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"How your brain invents morality"
Posted by: Ted King
Date: July 09, 2019 11:19PM
"Neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland explains her theory of how we evolved a conscience."

[www.vox.com]

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In her new book, Conscience, Churchland argues that mammals — humans, yes, but also monkeys and rodents and so on — feel moral intuitions because of how our brains developed over the course of evolution. Mothers came to feel deeply attached to their children because that helped the children (and through them, the mother’s genes) survive. This ability to feel attachment was gradually generalized to mates, kin, and friends. “Attachment begets caring,” Churchland writes, “and caring begets conscience.”

Conscience, to her, is not a set of absolute moral truths, but a set of community norms that evolved because they were useful. “Tell the truth” and “keep your promises,” for example, help a social group stick together. Even today, our brains reinforce these norms by releasing pleasurable chemicals when our actions generate social approval (hello, dopamine!) and unpleasurable ones when they generate disapproval.

This is a great deep dive into the intersection of neurobiology and philosophical ethics. Except it is essentially a rejection of philosophical ethics. The role of morality in our thinking is replaced by the notion of "conscience" - and conscience has deep, deep roots in how our genetics play out in our environment.

This approach leads us to the schism between that which is the case and that which ought to be the case. You can see it in this question and answer:

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Sigal Samuel

It sounds like you don’t think your biological perspective on morals should make us look askance at them — they remain admirable regardless of their origins. How do you think your biological perspective should change the way we think about morality?

Patricia Churchland

It might make us slightly more humble, more willing to listen to another side, less arrogant, less willing to think that only our particular system of doing social business is worthy.

If we don’t imagine that there is this Platonic heaven of moral truths that a few people are privileged to access, but instead that it’s a pragmatic business — figuring out how best to organize ourselves into social groups — I think maybe that’s an improvement.

Basically, she is saying there is no objective "moral ought", there is just better ways to organize ourselves into social groups - which she doesn't say here, but is apparently due to our biological predispositions. But then she says, "I think maybe that’s an improvement." There's some ambiguity there. Does she mean improvement with respect to her individual values or an improvement with respect to some way things just ought to be?

Maybe she goes over that more in her book. I am seriously thinking of getting it and reading it. There seems to be a lot of provocative thoughts in it but I think I'm also attracted to it because much of what she says in that interview was stated so articulately - and her underlying premises about the role of neurobiology in our decision-making sounds right to me. They seem to be well-grounded in empirical observation.
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Re: "How your brain invents morality"
Posted by: cbelt3
Date: July 10, 2019 10:52AM
Interesting perspective, and it follows my personal opinions about the evolutionary development of values/morality for we monkey type critters. Homo-whatevers didn't survive without immediate family care during infancy and childhood. And as the 'family unit' developed, tribal collectives began to develop as a way of cooperatively surviving. Megafauna can't be taken down by one hunter, but a tribe of them ?

The evolutionary pressures developed these neurochemical responses. I wonder if there has been more neurochemical evolution in certain tribes / populations after we entered the Holocene era.
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Re: "How your brain invents morality"
Posted by: Ted King
Date: July 10, 2019 12:17PM
Quote
cbelt3
Interesting perspective, and it follows my personal opinions about the evolutionary development of values/morality for we monkey type critters. Homo-whatevers didn't survive without immediate family care during infancy and childhood. And as the 'family unit' developed, tribal collectives began to develop as a way of cooperatively surviving. Megafauna can't be taken down by one hunter, but a tribe of them ?

The evolutionary pressures developed these neurochemical responses. I wonder if there has been more neurochemical evolution in certain tribes / populations after we entered the Holocene era.

That's a good question - how much interplay is there between the biological natural selection pressure on a population and the artificial selection pressure of competing social organizational structures? If a social system persists long enough could that lead to a biological evolutionary divergence caused by the persistence of that social system? If so, how does the mechanism of the interplay work?
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Re: "How your brain invents morality"
Posted by: Janit
Date: July 12, 2019 06:50AM
Quote
Ted King
Quote
cbelt3
Interesting perspective, and it follows my personal opinions about the evolutionary development of values/morality for we monkey type critters. Homo-whatevers didn't survive without immediate family care during infancy and childhood. And as the 'family unit' developed, tribal collectives began to develop as a way of cooperatively surviving. Megafauna can't be taken down by one hunter, but a tribe of them ?

The evolutionary pressures developed these neurochemical responses. I wonder if there has been more neurochemical evolution in certain tribes / populations after we entered the Holocene era.

That's a good question - how much interplay is there between the biological natural selection pressure on a population and the artificial selection pressure of competing social organizational structures? If a social system persists long enough could that lead to a biological evolutionary divergence caused by the persistence of that social system? If so, how does the mechanism of the interplay work?

This may be a good way to contextualize the persistence of two conflicting trait constellations -- the inclination to form cooperative social structures on the one hand, versus the inclination to take advantage of such structures without contributing to them. As "conscience" may have a selective value, so too can a certain level of "sociopathy."

This leads to a rather terrifying evolutionary view of human history as a possible series of oscillations in the ratio of conscience to sociopathy. As social conscience develops as an adaptive strategy, so too will sociopathy as a way to take advantage of it. If the level of sociopathy exceeds the cohesive force of conscience, a society will self destruct. Which traits will be enriched in the population that survives? -- enhanced inclination to cooperation? enhanced inclination to sociopathy? or both?

It is such a cycle of reduction and re-expansion in population size that provides the foundation of the evolutionary theory of "punctuated equilibrium."
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Re: "How your brain invents morality"
Posted by: Ted King
Date: July 14, 2019 12:55PM
Quote
Janit

This may be a good way to contextualize the persistence of two conflicting trait constellations -- the inclination to form cooperative social structures on the one hand, versus the inclination to take advantage of such structures without contributing to them. As "conscience" may have a selective value, so too can a certain level of "sociopathy."

This leads to a rather terrifying evolutionary view of human history as a possible series of oscillations in the ratio of conscience to sociopathy. As social conscience develops as an adaptive strategy, so too will sociopathy as a way to take advantage of it. If the level of sociopathy exceeds the cohesive force of conscience, a society will self destruct. Which traits will be enriched in the population that survives? -- enhanced inclination to cooperation? enhanced inclination to sociopathy? or both?

It is such a cycle of reduction and re-expansion in population size that provides the foundation of the evolutionary theory of "punctuated equilibrium."

Sorry for taking so long to respond. I read it right away and realized I needed to ponder on it awhile and then just let myself get swept away in more current postings. But the ponderous wheels in my head have been turning this over.

As I was reading about this theory of the evolution of "conscience" it struck me that she says - and I think it's true - that conscience most clearly manifests itself between parent and child and close family relationships. But with humans, we have seemed to have extended the sense of conscience (caring) to larger and more distant groupings. The sense of conscience seems to be felt less strongly (for most of us anyway) as the groups we identify with become more remote from us as individuals, but it seems like under certain social conditions some larger and distant groups are able to deeply tap into this feeling of conscience; e.g., patriotism in large nations.

But large groups are almost surely more susceptible to the parasitic impulse of sociopathy that you mention. I agree with your statement, "If the level of sociopathy exceeds the cohesive force of conscience, a society will self destruct." What may presage the self destruction of a society is when you see a lot of grifters pretending to be one with the conscience oriented people so that they can take advantage for their own gain. Wolves in sheep's clothing.

As to which might prevail after self destruction of a society, I think that is contingent on a lot of things. And I wonder about the role of our ability to manipulate our environment may be significantly changing the how we tend to vacillate between dominance of conscience and dominance of sociopathy. Certainly, we could very well extinct ourselves with our ability to manipulate the environment, but it seems conceivable that technological change may create conditions where there is gradual evolution rather than punctuated (degrees of each actually, not all or nothing).



Edited 3 time(s). Last edit at 07/14/2019 08:05PM by Ted King.
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