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Moral minds: how nature designed our universal sense of right and wrong

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Moral minds: how nature designed our universal sense of right and wrong
Marc D. Hauser, 2006
New York, USA, Harper Collins
$27.95 (hbk), 489 pp.
ISBN 10- 0-06-078070-3
‘Rich’ is an adjective often applied by reviewers to books which are full of exciting
ideas in progress, but could do with a strong editorial hand. This book is rich. Hauser
attempts to generate the argument for a ‘universal moral grammar’ based on
evolutionary arguments for the origin of morality. He brings in primate studies (in
which he is a recognised expert), current arguments on moral emotion, attacks on the
Kantian tradition that forefronts moral reasoning, material from neuroscience, the
development of theory of mind, and anthropological data. In nearly 500 pages, it is
not surprising that he has some real nuggets of insight, some over-generalisations and
speculations, and some lapses of scholarship.
This is an interesting time in moral psychology. It has been largely dominated
for fifty years by a model of moral functioning that derives from a Kantian
perspective and which concentrates almost wholly on reasoning. This had its own
‘universal moral grammar’; the ‘universal’ principles that underpinned reasoning.
Haidt’s 2001 paper challenged the focus on reason and reprised the debates between
Kant and Hume; moral emotion is immediate and so primary; reasoning depends on
reflection. This is a worthy issue for good research and the field is opening up.
However, it is muddied by another contemporary enthusiasm, the search for
evolutionary explanations. For reasons that continue to baffle me, it appears that
pursuing evolutionary explanations is seen as more ‘scientific’ than careful research
on actual current human responses and behaviours.
The argument, in Hauser’s book and elsewhere, seems to be that because
emotion is such an immediate response, it must be ‘hardwired’ and, ergo, it must be
rooted in evolutionary survival mechanisms. For some this means sexual selection,
for others, including Hauser, the explanation lies in social exchange and group
cooperation. Therefore, moral emotions arise from ‘territoriality’ and ‘dominance’
imperatives and from breaking the norms that govern these. This seems a speculative
leap. Finding evolutionary explanations is an exciting and valid activity, but it is too
often an extrapolation either from contemporary primates or contemporary hunter-
gatherer societies, both of which are products of the same long evolutionary process
as ourselves; they are not our ‘ancestors’.
A widely used research tool in the field of moral emotion, much cited by
Hauser, is the ‘trolley problem’. This was originally invented by the philosopher
Philippa Foot (1967) as a thought experiment to explore ‘impossible’ dilemmas. It
has been hijacked as a quick way to measure ‘emotion’, because people respond very
swiftly with the ‘right’ answer – to allow the fewest people to die. However, first, this
seems to be as much a moral intuition as an emotion. Second, it is presented as being
evolutionary evidence about humans not liking to kill each other. Talking about
killing is a common moral discussion point but killing other humans is rare, except in
war, when humans can become quite enthusiastic about killing out-group members.
Also many trolley problem researchers extrapolate from patterns of yes-no answers
rather than exploring either the reasoning, or even reflections on the emotions, behind
the responses.
I consider a major scholarly lapse to be Hauser’s treatment of the Piaget-
Kohlberg tradition. Many people working within this tradition warmly welcome the
inclusion of emotion into moral theory. However, Hauser begins by claiming that his
account ‘shifts the burden of evidence from a philosophy of morality to a science of
morality’ (p. 2). This seems a most curious put-down of 70 years of rigorous research
on the development of moral reasoning. The clue lies in the bibliography; despite 16
index references to Kohlberg and 9 to Piaget, Hauser cites just one publication of
Kohlberg’s and two of Piaget’s. He could also have walked 400 metres from his
office and spent an afternoon in the Kohlberg archive, acquainting himself with the
actual original research. As it is, he presents rather a caricature of both the theory and
the data. He also claims that neither Kohlberg nor Piaget explained how stage
development took place. In trying to unpack this odd statement, given the large
amount of data on stage transition, I concluded that Hauser has little understanding of
cognitive developmental theory and is trying to apply a social learning theory, or
possibly ‘maturation’.
There are many fine insights and thoughts-in-progress in this otherwise
undisciplined book; some of Hauser’s colleagues who are experts in human
psychology are developing them with rigor and sophistication. I wish them well; the
field needs excellent research that integrates emotion and reason in our understanding
of morality and the contemporary human mind.
References
Foot, P. (1967) The problem of abortion and the doctrine of the double effect, Oxford
Reviews, 5(1), 5-15.
Haidt, J. (2001) The emotional dog and its rational tail: a social intuitionist approach
to moral judgement, Psychological Review, 108, 814-834.
Dr Helen Haste, Emeritus Professor (University of Bath, UK), Visiting Professor,
Harvard Graduate School of Education, 613 Larsen Hall, Appian Way, Cambridge,
MA 02138, USA, Email: helhaste@aol.com
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