Thinking About the Brain


Professor Patricia Churchland has written an interesting new book, Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition, which continues her career-long examination of neuroscience and morality. The title alone defines the focus of her work. She explains to readers that what we know about neuroscience, i.e., the scientific state of the brain, explains what conscience and morality are and their origins.

I recommend that everyone read and learn from her book, as I did. Yet I part company with her thesis in a fundamental way. I belong to a school of which she is very critical, namely academics who have an unpractical account of morality. She criticizes three of my favorite philosophers—Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant, and (in another book) John Rawls, all of whom are rules-based authors. And she reminded me to agree with philosopher Thomas Nagel, who wrote an article called “Ethics Without Biology.”

Everything I have learned about the physical brain has reinforced my belief in the centrality of reason-centered moral rules to ethics. I join the argument of philosophers that our physical brains can use their many neurons to identify moral rules that we can follow—universally—in good times and in bad. Those rules will govern the non-intellectual parts of us, including our emotions and physical bodies. It is intellectual judgment, not emotional feelings, that should determine moral conduct.

Like the cited philosophers, I have confidence—perhaps arrogance?—about the rule-focused approach to morality. With or without our current scientific brain knowledge, we know how intellectual principles can work. I agree with Churchland that these systems are not perfect or error-free. But I admire the way they set a very high standard for human behavior and constantly urge us to do a better job.

In Chapter 7, Churchland explains all the reasons that rule-based systems have failed, criticizing the “rule purveyors (so called for short) that so dominate much of Western moral philosophy, at least in academia. Real moral theory, the rule purveyors stipulate, consists in finding universal rules and showing how they originate in religion or in pure reason” (149).  I agree with reason’s fans and not religion’s. My hope is that reason, but not religion, can be universal.

Churchland thinks those rules have repeatedly failed. She is right that there can be no agreement in religion. But why not in reason, which can separate us from religion and everything else? “Rationality, a uniquely human capacity, enables us to disengage from how our biology bids us behave, and to apprehend universal moral truths. Or so it is claimed [by her opponents]” (155). Unlike Churchland, I think the rule purveyors’ claims make great sense.

Aquinas argued a rational God would provide a rational rule for humans to follow. For centuries some Catholics and ex-Catholics have used his reasoning to persuade people to move away from God and toward reason. Kant, “placing his bets on pure reason alone” (158) wrote that people must be able to rationally endorse a rule as providing a universal standard for them to follow. Rawls insisted people should reason from the “original position,” placing themselves behind a “veil of ignorance,” which blinded them to facts about themselves so they could not tailor their principles to their own benefit. Under that system, they would adopt principles of basic liberty and social and economic positions that are open to all and to everyone’s advantage. And Nagel argued that people should not follow evolutionary norms but instead “independent norms” (154).

Churchland does not approve such norms because they are “independent of our social instincts.” She argues all those rationalists have failed. She prefers social life, emotions and attachment to family. She “put [her] bets on biology—instincts, learning, problem solving, and constraint satisfaction” (176).

Many people like Churchland’s approach to morality, agreeing with her statement that “social wisdom may be far more effective than trying to apply one’s favored moral rule and then being morally outraged when the outcome is not what was hoped for” (178-79). Despite her reasoning, however, I agree with the outraged rationalists, whose goal is to move around all those social interactions to find rules that work for everyone. I think pure reason is connected to the strong physical brain described in the book.

Rules work is a very hard task that needs the physical brain. It is never perfect. But I think it is important work devoted to finding rules that serve everyone equally and thus serve conscience.

Posted in: Philosophy and Ethics

Tags: Morality

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