A recent book review in the Chronicle of Higher Education highlights the most recent work of neuroscientist, philosopher and author Patricia Churchland, who offers some interesting views on modern day morality, in her new book Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality(Princeton University Press)
Here’s an excerpt from the Chronicle review of Churchland’s book: Rule Breaker: When it comes to morality, the philosopher Patricia Churchland refuses to stand on principle
Hers is a bottom-up, biological story, but, in her telling, it also has implications for ethical theory. Morality turns out to be not a quest for overarching principles but rather a process and practice not very different from negotiating our way through day-to-day social life. Brain scans, she points out, show little to no difference between how the brain works when solving social problems and how it works when solving ethical dilemmas.
Churchland thinks the search for what she invariably calls "exceptionless rules" has deformed modern moral philosophy. "There have been a lot of interesting attempts, and interesting insights, but the target is like perpetual youth or a perpetual-motion machine. You're not going to find an exceptionless rule," she says. "What seems more likely is that there is a basic platform that people share and that things shape themselves based on that platform, and based on ecology, and on certain needs and certain traditions."
The upshot of that approach? "Sometimes there isn't an answer in the moral domain, and sometimes we have to agree to disagree, and come together and arrive at a good solution about what we will live with.”
The point I found most interesting, reading the review, was that Churchland feels that the emphasis on finding "exceptionless" moral rules is futile. According to her, we should place more emphasis on how we can agree to disagree rather than consistently search to find "exceptionless rules" to apply in difficult moral dilemmas.
She makes a good point and one that many of us should consider. Think of the many times we are faced with moral dilemmas in the context of nursing. Often the most effort goes into attempts to make others see situations from our perspective, and to agree with us. Frequently we hear statements like, "This should never happen" or "We should not allow this in any case" when our colleagues, patients and families are discussing difficult moral issues, like end-of-life care or allocation of scarce resources. These kinds of expressive statements, such as "I believe X is wrong" (instead of “X”, substitute any contentious bioethics concept such as: abortion, euthanasia, harm reduction), reflect a kind of "exceptionless" stance. When we approach difficult moral dilemmas with this kind of a stance, we typically are, in fact, looking for others to agree with us and align with our values to justify an "exceptionless rule" of sorts. However, it's clear that this is almost impossible in diverse societies and groups in which a broad range of values exist.
We accept diversity in many kinds of everyday health care situations and out of that acceptance arises our role of advocate and facilitator. For example, a patient may not wish to take a prescribed sleep aid, may refuse physiotherapy or may wish to delay a procedure. As nurses, we advocate for the choices and wishes of our patients and we try to facilitate their decision-making. We often allow patients to make choices that we perhaps would not make ourselves or that we would not support if we were the only decision-makers. This is part of respecting the autonomy of others and is a straightforward value in nursing and health care. However, when dealing with more difficult or challenging dilemmas, we tend to turn first to our own values and beliefs instead of first trying to consider the different values of others. This isn’t unusual and is a response many have when faced with morally challenging situations: we turn to our own consistently-held values and beliefs in a search for an anchoring answer. In other words, in simple day-to-day health care situations, we often quite easily accept that patients will make choices that reflect different values and beliefs than ours and in turn, we respect those diverse decisions. In more serious or morally challenging situations, however, we may find ourselves turning instead to our own values and beliefs to determine what the “right” option should be.
Churchland notes that trying to find answers to difficult moral problems is just like trying to find our way through less challenging, day-to-day social problems. As she notes, brain scans show very similar activity when sorting out everyday problems or working through serious and difficult moral dilemmas. For many of us, it is perfectly acceptable to “agree to disagree” on the food a patient may eat, the time for a procedure to be done, scheduling therapy or taking a sleeping aid. However, when faced with a patient who is, for example, seeking euthanasia or an abortion for a reason with which we may not agree, many nurses find it disturbing, upsetting and often distressing to care for patients whose values and beliefs, in this context, may be much different than their own. Churchland would likely say that trying to seek alignment of values, in difficult cases like this is neither satisfying or possible and that we should not focus so much attention on trying to do so.
The review in the Chronicle is a thorough one, highlighting a number of other key points in Churchland’s work. I haven’t read the book yet so it’s difficult to comment too much on her views, as noted by the reviewer, without reading about them firsthand, so I will read the book and, hopefully, will review it here as well.
The point that struck me was that we don’t really think enough (or at all!) about how we approach moral dilemmas. In nursing, these kinds of dilemmas arise often unexpectedly or quickly and must be dealt with in the moment. We expend a majority of our emotional and working energy trying to sort through a few incredibly challenging problems but often don’t take the time to reflect upon “how we did” and whether we were simply seeking an “exceptionless rule”, i.e. seeking the alignment of others with our own values rather than trying to find a more middle-of-the-road moral ground that everyone can live with. In terms of expending our energy, doing so to understand just a little better the way we’re wired as well as the way we react to and process these kinds of difficult moral dilemmas makes good sense.