Interview with Marc Hauser on Point of Inquiry

Interview with Marc Hauser on Point of Inquiry April 24, 2008

Point of Inquiry (the Podcast from the Center for Inquiry) has an interview with Marc Hauser, Cognitive Evolution Laboratory, Harvard University and author of Moral Minds. From the synopsis:

In this interview with D.J. Grothe, Marc Hauser expounds his theory that morality has biological origins while challenging the common view that morality comes from God. He compares the human capacity for morality with Noam Chomsky’s notion of a universal grammar, arguing that there is a “morality module” in the brain. He explains how his theory accounts for differences in morality across cultures, and discusses how morality could have evolved and what genetic benefit it might have afforded. He also explores the implications of his theory for the legal system, and for cultural institutions like religion and the family.

The crux of Hauser’s argument is that there is a moral grammar, similar to Chomsky’s universal grammar. Although morality is culturally dependent, all cultures share certain building blocks that are biologically derived.

Most of this is covered in his book, but he has some interesting new evidence from data gathered from the Moral Sense Test. For example, they’ve found that harm that is directly done as a means to a greater good is worse than harm that is a foreseen consequence of an action done for the greater good. In the case of the classic trolley test, pushing a fat guy onto a railway to stop an oncoming train killing 5 others (a direct action) is worse than pulling a lever that diverts the train away from the 5 others to hit a fat guy (a foreseen consequence). This seems to hold across cultures, education levels, religiosity etc.

The implication is, for example, that active euthanasia is more likely to conflict with the built-in ‘moral compass’ than is passive euthanasia. Hauser’s keen to strees that this moral grammar can be over-ridden in specific circumstances – people can learn to behave differently – but that there are implications for, say policy makers, as regards which policies the electorate are likely to stomach.

Because this is the Center for Enquiry doing the interview, there’s also lots else in there of interest for humanists, including some nice stuff on the difference between religion and science, what the implications are for the notion that religion is the source of moral behaviour (short answer: it isn’t), and what does this all mean for the notion of free will and culpability.

There’s also a link to to an article from a couple of years ago in Free Inquiry by Marc Hauser and Peter Singer, Morality Without Religion, the gist of which is that you don’t need science to show you that religion isn’t necessary to be good.

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