Hauser at Edge

by F.

Marc Hauser spoke at a literary festival last October in Barcelona, the theme of which was “Darwin Y La Tercera Cultura,” which I think means it had something to do with Darwin and the letter Y. Anyhoo, part of his talk about morality and the mind is up at

There has been a long history—a very old tradition—about the sources of our moral judgments. Where do they come from?

Many moral philosophers, legal scholars, think that the way that we deliver a moral judgment, like you just did, comes from reasoning. It comes from thinking about the principles, maybe utilitarian (more saved is better than less saved). You work through the principles in a conscious, reasonable, rational way. This was certainly a view that someone like Kant was very much in favor of; how you deliberate with your moral judgments.

Now opposing that view — diametrically opposed — was a view that dates back at least to Hume, which is that when we give a moral judgment, we do so based on our emotions. It just feels wrong, or it feels right, to do something, and that’s why we do it, that’s why we say it’s morally right or morally wrong.

What I want to argue for you today is that both of those views, which have dominated the entire field of moral philosophy, are wrong.

I think it’s very clear that the first view is wrong. But why does Hauser think Hume is wrong?

[a moral conclusions] is not based on emotion. It’s based on a calculus—that the mind has, that it evolved to solve particular kinds of moral dilemmas. And it’s not learned, either; it’s there in place early in development.

The answer seems to come from studying psychopaths, who have a very interesting property: they (1) have a moral sense and yet (2) do not have the “right” emotions, from which it follows that emotion is not what’s allowing that moral sense to function:

Take the disorder that people are aware of, acutely aware of, in society. It’s called psychopathy—people who are known for massive killings. They kill, often with no regret: they don’t feel guilt, they don’t feel shame, and they don’t feel empathy. Now people have described that as a problem of lacking any moral sense. I think that’s completely the wrong interpretation. What psychopathy is is a case where they have completely intact moral knowledge. They would judge these cases just like everybody else in the room. What blocks them is a lack of emotion that puts the brakes on once they’ve made the judgment. So emotions are affecting what you do, not how you judge the situation.

Sounds plausible, though I have some reservations about his methodology. I’ve gone to Hauser’s website and taken his moral dilemma tests, which are the usual philosophy thought experiments, and the problem is this: I’m not sure posing moral dilemma’s to people is a very good gauge of their moral intuitions—that is, I’m not sure it tests what they would really do if they were presented with such a case in real life.

This may seem like a trivial criticism, but I remember talking to undergrads about moral dilemmas posed in Ethics (philosophy) classes and it was pretty clear that you could get them to think almost anything, depending on how you set up the example. And I think we’re all like that. Vivid examples with sympathetic characters made the undergrads go one way, vague examples with unsympathetic characters another. It seemed highly affective—like Hume said. And juries, it’s pretty clear, can be swayed this way and that by effective lawyering. How many moral dilemmas in real life are a clean as the examples presented in a philosophy class or an Hauser’s website? Exactly none. So Hauser is studying something else—not our actual capacity to make moral decisions.

Even if we have this moral sense, perhaps it gets “revised” by affect, and this would seem to make Hume right after all: the strictly cognitive and the affective are not seperable.

And then there’s the big question: If we all have the same moral sense or “moral grammar,” why do we disagree so vehemently and incessantly about moral questions? We don’t have the same sort of disagreements about the grammaticality of sentences.