Pat Churchland on the science of morality

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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12 responses to “Pat Churchland on the science of morality

  1. I enjoy reading material dealing with morality. I will consider your recommendation of the book, as Harris’s book was right-up my alley.

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  2. “At the same time she is not adopting a purely relativist approach.”

    http://thesciencenetwork.org/programs/ethics-and-the-brain/how-the-mind-makes-morals

    Then go to minute 49 to find out if Pat is adopting a relativist approach.
    Please no more running relativist up the flag pole!
    As far as I know this is her comming our or the coloset as a relativist.
    I approve. I wish she was less an arm chair philosopher and more of a chemist. We live in a stochastic world but tell just so stories.
    I found this site be searching for relativism and churchland. I was wondering if she had been run up the flag pole yet. I don’t think there is another science topic that the public widely understands yet the science community so vehemently denies.

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  3. Truc, you will have to explain yourself better. Perhaps provide some evidence and explanatory examples.

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  4. Sam Harris and perhaps Open Parachute think of relativism or perhaps moral relativism as a pejorative which is the majority position in academia. The quote at the begining of my last post was your second sentence after your bold number two. Pat is taking a relativist approach. Pat is a moral relativist. She declares this in the link I provided.

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  5. truc – as I said I don’t believe Pat takes a naive relativist approach that you suggest. Far from it.

    If you have read some of my aricles here I have argued against “objective morality” and naive “moral relativism.” I have argued for an objectively-based morality. Our moral decisions are based on the objective facts of situations and the objective facts of human 9intituions and nature.

    I believe Pat’s approach is similar. Just read the book.

    She says, for example:

    “Naturalism, while shunning stupid inferences, does nevertheless find the roots of morality in how we are, what we care about, and what matters to us—in our nature. Neither supernaturalism (the otherworldly gods), nor some rarefied, unrealistic concept of reason, explains the moral motherboard.”

    Have a look at my article More on the science of morality (http://openparachute.wordpress.com/2011/04/18/more-on-the-science-of-morality/) where I deal specifically with Pat’s attitude t5o the is-ought myth. As she says:

    “In a much broader sense of “infer” than derive you can infer (figure out) what you ought to do, drawing on knowledge, perception, emotions, and understanding, and balancing considerations against each other. We do it constantly, in both the physical and social worlds. . . . What gets us around the world is mainly not logical deduction (derivation). . . . In any case, that most problem-solving is not deduction is clear.”

    So tuc, I prefer to believe the evidence of my eyes and reading in determining Pat’s position. You have done nothing to substantiate your claim.

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  6. Ken says ” I prefer to believe the evidence of my eyes and reading in determining Pat’s position. You have done nothing to substantiate your claim.” I’m sorry Ken, but where are your comments about what your eyes and ears tell you from the link I refered to. Need I type out a transcript for you? First you mention “purely relativist” then you change to naive moral relativism and I am sure you can make a case against any type of relativism and most academics do. You have failed to make a comment about the relativism that came from Pat’s mouth in the link that I refered to. In case you think she just made a mistake she made the same point the followiing week in New York City. Go to http://thesciencenetwork.org/programs/pat-churchland-s-braintrust/brain-trust-a-public-conversation-about-morality-and-the-brain and then skip to minute 41 to hear her say the r work again.
    I have read all of Patricia Churchland’s books. She and Paul Feyerabend were known for making the point that if you are talking about philosophy and psychlogy without mentioning the brain you may be telling just so stories. Paul made his comments in 1963 but was still alive long after Pat’s Neurophilosopy was published in 1986. I never understood why she didn’t refer to his work as along with Pat’s husband Paul Churchand they are known as the pioneers of eliminative materialism. I would have to search but I vaguely remember Pat saying somewhere that Feyerabend went too far. By going too far I always thought that she was refering to his relativism. Now she uses the r word. Life is interesting. Don’t give me another thought and get back to giving the Christians hell. If you get tired of that you could focus on atheists who use the r word.

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  7. Truc, I still have no idea what you are talking about. And yes, the transcript idea is good. Obviously not the full transcript but quote the relevant sentences as I have done (and you refuse to comment on).

    I am not going to search through a video I have already watched attempting to second guess you. I really don’t have the time & often not the technology.

    If you can quote Pat to illustrate your point we can the discuss it.

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  8. “How the Mind Make Morals”
    Starting near minute 49.
    Questioner- Thank you very much for a fascinating talk. I too don’t understand Kant. I’m a virtue ethicist. So I have a question about the normative implications of this. It seems like how did this evolutionary backgroud and the neuroarchitecture that was the result of it. It’s a necessary condition for it but not necessarilly a sufficient condition. I’m wondering given the importance of culture do we get something like cultural relativism? Or do we get something that’s more teleological? Not necesarily the Aristotelian good but more the Machatellian sense of finding goals. ?
    Pat- Yeah I mean the problem of naturalism, nay you can’t be a relativist. One thing is as good as anything else, chopping up babies for stew.. I have a real problem with that. Laughter. Something like relativism has to be the case even though to a first approximation the platform must be shared. Jesse Prinz is much more sophisticated on the subject of relativism. In his last book there’s a beautiful chapter on relativism. I was thinking about relativism and having to have a set of rules. Think of all those people in Asia who don’t have a montheistic deity. In fact they don’t have a personal god at all in Buddhism, Confusianism or Taoism. By and large they vernerate ancestors. They set up shrines for the purpose of verneration and so forth. In some cases the worship the sun and stars and in some conditions the look to Buddhism to give them certain information but it’s not
    looking to a set of rules. It’s looking to comments to see what’s wise or honorable. And then under other conditions..well it sounds like relativism to me! Under other conditions they go to Confusius to see what he has to say. It looks a little different.. they make up their minds. Are these people running amuck? Are they sort of moral cretins? No! I don’t think you need this idea of moral absolutes, mind rules and so forth inorder for us the have exemplory culture or people and so forth. So I’m not afraid of relativism. I think it’s all over the place and by and large we live very well. And so the philosophers used to, you know they could just hound you off the stage by hoisting up the flag of relativism! Off with you! It’s nonsense! The anthropologists have been on top of this all along.

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  9. OK, truc, you have some quotes and I guess the ones you see as relevant are: “So I’m not afraid of relativism.” And ” the philosophers used to, you know they could just hound you off the stage by hoisting up the flag of relativism! Off with you! It’s nonsense! ”

    Not much to go on – no real description of her position on the real basis of human morality. One has to look a little deeper than that otherwise you are stuck with putting your own, possibly naive, interpretation on it.

    There is a lot of naive talk about “objective morality” and “relative morality”. And it is generally very judgemental and misleading. Pat for instance is now being attacked by religious apologists as a supporter of infanticide because she described this practice by Inuits!

    Now go back a few comments to the quotes I gave from her book (this of course discusses human morality in more precise terms than the quote you have used).

    I repeat; “Naturalism, while shunning stupid inferences, does nevertheless find the roots of morality in how we are, what we care about, and what matters to us—in our nature. Neither supernaturalism (the otherworldly gods), nor some rarefied, unrealistic concept of reason, explains the moral motherboard.”

    And

    “In a much broader sense of “infer” than derive you can infer (figure out) what you ought to do, drawing on knowledge, perception, emotions, and understanding, and balancing considerations against each other. We do it constantly, in both the physical and social worlds. . . . What gets us around the world is mainly not logical deduction (derivation). . . . In any case, that most problem-solving is not deduction is clear.”

    Pat is clearly argueing against supernatural objective morality. But she is not advocating a naive moral relativism of the sort religious apologists claim.

    She is clearly arguing for what I have described ad an “objectively based” morality. Based in human nature and the facts of moral situations.

    She also opposes the whole idea that you can’t determine an “ought” from an “is” – another myth the religious apologist uses against the concept of objectively based morality.

    Do you not accept that Pat’s position is as described in her book – and a naive concept of “moral relativism” cannot describe that?

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  10. Do you need some special superpowers to understand this bullshit?

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  11. Ken naive relativism is a straw-man. Once again please discuss the kind of relativism that Pat does advocate. Please don’t pretend to deny it just because the religious folks (and most academics) will pounce on it. Will you allow them to dictate what is acceptable? Pat emailed me that she discusses relativism in “Braintrust”. I think she does but she surely doesn’t use the r word in the book. That is my point relativism is everywhere and understood by the general public but it is somehow deemed inappropriate for an upstanding educated person. Now in these videos she is coming out as a relativist. That is an historical moment for me. Perhaps now the general public will be able to understand the discussion by bypassing the fancy philosophical terms that just mean relativism is unacceptable common sense. In the Partially Examined Life podcast that you link to Pat says one of the best parts of her public presentations relating to the book are the questions at the end. She says the public is really interested in this subject and I would point out the question period is where she advocates for relativism in the video.
    Ken’s says “Now go back a few comments to the quotes I gave from her book (this of course discusses human morality in more precise terms than the quote you (Truc) have used).
    The book and the video part of which you had me transcribe for you and not the silly quotes you selected as probably important to me explain in detail what you think you should retell me. She and I think it describes relativism but you don’t? I suppose you think an appropriate deriving of an ought from an is would be- it is the case that women and minorities are not well represented in the upper levels of science, engineering and technology and this is as it ought to be.
    Ken says, “There is a lot of naive talk about “objective morality” and “relative morality”. And it is generally very judgmental and misleading. Pat for instance is now being attacked by religious apologists as a supporter of infanticide because she described this practice by Inuits!”
    You seem to be a prime example and guilty of this when it come to discussing relativism here and please don’t feel obligated to defend Pat from the religious folks she’s a capable women and doesn’t need a big strong man to defend her. As I recall she even declined to condemn the Inuit for their infanticide because she is a relativist and can see how they’re circumstances historically would lead them to deem it moral. My guess is that she doesn’t waste time lurking on their anti science blogs. Perhaps you missed it, in the transcript above she did defend herself from mainstream naturalistic philosophers who accuse her of approving chopping up babies for stew. She used humor and please see the humor in my comments.

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  12. Truc, I really can’t understand the reasons for this little judgmental rant against me. I am not interested in trying to put a vague label on Pat. Nor do I have an emotional reaction against such labels as relativist – except to point out how they tend to be used naively and without precision.

    What I am pointing out is that Pat does advance an objectively based concept of morality and I don’t think the term relativist is at all adequate for that. You seem to wish to avoid commenting on the examples I provided in the quotes from her book.

    In fact her description of the practice of infanticide by Inuits is an example of objectively based morality. Not just everybody doing their own thing because they feel like it which is the naive description.

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