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...

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Title:Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition
Author:Patricia S. Churchland
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Edition Language:English

Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition Reviews

  • 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

    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

    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.

  • 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

    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.

  • Roo Phillips

    An interesting mixture of philosophy and neuroscience. Churchland takes a cautious dive into some of the latest research in neuroscience. She tries to connect the research to our understanding of moral values, where they come from, how they affect us in different situations, etc. While really understanding how the brain works is still a ways off, Churchland does a sound job of correlating mammalian biology and the importance/use/origin of morality. She doesn't really discuss other potential

    An interesting mixture of philosophy and neuroscience. Churchland takes a cautious dive into some of the latest research in neuroscience. She tries to connect the research to our understanding of moral values, where they come from, how they affect us in different situations, etc. While really understanding how the brain works is still a ways off, Churchland does a sound job of correlating mammalian biology and the importance/use/origin of morality. She doesn't really discuss other potential sources of moral value and behavior, but focuses on how we readily see it emerge from our own biological structures.

  • 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

    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!

  • 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.

  • 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

    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.

  • DonkeyPopsicle

    TLDR: The neurobiological underpinnings of our moral intuitions is not yet a topic that is ready for a popular treatment.

    Right from the start there is an ambiguity in the topic. On the one hand, we might want to know why we do what we do most of the time, and why we rarely deviate from what we consider right (you don't stomp on someone's flower garden as you walk by; it doesn't even occur to you to do that, as it would be mean and destructive). On the other hand, we might want to know the

    TLDR: The neurobiological underpinnings of our moral intuitions is not yet a topic that is ready for a popular treatment.

    Right from the start there is an ambiguity in the topic. On the one hand, we might want to know why we do what we do most of the time, and why we rarely deviate from what we consider right (you don't stomp on someone's flower garden as you walk by; it doesn't even occur to you to do that, as it would be mean and destructive). On the other hand, we might want to know the neurobiological basis of that aspect of our mental life we call "conscience": that feeling we have at rare choice points where we deliberate on whether an action is right or wrong, and the feelings of guilt or relief depending on which path we take (and why we might take the wrong path despite the guilt we know we will have). Churchland's book is really about neither of these; instead it's a bit of a grab bag of things that sort of relate to our feelings about others (which can include moral feelings) and a defense (or just proposal?) of the "biological approach" to morality, a topic which takes up the last third of this fairly short book.

    Despite the unfocused topic, the first three chapters (excluding the unnecessarily discursive introduction) are the best and most interesting parts of the book. In Chapter 1, we are taken through a quick history of why humans have such large brains (in particular, a large cortex). Flexible social behavior is only seen in animals with significant cortexes (bees are social, for example, but their behavior is highly stereotyped and determined). So, as a result of various evolutionary pressures, humans ended up with big brains, and big brains, taking longer to mature than small brains, necessitated maternal care.

    Chapter 2 describes how the neural machinery for maternal care was adapted and expanded to cover other members of the community (in particular, mating partners). Well, this chapter ostensibly explains this. What we get is a lot of interesting material on prarie voles and the density of oxytocin receptors in the nucleus accumbens, but the explanation for why a greater density of oxytocin receptors leads to caring about others is highly speculative. Oxytocin is associated with cannabanoid release, so maybe other people (or voles) give us nice feelings via the release of cannabanoids. Why the presence of other people triggers oxytocin release is not explained, just assumed as an evolutionary jump. Babies crying release oxytocin in nursing mothers to trigger lactation, so somehow (at some point) this circuit got highjacked to release oxytocin in the mere presence of others (first mates, then other people). Ultimately, what Churchland gives us beyond the hard facts of oxytocin receptor density is a hypothesis that needs much more evidence.

    Because oxytocin activates brain regions that release cannabanoids, there is some sort of reward learning going on. Person makes me feel good, so I want to be around person more. Given this basis, Chapter 3 describes the dopamine reinforcement-learning circuit. This is interesting in itself (and described in much more detail in Read Montague's book), but it's connection to the oxytocin system is not clear. Perhaps these cannabanoids serve as positive reinforcers (the dopamine system just predicts whether such rewards will happen, it is not itself a reward). This is an outline of a skeleton of a basic hypothesis about human sociality, but it's hard to see how it connects it to everyday acts toward others, much less our anguished moments of moral deliberation.

    The rest of the book doesn't shed much light on this connection. Chapter 4 is about social learning; no explicit connection here is made to the oxytocin or dopamine systems, although Churchland insists that the dopamine system "must" be behind some of the experimental results (the experiments were not neurobiological in nature). Chapter 5 is about how inherited personality characteristics are associated with particular broad characterizations (liberal or conservative), which have a moral component. Nothing connected to the oxytocin or dopamine systems. Chapter 6 is about psychopaths and people with OCD (seen as a sort of hyper-moral fastidiousness). How, if at all, the brains of these individuals are different than normal individuals is not known (Churchland says this explicitly).

    Chapter 7 is where Churchland introduces and/or defends her biological approach to morality in opposition to the two major schools of moral philosophy, deontology and utilitarianism. Unfortunately, her sketch of these two positions is brief to the point of caricature, and no doubt the deontologists and utilitarians have heard the very basic objections that Churchland puts forth as definitively refuting the two doctrines. I myself doubt that either position is correct, but Churchland has certainly not done her due diligence in understanding and arguing against the positions (or she thought cartoon refutations of cartoon positions was good enough for a popular science book).

    As mentioned earlier, this is a short book; there are less than 200 pages, and the spacing is pretty generous. Given the lack of connective tissue between the chapters, it seems clear that, if Churchland's representation of the current science is accurate, and there is no reason to think that it isn't, then there simply isn't enough research yet to form a theory broad and well-supported enough that explains what we're really talking about when we talk about conscience or moral intuitions. Maybe in 20 years a book on this topic could be written, but as it stands, Churchland's book is a set of scattered findings with no real theory that even attempts to explain "the origins of moral intuition."

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