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A few months ago there was a flurry of attention around Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape and lectures he gave around the time of its publication. A lot of it critical – but not all.

I thought the value of this book is that he did take on the problem of moral relativism in a way that religious moralists have been unable to. I think his contribution was valuable for that.

But, people seem to be ignoring a better book recently published on this subject. This is Patricia Churchland’s Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality. I highly recommend it as being very sensible and enlightening. it also will answer some of the questions readers might feel Sam Harris was unable to.

I have written before on this book and some of Churchland’s talks. However, I think a recent podcast will be very useful for those following this subject. It’s from The Partially Examined Life (Episode 41: Pat Churchland on the Neurobiology of Morality (Plus Hume’s Ethics)). The discussion is with  Mark and Dylan Casey who are relatively knowledgable on philosophy so Pat’s arguments are quite deep. However, even non-philosophers will get a lot from the discussion. It’s 1 hr 45 min long but you can  Download the podcast (96.1MB)

There are three points I wish to make on the content of the podcast:

1: Is consciousness over-rated?

Pat Churchland devoted little of her discussion to the unconscious, or subconscious, aspects of human morality. The conscious aspects are important to understanding social rules and lawmaking, and to understanding how humans set up moral societies. But at the day-to-day and personal level our instincts and intuitions are critical. We operate largely in the automatic mode.

I am sure Pat acknowledges the important role of the subconscious, it’s just that in this discussion it was not really covered.

2: What do we mean by “right” and “wrong”?

I would love Pat to delve into this aspect more deeply. She does divorce the concepts from any absolute or objective meaning, particularly a divine one. At the same time she is not adopting a purely relativist approach. I feel sure that she would accept that while morality is not objective, it does at least have a objecitve basis in the facts of situations and in human make up. Particularly in the human brain.

However, most people do feel there is something special about saying something is “right” or “wrong”. It feels absolute or objective. We are not just expressing an opinion.

Personally, I think this is part of our evolved moral intuitions. We have evolved to operate in an automatic mode – we just don’t have time to apply reasoning and logic to every moral situation we face. Consequently there needs to be some sort of emotional/intuitional feeling about our possible responses and decisions. We need to feel that we are doing the correct thing. That it is “right.” Or that something we find disagreeable or repugnant is “wrong.” Emotionally, not logically. Churchland does describe in her book how these intuitions can evolve naturally from the interests of living organisms.

So we have these strong feelings/emotions of “right” and “wrong.” So strong, and  partly because they are automatic, they can at times seem external. It is no accident that cartoons will often portray our conscience as a little being sitting on our shoulder and advising us. That is what it feels like.

So I can see why many people will argue that our concepts of right and wrong are objective, presented to us externally (and therein we get the leap of logic to divine beings and divine commands). But we can see the intuitions of “right” and “wrong” are really evolved. Not objective or absolute. And, capable of changing over time as society changes or more information is required. This is quite consistent with an objectively based morality.

3: Pat is really more helpful than Sam

I found Pat’s comments on Sam Harris’s book far more critical than I have heard from her in the past. They are friends so her criticisms are not a personal attack – they are the evaluation of a philosopher and neuroscientist. Consequently her criticisms are far more relevant than those made by theological critics. We all know what is driving them, and that is why their critiques usually have no value.

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