Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition

Patricia S Churchland

My review 2019-07-08

Philosopher-neuroscientist Patricia Churchland explores the basis for conscience and morality. She discusses both the evolutionary and mechanistic processes underlying our humanity. A nice read, with several important and sometimes provocative points delivered in a well-written text. Churchland begins with defining conscience as "knowledge of the community standards", and goes on to describe how such standards have been internalized in the human mind.

Science cannot tell us what is morally right, but it can probe why we are moral, and how that faculty is grounded in the biological reality of humans as social beings. The fact that humans are born helpless and require assistance by parents and others for many years is both a cause and effect of our hypersocial nature. Our cognitive flexibility presupposes a long learning period. We are clearly wired for cooperation in an extreme degree, and this requires norms and values. Fairness in sharing the results of collaboration is a basic human attitude.

Churchland criticizes the strong western tradition in moral philosophy of searching for strict universal rules as a basis for morality. As examples of such philosophy, she first dispatches of the religious attempt to build morality on the god(s); the Socratic dialogue Euthyphro invalidated that project. Next, she looks at the twin secular attempts at universal moral rules: Immanuel Kant, on the one hand, and the utilitarians, on the other, both attempting, in very different ways, to formulate a fundamental moral rule. One of her points (which reminds me of Isaiah Berlin's discussion about the plurality of values) is that moral choices must be viewed as acts of constraint satisfaction, where different values and considerations come into play depending on the circumstances, and that there is little reason to believe that a single principle could ever handle all possible situations. Social life is simply too complex. "... we can make sense of moral norms - not as things apart from our nature, as things foisted on our nature, but as practical solutions to common problems.