How Does the Brain Secrete Morality?

Pondering the neuroscience of moral platitudes, free will, and sacred values.


“The brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile,” asserted 18th century French physiologist Pierre Cabanis. Last week, the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies convened a conference of neuroscientists and philosophers to ponder how our brains secrete thoughts about ethics and morality. The first presenter was neuroeconomist Gregory Berns from Emory University whose work peers into brains to see in which creases of gray matter those values we hold sacred lodge. The study, “The Price of Your Soul: neural evidence for the non-utilitarian representation of sacred values,” was just published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

Philosophers often frame arguments over the bases of ethics in terms of deontology (right v. wrong irrespective of outcomes) and utilitarianism (costs v. benefits of potential outcomes). Both utilitarians and deontologists would argue that it is wrong to kill innocent human beings. A utilitarian might tote up the costs of being caught in murder or the harms to a victim’s family, whereas a deontologist would assert it is moral duty to avoid killing the innocent. For most people, a utilitarian reckoning in this case seems cold and psychologically broken (e.g., the kind of calculation that a psychopath would make). The researchers define personal sacred values as those for which individuals resist trade-offs with other values, particularly economic or materialistic incentives.

It is this distinction that Berns probes using functional magnetic imaging (fMRI) to see in which parts of subjects’ brains their moral decision-making is localized. Such scans identify areas of the brain that are activated by measuring blood flow. 

Without going into all the details, in the study subjects were asked to choose between various values; some hypothesized to be more deontological and others more utilitarian, e.g., you do/do not believe in God, and you do/do not prefer Coke to Pepsi. Once the baseline was established for each subject, they were given an opportunity to auction off their personal values for real money up to $100 per value sold. Once the auction was over, each subject was asked to sign a document contradicting his or her personal values. Those values that subjects refused to auction off were deemed “sacred.”

Berns and his colleagues found that values identified as sacred were processed in areas of the brain that are associated with semantic rule retrieval. Basically subjects were reading off moral rules; what another conference participant would later refer to as “moral platitudes.” In addition, when sacred values were contradicted by their opposites (e.g., to a believer asserting “You do not believe that God exists”), the researchers found arousal in the amygdala, which is associated with negative emotions.

Not surprisingly, with regard to the personal values that subjects auctioned off, the areas of the brain known to be associated with evaluating costs and benefits were activated. The researchers also suggest that when policymakers try to employ positive or negative incentives to encourage trade-offs in foreign or economic arenas they may instead arouse sacred values provoking a reactionary response in the people at whom the policies are targetted.

Berns also presented the results of another study [PDF] in which brain scans turned out to have identified a song that subsequently became a hit. In an earlier study, Berns and his colleagues had downloaded 15-second clips of various unknown songs from MySpace and played them for 27 adolescents while scanning their brains. The earlier study [PDF] focused on how knowing what others think about an item (in this case, a song fragment) activates brain areas associated with anxiety motivating people to switch their choices in the direction of the consensus. In other words, people often succumb to peer pressure.

Some years later, Berns heard one of the songs on the TV show, American Idol. Berns wondered if something in the earlier scanning data could have predicted a “hit” song. Mining the old brain scans, Berns found that subsequent song sales were weakly but significantly correlated with the activation of “reward” centers in the brains of the scanned adolescents. He speculates that scanning the brains of small groups might be used some day to predict cultural popularity.

The next presenter was philosopher William Casebeer who is now also a program officer at the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency. In general, Casebeer argues that the moral psychology required by virtue theory is the most neurobiologically plausible. Basically, there is no is/ought chasm between facts and values, and evolutionary psychology properly understood teaches us that it’s Aristotleian virtue ethics all-the-way-down. Ethics is largely a matter of cultivating the proper moral character.

Casebeer’s talk, suggestively subtitled “How I learned to love determinism, but still respect myself in the morning” aimed to deal with the longstanding problem in neurophilosophy of how to square determinism in neuroscience with a moral philosophy that celebrates the freedom and responsibility of agents. Determinism undergirds science in general and neuroscience in particular; there are no uncaused causes. However, our social institutions are shot through with free will agency assumptions. Is it possible to reconcile these two views? Casebeer argues that we should stop talking about free will and instead adopt a language focused on the idea of critical control centers.

Casebeer thinks that holding agents responsible depends on the notion of being in or out of control. Being in control depends on what he calls the functional architecture of a well-ordered psyche. To suggest an idea of what elements might constitute an appropriate functional architecture of the psyche, Casebeer urged us to consider a schema of meaningful control distinctions [PDF] devised by philosopher and artificial intelligence theorist Aaron Sloman. A large working memory gives a putative agent more control than a small one; so too does an ability to learn versus a fixed repertoire; having a theory of mind versus having none; ability to reason counterfactually versus none; robust reward prediction mechanism versus a weak one; and a multi-channel sensory suite versus a single one. Along these dimensions organisms (and perhaps one day artificial intelligences) can be ranked from microbes to humankind with regard to being more or less in control.

Another mechanism of control is the environment in which an organism exists. In the case of humans, Casebeer argues, that a lot of outside control exists in our culture, norms, and institutions. We tell each other moral narratives in which we explain how internal control factors relate to the external environment. We take our cues of what is right and wrong to do from watching and emulating others. Our brains transmute these moral narratives into our moral characters. In other words, these narratives tell us what sorts of things are sacred (no trade-offs) and what can be evaluated on the basis of costs and benefits.

In some environments we recognize that any control system can become overwhelmed and no one would be held responsible for what they do in such a circumstance. For example, if someone spikes your coffee with LSD and you ended up harming someone because you hallucinated that they intended to kill you. Clearly, we already assign various levels of culpability based on our evaluation of an individual’s ability to control himself, e.g. children, the mentally ill, etc. 

At the end, Casebeer suggested that the research agenda for the next 100 years would generate a neuroscience of critical control distinctions. He predicted that many critical controls will be social; narratives involving the punishment of moral infractions and the reward of moral conduct become etched in our brains and build our moral characters.

Next, University of San Diego neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland asked, where do values come from? She pointed toward Charles Darwin’s notion of the moral sense that arises from a combination of our in-born social instincts, our habits, and our reason. Neuroscientists now know more about the neurotransmitters involved with our social instincts. The hub of these instincts is the molecules oxytocin and vasopressin that encourage attachment and trust. Mammalian attachment and trust are the platform from which moral values derive. Bigger brains help by giving humans greater capacity to learn habits and override and repress impulses and to plan. Better memories help us keep track of who did what to whom and why, thus enabling us track reputations and seek out cooperators. Culture is an essential part of the story, guiding and limiting our moral choices.

Churchland cited Eleanor Rosch’s work on concepts and categories [PDF], the famous example of which is the category of vegetable. If you are like 90 percent of Americans, you thought of a carrot first as the prototypical example of a vegetable. The point is that categories have fuzzy edges; radishes are clearly vegetable, but what about wild mushrooms? Mushrooms are located in the same aisle in the supermarket after all. These categories depend on pattern recognition; human beings analogically reason about how new cases related to earlier categories.

Churchland’s argument is that moral categories too have fuzzy edges whose boundaries are different for different cultures. Take the example of the 9/11 atrocities. If you analogize it to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, this suggests the proper response is war. On the other hand, if you analogize it to the Oklahoma City bombing, that suggests that it is matter for the police and the courts. We have moral prototypes of what it means to be a friend, brave, kind, and honest. However, cultures will differ over what counts as honest at the edges. Again, our particular social institutions structure our moral expectations and very different behaviors can emerge depending on a culture’s set of institutions.

So on Churchland’s account the project of using neuroscience to uncover some kind of universal human morality looks likely to fail. Philosopher John Shook cast further doubt that a new neuroethics could help using scientific scrutiny to re-engineer ethics. It might be the case that no sophisticated ethical system can be improved beyond a set of basic human moral norms. These moral norms consist of a common set of virtues that people teach their children, e.g., respect your abilities and try to improve them; don’t betray group efforts for personal gain, etc. These norms amount to ethical platitudes that are good enough for most people. Apparently, Shook thinks that most ethical norms are very like what Berns calls sacred values, e.g., social rules that are simply read off and acted on when a relevant case arises.

When I asked him about utilitarian thinking, Shook declared that it was recently devised by some philosophers (Hobbes, Locke, etc.) as a way to justify a certain kind of politics that attempted resolve conflicts within society. There was no utilitarian moral thinking during the time when our ancestors roamed as hunter-gatherers. Morality consisted of a set of rules that regulated social life in small bands, virtue ethics writ small. 

Pondering the various presentations, can neuroethics tell us anything new and useful about ourselves? Berns’ research appears to vindicate the sense we all have that some things are just right or wrong and damn the consequences, whereas in other situations consequences matter and we must weigh the harms and benefits that actions impose on others. I interpret Shook as being something of a moral pessimist; neuroscience will most likely end up telling us that we really can’t do much to improve our moral thinking and systems.

The message from Casebeer and Churchland is that institutions matterâ€"but interestingly they refrain from saying that some institutions (and the moral consequences that flow from them) are objectively better than others. Actually, Casebeer’s project to naturalize Aristotleian virtue ethics suggests a way to determine if one set of social institutions is better than others; do they enable and enhance human flourishing? In my view, human prehistory and history has been a more or less random search for social institutions that increasingly discover and conform to our evolved natures. My contention is that is manifestly the case that liberal institutions, e.g., respect for persons, free markets, the rule of law, religious tolerance, and democracy, do contribute to human flourishing. I suspect that a scan of my brain might find that that conclusion amounts to a sacred value for me.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.

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  1. Has Ron seen Sam Harris’s latest book ?

  2. Tebow traded to the Jets, and Saints head coach Seam Payton suspended for a year over the bounty schedule.

    (Sorry, Morning Links have just about petered out by now.)

    1. *bounty SCANDAL

      1. This signals the official end of Katrina grieving.

    2. So, with Brady Quinn gone to, IIRC, the Chiefs, and now Tebow traded, who’s Manning’s backup right now? What are the chances of Denver being able to snag a competent 2nd stringer for if/ when Manning goes down for the season (if not his career) with another neck injury? Did the Broncos even bother thinking this through? (rhetorical questions)

      If I were in Tebow’s shows I’d say all the right things (“I don’t blame the Boncos/ I’d like to thank them for giving a chance last year yada yada”), but work extremely hard this off-season on improving my game. Then every time I play the Broncos I’d make sure I beat the shit out them. But that’s just me.

      1. I wouldn’t be surprised if Manning never takes a regular-season snap for Denver.

        1. Why? He appears to be able to throw, and he’s not dumb enough to try to play if his doctors were telling him to quit.

      2. Our team was campaigning hard (or at least the fans were) to get Tebow here. And while that would’ve packed the house for every home game, I don’t think it would’ve translated to a winning record. Not to mention we just spent our 1st-round pick on a new QB last season.

        As much as I like Tebow, and as excited as I would admittedly have been for him to come here, he’s a much better fit for the Jets.

    3. The bounty stuff was pretty bad, and they were paying for injuring opposing players. If anything, they’re getting off light, though the punishment sounds reasonable at first glance. Player suspensions to come, too, so the season is likely in serious jeopardy. Not to mention a very unhappy Drew Brees.

    4. Good, I always thought of Tebow as more of a Jet than a Shark.

  3. “The brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile colon secretes shit”

    FIFY, and a much more apt description of the value of the thoughts that most people’s brains secrete.

    1. a much more apt description of the value of the thoughts that most people’s brains secrete

      You’re right, that’s a much better analogy.

      1. I dunno, I like the liver analogy. Nonalcoholic fatty brain disease (NAFBD) could lead to cirrhosis of the brain.

    2. Meh, technically the colon doesn’t secrete shit it scrapes off all the useful stuff as the shit passes through it.

      1. Sounds like the government… takes away the useful stuff and leaves us with stinky shit.

  4. The why:
    My series on genetic vestigial expression

    Loving Art-Feeling It -Blog Series #1 Biological Wiring Or Art Is Speech 

  5. The why:
    My series on genetic vestigial expression

    The Good The Bad And The Ugly Of Our Biologically Induced Fate    -Blog Series #2 Biological Wiring Or Why Men Mark Their Territory

    The why:
    My series on genetic vestigial expression

    Targeting and Bondage – -Blog Series #3 Biological Wiring Or Trusting men

  7. There was no utilitarian moral thinking during the time when our ancestors roamed as hunter-gatherers. Morality consisted of a set of rules that regulated social life in small bands.

    I’d think it was the opposite.

    The consequences of your actions would be much more immediate and dramatic in a marginal small-group hunter-gatherer situation.

    If you lose the confidence of your group, they can kill you or abandon you.

    If you lay around and don’t do any hunting or gathering, you starve to death.

    If you lie about whether a cave bear is coming, everybody dies.


    You need rules-based thinking where the immediate consequences of breaking social norms either aren’t apparent, or plain old aren’t that bad. People in desperate situations can calculate moral benefits and costs directly with much more ease than we can, because they’ve got less margin for error.

    1. It doesn’t seem to me that you are arguing against the statement you quoted, but rather agreeing.

      1. Cut myself off…

        If you lose the confidence of your group, they can kill you or abandon you.

        If you lay around and don’t do any hunting or gathering, you starve to death.

        If you lie about whether a cave bear is coming, everybody dies.

        These examples seem to be the utilitarian outcomes of rule-based morality. Which, if stopped at this point, is more easily described as pragmatism.

        1. I’m trying to say the direct opposite.

          To me, utility-based moral thinking is thinking that is focused on calculating benefits and harms.

          Rules-based moral thinking says, “X is wrong because it’s on this list of taboos over here.”

          “I better go do some hunting and gathering, because if I don’t I’m gonna starve here in this cave,” is a utility-based analysis.

          “I better go do some hunting and gathering, because the Great Spirit frowns on the souls of the lazy,” is a rules-based analysis.

          I just don’t see how the person quoted can claim that there was no moral reasoning of the first kind taking place.

          1. Ah, I see. OK. I think the error lies in using “utilitarianism” in place of “utility-based” thinking. I don’t think they are the same thing, in that utilitarianism is a rejection of the individual as an end unto themselves, and utility-based thinking is more a calculation the individual performs in order to interact with everyone else to their personal benefit.

          2. How about: “I’d better go do some hunting and gathering – and generally do what I’m told – or the big guys in the group are going to kill or beat me?”

            Much more likely, I’d think, in prehistoric days.

    2. If you lie about whether a cave bear is coming

      “Seriously Grok, wtf dude.”

    3. The consequences of your actions would be much more immediate and dramatic in a marginal small-group hunter-gatherer situation.

      It might be that in this situation, violations of “the rules” were pretty much self-enforcing, or perhaps spontaneously enforced. Whether they were expressed as norms by the group might determine whether there were anything we would recognize as explicit “rules.” If so, the lack of an official/external enforcer of consequences for violating the group’s rules wouldn’t mean that there aren’t any rules.

    1. If it were my boss, I’d offer to help.

    2. Worse is getting arrested for watching boss cut off his head.

    3. The cheese knife guy is a paranoid schizophrenic, arguably not to blame for what he did, or at least his blame is diminished.

      The fucksticks who had the guy arrested for not being able to afford finishing his remodel job have no excuse for their behavior. Perhaps we should give the cheese knife guy his knife back and let him have a go at the Burnsville city council.

      1. I think the murderously insane just found a new niche in society.

        1. The murderously insane have always found niches to occupy in the state.

          1. new USEFUL niche.

            1. Well, that’s different.

          2. Pardon me?

      2. The cheese knife guy might be messed up but according to the story he had an audience. And my question is regarding the people that just stood there and watched.

  8. It would be interesting to see what would happen if you took a broad cross-section of people from countries with different political systems (authoritarian, democratic, pseudo-anarchical, etc.) and see what differences occurred during the auction scans. I suspect that the institutional pressures would lead to radically different results.

    An American and a Somalian might have extraordinarily different reactions to “utilitarian” concepts.

  9. Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency DAPRA?

    Are do they compete with Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA)?

    1. “Are do they compete..” Outa be a law.

      1. “Outa”…

        1. Damn.

          1. Joez sez high!

    2. Here you see but a small sample of what our brainwave scrambler can do.

      We appreciate your cooperation in funding our work.

  10. “A utilitarian might tote up the costs of being caught in murder or the harms to a victim’s family, whereas a deontologist would assert it is moral duty to avoid killing the innocent.
    For most people, a utilitarian reckoning in this case seems cold and psychologically broken (e.g., the kind of calculation that a psychopath would make).”

    It seems that way because it is.

    1. If only it could be reduced to two words.

      I wonder what they would be?

      1. “Psycho Killer
        What he say?
        Fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa faaaa….
        Run run run run run run
        run awaaaaaaaaaaay…”

    2. A utilitarian might tote up the costs of being caught in murder or the harms to a victim’s family

      Wouldn’t a utilitarian be calculating the costs/harms v. benefits for society as a whole, rather than just for themselves and the family?

      1. Ding Ding Ding

      2. A practicianer of the formal Utilitarian with a capital U school of philosophical thinking would be.

  11. John Carter wants in on that new kind of “peer review”.

  12. Bill Casebeer. How is it possible that a person with such a name could grow up to be anything but a bartender or a beer truck driver?

    1. That is indeed one fine name.

    2. “…and your name is…?”


      “Well, you’d better cut down a bit, eh?!”

      “Pardon me?”

      “I say – ‘you’d better cut down a bit’…!”

      1. and finish him with a flurry to the solar plexus?

    3. He got switched at birth with Joe, who went to the Smart family and is a beer truck driver.

  13. “The brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile”


    SO gross…

    1. I know.

      It should be “The liver secretes bile as the brain secretes thought”

    2. Based on the evidence hereabouts, I would say the brain secretes bile of its own.

      1. That’s a rather bilious attitude.

        1. On the evidence of my aging, diabetic, never-had-much-joy mother, I’d say bile is a good preservative.

  14. The first bit (basically, people are a little bit deontoloigical and a little bit utilitarian) always seemed intuitively right to me.

  15. Abolish the wages system

  16. The question is, what type of morality are they talking about? Even a moron knows there are objective and subjective morals. Objective morals concern actions between individuals, while subjective morals concern actions which effect only the individual. These experiments always mix them so it really makes the study meaningless.

  17. I think if we understood the nature of language itself it would explain all our social developments. (never mind higher order abstractions like morality)

  18. Maybe not everything is physical and measurable by science and our senses. Maybe there really is more in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

  19. The more obvious question they miss is WHY be moral. Yes, Culture A may see Action X as dishonest while Culture B might find a way to rationalize it, but both cultures recognize the importance of being honest. Why is that?

    All this materialistic determinism cannot answer that question, because it goes beyond mere materialism: it is a question of philosophy or religion, but it is a real question nonetheless.

  20. Why is there no mention of Ayn Rand’s ethics here? She revolutionized ethics with her rational egoism. See “Virtue of Selfishness” and “Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.”

  21. Virtually all brain-scan/content-of-thought identifications are highly suspect on multiple grounds. For a recent examination of some issues, take a look at Wm. Briggs’ posts reviewing Who’s In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain by Michael S. Gazzaniga.

  22. The title asks the wrong question. The real question is rhetorical: how can one possibly derive abstract and immaterial things like conscience, free will, and morality from concrete and material things like chemicals, subatomic particles, and electromagnetic resonance waves?

    The short answer is that one can’t. Ought cannot be derived from is; empiricism is utterly blind to conscience, free will, and morality, because they transcend space and time and are therefore completely unscientific. Ron Bailey is a fool for even trying to find the source of such things using the scientific method.

  23. Puerile, reductio ad absurdum, wildly unsubtsantiated assumptions,(hence conclusions), methodologically self-disqualifying – just awful.
    More importantly, dangerous: in that some folks reading a publication named “Reason” might even consider it seriously.

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