FLASHES OF MORAL INSIGHT
Marc Hauser and his Harvard research team have championed the notion of a “universal moral grammar ”―an innate, general “ toolkit for building specific moral systems.” For Hauser (2007: xviii):
Once we have acquired our culture’s specific moral norms―a process that is more like growing a limb than sitting in Sunday school and learning about vices and virtues―we judge whether actions are permissible, obligatory, or forbidden, without conscious reasoning and without explicit access to the underlying principles.
An important starting point for Hauser (2007: 156) is the difficulty that he, his team and his research subjects experience when attempting to justify and explain their moral judgments in test situations. He notes that we:
are often dumbfounded, appealing to hunches or conflicting accounts… we are not reasoning about these moral dilemmas but rather delivering flashes of insight based on unconscious emotions.
It seems that intuitive judgments deliver “the first say” and if there is any subsequent rationalizing it “comes in as cleanup.”
THE MORAL SENSE TEST
Hauser’s account (2007: 127-130) “shifts the burden of evidence from a philosophy of morality to a science of morality.” A major research project underlying Hauser’s platform is his online Moral Sense Test. His protocol consists of a battery of expertly crafted versions of classic moral dilemmas. Situations include out of control trolley cars, “stampeding elephants, burning houses, rescue boats” and the “dispensation of limited drugs.” For each scenario the research participant is asked if the proposed actions are “permissible, obligatory or forbidden.” The scenarios discern "parameters such as the agent's responsibility to act, the utilitarian outcome, and whether the consequences of the action are intended or foreseen."
ACQUIRING A SPECIFIC MORAL GRAMMAR
Hauser has accumulated Moral Sense Test data from more than 60,000 participants from 120 countries. His subjects were male and female and ranged in age from seven to seventy. A broad swathe of religions, educational levels and languages were also represented. What Hauser discovered was a truly remarkable consistency in responses regardless of demographic category. This points to an innate, universal quality to a developing moral sense. This supposed universal tool-kit undergirds the process by which “each child, depending upon his or her cultural origins, will acquire a distinctive moral system.” For Hauser (2007: 420-421), there is nothing specific:
in our genome codes for whether infanticide, incest, euthanasia, or cooperation are permissible, and, if permissible, with which individuals.
Nevertheless, the fact that Hauser observed persistent cross-cultural commonalities in responses to his ethical scenarios and the vast majority of his experimental participants answering “immediately, with little to no reflecting,” points to a deeply-rooted moral sense analogous to a, so called, “language instinct.” For Hauser (2007: 37), we know more about language than we can articulate, and know more about morality, “than our actions reveal.” His work is building on the ideas of:
the political philosopher John Rawls and the linguist Noam Chomsky who proposed that there may be deep similarities between language and morality, including especially our innate competences for these two domains of knowledge.
We have “evolved general but abstract principles” for deciding which actions are “forbidden, permissible [or}obligatory.” This “universal moral grammar” is analogous to a language instinct and certain a priori “unconscious principles” that underlie logical, mathematical, musical and perceptual competencies. Viewed this way, our innate, abstract moral propensities undergird the acquisition of a specific, robust moral grammar that is contingent to time and place. For Hauser (2007: 44):
Once an individual acquires his specific moral grammar, other moral grammars may be as incomprehensible to him as Chinese is to a native English speaker.
SPECIFIC EXCEPTIONS TO UNIVERSAL RULES
Hauser points (2007: 48) to the fact that all human cultures allow specific exceptions to universal rules pertaining to morality and ethics:
Killing is generally forbidden in all cultures, but most if not all cultures recognize conditions in which killing is permitted or might be justifiable: war, self-defense, and intolerable pain due to illness. Some cultures even support conditions in which killing is obligatory… if a husband finds his wife in flagrante delecto, the wife’s relatives are expected to kill her, thereby erasing the family’s shame.
Andrew Brown (2005) The Siege of Stalingrad (detail). Oil on canvas.
For Hauser (2007: 44), “[w]hat varies across cultures are the conditions that allow for exceptions to the rule.” Within and across cultures “caring for children is a universal moral principle.” To take the extreme case, everyone would “experience disgust” at the notion of “torturing infants as amusement or sport.” However, in certain places and historic contexts, even infanticide has been “morally permissible, and justifiable on the grounds of limited resources and other aspects of parenting and survival.”
BEYOND THE NATURALISTIC FALLACY
By proposing an innate moral instinct that is to some extent encoded in our genome, Hauser (2007: 2-5) is careful to distance himself from the naturalistic fallacy:
There are natural things that are bad (polio, blindness) and unnatural things that are good (vaccines, reading glasses). We are not licensed to move from the natural to the good.
It is by no means the case that “ society should sympathize with male violence because testosterone makes violence inevitable.” Hauser makes his position clear by appropriating a line said by Katherine Hepburn to Humphrey Bogart in the 1951 movie, The African Queen:
“Nature, Mr Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”
Marc D. Hauser (2007) Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong. Harper Collins, New York.