Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition

Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition

In her brilliant work Touching a Nerve, Patricia S. Churchland, the distinguished founder of neurophilosophy, drew from scientific research on the brain to understand its philosophical and ethical implications for identity, consciousness, free will, and memory. In Conscience, she explores how moral systems arise from our physical selves in combination with environmental de...

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Title:Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition
Author:Patricia S. Churchland
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Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition Reviews

  • David

    Probably the best book I've read on morality so far. The book is well-written and easy to understand. If only all philosophers wrote this way. She actually helped me to see the flaws with moral skepticism as it's generally only focused on an academic or religious narrow version of morality. She is a moral skeptic in THAT sense. However, she points out a different way of viewing morality that doesn't require seeing it as some list of absolute, objective, eternal rules you MUST follow. Morality pl

    Probably the best book I've read on morality so far. The book is well-written and easy to understand. If only all philosophers wrote this way. She actually helped me to see the flaws with moral skepticism as it's generally only focused on an academic or religious narrow version of morality. She is a moral skeptic in THAT sense. However, she points out a different way of viewing morality that doesn't require seeing it as some list of absolute, objective, eternal rules you MUST follow. Morality plays a large part in our lives as human beings. I think moral rules are constructed by humans (driven by our particular biology) and it seems that Churchland would agree. It's important to keep that in mind so we don't get overly dogmatic on one hand or act like morality doesn't matter at all on the other.

    Even so-called moral skeptics I have read largely seem to recognize that we're social creatures who care about each other to some degree and we need some rules to live lives worth living. They just define morality in such a way that they can say it doesn't exist (social rules exist, but they aren't moral in nature). Churchland would argue such moral skeptics actually moralize, but they just don't call it that since they define things in a very particular way. Morality isn't from a god or JUST our ability to reason. It's primarily based on our feelings and it's messy. You don't HAVE to be moral, but if you are wired like a typical human, you probably won't feel very happy or find much meaning in your life if you aren't (either due to being isolated since no one wants to be around you for long, feeling guilty, etc). It's also hard NOT to be moral if you're a human being. It's just part of living a full, wise human life. Those who are religious and claim that religion started morality are simply extremely misinformed/uninformed. There is loads of evidence to the contrary and thankfully so. As Churchland points out, plenty of cruel and violent acts of been performed in the name of religion or other dogmatic ideologies. I highly recommend this book!

  • Nancy Garon

    Amazing book! I love how she integrated a variety of research areas.

  • Prooost Davis

    The title would perhaps more precisely be "The Biological Origins of Moral Intuition," but maybe the actual title has more mystery to attract the buyer.

    Patricia Churchland is a philosopher who got interested in, and studied, neurobiology. She was dissatisfied with the reigning philosophical theories on morality: mainly that there are absolute moral rules, applicable in all times, in all places, and in all cases, which can be discovered by reason. She became convinced that our morality is partial

    The title would perhaps more precisely be "The Biological Origins of Moral Intuition," but maybe the actual title has more mystery to attract the buyer.

    Patricia Churchland is a philosopher who got interested in, and studied, neurobiology. She was dissatisfied with the reigning philosophical theories on morality: mainly that there are absolute moral rules, applicable in all times, in all places, and in all cases, which can be discovered by reason. She became convinced that our morality is partially hard-wired in our genes at birth, partly imparted by our culture, and partly learned by our own individual experience.

    She put together this book that tells a little about how our brains work in social situations, and explains that our human and mammalian needs as social animals have shaped our morality in different times and places.

  • Bob

    Conscience. Unless one is significantly cognitively impaired, there is this inner sense we have about what is morally right or wrong, or sometimes this place where we determine right or wrong. Where does this come from? Theists will claim a transcenden

    Conscience. Unless one is significantly cognitively impaired, there is this inner sense we have about what is morally right or wrong, or sometimes this place where we determine right or wrong. Where does this come from? Theists will claim a transcendent basis for this, something written on the heart. Yet, what is written on one heart often varies from another's. Often we experience uncertainty about these things in our own hearts. Furthermore, those "cognitive impairments" and advancing neuroscience are demonstrating that many aspects of human moral behavior from social bonding and care for others to where one may fall on the political spectrum with regard to moral issues is rooted in the neurophysiology of the brain. Are we conscious actors, or is our moral sense and moral behavior in some way determined by our brain chemistry?

    Patricia S. Churchland is one of the pioneers in the field of neurophilosophy--exploring this intersection of neuroscience research and philosophical discussion of questions like ethics and free will. This work is an engaging introduction to her work that moves between discussions of neurotransmitters and a philosophical survey of theories of moral behavior and the question of free will.

    She looks at the role of oxytocin in human attachment ("The Snuggle to Survive"), how we are wired for sociality, and how behavior is shaped by the reward system in our brains, and the physiology of empathy. We learn what the brain response to a person eating worms may indicate about political attitudes. Churchland explores the bewildering field of psychopathology--those whose anti-social behavior reflects a lack of moral compass, guilt or remorse--and thus far, our futile efforts to arrive at remedies.

    The last two chapters of the book focus on the philosophical questions, and here is where it got really interesting for me. Churchland considers "rule based" moral behavior from the ten commandments to Kant's categorical imperative to utilitarian-based systems. The flaw, she argues, is that human behavior endlessly deviates from these rules, and there is even significant disagreement on the rules. She argues for a socio-biological basis for moral behavior in which the evolution of our neurophysiology is such that we are well-equipped to engage in social life and behavior that sustains the bonds between us. This leads her to a definition of morality as "the set of shared attitudes and practices that regulate individual behavior to facilitate cohesion and well-being among individuals in the group."  She seems sympathetic to forms of virtue ethics in which habits of behaving may be modified by particular case constraints.

    The final chapter explores free will, and here, Churchland seems to be trying to navigate between those who would fully advocate for free will, and even argue moral certainties, and those who would argue that what we have learned about causation in neuroscience undermines free will, and exonerates criminals from guilt. She argues for the distinction between causes beyond our control and causes under our control, using the example of Bernie Madoff, who was under no compulsion, but knew exactly what he was doing.

    Churchland's discussion in these two chapters also indicated to me some of the concerns that underlie this book. She is deeply concerned about those who tout moral certitudes and also authoritarian approaches that may lead to morally justified abuses of others. She believes that an understanding of how we are "wired" for morally decent behavior shaped by social norms to be superior to such approaches. 

    As a Christian theist with a deep respect for scientists, and one who shares a sense of being humbled before the realities of our existence, I wonder whether there is a third way between a pure naturalism of "morally decent humans" and a rule-based authoritarianism, whether rooted in ideology or theology. Might we not allow for the possibility that we are indeed "wired" for moral behavior in social contexts that reflect transcendent concerns expressed in the great commands, which are really broad moral statements of principle, to love God and one's neighbor as oneself? It seems we often get caught in binary discussions of either science or the transcendent. Might there be an approach of both-and that both celebrates the wonderful mechanisms that bond parents and children, or larger social groups, the mechanisms by which we learn what it is to be moral, in all its societal variants; and recognizes the possibility that at least some communal norms might be grounded in transcendent realities that are not occasions for arrogance or authoritarianism, but humility and grace and empathy, and are consonant with the ways we are wired?

    I could be wrong, but it was not evident that Churchland has engaged with neurotheologians like Andrew Newberg, (see my review of his book Neurotheology [

    ]) who covers similar ground. There are many others interested in a conversation rather than a war between science and religious belief, and see the possibility of a kind of consilience that mutes the voice of neither. When I consider Churchland's account, I find myself marveling anew at the marvels hidden within my own body and am grateful for her exposition of these. I hope going forward, there might be a growing appreciation on the part of neurophilosophers like Churchland, not merely of problematic aspects of rule-based ethics in philosophy or religious teaching (which I will admit exist, just as there are problematic questions in neuroscience), but also the ways religious frameworks of moral teachings have profoundly shaped many communities for good (for example Andre' Trocme' and his community of Le Chambon, which hid Jewish refugees during the Holocaust), and helped individuals lead morally worthy lives as people of conscience.

    ____________________________

    Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

  • Per Kraulis

    Philosopher-neuroscientist Patricia Churchland explores the basis for conscience and morality. She discusses both the evolutionary and mechanistic processes underlying our humanity. A nice read, with several important and sometimes provocative points delivered in a well-written text. Churchland begins with defining conscience as "knowledge of the community standards", and goes on to describe how such standards have been internalized in the human mind.

    Science cannot tell us what is morally right,

    Philosopher-neuroscientist Patricia Churchland explores the basis for conscience and morality. She discusses both the evolutionary and mechanistic processes underlying our humanity. A nice read, with several important and sometimes provocative points delivered in a well-written text. Churchland begins with defining conscience as "knowledge of the community standards", and goes on to describe how such standards have been internalized in the human mind.

    Science cannot tell us what is morally right, but it can probe why we are moral, and how that faculty is grounded in the biological reality of humans as social beings. The fact that humans are born helpless and require assistance by parents and others for many years is both a cause and effect of our hypersocial nature. Our cognitive flexibility presupposes a long learning period. We are clearly wired for cooperation in an extreme degree, and this requires norms and values. Fairness in sharing the results of collaboration is a basic human attitude.

    Churchland criticizes the strong western tradition in moral philosophy of searching for strict universal rules as a basis for morality. As examples of such philosophy, she first dispatches of the religious attempt to build morality on the god(s); the Socratic dialogue Euthyphro invalidated that project. Next, she looks at the twin secular attempts at universal moral rules: Immanuel Kant, on the one hand, and the utilitarians, on the other, both attempting, in very different ways, to formulate a fundamental moral rule. One of her points (which reminds me of Isaiah Berlin's discussion about the plurality of values) is that moral choices must be viewed as acts of constraint satisfaction, where different values and considerations come into play depending on the circumstances, and that there is little reason to believe that a single principle could ever handle all possible situations. Social life is simply too complex. "... we can make sense of moral norms - not as things apart from our nature, as things foisted on our nature, but as practical solutions to common problems."

  • Ryan Boissonneault

    When thinking about morality, people generally make two mistakes: 1) that moral certainty can be achieved by consulting some external, objective source, and 2) that if this is not the case, and moral certainty cannot be attained, then we all have license to do whatever we want and there’s nothing left to discuss.

    As analytical philosopher Patricia Churchland explains in her latest book,

    , both ideas are false. Moral dilemmas always involve conflictin

    When thinking about morality, people generally make two mistakes: 1) that moral certainty can be achieved by consulting some external, objective source, and 2) that if this is not the case, and moral certainty cannot be attained, then we all have license to do whatever we want and there’s nothing left to discuss.

    As analytical philosopher Patricia Churchland explains in her latest book,

    , both ideas are false. Moral dilemmas always involve conflicting priorities, and the call for “objective morality” is nothing other than the desire to escape uncertainty and to have someone or something else do the thinking for you. As Churchland writes:

    “I may long for certainty, but I have to live with doing the best I can. I may concoct a myth to explain that

    certainty, unlike yours, taps into universal moral truths. Reality will soon dissolve that myth. Voltaire (1694-1778), a French philosopher of the Enlightenment, concisely summed up the state of affairs: ‘Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position, but certainty is an absurd one.’”

    While moral certainty does not and cannot exist, that doesn’t mean we lack a strong foundation from which to build. Morality is equal parts emotion, rooted in biology, and reason, which allows us to leverage our “better angels” while suppressing or controlling our baser instincts. As Churchland states:

    “The verdict of conscience is not solely cognitive...but has two interdependent elements:

    that urge us in a general direction, and

    that shapes the urge into a specific action.”

    Humans, like most mammals, are social animals, wired for sympathy, empathy, attachment, bonding, and the desire for social approval. This social suite of emotions and behaviors, which allows for complex cooperative behavior, is the only reason humans, physically unimpressive as they are, did not go extinct over their 200,000+ year history.

    It is worth reflecting on the fact that modern humans have been around for hundreds of thousands of years. This means that morality must have come from some other source than “ancient” religious or philosophical texts that were written a mere two to three thousand years ago. These texts cannot, contrary to what is sometimes claimed, possibly account for our collective longevity and social and moral inclinations. The roots lie deeper in our evolutionary past, encoded in our biology and uncovered by neuroscience.

    To the authors credit, Churchland does not get lost in the scientism that this might suggest; she acknowledges that science cannot determine right and wrong actions. On the other hand, Churchland also correctly recognizes that science is highly relevant to moral decision making and that scientific facts impact what we consider to be moral actions. While conceding to David Hume that “is” does not imply “ought,” science can certainly influence our moral calculation, as, for example, when we stopped executing witches on account of the fact that they don’t exist.

    So morality is grounded in our biology and our care for others, informed by science, and codified in community standards. Most of the time, and in most cases, moral decisions do not pose any special problems. But what about moral dilemmas with conflicting interests, as in debates regarding abortion, the death penalty, and political philosophy in general? How are we supposed to balance the competing priorities and conflicting ideals?

    The history of moral philosophy is filled with attempts to escape the discomfort of uncertainty with rule-based systems that prescribe one course of action or the prioritization of one variable in all circumstances. As Chruchland explains, every such attempt is easily exposed as incomplete with counter-examples and exceptions. This shouldn’t be surprising, as every ethical dilemma is unique and involves competing priorities; therefore, the prioritization of the same principle all of the time leads to

    behavior at least some of the time.

    Humanity’s first attempts at solving ethical problems were the invocation of supernatural authority. Divine command theory states simply that God will tell you what to do, you just have to follow the commandments. The problem with this was first articulated by Plato in the dialogue Euthyphro. The “Euthyphro Dilemma” asks: do the gods love good action because it is good, or is good action good because it is loved by the gods? If the first, the goodness of an action is independent of god, rendering god unnecessary and subject to the same moral constraints as everyone else. If the second, then morality is not objective and entirely dependent on god’s whim.

    Of course, even the religious don’t believe that all divine commands are moral, which is why there is so much disagreement among people with the same gods and the same religions and why people cherry pick the moral parts out of the Bible while ignoring the nastier parts (I’m thinking of pretty much anything out of Leviticus). If god, or the voice in your head, told you, like Isaac, to murder your own son, I would hope that your response would be different and that you wouldn’t march him up to an altar.

    So divine command theory cannot be the answer; we simply can’t escape the evaluation of moral claims regardless of their source.

    So what about grounding morality in reason alone? This too has been attempted and has largely failed for the same reasons.

    Kant’s categorical imperative tells us to “act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” This seems like a reasonable idea, but only if you overlook the fact that logical consistency does not imply morality. Two people may disagree on what they think should be willed as a universal law, and the categorical imperative does not in itself resolve the dispute. For example, is lying always wrong, and should this be cast as a universal rule? Kant said yes, but as Churchland wrote, “As even modestly clever undergraduates are quick to point out, no rule seems to be immune to fair-minded exceptions.” Would you lie to save your child’s life? I’m betting you would, despite the demands of the categorical imperative.

    Utilitarianism tries a different approach. It regards moral decisions as those which produce the greatest good for the greatest number, but is apt to ignore basic human rights and the idea of not using human life as a means to an end. It also runs counter to our strong biological urge to prioritize the needs of our family over others.

    Even the Golden Rule, commanding us to treat others the way we would wish to be treated, is only moral if the other person shares your values. Perhaps they wish to be treated differently than you, or deserve harsher treatment (as in the case of psychopaths and terrorists). Again, any rule-based system or moral proclamation will encounter examples it is not equipped to deal with.

    All of this is

    to endorse moral relativism; of course some actions are more moral than others according to the only standards that really count: our biological wiring that causes us to value pleasure over pain, peace over violence, and solidarity over solitude. We are justified in calling immoral the things that cause suffering and moral the things that cause human flourishing. But this does not mean that there are not difficult cases with conflicting priorities that simultaneously strain both our Kantian and utilitarian impulses.

    The best we can hope for is to keep the dialogue going. The real enemy of morality is not uncertainty, but ideology, the dogmatic confidence in the moral superiority of one’s position. Whenever the claim that god or reason is on one side of the moral debate and one side alone, the result is almost always tragic.

  • Dan Graser

    UC Professor of Philosophy Patricia Churchland is at all times a masterful writer with important issues to discuss and the necessary linguistic and intellectual tools with which to discuss them. This latest work centers on the formation of what we know of as our conscience and how varying degrees of biology and environment come to play. The notion(s) that this is some sort of supernatural sense with which we are gifted, a purely biological process over which we have no control, and a mere collec

    UC Professor of Philosophy Patricia Churchland is at all times a masterful writer with important issues to discuss and the necessary linguistic and intellectual tools with which to discuss them. This latest work centers on the formation of what we know of as our conscience and how varying degrees of biology and environment come to play. The notion(s) that this is some sort of supernatural sense with which we are gifted, a purely biological process over which we have no control, and a mere collection of responsive to environmental norms are effectively discussed and dismissed.

    Dealing with complex issues of scientific determinism as well as moral relativism, Churchland wisely avoids becoming a fundamentalist of either system and instead is very frank as to the areas of neuroscience that remain to be studied. However, her introduction to the concept and discussion of where we are currently in terms of understanding our moral intuitions on a scientific and philosophical level is one that makes for very enjoyable reading, free of easy-answers or stubborn ideology. This is a complicated issue and one which she must have known going in would not be resolved to any satisfactory degree upon completion, what she does provide is an effective roadmap to further study that will guide folks towards productive areas of discussion and away from some of the hopelessly dry semantic/philosophical arguments that frequently stagnate and stultify this subject.

  • Anastasia

    A pretty enjoyable read but it was different from what I expected - I've been swayed by a lot of argumentation from both Paul and Patricia Churchland (definitely favourite power couple material), and so I was excited to see that Patricia had a new book released a few weeks ago.

    I love the Churchlands' philosophical argumentation, but this book was a little more in the pop science realm. It's a pretty easy read compared to their more technical works, and helpful to folks who don't have background

    A pretty enjoyable read but it was different from what I expected - I've been swayed by a lot of argumentation from both Paul and Patricia Churchland (definitely favourite power couple material), and so I was excited to see that Patricia had a new book released a few weeks ago.

    I love the Churchlands' philosophical argumentation, but this book was a little more in the pop science realm. It's a pretty easy read compared to their more technical works, and helpful to folks who don't have background in the evolutionary development of our neurology. It also has a nice introduction to intro ethics (deontology, utilitarianism, virtue ethics), but not super insightful or deep for someone who's done more than an intro philosophy course.

    Overall, this is probably a good intro read for people who are interested in how our moral intuitions have developed and haven't looked into the origin of other intuitions or our brain's evolutionary development. Unfortunately I wasn't the right audience for this, but giving it a 4 star because I don't think there's anything off about the content!

  • Chunyang Ding

    Not a bad book, but also not a good one. The first half of the book seems misleading, as the premise is a neurological understanding of moral philosophy, yet the neurology present is fundamental evolutionary neurochemistry. It feels more like a neuroscience textbook, highlighting key experiments and whatnot. While this makes for good reading, it leaves me wanting more understanding into actual moral questions, rather than only dance around the issue by discussing mental illnesses and animal stud

    Not a bad book, but also not a good one. The first half of the book seems misleading, as the premise is a neurological understanding of moral philosophy, yet the neurology present is fundamental evolutionary neurochemistry. It feels more like a neuroscience textbook, highlighting key experiments and whatnot. While this makes for good reading, it leaves me wanting more understanding into actual moral questions, rather than only dance around the issue by discussing mental illnesses and animal studies. The second half of the book is better, but still barely intertwines philosophy and neuroscience. Instead, the author gives a primer on key philosophical concepts, and makes the barest of connections to how our brain interprets them. There are few hard neuroscience experiments used in this section to argue why the author is correct, which is why I had wanted to read the book in the first place.

  • John Kaufmann

    Like her earlier book

    , I found this a very interesting read and learned a lot. But also like that previous book, I find her writing and arguments very subtle, such that I occasionally lost the thread. Part of it is me, I am sure -- this is difficult material, and I struggle with cognitive science. Also, part of it is that this is a developing field, and Churchland proceeds cautiously rather than making bold pronouncements.

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