The Neuroscience of Fair Play

Why We (Usually) Follow the Golden Rule

Donald W. Pfaff, Ph.D.

Cloth • $20.95 • 300 pages 
ISBN: 978-1932594270
Published December 2007

Also available as an e-book

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 


"For those interested in the biology of behaviour in human and non-human animals, Pfaff provides a feast of tightly woven facts. . . . Although there is substantial variation across people in the mechanisms supporting fair play, Pfaff argues persuasively that nearly all humans have the capacity for empathy and this is an essential component of our human nature."
    —Paul J. Zak, Times Higher Education Supplement 


"Every religion delivers the Golden Rule, sometimes as DO unto others, and at other times as DON'T do to others. Given this universality, it would surely be insanity to argue that the Golden Rule is a cultural construct! Pfaff gives us the clear alternative: the Golden Rule is part of human nature, part of what evolution handed off as one of our essential moral building blocks. Read this book and enjoy a masterful tour of how your brain computes moral rights and wrongs in the service of creating a fair society."
    —Marc Hauser, Harvard College Professor, author of Moral Minds

"Our brains do more than reason and think. They are also home to ancient processes of fear, aggression, love, and affection. In lucid prose, an eminent neuroscientist explains how emotions guide human morality, thus breaking with centuries of emphasis on rationality."
    —Frans de Waal, author of Our Inner Ape