cover image Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition

Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition

Patricia Churchland. Norton, $27.95 (240p) ISBN 978-1-324-00089-1

In this fascinating work, Churchland (Touching a Nerve), a philosophy professor emerita at UC San Diego, argues that human conscience is neurobiological in origin, rather than stemming, as contemporary philosophers commonly maintain, from universal moral laws. She proposes a fusion between Hume’s theory that humans are “born with a predisposition to be socially sensitive” and her former colleague Francis Crick’s conviction that biological evolution ought to figure into any discussion of the origin of ethics. Churchland expresses her view in the simple formula, “Attachment begets caring; caring begets conscience,” theorizing that human neurobiology, in having a reward system that “internalizes social norms” via the “pleasure of social approval,” leads to a “brain construct” designated as the conscience. Accordingly, humans want to do what their consciences deem right because it enhances their bonds with others. The philosophical divide, as Churchland sees it, comes down to an argument between “wisdom seekers”—with whom she identifies—such as Aristotle, Hume, and the Dalai Lama, who see conscience and morality as intertwined with sociality, and “rule purveyors,” from Kant to the present, who search for universal moral laws that can govern all societies. This intellectually rigorous yet highly readable work is well worth the time of anyone interested in why humans feel and think as they do. (June)