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Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Neuroscience of Altruism

By Noah Berlatsky
Pacific Standard Magazine
Originally published December 11, 2014

“We are good,” Donald Pfaff declares early on in The Altruistic Brain. By this he means that all humans are innately moral, not in a philosophical/religious sense, but as a matter of objective science. “[T]he human brain is wired for goodwill,” he argues, “which propels us toward empathic displays of altruism.” The human brain is altruistic, and altruism is good; therefore humans are good. It’s a neat syllogism—but, unfortunately, reducing moral questions to syllogisms doesn’t work as well as Pfaff wants it to.

This is not to denigrate neuroscience, nor to dismiss Pfaff’s insights altogether. The book is most useful as a scientific refutation of the idea that human beings are innately selfish or innately cruel. Pfaff musters a great deal of evidence to show that the Christian notion of original sin—and the capitalist notion of human self-interest as a sole motivating force—are both unsustainable, at least in their more simplistic forms.

The entire article is here.