Morality Is Caused by a Chemical?

About a decade ago, my lab made an unexpected breakthrough in the understanding of good and evil. We discovered that the neurochemical oxytocin makes people trustworthy. We then found oxytocin was responsible for many other moral behaviors, from being generous to sacrificing to help a stranger.

While neuroscience has provided new insights into our human nature, the philosophy of morality has not gone away. My talk identifies the philosophers whose insights and arguments are consistent with the way oxytocin works in the human brain. Two hit the mark: Aristotle and Adam Smith. Aristotle claimed that the reason to be a virtuous person is because it makes us happy. I found the same thing: Those who release the most oxytocin in the lab are more satisfied with their lives.

I’ve also found that societies that are more moral (for example, more trustworthy and more tolerant) also have higher standards of living. Smith understood why: Morality undergirds economic exchange, opening up more opportunities for the creation of wealth that individuals in a transaction can share. And, prosperity (perhaps surprisingly) can make societies more moral. All this occurs as part of our human nature, our brains adapting to evolving social environments.

So, this ancient and tiny molecule, oxytocin, has taken us from being social creatures to, increasingly, being tolerant, empathic and prosperous ones. Quite a nice trick for a tiny molecule that traces its lineage back at least 400 million years.



Image: Father Stephen