Moral Minds: Summary and Critique

Marc D. Hauser, Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong (New York: HarperCollins, 2006).


[Thesis.  “[W]e evolved a moral instinct, a capacity that naturally grows within each child, designed to generate rapid judgments about what is morally right or wrong based on an unconscious grammar.  Part . . . was designed by . . . Darwinian selection . . . ; other parts were added or upgraded over the evolutionary history of our species, and are unique both to humans and to our moral psychology” (xvii). John Rawls suggested the analogy with the linguistic faculty that underlies the book’s argument.  Hauser also claims that his view is, on the whole, supported by the evidence:  “I am convinced that the observations tilt toward the Temperate Rawlsian design.  We are endowed with a moral acquisition device . . . with the building blocks for making sense of causes and consequences of actions . . . [and] a suite of unconscious, automatic emotions that can reinforce the expression of some actions while blocking others . . . children . . . build moral systems.  Which system they build depends on their local culture and how it sets the parameters that are part of the moral faculty” (303).  He believes that a “science of morality” is in “the earliest stages of growth” (425).]
Epigraphs.  Darwin; Hume; Chomsky.
Prologue: Righteous Voices.  Statement of thesis (supra).  “I argue that our moral faculty is equipped with a universal moral grammar, a toolkit for building specific moral systems.  Once we have acquired our culture’s specific moral norms . . . we judge . . . actions . . . without conscious reasoning and without explicit access to the underlying principles” (xviii).  Moreover, these “moral instincts” are “immune” to religious or political commands (xviii).  This book offers not a full description, but a simplified analysis.  Example: our “moral instincts” do not recognize a difference between action and omission; ergo the AMA’s ban on killing patients but permission of renouncing means of keeping them alive in certain circumstances generates resistance (xviii-xx).  Pace Longfellow, morality has no need of religion (xx).  Laws should take into account our moral intuitions (xx).
Ch. 1: What’s Wrong?  Philosophers have been too quick to conclude that because of the naturalistic fallacy moral decisions ought not to be made on the basis of what is natural (1-4).  A rambling discussion of moral dilemmas (as opposed to social dilemmas) that leads to an assertion (rather than a demonstration) of our possession of a “moral faculty,” defined as “an organ of the mind that carries a universal grammar of action” (8; 11; 4-11).  In a historical section that I find extremely hard to follow, Hauser seems to think he has demonstrated the inadequacy of a tradition of moral thought (Hobbes, Descartes, Kant, Piaget, Kohlberg) that depends on reasoning (12-21).  Hume and Martin Hoffman offer an intuitional (emotion- or empathy-based) account of moral psychology (22-31).  Moral distinctions that emerge from artificial scenarios (including the famous trolley sacrifice) are useful tools (32-36).  Reassertion of the moral faculty hypothesis, with paternity attributed to Adam Smith and Hume (36).  Cf. Chomsky’s linguistics (37-42).  Since John Rawls was also interested in this project, Hauser posits a “Rawlsian creature” operating according to a moral faculty to juxtapose to his reasoning “Kantian creature” and his emotional “Humean creature” (42-44).  This produces three “models of our moral judgments” to be tested by “scientific evidence” (45; 44-53).  Description of “the Rawlsian creature’s moral faculty” in ten propositions:  1. The moral faculty is a set of principles.  2. It produces rapid judgments.  3. The principles are inaccessible. 4. And independent of sensory origin. 5. And innate.  6. Acquisition of a moral system is effortless.   7. The moral faculty constrains what ethical systems can be.  8. Only the principles are common and unique.  9. Other mental capacities are used in its functioning.  10. Deficits in morality can result from inadequacies of these other capacities (53-54).
PART I: UNIVERSAL DECLARATIONS [Morality in human societies]
Ch. 2: Justice for All.  Thomas Huxley, Bishop Wilberforce, Richard Dawkins, Thomas Jefferson (59-61).  A comparison of two cases leads to “a principle”: “If we can directly prevent, with a high degree of certainty, something bad without sacrificing anything of comparable significance, we are obliged to do it” (64).  Exposition of Rawls’s ideas about justice as fairness (64-71).  A principle-and-parameter approach: the moral faculty is responsible for principles, but each culture sets different parameters that determine when it is triggered (71-74).  George Lakoff has distinguished ten sorts of fairness: equality of distribution; equality of opportunity; procedural distribution; rights-based fairness; needs-based fairness; scalar distribution; contractual distribution; equal distribution of responsibility; scalar distribution of responsibilities; equal distribution of power (74-75).  Social psychology experiments using games of competition (75-82).  They point toward “strong reciprocity” as “a uniquely human cognitive adaptation”—defined as “predisposition to cooperate with others and to punish those who violate the norms of cooperation, even when such punishment involves costs that cannot be recouped” (82).  Cross-cultural experiments suggest the degree to which parameters may be acceptable (83-85).  Presumably the long hunter-gatherer past of humanity shaped the moral faculty, disposing it to egalitarianism provided there is nomadism and no food storage (85-87).  Other experiments show that discussion of principles is also an important factor in judgments of fairness (88-90).  Concern for the weak also matters, which Hauser frames as a “reference transaction,” i.e. a transaction where the terms you get have reference to your situation – intuitively, we tend to object to such terms (90-93).  Another factor is “duration neglect” in “evaluative memory” and the tendency to make moral judgments based on peak and end experiences, which Daniel Kahneman regards as “built into the structure of our tastes” (93-95).  Studies of how social norms are maintained suggest that “strong reciprocity” may be “a recent cognitive invention” (103; 96-103).  The fact that expectations about punishment are “built into our moral faculty over evolutionary time” needs to be taken into account (103-10).  The inborn capacity to “carve up continuous events into discrete action phrases, and to interpret an object’s actions in terms of five core principles” is crucial to their becoming moral agents (181; 178-82).  Reflections on the development of a sense of self and its link to feelings (182-87).
Ch. 3: Grammars of Violence.  Social-science experiments involving hypothetical acts with fatal consequences over the past thirty-odd years tentatively support the moral faculty hypothesis by demonstrating that certain moral ideas are widely held but cannot be accounted for by those holding them (111-31).  Work by Richard Nisbett & Dov Cohen as well as by Stanley Milgram demonstrate how cultures can set different parameters for recourse to violence (131-42).  Honor killings show that social norms have the “power . . . to both set the principles and parameters of permissible killing, and to convert them from descriptive to prescriptive principles”; in other words, it is not the case that principles are universal and parameters are cultural [this seems to contradict the third proposition on p. 53] (154; 142-55).  When we judge our own actions, what we think about this is “most likely a poor representation of the moral faculty’s output,” its “codes” (156; 155-59).
PART II: NATIVE SENSE [On human moral development]
Ch. 4: The Moral Organ.  [Longest chapter – 79 pages.]  Preliminary remarks about studying early moral development (163-66).  Since a person does must be distinguished from how a person judges a situation, looking can be used as “a measure of knowing,” which can be used to reveal an “innate system” that guides infants’ “comprehension of the world” (171; 178; 166-78).  Like sentences, events are complex wholes; “Infants are equipped with the capacity to carve up continuous events into discrete action phrases, and to interpret an object’s actions in terms of five core principles” (181; 178-82).  Reflections on the development of a sense of self (182-87).  The role of emotions (187-96) and disgust (196-200).  Experiments have shown that children develop theory of mind and the ability to judge actions morally sooner than previously realized (200-08).  Studies suggest that children have “unconscious knowledge of the biological world” (208-11).  This includes race:  “though race is a human creation . . . it is part of our evolved psychology” (211).  This relates to our inclination to develop stereotypes and prejudices.  “Though neither class nor race is a biological category, our mind is equipped with the hardware and software to pick out cues that identify the other . . . we can’t erase the constraints that our mind imposes on our perceptions” (212).  However, “this process is neither specific to the moral faculty nor operative in the same way”; it can be modified by rational thought, unlike the moral faculty, whose principles are inaccessible to us (213-14).  Patience is generally a predictor of future moral behavior, but patience is not always a virtue (214-19).  So far no “uniquely dedicated moral organ” has been discovered, but there is promising progress in identifying how emotion and, especially, the mirror neuron system may play a part in the “circuitry” of morality (219-25).  Individuals with damaged amygdalae tilt in a utilitarian direction, but make normal moral judgments in some regards (225-32).  Evidence from the study of psychopaths (232-41).
Ch. 5: Permissible Instincts.  Presenting the relation between parents (and particularly the mother) and the infant as conflictual, Hauser discusses some of the ways the infant ensures resources and attention to meeting its needs (242-51).  He speculates that in addition to possessing a highly egoistic perspective (which he associates with the fetus’s being “a warrior, a selfish, resource-sucking machine” [272]), in the human mind there also “coexists” an inclination to reciprocity given certain conditions (an inclination that “may well be uniquely human” [272]) (251-55).  Study of young children indicates that their basic competence in judging fairness is established long before the ability for precise numerical computation (255-63).  Experiments investigating how young children approach lying and truth-telling suggest that there is a significant “mismatch between moral competence and performance” on their part (263-72).  Experiments also suggest that “our ability to detect cheaters who violate social norms is one of nature’s gifts” (282; 272-82).  Emotions play a role in moral life, but they cannot be depended on, because “We are a hybrid species” (289; 282-89).  Social conventions and moral rules are not governed by the same psychological principles, acc. to Hauser (289-96).  He rejects both the nature and nurture as the source of morality, and takes an Aristotelian view: “We are adapted by nature to receive [virtues], and they are made perfect by habit” (Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, though Hauser does not give the source”) (297).  The chapter concludes with a reiteration of his view and an assertion that “the observations tilt” toward his view (303; 298-303).
PART III: EVOLVING CODE [The light animals and evolution shed on human morality]
Ch. 6: Roots of Right.  Darwin was right in believing that any social animal with mentality as or nearly as well developed as humanity would evolve a moral sense; the perspective of the gene suffices to resolve the paradox of self-sacrifice (307-13).  Hauser finds the evidence of animals’ possessing the “principles of action” he identified in Chap. 4 to be tenuous (313-22).  Behavior with mirrors that animals recognize an image as their own does not tell us what an animal is thinking (322-26).  Animals’ emotions, whatever they are, are involved in the evaluation of the actions of others (326-34).  Experimental work with animals in the late 1990s and since has revealed that animals definitely do have ‘theory of mind’ (334-41).  Animals have the capacity to wait for a greater reward (341-46).  Dmitry Belyaev (1917-1985) did experiments in domestication that showed that “selection can rapidly transform the brain of a mammal as complex as the silver fox,” but “[i]n selecting for an outcome . . . we don’t necessarily capture the psychology” (351; 346-51).  Experimental reveal altruism in animals but explanations are controversial (351-55).  Only humans appear to have evolved a full set of the capacities needed for a moral faculty (355-56).
Ch. 7: First Principles.  The Golden Rule; various formulations (357-58).  Dawkins’s the selfish gene solution to the problem of altruism (359-60).  Varieties of parenting – and the gene-survival factors that influence them (360-69).  Outside of parenting, property and dominance relationships and hierarchies structure social behavior (369-77).  Cooperation also appears to be regulated by consideration of genetic advantage (377-82).  Given the importance of food, it is not surprising that food exchanges play an important role (383-92).  The way the question of fairness seems to enter into social relations raises many important questions (393-97).  Acts of deception add complexities that need to be explored (398-403).  Punishment has been observed, but not, so far, in response to individuals cheating in a cooperative relationship (i.e. betrayal) (403-08).  The suite of traits that “appear uniquely human” are “certain aspects of a theory of mind, the moral emotions, inhibitory control, and punishment of cheaters” (413).  Animals should not be judged to be moral or not moral (413-14).  Given how radically our circumstances have evolved from the hunter-gatherer societies that evolved our moral faculty, we are doomed to moral uneasiness (415-18).
Epilogue: The Right Impulse.  “[T]here is reason to believe that there are universal properties of the human mind that constrain the range of cultural variation” (419).  Hauser regards the principal opposition to his theory to be based on hostility to biological explanations of morality, and he tries to refute what he thinks are the bases for this hostility:  that biology eliminates free will, that it means morality is encoded in DNA, and that it eliminates the religious grounding of morality.
Notes.  18 pp.
References.  30 pp.
Index.  15 pp.
About the Author (Dust Jacket).  Marc D. Hauser was, at the times Moral Minds was published, Professor of Psychology, Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, and Biological Anthropology at Harvard University, where he directs the Cognitive Evolutionary Laboratory and co-directs the Mind, Brain and Behavior Program.  He was won many awards for his work as a scholar and teacher and has appeared frequently in popular media.  He is the author of Wild Minds: What Animals Really Think (2000).
[Additional information.  Marc Hauser was born on Oct. 25, 1959.  He graduated from Bucknell University in 1981 and completed his Ph.D. at UCLA in 1987.  He was an extremely productive scholar and popular teacher at Harvard before resigning in 2011 after being barred from teaching in the Psychology Department or any other Arts and Sciences Department, having been found guilty of eight instances of scientific misconduct, three involving published work and five involving unpublished studies.  One 2002 paper showing that cotton-top tamarin monkeys could learn simple rule-like patterns was retracted.  A three-year investigation found that he had fabricated data, manipulated results, and incorrectly described studies, but the details of the investigation were not released.  Hauser was also condemned in 2012 by the Office of Research Integrity of the Health and Human Services Department, barring him from certain types of research.  The case was reported in The New York Times (Nicholas Wade, “In Harvard Lab Inquiry, a Raid and 3-Year Wait,” Aug. 13, 2010) and discussed in The Nation.  The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that Hauser falsely coded videotapes of monkey behavior, resisted research assistants’ to requests to have them re-coded, and pressured students to accept his analysis.  When they re-coded them without his permission, their results differed greatly.  An article in New Scientist reported that it was complaints by students that led Harvard to open its investigation.  In 2013, he published Evilicious: Explaining Our Evolved Taste for Being Bad (VikingPenguin-USA; Random House-UK, 2013), but does not directly address therein the academic scandal in which he was involved.  WorldCat shows the book is available in only one library; Moral Minds is in 950 libraries.]
[A critique.   Hauser is not an able writer.  He slings words artlessly and uses them not only imprecisely but improperly.  (In a 2008 interview, he twice used cohere as a transitive verb, and in Moral Minds there are many examples:  he uses extracting for identifying (9), prowess for prestige (20), arresting as an intransitive verb (132), etc., etc.).   To judge from his writing, Hauser’s grasp of language seems defective, or perhaps it is his writing process that is flawed.  But in oral interviews he also makes mistakes (e.g. he used cohere as a transitive verb twice in an interview).  He seems to have trouble with the transitive/intransitive distinction; on pp. 84ff. he uses reject as an intransitive verb.  One would be inclined to suggest that Hauser is poorly educated; and yet Hauser was an extremely popular, award-winning teacher at Harvard.  
The book is ineptly written to a degree that is astonishing.  Not infrequently, paragraphs wander about, contain bizarre assertions, fail to document sources, misuse language both semantically and syntactically, mix metaphors, and reason poorly.  The terms from which Hauser constructs his arguments, such as they are, do not inspire confidence, for they derive from loose analogies to machines or computers (e.g. “machinery . . . decoding . . . engineering . . . circuitry” [39]; “our mind is equipped with the hardware and software to pick out cues that identify the other” [212]). As for Marc Hauser personally, there are occasional personal anecdotes, but no implicit authorial persona emerges. – Hauser has a tendency to assume what he is demonstrating.  He does not recognize that Chomsky’s language instinct is not well established, and his belief in a burgeoning “moral science” (425) seems a leap of faith.  As he acknowledges, the fruits of this alleged science are principally a comforting faith that all human beings share something that is ultimately mysterious, indefinable, and not very useful.
                                                         Mark K. Jensen

About jensenmk

My enthusiasm for French is undimmed after 27 years of teaching the language and its literature at Pacific Lutheran University (1989-2016)! Anyone curious about my other interests can browse my library at the LibraryThing link below.
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