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BraintrustReview - Braintrust
What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality
by Patricia S. Churchland
Princeton University Press, 2011
Review by Christophe Al-Saleh
Oct 11th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 41)

Imagine your neighbor beating his wife. You may (or may not) adopt various attitudes. You may feel sorry for this woman and angry toward this man. You may feel an urge to help her, by calling the police. You may think that it is wrong. Now, two questions. Which of the three kinds of attitudes has something to do with morality ? Do neurosciences have something to tell us about morality ?

In her book Braintrust, Patricia Churchland argues that the capacity to feel the relevant way is a basis for morality, and that we would not be able to have those feelings without the proper neural equipment. Therefore, neurosciences have a lot to tell us about morality.

According to Patricia Churchland, "Morality seems to be a natural phenomenon – constrained by the forces of natural selection, rooted in neurobiology, shaped by the local ecology, and modified by cultural development." (p.191)

I guess the intended audience is general. For, neither a neuroscientist nor a professional moral philosopher would learn a lot by reading this book.

After an introduction, where the author explains the challenges of naturalism, when it comes to explain morals, the book proceeds into three parts. The first part develops her theory. The second part is devoted to criticisms of some challenging theories. The third part contains general philosophical claims, answering to the questions asked in the introduction.

The first part (chapters 2,3,4) consists in an explanation of what she thinks is the "platform" for moral behavior. The account is largely based on findings in neuro-endocrinology (you will learn a lot about oxytocin and vasopressin). First, Oxytocin is a quite simple peptide. It is found in many animals. But the part it is playing in the human neuro-endocrinal system is unique. Oxytocin seems to be causally responsible for the fact that a mother will care for her offspring.  Secondly, oxytocin is able to explain the fact that human beings (and some other creatures) care not only for their offspring, but for" kin and kith". It means that care ensures a basis for sociality. This system is reinforced by a reward system entrenched in the brain. Third, only societies where there is care and a need to belong to a group may give rise to cooperative behaviors, as some experiments in neuroeconomics tend to prove, (see p. 71-86). Fourth, as the group grows and grows, trust becomes abstract and may be rigidified in institutions (think about money).

The second part (chapters 5 and 6) is a dismissal of some theories which are competing with Churchland's own theory.  Churchland argues, on the one hand, against the idea that there would be a gene for morality. There is a gene for oxytocin, and oxytocin may, within a context of expression where gene, brain and environment are intertwined, provide a platform for moral behavior. There is no need to search for a specific gene. In addition" the strategy of trying to link a single gene to a particular phenotype has been superseded by the understanding that genes often form networks, and that a given gene is likely to figure in many jobs" (p.99). Fine, but I wonder who would, among serious scientists today, hold the opposite view.

On the other hand, Churchland is criticizing the works of Marc Hauser and Jonathan Haidt, and, more generally, the prospects of evolutionary ethics. Her main argument is shaped so as to undermine the idea of an innate module, that would code our moral attitudes :" Complexity in genes-brain-behavior interactions notwithstanding, the idea that morality is basically innate remain irresistible" (p.109).

Unfortunately, this is not the core of the methodologies she is trying to disprove. There is an important point made experimentally by Hauser, to the effect that most of our moral judgements, those that are really robust, are generally uttered without any capacity to justify them. It means that unless we have strong moral intuitions, we just don't know why we do have the moral judgements we have. Hence the strength of moral relativism. Churchland seems to be content with simply brushing aside moral psychology. She is founding her rebuttal on the arguments used clasically by evolutionary biologists: evolutionary psychologists would provide us with narratives where facts (anchored in neurobiology and molecular biology) are needed.

I have some doubts concerning the author's position in the chapter 5, especially when it comes to criticizing evolutionary ethics. For, as long as one does leave the question of moral judgments and moral intuitions untouched, one's claim about having said anything substantial about morality is empty.

The blank between our strong moral intuitions and our unfounded moral judgments should not be filled with stories about oxytocin: other kinds of explanation (psychological, anthropological, and, more generally, cognitive) are needed. Churchland's dismissal of any approach that does not rely on the kind of hard facts favored by neuroscientists is simply flawed.

Criticisms of theories making a link between our theory of mind (the theory which allows us to understand other's minds), on the one hand, and mirror neurons on the other hand, are much more convincing : as the author puts it blankly," so far as the data are concerned, such multimodal neurons (responding to both seeing and doing) are probably just... well, just multimodal neurons." (p.138). This is done in chapter 6.

Churchland is making a good philosophical point in the third part of her book (chapter 7). According to her, moral beings are not moral because they would have a cognitive access to a super-rule, like the Kantian criterion. Moral beings make the difference between moral rules and simple conventions, because they are equipped for that. It is a matter of skills.

The book is ending (chapter 8) with some considerations about two popular conceptions of morality. According to the first, morality is what an inner voice says. According to the second, morality is what gods or God say. She's disproving both.

I will conclude by saying that, if you don't know a lot about neurosciences, you will learn a good deal by reading this book. If your knowledge of moral philosophy is low, the book will shed some light on your opinions.

 Generally, this book will convince you that a lot of things that seem to have to do with morality (like being able of empathy, being trustworthy...) are understandable from the standpoint of neuroscience. The main flaw is that the author nowhere explains convincingly why those things should have something to do with morality, that is, the capacity to adopt attitudes and stances (typically expressed in judgments) toward behaviors, to the effect that they are good or bad behaviors. Brain structures are not enough.

 

© 2011 Christophe Al-Saleh

 

Christophe Al-Saleh, Lecturer (Amiens, France). http://christophealsaleh.blogspot.com


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