At Chronicle of Higher Education, Christopher Shea profiles Patricia Churchland, author of Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality (Princeton University Press), who explains “I would read contemporary ethicists and just feel very unsatisfied. It was like I couldn’t see how to tether any of it to the hard and fast. I couldn’t see how it had anything to do with evolutionary biology, which it has to do, and I couldn’t see how to attach it to the brain.” As an eliminative materialist (there really is no “you”), she is confident that evolutionary biology will help us understand morality. With what result?
The element of cultural relativism also remains somewhat mysterious in Churchland’s writings on morality. In some ways, her project dovetails with that of Sam Harris, the “New Atheist” (and neuroscience Ph.D.) who believes reason and neuroscience can replace woolly armchair philosophy and religion as guides to morality. But her defense of some practices of primitive tribes, including infanticide (in the context of scarcity) —as well the seizing of enemy women, in raids, to keep up the stock of mates— as “moral” within their own context, seems the opposite of his approach.I reminded Churchland, who has served on panels with Harris, that he likes to put academics on the spot by asking if they think such practices as the early 19th-century Hindu tradition of burning widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres was objectively wrong.
So did she think so? First, she got irritated: “I don’t know why you’re asking that.” But, yes, she finally said, she does think that practice objectively wrong. “But frankly I don’t know enough about their values, and why they have that tradition, and I’m betting that Sam doesn’t either.”
“The example I like to use,” she said, “rather than using an example from some other culture and just laughing at it, is the example from our own country, where it seems to me that the right to buy assault weapons really does not work for the well-being of most people. And I think that’s an objective matter.”
– “Rule Breaker: When it comes to morality, the philosopher Patricia Churchland refuses to stand on principle” (June 12, 2011)
Once she admitted that widow burning was “objectively wrong,” she destroyed her case. If materialism is true, there is no objective morality. Ever. So she didn’t break a rule (which would prove she is a cool person); she made a rule up out of thin air, grounded only in genuine revulsion or current political correctness. And the right to buy assault weapons is just a convenient PC evasion. That’s not even a matter of morality. There is no moral dispute about public safety (everyone wants it for themselves), the question is one of public policy: Which package of laws performs best in a given environment?
Churchland’s moment of materialist insight, by the way, was discovering the effects of oxytocin on prairie voles. Don’t you so much want to give such people a free hand in reforming everyone’s values?
Also: A review of her book, “Morality for Neurons,” at MercatorNet.
Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.
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