Monday, February 5, 2007

Moral Monkeys

From today's Boston Globe:

Morality, [Marc Hauser] argues, is influenced by cultural teachings but is also so deep and universal an aspect of human existence that it is effectively "hard-wired" into the brain, much like the instinct for language...

A psychologist, evolutionary biologist, and anthropologist, Hauser has felt students grow restless as he talks about the underpinnings of morality. In one class, he said, a student complained, "I know where you're going: Because it's universal, it's biological, and therefore there's no role for religion."

Hauser recalls responding: "I'm not saying you shouldn't derive meaning from religion. I'm just telling you that at some level, the nature of the moral judgments that you make and I make are the same, even though I don't go to church and you do..."

In general, Hauser's morality work is part of a growing movement called experimental philosophy that has philosophers rising from their armchairs and seeking to gather hard evidence on the deep moral workings of the mind: "evidence from evolutionary theory, from comparing humans to other animals, and other methods to derive constraints on the nature of these principles, constraints we couldn't just derive by reasoning alone," said Joshua Knobe, an experimental philosopher at UNC.

I found the student's objection curious. Why can't religion be a formalized, ritualized expression of innate biological instincts? Why couldn't Hauser's research point us to a divine, conscious design for humanity? From this perspective, organized religion is not the font of morality--that lies elsewhere--but it does retain an important role in operationalizing morality in everyday life, helping people to navigate ethical choices, and joining with others in a mutually supportive community. Of course, I suspect the student's complaint has more to do with power than morality.

People interested in these issues might want to read this dialogue at the Daddy Dialectic blog, about the role of religion in raising moral kids.