On the Moral Sense

by F.

Thankfully, naturalism in ethics seems to be coming back in fashion. Marc Hauser has a new book coming out at the end of the month (Moral Minds) which sounds interesting. According to an interview with Hauser in American Scientist,

the human sense of right and wrong, which evolved over millions of years, precedes our conscious judgments and emotions, providing a hidden engine of moral intuition that’s shared by people around the world.

More significantly,

“Our moral instincts are immune to the explicitly articulated commandments handed down by religions and governments…. Sometimes our moral intuitions will converge with those that culture spells out, and sometimes they will diverge.”

I’ll say. But how does this work, exactly? Well, Hauser thinks that

we are endowed with a moral faculty that delivers judgments of right and wrong based on unconsciously operative and inaccessible principles of action.

While unrelated to doughnuts, I cannot resist a suitably Homeric reaction: “Mmmmm…unconscious and inaccessible…” Anyhoo,

[I posit] a universal moral grammar, built into the brains of all humans. The grammar is a set of principles that operate on the basis of the causes and consequences of action. Thus, in the same way that we are endowed with a language faculty that consists of a universal toolkit for building possible languages, we are also endowed with a moral faculty that consists of a universal toolkit for building possible moral systems.

By grammar I simply mean a set of principles or computations for generating judgments of right and wrong. These principles are unconscious and inaccessible. What I mean by unconscious is different from the Freudian unconscious. It is not only that we make moral judgments intuitively, and without consciously reflecting upon the principles, but that even if we tried to uncover those principles we wouldn’t be able to, as they are tucked away in the mind’s library of knowledge. Access comes from deep, scholarly investigation.

Yeah, yeah—grammar, evolutionary psychology, yadda yadda yadda. Sounds like the same old speculative investigation, a la Robert Wright in The Moral Animal, you say? Not exactly. Hauser’s doing experiments—on psychopaths! Dig:

we are testing psychopaths in collaboration with James Blair of the NIH. The prediction is that psychopaths will show normal patterns of responses to various moral dilemmas, but show deficits in what they actually do. That is, they will have intact moral knowledge, but deficits in morally relevant actions due to problems of emotional control.

Not only is he studying psychopaths, but also people like our old friend Phineas Gage, the Paris Hilton of the psychology world (that is, he didn’t really do anything, but he sure gets a lot of coverage). These people have

damage to the frontal lobes… [and] have been characterized as “acquired sociopaths,” given that the damage leads to socially inappropriate behavior. The most famous of these patients is Phineas Gage, who in the 19th century suffered severe damage to the frontal lobes due to injury from a railroad tamping iron and went from a model citizen to an individual who lost his job, lost all sense of social appropriateness and ultimately became a vagrant, aimlessly wandering from town to town….

Whereas these patients show normal patterns of responses to a relatively large class of moral dilemmas, they show highly abnormal responses on one specific type of dilemma. In particular, where the action involves personal contact with another individual, and where the choice is between harming one versus many, and there are no clear social norms available to decide, these patients consistently take the utilitarian route, selecting the option that yields the greatest good regardless of the means required to achieve such ends. Thus, damage to this particular area of the brain, one that connects emotional processing with high-level decision making, yields a highly selective deficit in moral judgment.

You can test your own moral sense here. Personally, I found the wording of these questions a little odd and hard to understand—I took me a minute to figure out what a couple of the questions meant, which seems strange if the test is meant to gauge gut reactions. But whatever.