Basic Instinct: What If the Building Blocks of Morality Come Not from Our Parents, Schools, and Religions, but Are Hard-Wired, Providing an Innate Set of Principles That Covertly Guide Our Ethical Pronouncement? What If a Universal Moral Grammar Underlies the Illusion of Conscious Reasoning?

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Is the horizontal line on top shorter, longer, or equal in length to the horizontal line below? Though you, like everyone else, presumably see the horizontal line on top as shorter than the one below, the two lines are identical. Now that I have blown the cover on this illusion, try to convince yourself that the two lines are equal. Try convincing your visual system. Any luck? I didn't think so.

Visual illusions like the Muller-Lyer illustration above are interesting because no matter how long we stare at them, and no matter how well we know the trick, we can't convince those visual cortices of ours to see things differently. I would be surprised if anyone found this discovery upsetting. If anything, we should be intrigued, puzzled by our susceptibility to visual illusions and our inability to exert the power of free will to alter what we perceive. But what if I insisted that some aspects of our moral judgments also are illusory? What if I told you that what you perceive as the conscious and rational process leading from clearly articulated principles to confident moral judgments is often an illusion? What if I suggested that operating covertly, beneath the radar of our awareness, is a moral faculty, an engine for generating intuitions about forbidden and permissible actions? I assume that many people would find this claim upsetting, possibly absurd, and even derogatory.

The claim that we have been duped by an illusion does not imply that our moral judgments are false or necessarily misguided. Rather, the claim is that we often deliver our moral verdicts as rapidly and unconsciously as we blink an eye in response to a puff of air or generate judgments concerning the grammaticality of a sentence, the beauty of a painting, or the humor in a joke. Still, this runs counter to our strong, albeit illusory, belief that we deliver our moral verdicts based on carefully considered reasons or principles, moving rationally among the possible alternative solutions to a dilemma and then alighting on one using utilitarian arguments that maximize overall practicality or deontological reasons that focus on actions that are, by definition, right or wrong. For example, those who adopt a deontological stance based on rules of conduct would argue that killing is wrong and that it is therefore impermissible to take a healthy person's life in order to save five people in critical care. A utilitarian, meanwhile, would claim that the means are irrelevant and that if five can be saved, the one person's life is worth taking. When thousands of subjects participated in our Internet-based morality survey, they--utilitarians and deontologists alike--were confronted with a set of dilemmas that challenged the consistency of their moral convictions. Ninety-eight percent of our subjects said it was impermissible for a doctor to take the life of a healthy person in order to use his organs to save five patients in critical condition. In contrast, ninety percent of these subjects said it was permissible for an observer to redirect a train onto a side track, causing one person to die but saving five others who had been in harm's way. Utilitarians should perceive both cases as permissible. Deontologists should see both cases as forbidden. But the percentages show that neither philosophical perspective can do justice to these paired cases. No matter what kind of moral gymnastics our subjects try, they will ultimately be left with an unsatisfactory conclusion--an insufficient justification for their clear and universally shared moral judgments. Driving our moral judgments is a universal moral grammar, a faculty of the mind that evolved over millions of years to include a set of principles for building a range of possible moral systems. As with language, the principles that make up our moral grammar fly beneath the radar of our awareness. As biologically endowed principles of the mind, they are safeguarded against our consciously held beliefs, be they handed down from university classes, legal scholarship, mom and dad, political propaganda, or religious doctrine. …