DAVID KRONEMYER: The New York Times Book Review from several weeks ago discussed two books, which are: Hauser, M., Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong (2006) (reviewed by the esteemed Richard Rorty); and, Collins F., The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (2006). Ironically, the reviews appeared only a few pages apart. The reason why I say “ironically” is because the books dovetail on a critical issue. Both authors believe we have an innate genetic predisposition to believe in things like “moral principles,” and, for Collins, even the existence of God.
For me, the concept of “innate moral principles” is intrinsically (innately?) disturbing. Furthermore, there is something wrong with an explanation that depends for its sufficiency and vitality upon a deus ex machina like “innateness,” when there are more compelling, and less complex, ways of analyzing the same phenomenon.
Hauser is Professor of Psychology, Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, and Biological Anthropology at Harvard (whew, that’s a real mouthful!). Juxtaposing “nature” against “nurture,” Hauser believes “we are born with abstract rules or principles, with nurture entering the picture to set the parameters and guide us toward the acquisition of particular moral systems.” Fortunately for us, biologists (such as Hauser) are available to assist us in differentiating the principles from the parameters, and generally to move matters forward, because they have discovered evidence for the existence of what Hauser calls a “moral organ,” or a “moral faculty.” In fact, it resides in a specialized area of the brain, which is “a circuit, specialized for recognizing certain problems as morally relevant.” Although it does not embody any particular, culturally-specific set of “morals,” it does incorporate “a universal moral grammar, a toolkit for building specific moral systems.”
Collins also is highly qualified. He is the Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute. He postulates that, fundamentally, all of us have an under-specified desire to “do the right thing.” He characterizes this as “moral law.” Not content to rest there (as presumably, Hauser would be), Collins then goes on to argue that the existence of these biologically-determined moral laws provides evidence for the existence of God.
As Rorty observes in his review, Hauser does not really end up proving his hypothesis empirically, that is, from an experimental scientific standpoint, and Collins does not even try. Properly understood, the argument would need to have at least three distinct stages, which are: 1. There are such things as universal moral rules; 2. These moral rules are innate, and not merely experiential; and 3. The only way they could have gotten into our brains is via divine intervention.
All three propositions generate easily-intuited counter-examples, viz., 1. Cannibals enjoy eating people; 2. Even given the relatively primitive level of brain science, it is difficult to hypothesize an area of the brain, or a specific set of neuro-chemicals, devoted exclusively to moral development; and, 3. Evolution over time is equally, if not more, explanatory.
In particular, both authors ignore the role of social convention in establishing acceptable parameters of human behavior. Hauser admits that social conventions exist. He even is prepared to acknowledge they pertain equally to animals, for example, “Do not start tearing at the carcass before the alpha male has eaten his fill.” However, I think this would tend more to argue against an innateness hypothesis, than for one, because a social convention is a paradigm example of an outcome with several possible solutions, as to all of which we are indifferent. David Lewis, for example, analyzed social conventions as a kind of “coordination problem,” the solution to which maximizes social utility. An example is driving to the right instead of the left; it doesn’t really matter which one we adopt, but it is useful to have one or the other. Lewis, D., Convention: A Philosophical Study (1969). This is the polar opposite of something that is “innate,” or even uniquely human. And, there is no reason why a specialized region of the brain is uniquely required to undertake this type of activity.
Rather, to make any progress in this area, I think we need to figure out a way to frame cultural concepts (such as “morals”) in terms of non-cultural referents or antecedents. All that calling them “innate” does, is to throw a veil of mystery over the issue; in a way, it’s like appealing to “well, we’ve always done it this way” as a valid reason for continuing to do so. Because it’s gonna be a while before we can discern which neuro-chemicals mandate, for example, a distinction between “right” and “wrong.” Which carries with it the implication that, once such a neuro-chemical has been isolated, it would be a simple matter indeed to reduce the quantity of evil in the world, simply by making sure everybody is stocked up with enough of the protein or peptide that results in a socially correct outcome.