Friday, December 04, 2009

Universal Human Morality

Over at The Edge, Marc Hauser presents a brief essay arguing that humanity has a “universal moral code” and that it was largely instilled by evolution.

Hauser and his colleagues have performed many experimental studies of children and Internet surveys of people’s reactions to hypothetical moral situations. He provides a highly compelling case for the role of evolution in how we base our own moral judgments.
Recent discoveries suggest that all humans, young and old, male and female, conservative and liberal, living in Sydney, San Francisco and Seoul, growing up as atheists, Buddhists, Catholics and Jews, with high school, university or professional degrees, are endowed with a gift from nature, a biological code for living a moral life.

This code, a universal moral grammar, provides us with an unconscious suite of principles for judging what is morally right and wrong. It is an impartial, rational and unemotional capacity. It doesn't dictate who we should help or who we are licensed to harm. Rather, it provides an abstract set of rules for how to intuitively understand when helping another is obligatory and when harming another is forbidden. And it does so dispassionately and impartially.
And, so that people don’t think that he’s a victim of the naturalistic fallacy, Hauser closes the essay with this important bit:
Lest there be any confusion about the claims I am making, I am not saying that our evolved capacity to intuitively judge what is right or wrong is sufficient to live a moral life. It is most definitely not and for two good reasons.

For one, some of our moral instincts evolved during a period of human history that looked nothing like the situation today. In our distant past, we lived in small groups consisting of highly familiar and often familial individuals, with no formal laws. Today we live in a large and diffuse society, where our decisions have little-to-no impact on most people in our community but with laws to enforce those who deviate from expected norms. Further, we are confronted with moral decisions that are unfamiliar, including stem cells, abortion, organ transplants and life support. When we confront these novel situations, our evolved system is ill-equipped.

The second reason is that living a moral life requires us to be restless with our present moral norms, always challenging us to discover what might and ought to be. And here is where nurture can re-enter the conversation. We need education because we need a world in which people listen to the universal voice of their species, while stopping to wonder whether there are alternatives. And if there are alternatives, we need rational and reasonable people who will be vigilant of partiality and champions of plurality.
I’m glad work like this is being done because morality is a source of perpetual exploitation among theocrats. Cooperation requires the development of ethics, and ethics demand interpersonal sensitivity with expected compromise.

Morals are not out in space waiting to be received. Rather, they emerge from societies based on expediency.

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