The Neuroscience of Fair Play
Why We (Usually) Follow the Golden Rule

See excerpts below

Several recent books, using anthropology, psychology and evolution, have argued that our ethical or moral life evolved from nature. Now a distinguished neuroscientist takes that proposition a critical step farther, right to the basics: brain signals.

Donald Pfaff, Ph.D., head of the Laboratory of Neurobiology and Behavior at Rockefeller University, gives us the first book to describe how ethics may be a hardwired function of the human brain.

Pfaff explains how specific brain circuits cause us to consider an action toward another as if it were going to happen to us, prompting us to treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Into this picture, he brings various brain hormones that produce or induce forms of moral behavior such as individual heroism, parental love, close friendship, and violence and aggression.

Pfaff solves the mystery of our universal ethical precepts, presenting a rock-solid hypothesis of why humans across time and geography have such similar notions of good and bad, right and wrong


Chapter 1. The Subway Story

Chapter 2. The Golden Rule

Chapter 3. Being Afraid

Chapter 4. Inside the Cell, Fear Itself

Chapter 5. Shared Fears, Shared Fates

Chapter 6. The Sociable Hormone

Chapter 7. Sex and Parental Love

Chapter 8. The Urge to Harm

Chapter 9. Murder and Other Mayhem

Chapter 10. Balancing Act

Chapter 11. Influencing Temperament

Chapter 12. A New Paradigm 




On the “Golden Rule”

Associated with every religious system I have read is a norm known as the Golden Rule. In essence, it requires that I do unto you as I would have you do unto me. This rule is so ingrained in our social behavior as to be intellectually invisible. As a result, we have rarely stopped to question where it came from. If pressed, I might have opined that its origins are lost in the mists of time – for example, when the first high priests figured out how to satisfy a sovereign’s demand for social stability.

But suppose, for the moment, that the Golden Rule is even older, that it is as old as our own biology. Moreover, while it might have acquired all sorts of socio-political decorations over the course of human history, it nonetheless is actually traceable to neuroscientific phenomena that we can identify. If this were so, we could understand why this rule and its many variations have survived in human ethical systems, philosophies and religions. In this book I want to explore a theory of the neuroscientific basis for the instinct toward fair play. I am not talking about religion, because not all statements of this rule are religious in their appearance. Instead, I will try to explain how a discoverable set of brain mechanisms can account for behaviors that follow this rule.

How can I dare try that?  It is because complex behaviors do not always require the most complex explanations. For example, we were able to lay bare the biology underlying a sociosexual behavior at a time when we did not understand the simple act of walking….