On Conscience

Patricia Churchland is a neurophilosopher. That’s a fancy way of saying she studies new brain science, old philosophical questions, and how they shed light on each other.

For years, she’s been bothered by one question in particular: How did humans come to feel empathy and other moral intuitions? What’s the origin of that nagging little voice that we call our conscience?

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.”

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