Scrap or Save? A Triune Brain Theory Account of Moral Improvement

Last month, I wrote a post called “Uncovering the Neurocognitive Systems for 'Help This Child,'” where I suggested that understanding certain facts about our brains is not enough to get us to do the 'right thing.’I argued that we also have to 'outsmart' our least rational tendencies and get ourselves to apply our knowledge to real-life problems. This month, I want to explore a different aspect of the relationship between knowledge and practical action. I want to ask, 'What happens when researchers ground their work in a controversial scientific framework, but use it to introduce a set of ideas that could make a meaningful contribution?' The case I have in mind is Darcia Narvaez and Jenny Vaydich’s use of Paul D. MacLean’s ‘Triune Brain Theory’ to ground work on emotional and ethical ‘expertise development.’

Jenny Vaydich
Darcia Narvaez

In their paper entitled “Moral development and behavior under the spotlight of the neurobiological sciences,” Narvaez and Vaydich set out to defend the practical applications of neurobiological and neuroscientific research for moral development and education. [1] Reviewing over a hundred studies from across these disciplines, they argue that the neurosciences can contribute to our understanding of moral development in at least three ways: (1) by shedding light on previously not-well-understood factors of moral behavior, (2) by enriching the debate regarding the relative intentionality or automatic/unconscious nature of moral responses, decision-making, and action, (3) and by examining the influence of caregiver behavior and the surrounding environment on the development of healthy brain function or, in other words, “better- or worse-equipped brains” for participating in moral life. [1] Interestingly (and quite uniquely), Narvaez and Vaydich also go on to consider the implications of these findings for the formulation of practical frameworks intended to foster ‘expertise development’ in the domain of moral functioning.

Narvaez and Vaydich propose that neurobiological research findings do indeed confirm the possibility of moral improvement. They argue that since brain structures and functions are malleable, “unless the damage is severe, there is the possibility for change.” [1]  More specifically, they argue that change can be undertaken and actualized with respect to different components of moral function and at any point in human life, although the process becomes increasingly difficult with age. [2] In addition, Narvaez outlines a set of practices, which she calls the ‘Integrative Ethical Education’ model (IEE), that can be applied in classrooms and other learning environments to help foster moral character and functioning. Among other ideas, IEE advocates for the structuring of caring relationships and supportive environments; for the engagement of ethical skills through a novice-to-expert pedagogy; for the fostering of self-authorship; and for the reintroduction of what Narvaez calls an ‘ecological’ system of support, according to which the family and surrounding community coordinate to help advance and guide the learning process. [3] Citing the Minnesota Community Voice and Character Education project as an example, Narvaez and Vaydich argue that these principles could be widely applied in education programs in schools, youth organization and other learning-oriented public institutions.

A visual representation of TBT
Problematically, Narvaez and Vaydich’s work rests on Narvaez’s own more extended project, Triune Ethic Theory (TET), which is in turn based on Paul D. MacLean’s Triune Brain Theory. [4]  MacLean’s triune brain theory suggests that the human brain comprises three basic formations, known as the reptilian complex, the paleomammalian complex (corresponding to the limbic system) and the neomammalian complex (corresponding to the neocortex), and proposes that these formations reflect the evolution of reptiles, lower mammals, and late mammals. Citing Panksepp and others [5], Narvaez argues that although the theory is “on its face simplistic in separating brain structures from one another, in fundamental ways animal and human research support MacLean’s basic theory. Accumulating research in affective neuroscience not only confirms the general thrust of MacLean’s Triune Brain Theory, but points out the critical importance of early experience in gene expression in emotional circuitry.” [6]

Unfortunately, as David Nicholson points out in his excellent post, “Snakes On a Brain, or, Why Care About Comparative Neuroanatomy (Vol.1),” Triune Brain Theory is in fact not supported by comparative neuroanatomy. Paul Patton argues that since the early 1980’s, evolutionary biologists have learned a great deal about vertebrate evolutionary history and as a result, he suggests, “it is now apparent that a simple linear hierarchy cannot adequately account for the evolution of brains or of intelligence” [7] Even more to the point, in Comparative Vertebrate Neuroanatomy, William Hodos maintains that the “extensive body of work in comparative neurobiology over the past three decades unequivocally contradicts this theory” [8]. Or, as David puts it, Triune Brain Theory is just “completely wrong.”

So what does this mean for Narvaez and Vaydich’s efforts to extend neuroscientific research into the practical domain? Do we reject their ideas as unfounded? Do we shun them for even subscribing to Triune Brain Theory? Or do try and persuade them to change their minds?

I’m wondering whether the old ‘photo-shop’ approach might not be the most efficient solution here: i.e., to put the head of the theory on a different body, and to test it further from there. What if we simply separated Narvaez and Vaydich’s practical applications from their proposed neurobiological foundations, and tried to see if they work on a different set of principles about the brain? That way, if the theoretical transplant proved successful, we could keep their more pragmatic suggestions; if not, we could still throw them out, but we would now have done so with more thorough-going reasons. This strikes me as an economical approach, especially when the ideas in question discuss less a frequently-discussed topic in neuroethics research. And we might even learn a thing or two about salvaging findings more generally. For example, we may want to use a related principle to comb through Marc Hauser’s now-compromised findings, or to carry forward ideas from other neurobiological models that have since fallen short of our scientific standards for understanding.

Can we attach the head of an old theoretical model onto a new body?
But then, I’m a philosophy student and not a neuroscientist. What do you think: does relying on Triune Brain Theory compromise even a plausible, pragmatic idea?


[1] Narvaez, D. & Vaydich, J. (2008) Moral development and behavior under the spotlight of the neurobiological sciences. Journal of Moral Education, 37(3), 289-313.
[2] Mahncke, H. W., Bronstone, A. & Merzenich, M. M. (2007) Brain plasticity and functional losses in
the aged: scientific bases for a novel intervention (San Francisco, Posit Science Corporation).
Available online at:
[3] Narvaez, D. (2010). The emotional foundations of high moral intelligence. In B. Latzko & T. Malti (Eds.). Children’s Moral Emotions and Moral Cognition: Developmental and Educational Perspectives, New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 129, 77-94. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
[4] Maclean, P.D. (1973). A triune concept of the brain and behavior. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
[5] Panksepp, J. (2007) Neurologizing the psychology of affects: how appraisal-based constructivism
and basic emotion theory can coexist, in Perspectives in Psychological Science, 2(3), 281–296.
[6] Narvaez, D. (2009). Triune Ethics Theory and moral personality. In D. Narvaez & D.K. Lapsley (Eds.), Moral Personality, Identity and Character: An Interdisciplinary future. New York: Cambridge University Press, 136-158.
[7] Patton, Paul (2008), One World, Many Minds: Intelligence in the Animal Kingdom, in Scientific American.
[8] Comparative Vertebrate Neuroanatomy: Evolution and Adaptation, Second Edition, Eds. Ann B. Butler and William Hodos, 1996.

Want to Cite This Post?
Haas, J. (2013). Scrap or Save? A Triune Brain Theory Account of Moral Improvement. The Neuroethics Blog. Retreived on , from

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