Character study: the shock of the old

Another little round of articles on whether science can do morality, partly prompted by Patricia S. Churchland’s Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality. For example, Christopher Shea has a very good article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, I thought.

Churchland’s central conviction – to put it crudely – is that philosophy must be neurophilosophy, on the assumption that the brain is the key player, and so morality must also be heavily biological, with oxytocin playing a key role. That struck me as a bit like saying art must be quantum art, because say molecules of paint are the key players, and so quantum physics should have a major say in aesthetics.

Another problem with the biology of morality comes out when Shea gets Churchland to turn to her opponents. He writes:

The Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, for example, gets a quick drubbing in Braintrust. Singer has argued that Westerners should reduce their standard of living substantially to support the developing world. His philosophy is “much more demanding, and much more meddlesome, than the morally moderate, such as I, find reasonable,” Churchland writes. “The urgings of the ardent utilitarian sometimes alarm me the way intrusive do-gooders can be alarming, not least because of infringements on liberty and the conflict with paradigmatically good sense.”

But isn’t she, right there, sneaking in some moral principles that have nothing to do with oxytocin, namely the primacy of liberty over equality?

I notice that virtue ethics gets a mention in Braintrust. My sense is that all the interest in the supposed biology of morality is not leading to the discovery of a new way of doing morality, though advocates claim as much. Rather, it’s leading to a recovery of an old way of doing morality, as developed my Aristotle, Aquinas and so on, namely virtue ethics.

Because of this lineage, it’s often with Catholic writers that virtue ethics finds a haven today, most obviously with Alasdair MacIntyre. So it’s not surprising that Catholic writers are spotting the link between the new biology and the old ethics too. Hence, in his Tablet column this week, Clifford Longley, writes:

… the scepticism of (Sam) Harris and other brain scientists about free will is justified. We do not make entirely free choices; we go around, usually, acting in character. Brain science does not say so – that would be too much to ask – but the role of reason is either through checking our impulses if there is time to do so, or by reflecting rationally on them after the event, in order to decide whether they were true to our values or not. That is conscience.

This seems like very old wisdom: one can almost hear the voice of the psalmist. To become virtuous, learn the habit of acting virtuously; then your instinctive or impulsive actions will be in step with your virtuous character, and will be moral. In the words of the King James Version (Psalms 1:1-2): ‘Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of scornful. But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.’

To me, that does seem about right.

(Image: Allegory of Prudence, by Girolamo Macchietti)