Reviews of Moral Minds

i-0f5ffcd205b6446ca333d174ddf676cd-moralminds.JPGVia Will Wilkerson, I learned of Richard Rorty's very good review of Marc Hauser's Moral Minds. He's very critical both of Hauser's moral nativism and of Hauser's more optimistic claims about the study of moral psychology. John McKhail, who is a moral nativist, and has done some interesting work on the topic (which I've cited on this blog), replies to Rorty's review here.

I've been talking about this subject for about a year now here on the blog, and have been interested in the literature (and thinking of ways to put my hat into the moral psychology ring) for a few years now, so I'm somewhat invested in this discussion. I haven't read Hauser's book yet (hey, Ecco, if you send me a copy, I promise to review it!), but I've been looking forward to it since I heard that it was coming out. I have to admit, though, that on the issues, I tend to find myself on Rorty's (and Wilkerson's) side. I'm generally to an empiricist (though I'm fickle), but in the case of moral judgment specifically, nativism feels a lot like the age-old attempt to find universal moral principles that has always failed, both in philosophy and in everyday life. The more I learn of moral psychology, the more I'm convinced that looking for moral principles at all, in the head, is the wrong way to go about it. It would be better to think about moral judgment as the product of moral theories (which are learned and mutable, and often used or even developed post hoc), along with the heavy influence of moral emotions, some of which may be the product of human evolutionary history.

The book should be an interesting read, though, and both Rorty's review and McKhail's response, along with hsi own work on the topic (some of which he links to in his post) are as well, so check them out.

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The Wilkerson link didn't work for me. I have no dog in this fight, and I'm finding the book kind of inconsistent, but I think Rorty's review is sloppy. He goes for a too-easy kill and paints Hauser as more of a strict nativist than he comes across in the book. Hauser in no way suggests that there are immutable, impermeable moral beliefs that neither need nor are open to tweaking. There is plenty of room to critique Hauser in a more fair, nuanced way.

I fixed the link to Wilkerson's blog.

I'll definitely have to read the book before I make a decision about Hauser's specific take on the whole thing, but I have seen him talk about it in Chomskyan terms, and I find that disturbing in princple.

Thanks for fixing the link. I think the Chomsky analogy is somewhat *suggestive* but ultimately misleading and clunky.

I don't think it captures what Hauser is trying to get
across--which is, I believe, that in order to sort out what is "Moral with a Capital M," we need first to identify our innate and culturally-inflected "moral" systems working behind the scenes and see how those can trip us up when we try to decide what is truly for the best. And that (here I'm less certain) emotions move us to act in accordance with our unconscious judgements, rather than the other way around. Something like that.

He's a bit too utilitarian for my tastes, and I'd like to see one of you people who who actually know what you're talking about rip apart that aspect of his argument, but he really is not saying that we should either 1) treat our (allegedly) innate moral sense as the last word on Morality or 2) view all culturally -inflected moral systems as equally valid.

Anyway, looking forward to your post once you've read it.

Chris, although I have seen you self-describe as an empiricist before, I thought your review of Haidt's work suggested that you were fairly favourably disposed toward it, and its pretty nativist, I would have thought? Although not to the extent of suggesting there is any innate 'moral grammer' of course.

I haven't read Hauser's book, but I was wondering what you were getting at ada, with the commment about Utilitarianism and what followed. All I will say is that Joshua Greene has come out very strongly in favour of Utilitarianism on the basis of empirical work, and although his argument for it is weird, it is quite strong in its own way, I think. As for the second part, what are you saying with "..but he is not really saying..." ? Maybe it is unclear because I haven't read it?

Nick, what I find favorable in Haidt's work isn't really his belief in innate moral emotions -- I'd certainly be willing to grant that a part of our moral repertoir is innate to some degree, but not that it's inherently "moral" -- but that moral judgment is largely a motivated, hot-cognition phenomenon, and that much of it takes place unconsciously. I find that favorable because I find it strange to think that moral cognition is radically different from other cognition.

Now, as for utilitarianism, Greene argues for it, and just about everyone who uses the trolley and footbridge dilemmas assumes it's the right way to make moral decisions in those dilemmas. Honestly, my intuitions are mixed in those dilemmas, and I don't think utilitarianism is the obviously objective right way to solve them. Also, I don't think that there are obvious psychological arguments for or against utilitarianism (some, like William Casebeer and Will Wilkerson, have argued that the psychological/neuroscientific data argues for a virtue ethics, even). I just don't think you can get anything like that out of the data (Greene himself argues against getting a "neural ought" from a "neural is").

I see. Have you read his forthcoming chapter which is going to be in the volume(s) edited by Walter Sinnot-Armstrong? I guess like other Utilitarians, he is arguing that we shouldn't be using our intuitions as 'data', in the sense that so many following Rawls want to. I don't really know about all of this, I just think that Greene raises a legitimate point about the difficulties in our intuitive responses being shaped by all sorts of non-moral processes. In any case I guess the Jury is still out on all of this.

Actually, the approach that I like best is that advocated by Cass Sunstein in his BBS article "Moral Heuristics". He uses Kahneman & Tversky style heurisitcs research to argue for a consequentialist approach. The less radical demand to at least ignore intuitions that seem mistaken from the agent's own point of view seems far more workable than the 'discard it all' approach of Greene. (which he seems to inhereted from Jon Baron, amongst others)

Yeah, the Sustein paper is interesting. I think I talked about it a bit in one of the moral judgment posts, but I'm not sure.

My own view, which is a general view of the practical side of cognitive science, is that in practice, we should use our knowledge of how we represent and process information to better communicate with people, and to make it easier for them to use whatever it is we're selling, be it a product or a moral theory. That doesn't mean, however, that our moral theory should be dictated by what we know about how we represent and process information.

I picked up a 1978 copy of "On Human Nature" by Edward O. Wilson and just completed my perusal. That work sure seems to to have some parallels to Hauser's work. Perhaps someone more acquainted with this subject than I should take a look. I'm surprised that I have not read anything about what appears to be some similarities.

By Clark Richards (not verified) on 31 Oct 2006 #permalink