Marc Hauser and his colleagues have done pathbreaking work on morality, or rather on the commonality of moral strictures among people of diverse backgrounds. From this he’s argued that there is a “universal moral code” for humanity, one that was largely instilled by evolution. Over at The Edge, he presents a brief essay on these ideas.
It’s worth reading some of Marc’s papers on this work, particularly his experimental studies of children and his internet surveys of people’s reactions to hypothetical moral situations. Regardless of whether you agree with his conclusions about evolution (and I do think his case is compelling), you’ll find yourself thinking about the basis for your own moral judgements.
And, so that people don’t think that he’s a victim of the naturalistic fallacy, Hauser hastens to add this:
Lest there be any confusion about the claims I am making, I am not saying that our evolved capacity to intuitively judge what is right or wrong is sufficient to live a moral life. It is most definitely not and for two good reasons.
For one, some of our moral instincts evolved during a period of human history that looked nothing like the situation today. In our distant past, we lived in small groups consisting of highly familiar and often familial individuals, with no formal laws. Today we live in a large and diffuse society, where our decisions have little-to-no impact on most people in our community but with laws to enforce those who deviate from expected norms. Further, we are confronted with moral decisions that are unfamiliar, including stem cells, abortion, organ transplants and life support. When we confront these novel situations, our evolved system is ill-equipped.
The second reason is that living a moral life requires us to be restless with our present moral norms, always challenging us to discover what might and ought to be. And here is where nurture can re-enter the conversation. We need education because we need a world in which people listen to the universal voice of their species, while stopping to wonder whether there are alternatives. And if there are alternatives, we need rational and reasonable people who will be vigilant of partiality and champions of plurality.