Marc Hauser on the origin of morality

December 4, 2009 • 8:55 am

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.

14 thoughts on “Marc Hauser on the origin of morality

  1. I’m so glad more work is being done concerning this topic as it has been a source of perpetual exploitation among theocrats. Cooperation requires the development of ethics and ethics demand interpersonal sensititivity with expected compromise.

    I despise the phrase “where does it come from?” As if morals are out in space waiting to be received. Morals emerge from societies based on expediency.

  2. This is a well written article by Hauser which seems to be backed up by a lot of research and clinical studies.

    Some of these conclusions have been elsewhere in articles and books that I have read but the way Hauser puts it all together seems unique.

    I do not like the term he uses: “moral education”. It sounds too much like an indoctrination technique. I would prefer it to be called something like “diversity exposure” for what he thinks is the desired method.

    1. Yes, and I can also see the “universal moral code” being morphed into “a signature in the cell” by fans of Stephen Meyer.

      Unlike Hitchens, I’ve never agreed with the idea that morality is innate (other than maternal nurturing instincts). I think it emerged via arduous efforts and the necessities of cooperation, the increasing development of empathy (see Pinker’s history of violence), and, furthermore, has to be constantly reinforced for some individuals. Besides, cultural default positions on civic matters are always evolving.

  3. I’ve always been skeptical of a universal moral language. It’s too convenient for polemicists. However, Huaser’s article seems backed by some promising research. I particularly like the idea of psychopaths as good neg controls.

  4. I trust that Jerry won’t mind my pointing out that the co-written essay by Hauser and Peter Singer in 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists has a concise and lucid summary of the main argument. Just saying … 😉

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