Sunday, July 12, 2009

Are We Born Moral?


by Thomas Riggins

The above named article by John Gray appears in The New York Review of Books for May 10, 2007. It is a critical commentary on two new books-- Marc D. Hauser’s “Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong” (Ecco, 458pp.) and Frans de Waal, et al, “Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved” (Princeton University Press, 209pp.)

I am only going to comment on the first book as I have previously discussed de Waal in “Marxism, Monkeys and Morality” which is in the archive.

Gray makes an important point early on in his article, and that is, that if evolution is correct, then the human capacity for morality must have come about “in some part from evolutionary processes.” Some might argue, I think, that this is true but all those processes arose after we split from the common ancestor we share with the chimps so that, as a result, morality is a purely human affair restricted to the genus Homo if not to our species alone.

There is evidence, however, that human morality can be traced back to our primate ancestors. This was Darwin’s view, and Gray quotes the following passage from “The Descent of Man”: “Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts.... would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed or nearly as well developed, as in man.”

And, Gray maintains, the idea that morality is something unique to humanity is ultimately based on the view that we are “exempt from the evolutionary laws that govern other animals.” Hauser, however, doesn't share this view. He thinks that "both moral judgment and behavior are largely the product of unconscious [inherited] processes."

He thinks, in other words, "that humans have an inborn moral faculty, parts of which they share with other animals." This is based on his research (he a professor of psychology at Harvard) on monkeys and other primates. I should point out that there is evidence of empathy, compassion, social awareness, tool use, sympathy and sharing exhibited by monkeys and chimps. Human moral systems are based on such feelings and behaviors and it is perfectly rational and scientific to see our moral systems as part of an evolutionary continuum reaching back and deriving from our prehuman ancient primate ancestors.

Gray points out that the world's major religions, at least in the western big three (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) think of morality as a system of principles to be followed which are unique to humans because revealed by a supernatural being. Gray calls this a morality of "acting on rational principles" shared by western religions and philosophy (Kant and Rawls both of whom influenced Hauser).

I don't agree, however, that religion acts on rational principles. The natural human compassion and empathy that we inherited is in fact repressed by religion and turned into their opposites. So-called religious people who use their "moral" beliefs to justify honor killings, repressing women's rights, or starting wars and invading other countries, or trying to steal the land from other people are not following a natural morality based on empathy, compassion, and social cooperation.

Gray is partial to David Hume's views on morality he quotes him (Treatise on Human Nature): "When any hypothesis... is advanc'd to explain a mental operation, which is common to men and beasts, we must apply the same hypothesis to both."

Gray says he agrees with Hauser on the evolutionary origin of morality, but not on an innate moral structure (analogous to Chomsky's views on language). "Applying principles," he writes, "remains a distinctive feature of moral life, but one that reflects human conventions rather than rules of conduct hardwired in the human brain."

In sum, Hauser's book is important and we can learn about the latest scientific consensus regarding our evolutionary inheritance from it, but that inheritance is more like a foundation upon which human morality has developed and expanded rather than as one that is built into us determining how we must act and behave within preconditioned parameters.

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