Postmodern ideology has been wearing out its welcome for decades, but lingers for want of a decisive blow. That blow has at last been applied. Marc Hauser's work, Moral Minds, creates a new paradigm for the central Western discipline of moral philosophy. It is an intellectual revolution. Hauser claims that all human beings possess the same inborn moral faculty that generates our basic moral decisions and actions. The faculty's dictates are innate and beyond critical conscious reach. He claims that the faculty exists in the same way as, and by analogy to, the inborn language faculty that the MIT language philosopher, Noam Chomsky, believes generates human languages. Here is a summary in Hauser's words, put together from the "Prologue" and "Epilogue".
"The central idea of this book is simple: we evolved a moral instinct, a capacity that natural grows within each child, designed to generate rapid judgments about what is morally right or wrong based on an unconscious grammar of action. Part of this machinery was designed by the blind hand of Darwinian selection millions of years before our species evolved; other parts were added or upgraded over the evolutionary history of our species, and are unique to humans and to our moral psychology. These ideas draw on insights from another instinct: language. (P. xviii.)
"Our expressed languages differ, but we generate each one on the basis of a universal set of principles. Our artistic expressions vary wildly, but the biology that underpins our aesthetics generates universal preferences for symmetry in the visual arts and consonance in music. The idea I have ... is that we should think of morality in the same way. Underlying the extensive cross-cultural variation we observe in our expressed social norms is a universal moral grammar that enables each child to grow a narrow range of possible moral systems. When we judge an action as morally right or wrong, we do so instinctively, tapping a system of unconsciously operative and inaccessible moral knowledge." (Pp. 419-420.)
I will discuss how Hauser approaches his subject in a moment; but first I wish to point to the consequences of his thesis. Hauser narrowly limits his discussion of the implications of his thesis to three leading (Western) theories of moral philosophy (Hume, Kant, and Rawls) and his own discipline of psychology (relating to developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, and comparative and evolutionary psychology). My assessment of its ramifications are my own. I address the strongest version of postmodern ideology. The strongest version has provoked wide public debate since the 1940s (marking the popular appearance of postmodern philosophy with existentialism). Fundamentally, Hauser's work strikes against three basic postulates of postmodernism.
(1) The strongest version of postmodernism asserts that human nature does not exist. Rather than human nature, all human beings share the human condition, which is created by similar circumstances shared historically and anthropologically by all human beings. The chief circumstances are material scarcity and social cooperation. Human beings have never been able to find enough food and shelter and sufficient assets of reproduction to guarantee the survival of all persons. Many persons die before their time. To survive, we humans have had to band together in social arrangements. Social arrangements create (through material dialectic and social dialogue) human personality, which is the fundamental reality of human beings--more fundamental than human biology and gender. Rather than human beings, we should speak of human persons. Since circumstances of scarcity and social life are shared by all, they generate many similar responses in people and societies. Observers have misidentified these similar responses as the result of a universal human nature, rather being produced by similar circumstances.
Social arrangements differentiate from one another and develop a phenomenal reality for their members that we call "culture." Human reality, based in human personality, is therefore grounded in specific cultures, differentiated (mostly) by language. This situation is called cultural relativity. There is no fundamental human similarity shared across cultures. This is the strong version of the anthropological theory, called cultural relativity. (For background, see my discussion of cultural relativity.)
(2) Postmodern ideology also asserts that human mentation is not grounded in universal, shared mental faculties. This claim follows from the primary claim that there is no such thing as a "human nature" shared by all human beings. We can subdivide the claim into several propositions. (a) There is no universal faculty of reason (i.e., no universal set of faculties of reasoning); (b) there is no single ground of rationality upon which all persons of different cultures could find common agreement; and (c) all human reasoning begins in arbitrary and unprovable grounds.
Put differently, there is no universal rationality shared by all persons regardless of their gender, race, culture, and society. This implication means that there is no fundamental "truth" and no single method of correctly reasoning that could be discovered by any one person or group. All the different methods of reasoning by different societies are equally true, valid, and valuable, because they spring out of an irrational "decision" made at some historical or anthropological state of cultural development. Postmodernists use the term, decision, to refer to the specific basis of a mode of reasoning, because it nicely connotes the material and social circumstances that must have compelled some ancestors to posit a method of thinking that worked for them. The implication of this postmodernist position is that there is no transcendental standpoint from which to say that one such decision is true or valid and other decisions false or invalid.
Hard line postmodernists would also say there is no transcendental standpoint from which to judge one decision by one culture as better or more successful than a decision by another culture; they are only different. The putative cultural relativity of human mental activity is the basis for the postmodernist celebration of cultural and social diversity and for the assertion that European mental activity (as in modern science and mathematics) is not uniquely true and valid. In this way, postmodern ideology suited the post-1945 era of European de-colonization. It is the source of ethno-mathematics and ethno-science (e.g., ethno-botany).
(3) The final claim of postmodernism, that I wish to mention, is that discursive narration, generated in social conversation, also called "discourse", is the original and ultimate form of reasoning. All other modes, such as deductive logic and the scientific experimental method, for instance, are but versions of narrative reasoning. (It is easy to understand why postmodern ideology became so popular in academic literature and language departments!) Further, all categories that appear in narratives, such as good and bad, right and wrong, appearance and reality, natural and supernatural, etc., are products of the narrative; the narrative is not structured by them. Historical narrative, broadly conceived, is the only mode of explanation that we, human persons, comprehend as rational. All other forms of reasoning are versions of narrative that are rationally comprehensible to the extent they borrow the narrative form.
The Moral Faculty
The three postmodern claims have dominated the intellectual life of the US and Europe for two generations. Hauser's revolutionary thesis provides strong evidence against all of them. Now it is time to look at what Hauser does. We will conclude by returning to the postmodern ideology and showing how Hauser's theory works against it's broadest ideological claims.
Hauser describes his theory as a "radical rethinking" of moral philosophy. He places the radicalism in drastically curtailing the scope of moral behavior that he is to explain; but more is radical in the theory than that. He is radical in postulating a common organic source of moral decisions expressed by all human beings, rather than accepting the prevailing methods of comparative anthropology or ethnology. His problem is that no organic center, or integrated set of organic centers, has been identified in the brain as the seat from which the moral instinct operates. Such a center is, in his theory, therefore, a hypothetical entity. For shorthand, let us call such a hypothecated organic system, of brain centers, neurological integration, and operation of an inborn moral grammar, the moral faculty, as Hauser sometimes does (pp. 53-54). Hauser is in the same situation as Chomsky and supporters of the notion that there is a language center. The theory of a syntax central is widely supported, but as yet, after a half-century of trying, no one has conclusively identified a brain system that spits out the same grammatical structure for hundreds of different human languages. So Hauser's theory of a moral faculty shall be controversial for the same reason that Chomsky's language theory remains controversial.
That Hauser's moral faculty is hypothetical does not make it non-scientific. Hauser is emphatic that his method is the same method as that of Galileo (p. xviii); indeed, we will refer to some of the intriguing experimental evidence for his theory. Science is filled with hypothetical entities, forces, and substances. Astronomers and cosmologists, for instance, believe in the existence of "dark matter". Dark matter has never been directly observed. Its existence has been deduced from observations of the deformations of patterns of observed matters under the influence of conventional gravitational forces, per general relativity theory. The deformations are assumed to the result of the presence of unobserved masses, hence "dark" matter. The existence of the planet Neptune was similarly discovered by noting the deformations of paths of other planets, caused by the effect of its mass. Eventually, Neptune was observed. Hauser is within his scientific rights, so to speak, to believe that eventually the moral faculty will be observed with conventional tools of brain mapping, such as MRI.
To make his existence of his moral faculty credible, Hauser must demonstrate that the results of its operation could not be explained by environment or culture of the moral actor. Hauser's method is taken from Chomsky's method of arguing in favor of a grammatical faculty. Hauser outlines four steps of inference to the existence of the moral faculty:
"1. Identify a particular piece of knowledge in mature individuals.
"2. Identify what kind of input is necessary or indispensable [sic] for the learner to acquire this piece of knowledge.
"3. Demonstrate that this piece of knowledge is not present or available from the environment [including culture known to the learner].
"4. Show that the knowledge is nonetheless available and present in the child, at the earliest possible age, prior to any relevant input." (P. 66.)
What are some of the "pieces of knowledge" of morality, identified by Hauser, possessed by adults and by children before they are (presumably) old enough to have received them from their environment and culture? They are elementary categories and distinctions related to violence. Such categories and distinctions include: harming/helping, intended/accidental, intended-foreseen/unintended-foreseen. Relating to justice, a piece of knowledge identified by Hauser related to fairness of distribution of goods: one person (or group or class) gets all/other(s) get nothing.
To analyze these categories and distinctions, Hauser utilizes moral thought experiments conducted on thousands of adults and children. Here is one such experiment. Imagine a railroad train driving down a railroad track. Ahead of the hurtling train is a switch in the track. Beyond the switch, walking on the main track, are five persons. On the switching track is a single person. You are an observer near the switch. You see the train coming. You realize that if the train stays on the main track it will hit and kill the five persons walking on the track. If you can switch the train to the switch track, the train will hit and kill only the one person walking on the switch track. Should you switch the train to the switching track, saving the lives of the five persons but killing one person on the switching track? That is, would you be morally wrong to sacrifice the one person to save five persons (i.e., is it permissible to sacrifice the one person)?
Resolution of the dilemma is the same for adults and children across cultures. Resolution requires distinguishing between intended, foreseen consequences and unintended and foreseen consequences. Every one states that the observer would not be morally culpable for the unintended killing of the person walking on the switch track. That death is not in the same category of moral responsibility as would be the intended killing of five persons on the main track by your refusal to switch the train to the switching track.
Here is an example of a "piece of knowledge" used in the morality of fairness. Two persons are involved in the experiment (but there could be more). A sum of money is given to one of the two persons to distribute or not to distribute as he/she arbitrarily decides to others. When this experiment is given to adults and children, uniformly across cultures, they reject as unfair that the person, to whom the money is given, keeping all the money for himself or herself. It would be fair to keep most of the money, as much as 60 or 70 percent of it; but it is seen as unfair to keep all of it.
How does a grammar of morality work with regard to such categories and distinctions? The grammar of morality provides a structure of variables, with each variable containing categories and distinctions. The variables are "agent", "action", "receiver [of action]", "consequence", "moral evaluation".
The variable, "action", contains the category of intentionality with the distinction, "intentional/unintentional". The receiver contains such distinctions as "someone related by blood to me/someone not related by blood to me" and "someone located physically next to me/someone located far away from me". The variable, "moral evaluation", contains the distinction "right/wrong" or "permissible action/acceptable action/forbidden action", and "fair/unfair".
The moral grammar does not specify what particular agents, actions, receivers, consequences, and evaluations are to fit into the each category. It is not oriented to particular actions, or intentions, or consequences in the stream of a person's experiences and expectations. The particulars will be as diverse and unique as there are diverse humans in diverse and unique environments and cultures. Rather, it provides a scheme whereby particular actions, intents, and outcomes are organized so as to make moral evaluation possible. (Pp. 36-38, 44-50.)
Hauser assesses three models for explaining how the moral grammar works, based on the moral philosophy of David Hume (Humean model), Immanuel Kant (Kantian model), and John Rawls (Rawlsian model). The Humean model explains the moral evaluation as driven by emotion. Though eclipsed by the Kantian model for two centuries, the Humean model has recently come back into favor through recognition of the role of empathy in moral evaluation and the discovery of mirror neurons in the brain. Mirror neurons reflect the emotion of a person being observed. If an observer is observing a sad person, for instance, the mirror neurons fire up sadness in the observer. Because of mirror neurons, we can feel what another person is feeling, i.e., empathize with them. The Kantian model sees moral evaluation as driven by rational judgment. The agent compares the intended action to a moral principle and acts or aborts action according to whether the intended action would be ethical. In the Rawlsian model, a moral judgment is made (by the innate moral faculty), then reasons and emotions are brought into play to motivate the agent to go through with the act called for by the judgment. Hauser thinks the Rawlsian model is now the moral faculty works.
As a scientist, Hauser must provide a naturalistic explanation of the existence of the moral faculty, as well as its operation. Much of the book is devoted to demonstrating that precursors of the moral grammar are present in how infants structure expectation about events in the world. Hauser draws upon a host of fascinating experiments in child psychology to show that the structure of the moral grammar (agent, action, receiver, consequence, evaluation) is present nearly from birth in the infant's interaction with the world, for example, in infant perception of continuity of action.
He must also make sense of the moral faculty in terms of Darwinian evolution and natural selection. The existence of a moral faculty would not be credible if it could not be explained as a product of human evolution by natural selection. As a result, Hauser brings forward research in primate psychology to demonstrate that some primates have the precursors to a moral grammar, in, for instance, behavior expressing reciprocity and fairness.
The evolutionary appearance of the moral faculty is tied to the rise of primate and human social behavior. Human survival (in the hunter-gatherer stage of evolution) has clearly required social cooperation. Social cooperation requires fairness, mutual aid, and arrangements to detect and punish cheaters and liars. The moral faculty is, as Hauser observes it in action, especially attuned to social cooperation of small groups of kin-related individuals. It is precisely the kind of mental agency that we would expect to be selected under survival pressure. Darwin himself (Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, 1872) and later Darwinians saw social morality evolving to make social organization possible under the horrible circumstances imposed on early humans by competition and scarcity. Hauser's work is in this tradition of Darwinian explanation. The evidence that Hauser brings forward to place the moral faculty in this tradition makes his theory strongly credible.
Connecting the theory of the Moral Faculty to Postmodernism
We began this essay by looking at three fundamental assumptions of postmodern ideology. Hauser's theory contravenes all three. Let's see how. Postmodernism asserts that a human nature does not exist. The socially formed personality is the basic unit of humanness. This assertion falls immediately, because the moral faculty pre-exists both conversation and the formation of personality. It provides a structure of evaluation, categories, and distinctions within which language, conversation, and social interaction occur. It is a structure of human nature.
The second postmodern principle we examined is that there is no universal rationality shared by all human persons. This principle also clearly falls before the theory of the moral faculty. Moral judgments are a major part of human mental activity. The moral grammar is shared by all human beings, as part of their Darwinian biological heritage. It provides a signature of humanity. All human beings can recognize all other human beings by their possession of the moral faculty.
The strong version of cultural relativity also collapses in front of the moral faculty. The culture line is not an absolute boundary between kinds of human persons. All humans are within the circle described by possession of the moral faculty. What Hauser's theory does is to provide support for the historical, soft version the notion of cultural relativity. The moral grammar provides the structure and variables (which Hauser calls "switches") for generation of moral judgments; local culture provides settings (or values) for the variables. Indeed, Hauser's theory provides a new paradigm for cultural research by ethnologists, anthropologists, and social psychologists--to examine how the local values of local culture fit into the moral grammar, that is, how the moral faculty operates in local culture.
The third postmodern principle we examined is the notion that narrative is the basic form of human reasoning. This principle, too, collapses before Hauser's moral faculty. The structures observed within narration, such as agent, action, receiver, etc., and moral categories, are not generated by and within the narrative, but pre-exist the narrative. Discursive narration is a mode (and but one mode) of reasoning. It develops upon the structure provided by the moral faculty (and the language faculty, if one accepts Chomsky).
There is much to celebrate about Hauser's work. His work decisively shatters postmodern theory of human beings. It does not do this needed chore by itself, as I have written elsewhere; but it delivers the coup de grâce in postmodernism's most sensitive spot--the moral understanding of humankind.
*Marc D. Hauser, Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universe Sense of Right and Wrong (New York, HarperCollins Publishers, 2006; hardbound 489 pages).
(Corrections, December 20, 2006. )