Review of “Moral Minds”

by F.

The other day, I mentioned Marc Houser’s forthcoming book Moral Minds. Richard Rorty reviews it and makes two points. First, the book is preliminary:

The exuberant triumphal-ism of the prologue to “Moral Minds” leads the reader to expect that Hauser will lay out criteria for distinguishing parochial moral codes from universal principles, and will offer at least a tentative list of those principles. These expectations are not fulfilled. The vast bulk of “Moral Minds” consists of reports of experimental results, but Hauser does very little to make clear how these results bear on his claim that there is a “moral voice of our species.”

Second, Rorty asks, What is the significance of knowing these “moral principles” that we are born with? Is there any?

[I]magine that we are debating the merits of a proposed change in what we tell our kids about right and wrong. The neurobiologists intervene, explaining that the novel moral code will not compute. We have, they tell us, run up against hard-wired limits: our neural layout permits us to formulate and commend the proposed change, but makes it impossible for us to adopt it. Surely our reaction to such an intervention would be, “You might be right, but let’s try adopting it and see what happens; maybe our brains are a bit more flexible than you think.”It is hard to imagine our taking the biologists’ word as final on such matters, for that would amount to giving them a veto over utopian moral initiatives.

This is really the interesting point.

Unlike Rorty, I tend to think research like Hauser’s is significant: it helps to explain morality in terms of psychology and this should make us cautious about relying on moral intuitions about right and wrong. After all, these intuitions are merely the result of the way our brains and bodies work. In other words, moral reasoning is mostly a sham.

But I agree with Rorty on the utility of this research for designing policy. The fantasy (I guess) is that policymakers will consult this research and then make sure that the laws they write don’t conflict with various human tendencies. But think about it for a minute. Could this happen? In the United States?

Unlikely. “We” can’t even accept stem cell research (“Oh, the horror! It’s a baby!”) How could we ever accept hard-wired morality? And if we could, how would we change policy? Not clear.

The entire article can be found in the International Herald Tribune; it is also in the New York Times Book Review.