Churchland, Patricia. Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition

Churchland, Patricia. Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2019. Pp. 194. ISBN: 978-1-324-00089-1.

Debates about the nature of morality have a long and contentious history. For instance, Plato advocated idealized forms of morality, while his student, Aristotle called for the cultivating of virtues with an emphasis on justice. David Hume, Adam Smith and Charles Darwin noted the importance of our moral sentiments, while Immanuel Kant sought to deduce moral rules from reason alone. Contemporary philosophers and psychologists extend these debates and arrive at contrasting interpretations.

In her latest book, Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition, philosopher Patricia Churchland draws on current research on the mammalian brain to bring fresh air to the morality conversation. She defines conscience as “an individual’s judgment about what is morally right or wrong” (p. 5). She says that it is not simply a cognitive enterprise but includes feelings that influence our decisions, as well as judgement that frames our action. This suggests that conscience is not only ‘Darwin’s inner voice’ but includes, at times, a feeling of apprehension or agitation. With this definition of conscience in hand, Churchland provides an excellent account of the nature of morality in human societies.

Philosophers and scientists are also divided on the concept of human nature. They are at odds as to whether there is such a thing as human nature or whether the idea may be detrimental to our thoughts and behaviours. Human-nature sceptics such as Gillian Brown, Kevin Laland and Kim Sterelny claim that the idea of human nature has been discredited, contributes little to our understanding of human behaviour, and is both misleading and damaging.

In contrast, Churchland convincingly argues that humans are naturally social. Our brains are wired to feel pleasure when we are with certain others and it pains us when we are separated. She cites scientific studies to support her claim that the feelings of pain and pleasure that were evolutionarily beneficial for self-survival was a stepping-stone for affiliative behaviour. She writes, “the neural wiring for attachment and bonding provides the motivational and emotional platform for sociality, which enables a scaffolding of social practices, moral inhibitions and norms” (pp. 67–68). Without a motivation to bond and care about the well-being of kin and friends, moral responsibility would not have got off the ground. A key feature of our nature is that we bond together in our social world and we care deeply about how those close to us are getting on.

While Churchland says that we have a moral platform with strong inclinations to “tend and befriend” she also acknowledges that our motivation to care for others can, at times, lead us adrift. Therefore, social intelligence depends on both subcortical structures that play a vital role in valuation and the cortical functions of reasoning. Here again, Churchland is at odds with other influential thinkers on morality such as Jonathan Haidt who argues that there are moral truths discoverable through a process more akin to perception, in which one just sees, without argument, that they are and must be true. In Haidt’s model, one feels an immediate emotional reaction such as revulsion and then knows intuitively that something is wrong. In contrast, Churchland demonstrates why moral certitude is no friend of intelligent moral inquiry.

If moral knowledge does not come from our moral intuitions as Haidt suggests, then where does it come from? Historically, the dominant approach was to appeal to a divine being but Churchland shows the problems with this type of theorizing. Some secular philosophers, such as Thomas Nagel, claim that there are domains of truths discernible by reason. According to Nagel, there are objective ‘moral truths’ that are independent of our biology and they can be grasped by rational human beings. In this Kantian approach, we must set aside our natural inclinations to care about others and use pure reason to deliver ‘true moral’ claims. Churchland demonstrates how the Kantian approach, “stumbles coming out of the gate” and that morality cannot materialize from pure reason alone. For Churchland, the Kantian approach is no more rational than the evangelists or jihadists who preach a particular true moral claim. 

In short, Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition is an excellent book by a terrific philosopher. We need more books on the importance of taking a biological approach to human morality and this book, just like previous books by Churchland, does not disappoint. 

Glenn Barenthin
Trinity College, University of Toronto


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