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The Social Brain and Liberalism’s Revival August 24, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, ethics of care, Political Philosophy, Science.
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Journalist Madeleine Bunting claims that contemporary science is demonstrating that our notions of free will and autonomy are “fairytales about as fanciful and as implausible as goblins.”

That is a bit hyperbolic but the general thrust of her article is right. Instead of claiming that free will and autonomy are illusions, it is more accurate to say that our definitions of these concepts in our tradition are fundamentally misleading. As Bunting reports:

There are two other areas of this new brain research which are arguably more important. First, we have much underestimated the social nature of the brain: how primed it is to recognise, interpret and respond all the time to the input of others and how that lays down patterns which govern our behaviour. We are herd-like animals who show a strong tendency to conform with group norms; what makes our brains so much bigger than other primates is this remarkable capacity for social skills such as empathy, co-operation and fairness. Instead of the old metaphor of individuals as discrete entities like billiard balls, we need to think instead of them as nodes in a relationship network.

This research doesn’t show that we lack autonomy. It does demonstrate that our capacity for self-governance is dependent on others. Autonomy is relational. We direct our lives through out capacity to respond to what we care about.

The second area of astonishing discoveries is in the plasticity of the brain. We talk of “hardwiring” (computers have generated many misleading metaphors for the brain) but in fact, the brain can be changed. Parts of the brain can learn entirely new tricks. Neural pathways are not fixed, and even much of the damage done by deprivation in childhood can be repaired with the right circumstances of example, support and determination. We can shape our own brains to create new habits that we might have thought we were not capable of – it’s a long, hard process but it is possible.

Notice that this doesn’t imply that we lack free will. It means that we have to define free will in terms of our capacity to learn. Learning modifies the brain in ways that enable new patterns of behavior to emerge. Unlike older notions of free will that require that free actions interrupt the causal influences of the past and the environment (which to my mind is an incoherent idea), newer versions of free will view our flexible responses to changing environmental circumstances as a product of our sensitivity to causal influence. We are not robots because of our sensitivity to causal influence, not in spite of it.

But this idea is not really new. Aristotle entertained a version of it; so did Hume. But until recently, it was not highly regarded—that is changing in part because of what we are learning about the brain.

And Bunting is exactly right about the political implications of this research.

This all may seem remote from politics, but it’s not. Jon Cruddas has a habit of startling audiences by arguing that the regeneration of the left requires a convincing new account of what it is to be human. Are human beings self-interested creatures or are they collaborative? The right’s argument for market capitalism is rooted in the former but the research on the social brain supports the latter. Put crudely, we are social creatures with an inbuilt tendency to co-operate and seek out each other’s approval and that is probably more important in determining day-to-day behaviours than narrowly conceived self-interest.

The rightwing emphasis on the individual’s capacity to triumph over their environment through willpower is undermined by the research which shows how childhood deprivation leaves such scarring on the brain. While the challenge to the left is to recognise that the myopic tendencies of the brain to privilege the short term has been held in check by institutions and traditions which can safeguard longer-term interests. Perhaps that requires greater understanding on the left of how such institutions operate and a revision of assumptions about why they restrict individual autonomy.

This is essentially my argument in Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America. We need to think of autonomy as relational and institutionalize the motive of care, which requires sensitivity to one’s environment and long-term commitment to the institutions on which we depend.

Philosophical theories don’t need empirical support for their intelligibility; but it is nice to have.


book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com



1. Huan - August 25, 2009

What bothers me is that there seems to be a disconnect between an empirical account of how humans tend to behave based on neurological evidence and a political doctrine on how humans ought to behave. If our brain truly is adapted so well for social behavior, then how is it that right-wing influence could have been so prominent? It would appear that both the motive for care and the motive for self-interest need to be brought out of an individual, so that still doesn’t seem to answer which one we ought to do. Perhaps in the long run we will statistically lean towards cooperative behavior, but that doesn’t really say anything about what we ought to do right now.

Maybe if the research showed that human beings are generally more satisfied with practicing more cooperative behavior, that would be a good reason for an “ought to” doctrine.

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