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If morality originates in the “warm fuzzies” network in the brain, is it more significant than a headache?

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At Best Schools, a look at Patricia Churchland’s eliminative morality:

In her view, all your moral values and conundrums

… are rooted in a behavior common to all mammals–the caring for offspring. The evolved structure, processes, and chemistry of the brain incline humans to strive not only for self-preservation but for the well-being of allied selves — first offspring, then mates, kin, and so on, in wider and wider “caring” circles.


Set aside that this is yet another Single Big Idea that explains everything. How does she know that our moral sense derives from caring for offspring? She doesn’t, exactly. But that’s something that many animals do, as well as people, and she thinks she can link it to a network in the brain. She has a reason for that. She makes absolutely clear, throughout the book, that people are equivalent to animals and that animals think the same way as we do, barring a few IQ points. Indeed, we are told, “Because many species of birds and mammal display good examples of problem-solving and planning, this claim about rationality looks narrow and under-informed.”

Let’s pause to ask here, what exactly is she saying? Many animals can, in a limited way, solve problems and plan, but they hit a pretty low ceiling quickly. And the reason is evidently lack of rationality.

A sick cat avoids the cat carrier with spooky strength and ingenuity. She can’t know that the vet’s treatments will help her. Note, I said “can’t know.” “Doesn’t know” is the usual way we put it. But the matter is deeper; Her reasoning powers do not reach that far. As is a cat’s way, she hides when she feels sick, and cannot ask herself why, let alone consider alternatives.

Are chimpanzees more intelligent than cats? In some senses, certainly. And they go on from one generation to the next unable to frame questions like “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, “Why do the wicked prosper?”, or “How shall we then live?” These are the types of questions from which morality is constructed.



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