Morality for neurons

Can you build a system of moral behaviour on complete materialism? A famous neuroscientist gives it the old college try.
Denyse O'Leary | Apr 1 2011 | comment  

A perennial question is: what is morality? In Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality (Princeton University Press, 2011), neurophilosophy pioneer Patricia Churchland attempts to answer the question. 

There’s much to like about her book. She wisely brushes aside Sunday think-pieces about, for example, genes r’ us, citing the steady erosion of the idea that there is a “big-effect gene for this or that specific behavior.” So, goodbye, fat gene, gay gene, and liberal gene. And do let the door hit you on your way out. She also doesn’t have much time for the Bedrock of evolutionary psychology either:

… inferring what behavioral traits were selected for in human evolution cannot be solved by a vivid imagination about the ancestral condition plus selected evidence about cross-cultural similarity, evidence that can be explained in many different ways.

So what’s not to like about the book? Well, Churchland, University of California professor emeritus, is famously an eliminative materialist who believes that commonsense notions of the mind must be abandoned in favor of a purely brain-based approach because we are our neurons. 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.

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 difference. 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.” So, the fact that she and I both use the Sunday supplement for cat litter only means that she is a reasoning being, not that I can make sense of where her reasoning begins or leads. 

That said, hers is a truly wonderful book for illustrating what is wrong with eliminative materialism. She really believes it, and she has no idea what she sounds like. For example, addressing the fact that moms addicted to heroin neglect their infants, she refers to rhesus monkeys or ewes tricked by drugs into witlessly abandoning their offspring, acknowledging that, with humans, “there are complicating social factors.”

Yes, there are complicating social factors. Can we start with the fact that the addict is not a research animal, and that she procures and administers the drugs herself? The whole book is in this materialist key, which is why it ought to be read as a sort of epitaph for eliminative materialism. 

Discussing how trust supposedly evolved and devolved among humans and voles, Churchland writes, “in recent times, a stunning and tragic example of this breakdown in institutional trust occurred in the former Soviet Union under Stalin and thereafter”. 

So that’s all it was? A breakdown in institutional trust? Some people have called the forced starvation of millions ruder names. (I confess to an interest in the matter because the children of distant relatives froze to death on the unheated trains bound for Siberia.) And the obvious problem is that these institutions, intent on producing the New Soviet Man whatever it took, were completely worthy of “institutional trust”: Put simply, when they said mass murder, they meant mass murder. 

Churchland is partial to a theory that morality originates in the oxytocin-vasopressin network in mammals. One outcome is stunners like this: “The social life of humans, whether in hunter-gatherer villages, farming towns, or cities, seems to be even more complex than that of baboons or chimpanzees.”

Now, why in the world would that be? 

We never get a clear idea how Churchland think morality works, though we do get more than a glimpse of her politics. For example, she writes,

Allowing women to vote has, despite dire predictions of disaster, turned out reasonably well, whereas the laws allowing private citizens to own assault weapons in the United States has had quite a lot of deleterious consequences.

Well, it strikes me that the first question belongs to the moral category of justice: If women work and pay taxes, should they not also vote? But the second question is not, strictly speaking, a moral issue at all. Who should be allowed assault weapons is a matter of public policy, not morality, and different liberal democracies have come to different judgements in the matter. Eliminative materialism can render a person prone to that sort of confusion, because it offers no sturdy framework for morality to replace the one it would cast down. 

I enjoyed reading the book because Churchland is an able writer, but I learned nothing because there is actually nothing to learn. If one does not believe in any cosmic order, morality is simply whatever works. But works for what? Absent any transcendent values, it is impossible to conclude, as Churchland would have us do, that anything is wrong because it brings about a “bad result.” There is no bad result. There are just results, until, one by one, we drop off the ultimate cliff into nothingness. That’s where eliminative materialism drops off too, as any kind of guide to life. 

Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain 

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