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Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrongby Marc D Hauser
Synopses & Reviews
Marc Hauser's eminently readable and comprehensive book Moral Minds is revolutionary. He argues that humans have evolved a universal moral instinct, unconsciously propelling us to deliver judgments of right and wrong independent of gender, education, and religion. Experience tunes up our moral actions, guiding what we do as opposed to how we deliver our moral verdicts.
For hundreds of years, scholars have argued that moral judgments arise from rational and voluntary deliberations about what ought to be. The common belief today is that we reach moral decisions by consciously reasoning from principled explanations of what society determines is right or wrong. This perspective has generated the further belief that our moral psychology is founded entirely on experience and education, developing slowly and subject to considerable variation across cultures. In his groundbreaking book, Hauser shows that this dominant view is illusory.
Combining his own cutting-edge research with findings in cognitive psychology, linguistics, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, economics, and anthropology, he examines the implications of his theory for issues of bioethics, religion, law, and our everyday lives.
"How do we decide whether something is right or wrong? This fundamental question of moral philosophy has been debated since the dawn of time, but lately scientists have been the ones to take a renewed interest in the nature of good and bad. Psychologists study the twists and turns of moral reasoning; anthropologists ask whether moral values are shared across cultures; neuroscientists look at what happens... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) in the brain when we make moral choices. And ever since Darwin, students of evolution have speculated about how morality helps humans survive. In this book, Marc Hauser — whose portfolio at Harvard encompasses psychology, evolutionary biology, biological anthropology and cognitive evolution — tries to cover all of these various perspectives. He starts by setting up three contrasting views of how we know right from wrong. The first is that there are a few universal principles of what counts as good and as bad. If we learn to reason from these principles, we can then apply them in everyday situations. Kant's 'categorical imperative' is one such rule — never do anything you wouldn't want others to do — and psychologists such as Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg are recent proponents of this approach. The second view of morality Hauser associates with the Scottish philosopher David Hume, who once wrote, 'Reason is, and only ought to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.' Translated into current scientific language, this would mean that evolution has selected some viable responses to moral dilemmas that we then label 'good,' and that is the foundation of morality. We don't need to figure out consciously why some things are good or bad: We feel disgust when we smell or taste rotten food; we feel outrage when we witness cruelty or unfairness. Moral reasoning comes later, to provide arguments and justifications for the genetically programmed responses. Hauser presents ample evidence for both the Kantian and the Humean perspectives, but concludes that a third approach is more consistent with recent scientific evidence. This approach incorporates the best of the two former approaches, as well as the recent writings of political philosopher John Rawls, who argues that there is a universal moral 'grammar' underlying all specific moral norms that different cultures embrace. Taking Rawls' argument as a starting point, Hauser attempts to do for morality what Noam Chomsky did for language, which was to show that all of the tongues spoken by humans follow a limited set of linguistic rules. Human brains have evolved to process linguistic units in very similar ways, even though the actual words used are unrecognizable across cultural boundaries. Similarly, Hauser argues, everywhere on earth people recognize universal values such as fairness, responsibility and gratitude. They also recognize that living and nonliving entities should be treated differently, and that harming someone intentionally is much worse than doing so accidentally. The capacity to make such distinctions appears to be localized in specific areas of the frontal cortex. In other words, the moral grammar is programmed into the brain. But even if we understand the fundamental structure of morality, we cannot predict how people will act. As Hauser is the first to admit, actual moral choices depend on how the culture uses the basic grammar, and on the emotions we experience when we see others contradict what we've learned to believe is good. For instance, although all moral systems tell us that it is wrong to kill one's close kin, the huge moral debates over abortion and euthanasia illustrate how differently this injunction can be interpreted depending on how one defines 'live' and 'not alive.' The book is full of interesting cases describing the changes in moral behavior and reasoning that brain damage can cause, and it includes helpful summaries and moral puzzles for readers to test their ethical sensibilities. While occasionally Hauser seems to lose sight of his original purpose, this is not a dry scholarly treatise. While not exactly an easy read, despite the author's efforts to lighten up the prose with lighthearted graphics, it is readily accessible to anyone with the stamina to hang on through almost 500 pages of dense interdisciplinary argument. While the details Hauser presents are generally convincing, there is one count on which I wish he had been more explicit. Why has evolution selected those moral programs we now find in our brains? And how have society and culture affected how our brains have evolved? Sociologists such as Emile Durkheim have argued for at least a century that living together in groups imposes certain demands on individuals, such as cooperation, hierarchy and self-regulation. In groups that prefer peaceful solutions to violent ones, individuals whose brains can control impulses are likely to prosper and reproduce more readily. And the effect is reciprocal: When there are enough individuals whose brains are slow to anger, the values and institutions of the culture become less violent. Hauser is clearly aware of this co-evolution, but his preference for more biological, individual explanations prevents him from exploring in depth the systemic, sociocultural aspects of morality. Yet if we want rules worth living by, we need our culture to select brains that will serve us well in the perilous future. Values will not survive unaided; if we keep rewarding those who are out only for themselves, it should not surprise us that human brains will resemble more and more those of predators. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of 'Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,' is the Davidson Professor of Psychology at the Claremont Graduate University in California." Reviewed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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About the Author
Marc D. Hauser is the author of the highly acclaimed Wild Minds. He has been featured in the New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Boston Globe, as well as on Today,The Early Show, PBS's Scientific American Frontiers, and NPR. Hauser is Professor of Psychology, Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, and Biological Anthropology at Harvard University, where he is director of the Cognitive Evolution Laboratory and co-director of the Mind, Brain and Behavior Program. He is the recipient of a National Science Foundation Young Investigator Award, a Guggenheim Award, a College de France Science medal, and a Harvard College Professorship chair for his excellence in teaching.
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