The Kikonians

I thought the first couple of paragraphs of Joshua Rothman’s interview with Patricia Churchland were more interesting than anything in The Moral Landscape. That sounds very rude, but it’s not meant to – it’s just that TML was fundamentally uninteresting to me because it sidestepped everything that’s genuinely interesting about humans and morality. Churchland, on the other hand, zoomed right in on it.

 She starts by explaining what’s most clearly known about how morality works in the brain. We know, she argues, that human moral behavior is rooted in the brain’s “circuitry for caring”—ancient biological circuitry that we share with other mammals. (When wolves care about their offspring, what happens in their brains and bodies is remarkably similar to what happens in ours.) Most mammals care only about themselves and their children. In human beings, though, the circle of caring extends widely, even to strangers.

See? That is interesting, where just insisting “it’s about well-being” over and over isn’t.

I said the same thing a year ago, too. I said it while discussing the article based on the book that Harris published at the time. I said it’s about caring, and that he’d forgotten to spell that out. Inexplicably.

I got it from the Odyssey, and an interesting passage in which Odysseus and his crew invade an island and treat the inhabitants as a predator treats prey.

The first and only glimpse of moral concern (or perhaps it’s prudential, or more likely it’s both) is Odysseus’s concern to make sure all his men got their fare share of the treasure and the women that they had all grabbed. The Kikonians might as well be animated figures in a computer game. This isn’t a factual issue. It’s not that Odysseus and his crew think the Kikonians are robots or zombies – it’s that they don’t care. They should care, but they don’t. Facts are part of getting them to care, but they’re not enough. Facts are necessary but not sufficient.

That’s still what I see as missing from The Moral Landscape, still what makes it an unhelpful and uninteresting book on morality. Churchland’s book, on the other hand, sounds terrific; I’m looking forward to reading it.

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