Sunday, December 10, 2006


Evolving Morals

Moral senseThere is an interesting discussion about the "moral sense" from the Australian Broadcasting Company Radio National program "All in the Mind" with Natasha Mitchell. Her guests are Marc Hauser, Professor of Psychology and evolutionary biology at Harvard University and author of Moral Minds: How Nature Designed our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, and Richard Joyce, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sydney and author of The Evolution of Morality. Links to the audio file and a transcript can be found at the site of the ABC.

Hauser begins by acknowledging that:

... when most people hear the notion of human behaviour and biology in the same sentence, they almost instinctively jump to the conclusion that therefore if biology is what's in the driver's seat, then it must be fixed, it must be immutable, culture's irrelevant and there's no free will. And then of course if that's the conclusion, that's a very scary thought for anybody.
Joyce agrees that, starting when Darwin speculated about the evolution of a moral sense people were immediately extremely worried that this stripped morality of all its authority and:

There was a similar fear when people tried to have a humanistic ethics ... that without God as a kind of guiding light driving our moral decisions that somehow we would lose our moral compass and there would be no authority left guiding our normative decisions anymore. And I think there's as very similar kind of fear at the idea that it may just be our biological natures that are giving rise to a lot of our moral thinking and moral deliberation. That if we think this way - if we engage in moral thinking because it had reproductive value to our ancestors, basically it helped them make more babies - then where's the actual practical authority?
Hauser's premise, which dominates the discussion, is that, in the same way that Noam Chomsky proposed a Universal Grammar underlying our capacity to acquire any of the world's languages, there is a universal moral grammar that "is really a tool-kit for building possible moral systems" with the particular moral system being filled in by the local culture.

Perhaps most interesting is Hauser's finding that the moral judgments of theists and atheists are not as different as some might think:

What we're interested in doing now, which is one of the projects that we're engaged with, is if you ask questions that are morally live right now like abortion, and euthanasia, and stem cell research, you'll pretty much find religious groups kind of lining up on one side and non-religious on the other side. [Hauser's Moral Sense Test, sponsored by the Cognitive Evolution Laboratory of Harvard University, can be found on the web.]

But the intriguing thing is that when you can conceal the dilemma in terms of the real role case and give a kind of an artificial dilemma that captures some of the crucial ingredients, there does not seem to be differences between people with a religious background and those without.

If I say, look, is abortion right or wrong? Well, pro-life or pro-choice will give different answers. Well, here's a case that Judy Thompson developed to try to get at the question of whether the foetus, no matter when you define its origins, has an obligatory right to the women's body. ...

So here's a case - a woman wakes up one day and there's a man lying in bed next to her, and another man walks up to her and says, "look I'm terribly sorry, we're from The Society of Music Lovers, the man lying next to you in bed is a world famous violinist, he's in kidney failure and I hope you don't mind, we've plugged him into your kidney. If you stay plugged in for the next nine months he will survive and you will save the world's greatest violinist".

And you ask is it morally permissible for her to unplug, and everybody agrees - yeah, go ahead, unplug. ...
So let's take it now and change it one particular way.

She goes," sure, let's stay plugged in". So for two months she makes the commitment to make - to really like the abortion case, the violinist is unconscious, so her commitment is to the guy from The Society of Music Lovers. She stays plugged in for two months and after two months she goes, "this is a drag, I'm unplugging". So she pulls the plug out and he dies.

Now you say is that morally permissible? Now here's the interesting thing, in contrast to the first case overwhelmingly most people say "that's less permissible' right? And they give you the reason 'well, look, she made a commitment and now she unplugs".

But the interesting thing is that people who are pro-choice or pro-life, religious or atheist do not differ on those judgements. The background people bring to an abortion case are not penetrating into this case, which has many of the crucial similarities that an abortion case has.
Hauser recommends that people step back from morality handed down by religious authorities or other groups and instead examine the intuitive judgements we each make. He believes that a cross cultural humanity runs through moral choices that is not dependent on those authorities. Or, perhaps, those religious "memes" have evolved away from their innate roots by a process not unlike genetic drift. In any case, Hauser's ideas should be worth consideration by anyone interested in the origins of and justification for morality.

I'd be interested in whether there were any difference between the results of Thompson's test and one in which the "donor" is a man instead of a woman.

Likewise, it would be interesting to know if any respondents considered the violinist's death to be murder.
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