Patricia Churchland and Sam Harris offer two accounts of how neuroscience informs questions of morality.
For Churchland, “what we call morality” is “a four dimensional scheme for social behavior that is shaped by [four] interlocking brain processes”—caring, theory of mind, social problem solving, and learning social practices. Since these brain processes are best studied by neuroscience, neuroscience examines, as it were, our moral “nature.” It examines both the origins of moral values and the constraints on moral decision making, and as such it is mainly descriptive. In other words, neuroscience studies the natural basis of moral values in the neurobiology of what it means to be a moral agent—in other words, it studies “the human capacity for learning and social problem solving” as “constrained by the basic social urges,” which taken together forms the basis of “what we commonly think of as social values.” As Churchland describes it, the role for neuroscience in the study of morality is therefore “modest.” Neuroscience, as currently developed, can only study the biological and evolutionary basis of making moral judgments. It can study, following Aristotle and Hume, the biological constitution of the moral agent. But it does not decide the truth or falsity of moral claims, meaning for Churchland, neuroscience is not prescriptive; it does not arbitrate among moral norms. Instead it only provides a naturalistic account of human morality in the a biological investigation of what makes us moral beings, and while this account “gives substance to the process of figuring out what to do,” it doesn’t prescribe what to do per se. That prescription must come from a separate, non-neuroscientific evaluation of values.
Harris offers quite a different take on the role of neuroscience for morality. For Harris, since moral questions reduce to questions of the well-being of conscious creatures, and since human well-being “entirely depends on events in the world and on states of the brain,” neuroscience can in principle study the states of brain and world and that determine “right and wrong answers to moral questions,” just as a physicist can determine “right and wrong answers to questions of physics.” In this respect (and unlike for Churchland), neuroscience doesn’t merely investigate the natural origins of social values and constraints on decisions we make regarding these values. Instead “the maturing sciences of the mind” directly answer moral questions, i.e. they answer questions of right and wrong or good and bad, and they do so because “right” and “wrong” as good and bad “lawfully relate to states of the human brain, to behavior, and to states of the world.” So long as these states of well-being—the only province of moral claims—depend on lawful relations between the brain and the world, neuroscience can arbitrate moral norms, in that it can measure or otherwise determine, as it were, which norms do or do not lead to well-being, or which ones otherwise reflect its greater sense. In this way, neuroscience for Harris is much more ambitious than for Churchland. Neuroscience doesn’t just examine the biological origins of values and the constraints on moral decision making in that biology. Instead neuroscience can determine human values directly, in that it can determine what is or is not “well-being,” or otherwise determine degrees of well-being. As Harris book is subtitled, science—and neuroscience in particular—determines human values, not just investigates their natural origins. For him, neuroscience is ultimately as prescriptive as it is descriptive. It determines what is or is not a valid value by tracing that value to lawfully determinable states of the brain, to lawfully deteminable states of well-being.
These two projects could not be more different. The first is investigative. It uses the converging tools of evolutionary biology and neuroscience in order to examine the natural origins of human values, ultimately with an eye to informing us what to expect and do in moral dilemmas invoking these values, without directly determining what to do. The second is equally descriptive and prescriptive. It more or less ignores evolutionary biology and uses neuroscience instead to determine directly which values we ought to hold, and as such, which ones we ought (or not) to act on. So long as these values reflect measureable well-being—well-being lawfully determined by states of the brain and measured by neuroscience—we ought to act (or not) on them. So both projects invoke neuroscience in the study of morality, but in entirely different ways.
Harris has since backed off of the importance of neuroscience for the foundations of morality (second podcast with David Deutsch), and Churchland has noted that Harris fails to provide even one account of where neuroscience determines a value, i.e. where it measures well-being, the only source of values (her podcast with PEL). What about that? How does Harris back off the primacy of neuroscience for determining human values, and in so far as he does, how does that backing off affect his overall project? Is Harris’ role for neuroscience possible in principle, as he still suggests it is, or is Churchland’s more modest approach the best we can expect? Are there examples of neuroscience measuring well-being that Harris could cite as determining values, and more generally, does neuroscience offer a scientific foundation for morality at all, a foundation grounded in measurable well being, as Harris thinks it does (even he no longer bases his argument for that foundation on neuroscience per se)? What say you forum? What of neuroscience as either the foundation for or the informing of morality? What nuances does Harris’ position still hold, as opposed to the limits of Churchland’s?
Harris seems to be trying to maintain structural dignity to his house of cards. After all, his apparent motive for earning a Ph.D. was to support his opinions about politics and religion. Maybe now he’s trying to avoid a collapse of his reputation strong enough to affect his resulting livelihood.
It’s encouraging to hear that he’s backed off on the importance of neuroscience for the foundations of morality, however. Maybe there’s hope for him yet.
Is our moral nature best described by neuroscience?
It seems to me that ALL complex issues are best investigated and described by many different fields of study. It is possible that expertise in one field can narrow one’s view if there is no acknowledgement of a particular field’s limitations.
It is my view that “what we call morality” requires varied expertise – biological sciences (e.g. neuroscience), sociologists, anthropologists, historians, philosophers, etc. Over-simplification or a narrow focus could lead to incomplete or misleading conclusions. A failure to see the ‘big picture’.
Harris oversold it, there is no neuroscience of morality.