Reinventing Morality: Evolutionary Biology and Neuroscience Are Adding to Our Understanding of a Historically Unscientific Area

Article excerpt

Morality may be something different for everyone; it may be the set of rules handed down by God to Moses on stone tablets, or the system in which karma is passed through the Dharma. But morality is also a decision-making process, one that plays out in the brain in the same way a mechanical decision-making process plays out on a computer. Clerics, theologians, and, in the last century, anthropologists have put forward various answers to the riddle of how our species stumbled upon the concept of goodness. Now, neuroscientists and evolutionary biologists are adding to that understanding. Discoveries in these fields have the potential to achieve something remarkable in this century: an entirely new, science-based understanding of virtue and evil.

Marc Hauser, author of Moral Minds (Ecco, 2006) and director of the Cognitive Evolution Laboratory at Harvard University, is at the forefront of the emerging scientific discussion of morality. David Poeppel of the University of Maryland is on the cutting edge of today's brain and neuroscience research. I spoke with both of them about what science can contribute to the human understanding of good and bad.

The first thing I discovered is that applying a scientific approach to a murky, loaded issue like morality requires understanding the problem in material terms. You have the event, in this case the moral decision. Then you have the space where the event plays out, the brain. Some aspects of the decision-making process are fluid and unique to the individual. To form a crude and an unoriginal analogy, this would be like the software code that the brain processes to reach decisions about what is morally permissible and what is not. Other aspects are fixed, like hardware.

Marc Hauser is an expert on the former.

Moral Grammar

A great example of moral-writing software is culture. Cultural influences on moral decision making can include everything from the laws that govern a particular society to the ideas about pride, honor, and justice that play out in a city neighborhood to the power dynamics of a given household. Religion, upbringing, gender, third-grade experiences dealing with bullies, and so on all contribute lines of code to an individual's moral software. For this reason, no two moral processes will be identical. Academics have given this phenomenon a fancy name: moral relativism. The theory holds that because morality is transferred from groups to individuals in the form of traditions, institutions, codes, etc, everyone will have a different idea of good and bad.

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But what if there are limitations to the spectrum of variation? What if, beneath the trappings of culture and upbringing, there really is such a thing as universal morality? If such a thing existed, how would you go about proving it? Enter Marc Hauser, whose research is adding credence to the notion of a universal goodness impulse.

According to Hauser, the human brain learns right from wrong the same way it learns language. The vast majority of the world's languages share at least one thing in common: a system of guidelines for usage. This is called grammar. Just as languages have rules about where to put a subject, an adverb, and a predicate in a sentence, so too every culture has a set of guidelines to teach people how to make moral decisions in different situations. So just as learning a language means learning not only words, but also a system for putting the words together, the same is true for morality; there are very specific "commandments" that are unique to every culture, but there are also softer usage guidelines. People who have mastered the moral guidelines of their particular culture have what some might call principles or scruples. Hauser calls this a moral grammar.

"A mature individual's moral grammar enables him to unconsciously generate and comprehend a limitless range of permissible and obligatory actions within the native culture, to recognize violations when they arise, and to generate intuitions about punishable violations," he writes in his book. …