The Holy Grail of Exceptionless-Rules

Name: Patricia Churchland
Demographics: born 1943 in Canada
Job: 1984 – present UCSD philosophy prof

The Chronicle of Higher Education” (job advertisement paper for college profs) did a fun review of Churchland’s book “Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality”. I am not read-up in this area, but I certainly liked what I read of Churchland’s philosophy in this review. Churchland is also in the Eliminative Materialist camp, just like me — no wonder I liked her views — confirmation bias at work! Below I offer bulleted notes and reflections from my reading of the article.

Traditional moral philosophy looks for rules

  • The search for the “exceptionless rules” has deformed modern moral philosophy.
  • “Sometimes there isn’t an answer in the moral domain, and sometimes we have to agree to disagree, and come together and arrive at a good solution about what we will live with.” 

Philosophy needs science:

  • Ethics must be tied to evolutionary biology  
  • Philosophers muss take account of neuroscience in their investigations of ethics
  • Hardware and software are intertwined to such an extent that all philosophy must be “neurophilosophy.” There is not other way.

Genes create chemicals to reward us for fulfilling their agenda: we call this “morality”:

  • Bonds of empathy lubricated by oxytocin expand to include, first, more distend kin and then other members of one’s in group.
  • The first thing to do is to emphasize our continuity with animals.  
  • Block a prairie vole’s oxytocin (the moral molecule), and they will mate with anything. Spray it in the nose of humans and they are more generous.

Morality is Problem-Solving

  • Morality turns out to be not a quest for overarching principles but rather a process and practice not very different from negotiating our way through day-to-day social life.   
  • Churchland believes that primates and even some birds have a moral sense, as she defines it, because they, too, are social problem-solvers.
  • Morality doesn’t become any different than deciding what kind of bridge to build across a river — it is a highly pragmatic view or morality.  
The ugly truth: morality is relative (but it doesn’t mean we can’t play well)
  • Institutional structures arise to enforce norms among strangers within culture, who can’t be expected to automatically trust each other. … These rules and institutions, crucially, will vary from place to place, and over time. “Some cultures accept infanticide for the disables or unwanted,” she writes, without judgment. “Others consider it morally abhorrent; some consider a mouthful of killed enemy’s flesh a requirement for courageous warrior, others consider it barbaric.”

Finally, a list of folks Churchland favors and disfavors:

Churchland likes the ideas of these folks:

  • Matt Ridley (science writer) Author: The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves.  
  • Paul Seabright (economist) Author: The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life
  • Owen Flanagan: Duke University
  • Aristotle: he felt that morality is not about rule-making but instead about the cultivation of moral sentiment through experience, training, and the following of role models.
  • David Hume: reason and the emotions cannot be disentangles  

Churchland speaks badly of the ideas of these folks:

  • Jeremy Bentham: “the greatest good for the greatest number”
  • Immanuel Kant: the categorical imperative
  • John Rawls: A Theory of Justice
  • Peter Singer: (Princeton, philosphy)
  • Jonathan Haidt: (Univesity of Virginia, psychologist) “foundations” of moral thought. a “just-so story”.

1 Comment

Filed under Philosophy & Religion

One response to “The Holy Grail of Exceptionless-Rules

  1. Earnest

    Great stuff, I would like to read more of her writings.

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