What does the physiology of the brain have to do with ethics? We were contacted by Pat Churchland’s publisher and invited to speak with her about her new book Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality.
She was good enough to chat with us (Mark and Dylan) for a full, regular length show yesterday, and not only about her own book, but also about one of her major influences, David Hume, who pioneered a “naturalistic” approach to ethics: we look not for normative laws to provide commands for our behavior, but at the moral sense we already have, and how this plays as a practical matter into the challenges we face in making laws, deciding on punishments, and just getting along in a society.
Churchland’s addition to this project is reporting on and synthesizing the broad swath of current scientific findings on what exactly this moral sense is: how is it realized in the brain and our endocrine system? What mental operations make moral assessments and rule-following possible? Much of her book is taken up with reporting on animal physiology and behavior, so we can see where on the evolutionary path we picked up the abilities to expand the circle of self-regard to include kin and associates, to represent others’ intentions and beliefs to predict their behavior, and to understand and follow social norms.
To read along with us, pick up Churchland’s book.
For a further preview (as it’ll be a couple of weeks before I have the episode edited for your listening pleasure), here’s a lecture she gave in 2010 at the University of Edinburgh (iTunes link). You might know her from her earlier work in the philosophy of mind (we tangentially discussed her husband Paul’s Matter and Consciousness
Re. Hume (who we covered re. knowledge on a previous episode), you can read his Treatise on Human Nature (1739), Book III, Part I and his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), Section V, Parts I and II.