[ bookreviews ]
"Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed or nearly as well developed, as in man." - Charles Darwin
"I am convinced that a vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a lawgiver, especially a lawgiver who works on the basis of reward and judgment." - Albert Einstein
"Inquiry into our moral nature will no longer by the proprietary province of the humanities and social sciences, but a shared journey with the natural sciences." - Marc D Hauser
Marc Hauser has written a fascinating and important book called Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong. The highly regarded multi-disciplined professor and director of Harvard's Cognitive Evolution Laboratory, Hauser argues persuasively that human beings have evolved a universal moral instinct, which, much like our capacity for language, is hardwired in the human brain, travels through generations and cultures, and is both defined by and restrains the social and cultural moral context within which it develops. As Hauser more clearly states the moral mind is a result of evolutionary and social process:
"We evolved a moral instinct, a capacity that naturally grows within each child, designed to generate rapid judgments about what is morally right or wrong based on an unconscious grammar or faction. Part of this machinery was designed by the blind hand of Darwinian selection millions of years before our species evolved; other parts were added or upgraded over the evolutionary history of our species, and are unique both to humans and to our moral psychology." (p xviii)
This moral grammar is based, Hauser says, on three basic principles: the intention principle, which says it's permissible to harm someone for the greater good if that person is not treated as a means to an end; the action principle, which holds that actively causing harm is worse than causing harm through inaction; and the contact principle, that it is worse to cause harm by one’s own hand than to do so indirectly.
On the surface, Hauser's theory is both obvious and revolutionary. Obvious because we all know we carry innate moral judgments somewhere in our mental processes (brain) which are operative all the time. Most of us recognize immorality the instant we encounter it. Hauser might say the line between recognizing immorality and feeling it is so narrow, as to become an instinctual moral judgment, blending reason and emotion, embedded in the brain. A dead child in a street in Baghdad, Gaza, or New Orleans, for example, cannot be ignored by any human being on the planet. We all immediately know something is wrong. We don't feel it, we don't think it, Hauser tells us, we experience our reaction first as an almost unconscious instinct. Some of us might construct an elaborate ethical equation to justify (or emotionally negate) the circumstances of that child - "stuff happens," victory in war, a child for a child, the greater value of oil wealth, the ends somehow justifying the killing. But such constructs strike most of us as a contrived and unnatural violation of our inner sense of morality because, no matter how persuasive the logic, it goes contrary to some shared (universal) human moral instinct:
"I argue that our moral faculty is equipped with a universal moral grammar, a culture's specific moral norms - a process that is more like growing a limb than sitting in Sunday school and learning about vices and virtues - we judge whether actions are permissible, obligatory, or forbidden, without conscious reasoning and without explicit access to the underlying principles. " (p 2)
Where does this instinct come from? How did it evolve in the human species? In earlier species? How strong is it in the face of socialization? How important is this moral capacity to the future and universality of humanity? “You can imagine the evolution of morality as a series of steps leading to a moral system.” Hauser commented in a recent interview, and in Moral Minds he explores and clarifies the steps across cognitive psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, linguistics, and anthropology. One key ability in making moral judgments, he says, is to be able to read beneath the surface when observing another creature’s actions. Experiments show that apes, monkeys and other animals share this ability with humans. Evolution selected for this trait, Hauser argues, because the ability to perceive another creature’s intentions provided a survival advantage over animals that could only respond to observable consequences.
Another important building block Hauser points to is the development of cooperation, and this takes three different forms in the animal world. The first is cooperation based on kinship. An animal that sacrifices to benefit its offspring, for example, helps to protect their shared genes. In the second type, both individuals receive some cost, but both benefit. Cooperative hunting behavior is an example of this type. The third and rarest type is reciprocity, where an individual gives something up with the expectation that it will receive benefit in the future. "Render unto others," Hauser suggests, is a formulation in human terms of this adaptation. He cites experiments with monkeys in which individuals learned to manipulate a tool to provide a monkey in an adjoining cage with food if they believed that the other monkey would return the favor. These experiments, Hauser says, set the stage for the evolution of human morality.
To demonstrate universality, Hauser uses results from the Internet-based Moral Sense Test , administered to 160,000 subjects in 120 countries to track responses to a series of hypothetical moral dilemmas. The responses have proved remarkably consistent, regardless of age, gender, religion, or cultural background.
"Our moral instincts are immune to the explicitly articulated commandments handed down by religions and governments. Sometimes our moral intuitions will converge with those that culture spells out, and sometimes they will diverge." (p xviii)
How the moral instinct is externalized (perhaps compromised) in the clan, tribal, social, and cultural context of mores, religious dogma, governmental codes and laws, is another interesting question. If we each possess the instinct for moral action, won't we at some point come in conflict with social definitions of moral action, particularly when the social definitions, like rationalizations for killing a child, strike the rational individual as immoral? Confronted with immoral actions on the part of his or her government or church, for example, the individual must either resist the immoral action, or acquiesce his or her moral nature. Hauser notes:
"People in different parts of the world speak mutually unintelligible languages, practice different sexual rituals, listen to different music, are emotionally excited by different events, believe in different gods, engage in different sports, and have different social norms for helping and harming others. This landscape highlights our ingenuity for innovations and cultural variation, as well as our disrespect for conformity." (p 419)
To what extent is the individual moral conscience superior to the legal, religious and governmental "moral constraints" used as social controls? Apartheid in South Africa, racial slavery in the United States, genocide in Nazi Germany, are obvious examples of murderous immorality, rationalized by a status quo, primarily for economic ends, and accepted in each instance by the culture's general populace. These systems could not have evolved in any society without question and insult to the innate moral mind. How does one explain this pathology of acceptance? It is fear, weakness, servitude of the herd? In each case, however, the system collapsed over time, indicating persistent application of the moral mind in these cultures inevitably forces relative social progress. (However, this is not a teleological process, I suggest, but an existential resolution of social conflict to perpetuate the society.) To view this process another way: In light of the argument for an innate "moral faculty," concepts like, "safety," "liberty," and "happiness," take on deeper meaning, as in the following well established political assertion:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness... That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness." 
Hauser's argument is revolutionary precisely because most of us probably consider moral instincts the product of good parenting, religious discipline, proper education, and enlightened government. Any moral differences we see among conflicting cultures we are likely to view as the result of racial, ethnic, or cultural deficiencies. There is a process of socialization at work which perpetuates this ignorance, a sort of cultural moral inertia inculcated by a conservative, uninformed status quo; while, according to Hauser's argument, the status quo has it exactly backwards:
"Underlying the extensive cross-cultural variation we observe in our expressed social norms is a universal moral grammar that enables each child to grow a narrow range of possible moral systems. When we judge an action as morally right or wrong, we do so instinctively, tapping a system of unconsciously operative and inaccessible moral knowledge. Variation between cultures in their expressed moral norms is like variation between cultures in their spoken languages: Both systems enable members of one group to exchange ideas and values with each other, but not with members of another group." (p 420) 
Hauser also points to religion's moralistic simplicity - don't kill, lie, steal, etc. - obvious to any child, but which fails to satisfy our moral sense in the face of more complex issues, like a woman's reproductive rights contrasted against the right of the unborn:
"Though equating morality with religion is commonplace, it is wrong in at least two ways: It falsely assumes that people without religious faith lack an understanding of moral rights and wrongs, and that people of religious faith are more virtuous than atheists and agnostics. Base on studies of moral judgments in a wide range of cultures, atheists and agnostics are perfectly capable of distinguishing between morally permissible and forbidden actions. More important, across a suite of moral dilemmas and testing situations, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Sikhs, Muslims, atheists and agnostics deliver the same judgments - with the same level of incoherence or insufficiency when it comes to their justifications... These observations suggest that the system that unconsciously generates moral judgments is immune to religious doctrine. " (p 421)
Finally, Hauser's theory is revolutionary because it is yet another indicator which points to the commonality of a moral human species, product of millions of years of evolution, which continually expands the traditional and artificial boundaries and definitions of "the other." The overwhelming majority of the human beings on the planet are prescient, interconnected moral creatures, capable of rising instinctively above and beyond the narrow perspectives of kinship, ethnicity, society, religion, economy and government.
"Appreciating the fact that we share a universal moral grammar, and that at birth we could have acquired any of the world's moral systems, should provide us with a sense of comfort, a sense that perhaps we can understand each other." (p 426)
1 You can take The Moral Sense Test, sponsored by the Cognitive Evolution Laboratory, Harvard University [Back]
2 The Declaration of Independence [Back]
3 Hauser goes on to say, "Whether the process of creating intergroup differences in intelligibility is adaptive or the by-product of isolation and historical contingencies is presently unclear, for both language and morality." However the work of Jared Diamond, particularly Guns, Germs, and Steel, provides some clarity on this point: quoting Professor Diamond, "the striking differences between the long-term history of peoples of the different continents have been due not to innate differences of the peoples themselves but to differences in their environments. I expect that if the populations of Aboriginal Australia and Eurasia could have been interchanged during the Late Pleistocene, the original Aboriginal Australians would now be the ones occupying most of the Americas and Australia, as well as Eurasia, while the original Aboriginal Eurasians would be the ones now reduced to downtrodden population fragments in Australia." (p 405). [Back]