Ben Lipscomb

Moral Minds

A second look at a controversial evolutionary psychologist.

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And it does turn out. Granted, Hauser's research subjects come principally from economically developed contexts—contexts in which someone can come across and complete an internet survey—but his subjects are otherwise diverse. And all major subsets of his subjects, to date, show three tendencies: 1) they decide cases by head-counting, when it is only a matter of redirecting a trolley; 2) they are unwilling to push someone onto the tracks, even to save a greater number; and 3) they are seldom articulate, regarding either 1) or 2), as to why they respond as they do.

Hauser notes that one can articulate for his subjects a principled justification: the most coherent, illuminating one is a variant of the traditional Catholic doctrine of double-effect, according to which one may participate in bringing about a bad effect provided that the bad effect is merely a foreseen consequence of what one does, and neither one's intended end nor one's chosen means to that end. So, one can redirect the trolley away from the five and toward the one, because one does not intend the death of the one (rather, one's aim is to minimize loss of life) and is not using the one as a means of stopping the trolley (rather, one saves the five by redirecting a trolley onto a track which, by unhappy accident, is occupied). The question Hauser asks, then, is how best to explain our convergence on a philosophical principle—or, more precisely, our being guided in our judgments by such a principle—given our inarticulacy about that principle?

His reply—his hypothesis—is that what Noam Chomsky and his followers say of human languages can likewise be said of human morals: they are as similar as they are because they reflect universal, innate, inherited structures of the mind; and they vary, from place to place, only within a range delimited by those structures. Chomsky posits a universal grammar, and argues that the variation we see among human languages occurs within a range of possibilities defined by this grammar. Thus one can divide artificial languages into possible and impossible—not with respect to mere internal consistency, but with respect to whether a community of human adults could pass them along to its children as natural languages.

Hauser posits, analogously, a "moral grammar," according to which some rudimentary principles about actions, consequences, and responsibility are universal, innate, and inherited. These principles, like the rudimentary constraints of Chomsky's universal grammar, are consistent with a variety of particular moral codes, worked out in the context of particular cultures. Hauser calls this "parametric variation." But the variation is always within a range, and this is why principles like the golden rule and the principle of double-effect—or patterns of judgment that can be best described with reference to those principles—turn up all over the place. And with reference to these principles, we can distinguish (for instance) between legal codes that conform to these principles and codes that violate them, and predict the instability of the latter. (Inexplicably, Hauser thinks the distinction, in medical ethics, between killing and letting die—an application of the principle of double-effect—is unstable in this way. At this and at a few other points, he seems merely to be venting his political and [anti-]theological opinions, without bothering about whether they follow from—or even cohere with—his science.)

Not that most of us can articulate the principles by which we judge our own and others' actions. But neither can most of us articulate the principles by which we judge our own and others' utterances. We can't even do this, most of us, with the principles specific to our native languages, let alone those underlying all human languages. We know these principles, but unless a Socrates (or a Chomsky) presses us to reflect, we do not typically know that we know them.

What are the alternatives? What does Hauser oppose? Brockman's clients are—Brockman's brand is—overthrowers of settled views. The view Hauser is particularly concerned to overthrow is that moral judgments are mostly or entirely a matter of conscious calculation and inference—a view he claims has lots of adherents. It does not stoke confidence when Hauser cites the training offered by law schools (in distinctions! and arguments!), and the care people take, writing up contracts, as manifestations of this view. That people work hard to make and apply consistent policies, and that they carefully negotiate their agreements with others, is hardly tantamount to their believing that "conscious moral reasoning from explicit principles is the cause of our moral judgments."

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