The Moral Instinct

i-5ada1cb0d6a6cdbd64eb5be2db7e45bc-moralminds.jpgThe greatest myth within religious communities is that religion is the basis of all morality. Unfortunately for them, science is catching up. Just as Chomsky argued that humans have a language instinct, Marc Hauser from the main campus (Harvard) is arguing that humans have a morality instinct. This idea is mighty dangerous. It underpins the entire culture war in the US. Now Hauser's new book, Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, is making the rounds.

Last week his book was reviewed in the NY Times.

Unfortunately the review was written by a philosopher (Richard Rorty of Stanford) who attempts to shoot down many of Hauser's arguments with his own prejudices:

To convince us that such [a moral] organ exists, Hauser would have to start by drawing a bright line separating what he calls "the moral domain" -- one that nonhuman species cannot enter -- from other domains.

Really? Just another example of human-ego-centrism. So some philosophers and other humanity professors won't like it (or more precisely, will not feel comfortable with it). But religious folk will be downright hostile towards it. This view of human nature challenges the need for religion, regardless of whether religious world views are truth.

A couple of days ago (while microinjecting) I was listening to Marc Hauser on WBUR's On Point (click here to listen). It was a good show. But it is obvious that the idea of a moral instinct, which is not so revolutionary in scientific circles, is downright dynamite within the general public. About a week ago I wrote that when scientists are confronted with culture war propaganda, they should "change the subject" to morality. Many commenters hated that. I guess I was trying to say that scientists should address the foundation of the religious war against secularism, that religion is essential for morality. Marc Hauser's book on evolution-based morality presents exactly the ammunition we need.

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There's probably some mutual misunderstanding going on here. Most philosophers who have tried to get a handle on morality have agreed that it involves basing choices and actions on *reasons*. From that perspective, doing something instinctually, even if it is a good thing in light of reasons that can be adduced in its support, is not itself a moral act.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 08 Sep 2006 #permalink

Actually, there are a lot of philosophers who will like it: virtue ethicists, who have been arguing that we ought to be trying to figure out how to live the good life. If we're wired to seek out morality as a way of living the good life (perhaps to maximize our survival, or attract a mate), this supports what Aristotelians have been saying for a couple of millenia now.

It's just the relativists (and possibly the Kantians) who are in trouble.

Thanks Alex for pointing out this book (normally I read the Times Book Review, but I'm a little busy with moving these days). This is JUST the argument I have with my little brother (who is a hard line conservative) about the evidence for god. His 'evidence' is that he believes humans have an innate sense of right and wrong -- this innate morality -- and he truly believes that this can only come from god. I think that's a load of bull donky if I ever saw one and have tried very hard to argue with thim that it's just not the case. I have tried arguing that "good" as he sees it is evolutionarily advantageous and I've tried arguing that there isnt any innate morality at all and nothing can shake his idea that god explains why (some) humans do good.

I'm not sure what I will think of this book, though I'd like to read it. The religion is NOT essential for morality argument is hard if you believing there IS innate morality at all becasue something had to cause it. Scientists will say it's due to evolution but I actually think that's a difficult argument. I mean, what is morality after all? (like the first commenter said - there's a difference between instinct and reasoning). And no matter what the scientists say, becasue there is an issue with defining morality I don't think religious zealots will stop believing god made morals (or that god causes the evolution which led to the existence of a moral center).

Betty,

It's not that I want religious folk to drop religion, but to tolerate atheists. If they believe that morality requires religion, then they will logically conclude that atheists are immoral. This is plain wrong. This idea that atheists can be moral is what we should be drilling into their heads. Here Hauser provides some evidence + and explanation - like Franz de Waal has done in the past.

His 'evidence' is that he believes humans have an innate sense of right and wrong -- this innate morality -- and he truly believes that this can only come from god.

This argument was attempted by C.S. Lewis, and most recently parroted by Francis Collins, who ought to know better. Someone should send him a copy of this book.

By somnilista, FCD (not verified) on 08 Sep 2006 #permalink

Please... The traditional "argument from morality" is not that morality requires religion, but that it requires a supernatural source. BIG DIFFERENCE. Granted, throughout history there have been half-wits who can't grasp the difference, and so argue that atheists (or those who follow the "wrong" religions) couldn't possibly be ethical. But debunking the most absurd, misshapen versions of an argument isn't anything worth aspiring to or crowing about.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 08 Sep 2006 #permalink

Alex, I actually agree with you 100% - atheists can be moral (or rather, morality does not equal religion and vice versa). I'm just not sure how to explain morality. I definitely don't think it has to be a supernatural force and it may well be genetic, I just think it will be hard to prove. I'm quite interested to see what this book says because it would be nice to have some solid evidence for a change (I'm not familiar with Franz de Waal either, but will check that out as well).

Somnilista - my brother is a huge CS Lewis fan. I'm thinking of sending him this book - at least he's willing to listen/explore other points of view. His mind is just hard to change.

The human-ego-centrism arguements seem, to me, to be completely off base. There are plenty of examples of what could be considered ethical activity in non-human species from altruism to empathy (recently shown in mice in a pain model -- although it could be argued a number of different ways) to social structures for pack animals and insects -- but I'm sure this would be addressed in the book. Why are these concepts so controversial? Moreover (and no offense to anyone) but why on earth do we need to agree that atheists can be moral? Does anyone actually believe that type of junk? I find it almost impossible to believe that you could not get any religious person to agree with that statement. The problem is the us against them (religious vs. secular) group think that allows people to hide behind walls between which never shall anyone cross (at least in the US).

By Theodore Price (not verified) on 08 Sep 2006 #permalink

Over time I've learned not to take anything Rorty says seriously. My first exposer to him was compilation of disparate works that I checked out of the library near my high school. Basically, it sounded to me like he was spouting vacuous gibberish in a deliberate attempt to be contrarian. He's actually attempted to argue for an anti-realism that says scientific reasoning has no basis in fact, and after reading the convoluted, inane prose I was pretty much turned off from philosophy forever.

As for this book, I'll be picking it up soon. Been wanting to for a while.

By Black Cap (not verified) on 08 Sep 2006 #permalink

An evolvable instinct is certainly possible and even probable. (Though I would like to see an explanation for psycho- and sociopaths, even if it is a weaker ability than language. Instinctively know but overrides instinct? Or is it some form of an equivalent to dyslexia? Or must it be trained, as languages? Hmm, the two later seems possible.)

Liz:
Even if the idea makes more sense, and could end up as part of an explanation of morality, why would any remaining cultural relativism be a trouble? Morality is symmetry broken, since there is a common morality in a society.

And one must separate the question of explanation and the question of valuing. Moralities must in all cases be compared to a reasonable morality. If an innate sense of morality tells us that we should murder strangers or commit incest it would certainly not be a reasonable moral instinct. If it is a mainly or all evolved ability good chanses are it is a reasonable and highly functional one, and our morality seems to be such, but it wasn't assured.

By Torbjörn Larsson (not verified) on 08 Sep 2006 #permalink

Please... The traditional "argument from morality" is not that morality requires religion, but that it requires a supernatural source. BIG DIFFERENCE. Granted, throughout history there have been half-wits who can't grasp the difference, and so argue that atheists (or those who follow the "wrong" religions) couldn't possibly be ethical. But debunking the most absurd, misshapen versions of an argument isn't anything worth aspiring to or crowing about.

I can't agree with that. There seems to be a very large number of such "half-wits" out there, so any attempts to dispell the idea should be applauded.

By somnilista, FCD (not verified) on 09 Sep 2006 #permalink

hmm. Humans have an inherent moral compass, but cannot seem to have great difficulties following it. Sounds like orthodox Catholic doctrine to me.

Marc Hauser from the main campus (Harvard) is arguing that humans have a morality instinct.

The notion of a "morality instinct" brings to mind a quote from J. Budziszewski, professor of government and philosophy at Texas:

Morality is not an instinct. If it were, we might think we should resist it, but we wouldn't be able to. The facts are just the opposite. We can and do resist it, but think we shouldn't.

By Ramsey Wilson (not verified) on 14 Sep 2006 #permalink

The answer from Matrix's Theory to Richard Porty:

1)Porty: "In some countries, young men are raised to believe that have a moral obligation to kill their unchaste sisters. It suggests that morality is a matter of nurture than nature."

Matrix: " It is a matter of Nature than nurture, if our theories are right. The phenomenon of "brothers killing sisters,and vice-versa" is happening in this Universe since its origins and it is a process recorded on biological DNA. One minute after the Big Bang, non-material quantum tornadoes popping up from the dark ocean shared in two groups: one with spin right and other with spin left - were at war, trying to kill the ones with contrary spin. This war was the cause of the primordial chaos. Since that the primordial event is still recorded at our DNA, and the following evolution had turning the difference of spins rotation into the difference about sex, the physics dynamics from the war between spins had become unconscious instincts with potential for to turn morally acceptable and obligation to kill the opposite sex. It is all about Nature.

2)Porty: " Nazi parents found it easy to turn their children into conscientious little monsters. It suggests that morality is a matter of nurture than nature."

Matrix: "It is not if we are able to find at any moment of the matrix/DNA history, this behavior being practiced. And really we can see it, when the matrix/DNA was at the evolutionary stage as astronomical system. It was a closed system, and every astronomical body participates in a closed circuit of energy which would to eliminate every foreign body trying to approximate and entering the system. So, this behavior is encrypted at our DNA and every circumstance that calls to action the genes that expresses this behavior, they will do it. It is all about Nature."

There is of course the difficulty of people from different frames of reference using the same terminology differently or different terminology the same.

For instance, the philosopher, the psychologist and the biologist may be using the term "instinct" quite distinctly. (Pun intended.)

How many instincts are there? Some lists got to be so long they became useless for practical purposes. For example, in the 1920's one survey had discovered at least 849 different classes of instincts had been proposed.

The biologist Konrad Lorenz proposed four major groups of instincts: feeding, reproduction, aggression, and flight. From his pshcyological perspective Carl Jung used different labels for the first four analogous to Lorenz, and he added one overlooked by the biologist's human-centricity: hunger, sexuality, activity, reflection, and creativity. These five are sufficient as a biological correlate and basis for all human behavior as expressed in our psychology.

In this framework, "morality" is not a separate instinct; it is the developmental fruit of the five primary instincts as they work though and are expressed using the four functions of consciousness: perception, sensation, thinking, and intuition.

The polarizing functions of consciousness in thinking create the dualistic framework of right and wrong in reference to the biological integrity of the instincts. So it is not that we have a "morality" instinct, but that our moralities are based on our instincts as human consciousness expresses them. Since all humans share the basics of biology and consciousness, there is a common denominator of morality that is instinctually and psychologically founded in all human groups from the family to the clan on up to the culture of a nation or religion.

Alex, you wrote, "This view of human nature challenges the need for religion, regardless of whether religious world views are truth."

I disagree, but perhaps the disagreement is in language and not intent. Seeing morality as based in the biology of instinct does nothing to remove the religious drive, in fact it can enhance it. In other words, this view of human nature doesn't challenge the "need" for religion, it challenges the source of religion. Since, what is illusory or delusional in religions is the psychological projection of personality into the objective world as external "gods", this view of human nature is good for religion because it asks people do do what the mystic pratitioners of religions have alwasys said to do: look for heaven, the gods, and the religious truth within.
Saying "morality is instinctual" doesn't really answer the question if it remains at an objectified dogmatic doctrine of science. In that frame of mind science itself loses its veracity. To be scientific about it one must engage in the introspective inquiry that all religioons teach whether it is called prayer, meditation, or the inner vision quest.

The subtitle "How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong" is a misdirection. Hauser distinguishes on one level between judgements and what we actually do, but below htat is the difference between what we judge.

I don't think framing the qurestion as "our universal sense of right and wrong" is particularly helpful, because "right and wrong" is not a sense but a thought structure built on the senses. All people universally divide the world we perceive and sense into right and wrong categories, but the particular contents of those categories are not rigid.

For example, slavery is considered right by some and wrong by others. Hauser acknowledges that local cultures "tweak" what is considered right and wrong in their own contexts.

So to me there is a universal impuls or instinct that is part of the structure and function of conscoiusness to say things are right and wrong, but how particular individuals, families, clans, tribes and nations place specific events on one side or another are not such universal phenomenon.

Yes there is a species-wide tendency against killing. But taking killing out of a context makes its artificial and putting it into a context makes it no longer universal.

Hauser does pretty good in the radio interivew using his terminology to discuss these problematic aspects with the universiality question.