeling of security.

Oxytocin enhances social cognition:

  • Enhancing all social emotions, both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ (e.g. envy and schadenfreude).
  • Increasing empathy, affecting generosity.
  • Improving social learning and memory (with impairment in some other learning and memory functions)
  • Improving memory for human faces, and happy ones in particular
  • Improving recognition for positive social cues over threatening social cues
  • Improved recognition of fear
  • Enhancing eye gaze

… and interestingly related to this, there is an association between oxytocin and autism:

  • Decreased repetitive behaviors
  • Improved interpretation of emotions
  • More appropriate social behaviour

Oxytocin is associated with trusting others:

  • Disclosing emotional events
  • Sharing emotional details and stories with more emotional significance.
  • Finding faces more trustworthy

… although oxytocin only increases trust when there is no reason to be distrustful.

Finally, oxytocin has been associated with ‘In-Group’ and ‘Out-Group’ behaviour:

  • Promoting dishonesty and deception when the outcome favours the In-group instead of just the individual.
  • Inclined towards classifying those with similar characteristics to oneself as a member of the In-Group.
  • Correspondingly tending to classify those with dissimilar characteristics to oneself as a member of the Out-Group.
  • Stronger reactions to pictures of In-Group members making pained faces than to pictures of Out-Group members with the same expression.
  • During conflict, more frequent defence-motivated responses toward in-group members than out-group members.
  • Protecting vulnerable in-group members,

The In-Group bias is evident in smaller groups yet can be extended to groups as large as a nation.

50: Vasopressin

Vasopressin is another nonapeptide, a very close cousin of Oxytocin:

  • (Oxytocin is cysteine-tyrosine-isoleucine-glutamine-asparagine-cysteine-proline-leucine-glycine-amide, whereas
  • Vasopressin is cysteine-tyrosine-phenylalanine-glutamine-asparagine-cysteine-proline-arginine-glycine-amide.)

Vasopressin molecular structure

Vasopressin’s primary role is in regulating the body’s retention of water but only the neuroscientific aspects are of interest, which includes caring for others.

Oxytocin has a big impact on child-rearing so it should not be surprising that oxytocin is more abundant in females than males. In contrast, Vasopressin is more abundant in males than females and has a greater effect on them:

  • It seems to perform the same role in pair-bonding to males as oxytocin does to females.
  • It prepares for parenting.
  • It promotes aggression in defence of the mate and of the young, particularly towards other males.
  • It reduces “fight or flight” anxiety / stress.

In contrast, women given Vasopressin are more likely to respond with a conciliatory “tend-and-befriend” response.

51: Of Voles and Men

A solitary montane vole

I have left the most celebrated example of the effects of oxytocin and vasopressin until last– that of the differences between two very similar species of small furry animals:

  • Montane voles are solitary and promiscuous, whereas
  • Prairie voles are sociable, living in colonies and pair-bond for life.

From a Darwinian perspective, we may be able to explain this difference as being due to their distinctly different but unsurprising habitats:

  • Montane voles live in mountainous areas, whereas
  • Prairie voles live on prairies – obviously!

But this might only explain:

  • Why sociable voles living on the prairies have managed to survive whereas solitary ones haven’t.
  • Why solitary voles living on the prairies have managed to survive whereas sociable ones haven’t.

…but this does not explain why montane voles and prairies voles behave so differently – what the physical difference between the two species of voles are.

Pair-bonded prairie voles

Significantly physical differences have been found…

Compared with montane voles, prairie voles have much higher density of receptors for oxytocin and vasopressin in two specific parts of the basal ganglia, in the central parts of the brain’s hemispheres:

  1. the ventral pallidum associated with the regulation of motivation, behaviour, and emotions, and
  2. the nucleus accumbens associated with motivation, pleasure and reward.

What does this ‘higher density of receptors’ mean?

Oxytocin neurotransmitters that bind onto oxytocin receptors on a neuron contribute towards the firing of that neuron. Both:

  • a higher number of oxytocin neurotransmitters and
  • a higher density of receptors

…will increase the chance of particular neurons firing.

In practical terms:

  • A higher number of oxytocin neurotransmitters can be achieved by delivering oxytocin to the brain via a nasal spray.
  • Conversely, the number of receptors can effectively be decreased by administering an ‘antagonistic’ drug (such as Atosiban) that will block the receptors, preventing oxytocin binding onto them to influence the firing of the neuron.

To prove the link between oxytocin and mating behaviour:

  • If such an antagonistic drug is administered to a prairie vole it then behaves much more like a solitary montane vole.
  • If oxytocin is administered to a promiscuous montane vole it then behaves like a monogamous prairie vole.

And what is true of voles is highly likely to be true for other mammals, such as man, opening up the prospect that our sociability could be controlled by drugs for example (other than alcohol…).

Incidentally, neural paths through the ventral pallidum and the nucleus accumbens are the major correlates of alcohol/drug addiction and there may well be a link here since:

  • opiods generated naturally within the body also play a role in maternal bonding.
  • Rhesus monkeys that are given an opioid antagonist (blocking) drug show indifference to their babies.
  • Female heroin addicts tend to neglect their infants or abandon them.
  • Female cocaine users display less maternal behaviour and have lower levels of oxytocin.

As seen with the difference between the behaviour of montane voles and prairie voles, a small genetic difference can lead to a large change in sociality.

If we understand what it is in the brain that makes us social:

  • We then have some research direction for being able to predict social traits in individuals, and
  • We may be able to enhance social (and moral) ability .

Oxytocin has been hyped in some quarters as a wonder drug to solve many of our social ills. It is not (see these Slate  and New York Times articles). It is just one step on the road to improving our morality and not an entirely positive one because of its effects on groupishness. Oxytocin and vasopressin work in the opposite direction when it comes to larger groups. They are xenophobic. Churchland down-plays the negative aspects of these hormones. The essence of her thesis is that morality:

  1. originates from the empathetic caring that has evolved in our brains (genetically), and then
  2. develops the trust built up to those beyond the immediate family, in society (‘memetically’).

In short:

‘Braintrust’ = Brain + Trust

So next, we need to turn to this growth in trust.

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3 Responses to Caring

  1. Pingback: Anxiety and Well-Being | Headbirths

  2. Pingback: Trust | Headbirths

  3. Pingback: Empathy | Headbirths

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