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Hardwired BehaviorReview - Hardwired Behavior
What Neuroscience Reveals about Morality
by Laurence Tancredi
Cambridge University Press, 2005
Review by Anthony R. Dickinson, Ph.D.
Jun 14th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 24)

Exploring an apparent shift in emphasis away from the mental processes and cultural determinants underlying our understanding of moral stances, and instead focusing upon the biological processes involved in the regions of the brain directly involved with moral decision-making, Tancredi presents here a refreshingly realistic neurophilosophy of mind and human behavior. Across 12 chapters, the reader is taken from the earliest religio-philosophical thinking concerned with moral education, through evolutionary psychology, and towards recent findings of brain functional imaging studies, in explaining cases of pathological moral situation management. And although essentially materialistic in causal explanation, the author achieves this without denying the significance of individual responsibility.  

Indeed, both as a professional psychiatrist within legal practice and significant academic reputation, Tancredi neither denies that 'immoral behavior' exists, nor that those so afflicted with strong dispositions are necessarily without responsibility for their own individual behavior. Using case studies of real convicted killers as examples, the author uses the lives of the behavioral psychopaths that he introduces to illustrate the effects of both the ontological nature and nurture factors which can affect brain and consciousness changes (and especially so the loss of inhibition). The significance of such developmental experiences will be familiar to most readers of this book by now, but what may prove to be refreshing for many unfamiliar with developmental neuroscience, it to be able to read here of some of the most significant findings of modern brain research normally to be found only in specialized psychology and brain science journals. Although by no means complete (much recent work concerned with the neurological correlates of gambling behavior, for example, are of much relevance to the arguments outlined in this book, yet not included), the discussions occurring throughout several of the chapters concerned with causal explananda re psychopathology are finally coming to be associated with increasingly specific brain regions and predictable focal network dysfunctions.

This said, it is certainly not the case that Tancredi wishes to deny the significance of, for example, instances of personal socio-sexual abuse in explaining the historical development of psychopathology. In fact the author takes such examples to the very heart of his explanations, going further than previous writers, in presenting the biological significance of (for example) sexual abuse for the very reason that such events/experiences are now known to change the brain's structure and function (often permanently), and in significant and particular (possibly predictable) ways. It is this argument more than any other that many will find most useful for the practicing psychologist or psychiatrist engaged in legal work; but the more sociologically inclined reader may take Tancredi to instead be implying (especially given his rather colloquial writing style), that the homicidal psychopath is already intent upon committing a murderous act, and thereby 'intends' to use his known history, or known alcohol consumption intolerance to facilitate his/her ability to commit the act. However such ideas are intended to be read (see esp. Ch.5), the current reviewer agrees with the author's concluding statement such that the very content of thinking is [necessarily] affected [if not determined by] the brain.

With regards the core biological basis, and neurophilosophy of moral reasoning, I would like to have read Tancredi's opinion of, and distinctions from, Churchland's Neurophilosophy (1978) and the differences inherent in her 'eliminative materialism' in explaining his new stance on moral behavior, and moral decision-making in particular. Another curious omission occurs early in the volume during the developmental behavior factor discussions -- we appropriately learn about the significant contributions of the work conducted by (e.g.), Freud, Piaget, Kolberg, and Bowlby, but no mention is made of the work of Stanley Millgram, and his pioneering work on obedience and authoritarian figure response learning -- a body of research I would have thought clearly relevant to our understanding of societal compliance, and moral choice formation. Indeed, although the 'abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers' is cited as an example of "immoral behavior" possible explainable by biological factors rather than 'conscious intent' (see Preface p.X), Tancredi unfortunately does not return to this issue later in the book.

Overall, this volume deserves its place as a landmark presentation of a much misunderstood, often conflicting, and thus difficult-to-summarize research (and fast changing) literature concerned with the neurobiological bases of decision-making and choice selection, albeit directly addressing issues of personal or social and moral responsibility. Some of the most important (selected) references are provided for the reader wishing to study the primary sources for many of the research finding claims made throughout the book, and are listed in the numbered 'notes' section at the end. However, given the speed and depth of new neural findings being published every month (especially with regards the function of the nucleus acumbens), I would not be too surprised to see an update version of this book coming to the shelf in the not so distant future. 

 

© 2011 Tony Dickinson

 

Dr. Tony Dickinson, Visiting Professor, Institute of Neuroscience (Chinese Academy of Sciences), Shanghai, China, PRC.


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