Misguided ideas in applied ethics: the neurophilosophy of moral intuitions

Patricia Churchland is one of the most famous and controversial contemporary philosophers. She and her husband, Paul Churchland, have for decades now being pushing a notion in philosophy of mind known as “eliminativism.” Eliminativists claim that people’s common-sense understanding of the mind (to which they refer to as “folk psychology”) is false, and that moreover certain classes of mental states that most people believe in do not, in fact, exist. (Here is an in-depth treatment of the concept.)

Eliminativists’ favorite analogy is with the shift from the geocentric to the heliocentric models in astronomy: in ancient times, people took the appearance that the Sun and the other celestial objects were rotating around the Earth at face value, but Science (note the capital “S”) dismantled that primitive notion and gave us the modern understanding of the world.

While the analogy seems compelling at first sight — and setting aside that analogical arguments are pretty weak arguments in general — it actually reveals the limitations of eliminativism itself. To begin with, we now know that the Copernican model of the solar system is in turn incorrect. General relativity very clearly tells us that there is no privileged frame of reference in the universe, so the notion that either the Earth or the Sun is at the center of anything is misguided. More to the point, people still talk about “sunrise” and “sunset,” and they do so not because they are ignorant of advances in basic astronomy, but because it is convenient, for everyday purposes, to talk that way. Language, and in fact science itself (which is, in a sense, a particular type of language) tend to adopt the most useful levels of description for any given phenomenon, regardless of what reality is like at its “fundamental” bottom. So when the Churchlands were hoping, early on, that talk of “folk concepts” such as pain would eventually be replaced by scientifically more accurate descriptions, like “my c-fibers fired,” they were somewhat naive. 

(And that’s without getting into the more complex issue that, although the firing of c-fibers is part of the causal web that generates the subjective sensation of pain, the two are not interchangeable, as we still lack a decent scientific description of subjective, first-person experiences. And no, I’m not going David Chalmers on you.)

Keeping all of the above as a way of introductory background, Patricia Churchland recently published another controversial book along the same lines, Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition (W.W. Norton, 2019, see a critical review of it in the New York Times, by Olivia Goldhill.). Churchland, who is credited as one of the founders of the (problematic, see here) field of neurophilosophy, sets out to explore how moral systems arise from our physical selves in combination with environmental demands. So far, so good. She then goes on to look at what biology and developmental psychology can tell us about how we develop bonds with others and learn to care and cooperate. Still good. Things get a bit more tricky when Churchland delves into research on twins in order to understand how people develop not a general sense of right and wrong, but specific moral attitudes. I say this is tricky because there is a lot of very substantive criticism of the common use of twin studies and of the concept of heritability in humans, as highlighted, for instance, by my colleague Jonathan Kaplan.

Churchland approvingly cites a quip by Nobel winner Francis Crick (co-discoverer of the structure of DNA) to the effect that “surely philosophers must know about biological evolution” (p. 48) implying that they actually don’t. This sort of scientistic attitude permeates Churchland’s own work, and is not helpful to foster what we need: a collaboration between philosophers and scientists to understand the phenomenon of morality. Such understanding hinges on two components that are too often taken to be either entirely independent (by many philosophers) or completely subsumed one into the other (by certain scientists), while they are in fact interacting, with one constraining and informing, but not determining, the other: descriptive and prescriptive morality.

Descriptively, morality can be proficiently studied by evolutionary biologists (why did some social primates evolve a sense of right and wrong?), by developmental psychologists (how do human babies develop pro-social behaviors?), and by sociologists and cultural anthropologists (how is it that different societies have developed somewhat different moral norms?), among others. 

Prescriptively, it is up to philosophers to articulate how to move from what it is to what ought to be, as David Hume famously put it, since the latter is not automatically generated by the former. Some philosophers argue that one simply cannot, in principle, bridge the is-ought gap, as they refer to it, positing some sort of moral realism analogous to mathematical Platonism. I don’t buy that. Other philosophers attempt to ground ethics into human nature, including both biological and cultural aspects of it. All virtue ethics, with its underlying notion that we should “live according to nature” falls into this category. I do buy into that, which is a major reason why I am a practicing Stoic.

I hope I am not being uncharitable to Churchland, but she seems to argue that morality is pretty much entirely reducible to the facts of biology (and culture, but seen as an epiphenomenon of biology), with little or no room for prescriptive philosophy. She argues, for instance, that morality probably began with food, and particularly with mammalian parents sharing their food with their offspring. It also helps if the mother can count on a partner to help to defend the offspring, and perhaps to procure food, from which simple basis all social relationships eventually evolved.

This is intriguing, and there certainly is some evidence to connect fundamental aspects of biological evolution to the emergence of morality (see, for instance, this). But one needs to be very careful in weaving this sort of just-so story for which evolutionary psychology is so deservedly notorious (see here, ch. 7). Much of the empirical evidence is indirect, and multiple scenarios for the emergence of social bonds, and even more so for the onset of cultural evolution, can easily be concocted (see this fascinating book by Kevin Laland).

As Goldhill points out in her NYT review, however, the really problematic part of Churchland’s project comes where she argues — in standard eliminativist fashion — that neuroscience should replace ethics. Something like this has been proposed before, for instance in the entirely wrongheaded The Moral Landscape, by Sam Harris. To accomplish her goal, Churchland quickly dismisses modern ethical frameworks like utilitarianism and Kantian deontology (they are “a bit trashed,” p. 163), and doesn’t take seriously the third major alternative available to modern philosophers, the above mentioned virtue ethics.

Churchland articulates a preliminary version of her fundamental thesis in the following fashion: “Morality is the set of shared attitudes and practices that regulate individual behavior to facilitate cohesion and well-being among individuals in the group” (p. 169).

Well, that may be how morality got started, but it is most definitely insufficient for an understanding of the current phenomenon. Most obviously, for instance, xenophobic behavior — which I wager even Churchland thinks is unethical — would be perfectly fine under the definition she proposes, since it does, arguably, facilitate cohesion and well-being within a given group. At the expense of any other group, obviously.

It is also very unclear what exactly counts as a “group” here. For most of human history our ancestors lived in small bands of a few dozen genetically related individuals. Those groups pretty much do not exist anymore, and much of human history in the past several millennia has been characterized by “groups” that varied in size from tens of thousands (Ancient Greek city-states) to several millions (e.g., the Roman Empire, modern nations). (Incidentally, on the issue of applying what is known as group selection theory in biology to the study of ancient history, see this exchange I’ve recently had with my colleague David Sloan Wilson.) An eliminativist account of morality along the lines of Churchland’s leaves a lot of the phenomenon itself unexplained. And it won’t do to play the “illusion” card: the issue is to account for cultural phenomena, not to claim they do not exist.

The reason I’m writing about this on a site that is devoted to practical philosophy is that the sort of speculations that Churchland puts forth have potential consequences in the real world, and nasty ones at that. It is unconscionable to propose an account of morality that essentially tells us that our gut intuitions about how to behave are just fine, because they are the result of a long process of natural selection. Our guts are made to digest food, not to think on our behalf. And the modern world is far too complex and different from our ancestral environments for the latter to provide an effective guide to us dwellers of the 21st century. 

Even if morality evolved in small groups of primates to foster intra-group cooperation in the service of survival and reproduction, that helps us very little — and indeed may be fatal — in a world where we face global climate collapse, the possibility of nuclear war, astounding levels of discrimination and inequality, racism, sexism, and xenophobia. Contra the underlying message of eliminativism, we very much need our “folk” concepts of right and wrong, and we very much need people — moral philosophers — who have spent a lot of time thinking about such concepts and can help facilitate a society-wide discussion about where we want to go next.

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