Moral Minds by Marc Hauser

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

By Grant Steves

If all moralities were rooted in the Bible or the god of the Bible, we would have the solution to all moral questions. However, did the morality of indigenous people’s from the Australian aborigines to the Amazon tribal groups develop their morality from the Bible? In both cases, they were not exposed to the Bible to any degree until the 19th century. Millions of people were never exposed to the Bible as a source of law and wisdom until the 20th century. Nevertheless, we know from historical accounts that the phrase, “do unto others, as you would have them do unto you,” is universal. The principles of fairness and justice are in all cultures but are not derived from holy writ. Where do these principles come from? How have they come to be?

The book, Moral Minds (2006) by Marc Hauser (professor of Psychology and Biological Anthropology at Harvard University), proposes that morality has evolved.  He believes that the answer to what is moral is not to be found in a burning bush but in the study of how we have evolved.  The theory that he develops is descriptive of morality evolving.  Professor Hauser provides a description of the unconscious and inaccessible principles that operate our moral judgments.  At no time does he provide a directive as to what people ought to do.  This is a book descriptive and not prescriptive of morality.

It becomes apparent that an understanding of his major influences helps the reader.  His theory is constructed on the general insights of: Noam Chomsky’s linguistic analysis; John Rawls’ theory of justice and fairness developed in the PhD thesis of J. M. Mikhail; Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral reasoning; and M. Hoffmans’s study on empathy and morality.  From these influences Professor Hauser believes we are born with abstract rules or principles with nurture entering the picture to set parameters and guide us toward the acquisition of particular moral systems.  These abstract rules or principles incorporate “a universal moral grammar, a toolkit for building specific moral systems.”  Our knowledge of this system (somewhat grounded in Noam Chomsky’s grammatical formulations) will enable us to understand the moral domain.  However, Hauser has not fully developed the grammar and moral refinement, but it has clear possibilities.

If you were to agree that fairness is one of the basic moral responses (this was derived from John Rawls’ Theory of Justice), you could believe it is one of the components of the moral grammar.  For example, fairness or justice seem to have evolved into a complex political concept; but in its less complex form, in human relations, it is about the treatment of others in an equitable manner.  Hauser views fairness through George Lakoff’s ten-tiered taxonomy.  Fairness is how we treat distribution, opportunity, rights, responsibility, and power.  How we permit each of these to be applied brings about fairness.  Power is treated fairly in a democratic manner.

Hauser draws upon research with animals to support his theory.  He uses the example of the Rhesus monkey to generalize about human behavior.  It is acknowledging that what is observed is subject to interpretation.  It is observed that when a Rhesus monkey sees a fellow monkey in pain, when they are eating, they will stop eating to prevent this pain from happening to the other monkey.  This could be a form of empathy and the reaction a form of compassion.

We also see this in the feeding habits of the vampire bats.  When a bat fails to find food and returns to the colony, the others will feed it.  This could be considered a form of altruism or tribal preservation.  The test of this theory was observed when the bats returned and fed a bat that was not related to their tribe.

These examples from animal behavior may be generalized to human behavior by noting that many animals have developed what appears to be a morality.  If taken from an evolutionary point of view, we might conclude this behavior is innate, and that it evolved.  That would mean to nurture, in the case of humans, refines the application of moral principles that we find within our genetic system by our evolutionary ancestors.

Hauser cautions, however, that this is descriptive and a theory, but it is a theory that is getting considerable attention in several books: The Evolution of Morality (2006), Richard Joyce; The Moral Animal (1994, Robert Wright; Empathy and Moral Development (2006), Martin Hoffman; and Primates and Philosophers (2006), Frans de Waal.  It would be advantageous for the atheist community to explore some of these books in this developing area of moral evolution.

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