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« Between The Burqa & The Bustier: Goodman and Good Sense #4 | Main | Haunting Melody »

October 31, 2006


Sounds like another breathtakingly naïve professor. I found Rorty’s review in the NYT more insightful. I can accept that there is an innate moral instinct in humans, akin to their innate language instinct. But just as the language instinct doesn't always produce rational or intelligible speech (think Bush), the moral instinct, too, doesn’t always produce good or even universal morality. Besides, our consciousness, reason, and empathy find all kinds of problems with evolutionary morality, interfering with which may well be necessary for civilized life. Going by the mixed reviews of this book, Hauser seems to me yet another US scientist with an excessively mechanical view of human nature. Nothing I've read about this book so far makes me want to read it.

Shunya (Namit):
In all fairness to Hauser, he does say that he is forwarding a hypothesis rather than a thesis. Yes, the review by Professor Rorty is more nuanced. But I also got the distinct feeling that he was a bit miffed as a moral philosopher that a mere "biologist" saw it fit to weigh in on such a weighty topic.

I am neither a philosopher nor an evolutionary biologist. But I have thought about morality / religion a lot. Let me put down here at the risk of facing ridicule, my own jumbled thoughts on this matter. I don't think our morality is such an exalted quality on the whole.

I do believe that indeed we are born with an innate sense of right and wrong (more correctly, beneficial and harmful) choices, which may or may not be generated by a "morality organ" but is probably rather more intimately related to our sense of survival and our tendency to choose reward over punishment. Neither do I believe that our morality is in some fundamental way superior to etiquette.

That nature provides us with the morality "hardware" seems intuitively plausible. How the "program" will run, depends much on nurture and the need of the moment. I think the ancient Vedic scholars were going somewhere along these lines with their Brahman/ Atman postulates. As did Spinoza.

Both reviews focus on the conflict between the accepted paradigm of evolutionary biology and what Hauser calls "group selection" in case of social animals like apes and humans who are more overtly capable of empathy. This clash and constant tug of war in our minds between our own needs and that of others is precisely why human morality is so complex and why we look upon it with such awe. Yet as thoroughly social animals, we cannot ignore either. In case of humans, the death of the group spells doom for the individual almost as surely his own demise.

I think the reason why we are still arguing about this is because we cannot quite decide which "program" we want the "hardware" to run. The survival as a group or as individuals? What is the "reward" we seek by our moral acts?

Is it the one "nurtured" by religion - one which despite its message of brotherhood, promises us unverifiable personal rewards which accrue invariably after death (Nirvana, heaven, hell, eternal life etc.)? Or do we go with secular ethics whose much less dazzling and incremental rewards are here and now?

If there is a biological basis for morality, it will make sense that it will be for the latter more mundane reason, rather than the former. Hence also why it will be less glamorous.

I should have explained myself a little better here.

My larger concern is not so much the "nature" or "nurture" angle of morality. I am more interested in figuring out if secular ethics can be as persuasive about the "reward" of morality as religion has been. Whether we can overcome our "selfish genes" of individual well being to extend to the the well being of others without the allure of an "eternal life."

That religion is not a biolgical basis of morality is borne out by the fact that some of us can lead an ethical life without it.

I agree with your first paragraph. We can’t decide “which program we want the hardware to run” because we don’t agree on what we want to achieve with it. I can have my subjective take, but an objective assessment of secular and religious ethics is impossible without an established, or agreed upon, existential purpose or end.

I think nature has endowed us with an evolutionary morality (shaped by our survival needs as animals). I'm not sure it has endowed us with an innate sense of right and wrong. I stand by the Buddha and Socrates in believing that one must work hard to determine right from wrong by understanding the self and the nature of reality.

The moment we have an ethical system centered on a fixed set of “rewards” (secular or religious), it’s over. There is no good substitute for rational thought—not that it always ensures clarity and moral behavior, but that is our best bet. Unless people work hard to determine right from wrong, I can’t be optimistic about their moral potential. Furthermore, unthinking secular ethics can be at least as dangerous as the religious kind. As Milosz said, “A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death—the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged.”

Unfortunately, "rewards" is what it is going to entail. And what's wrong with rewards - unless you define it in crass materialistic terms? Be it peace on earth or realizing the infinite Brahman, humans will not be motivated to change without that carrot. Convincing 6 billion people of a "pure" system of ethics based on reality (who defines that?) is going to be even more difficult than asking them to ditch religion in favor of secular, purpose driven ethics.

I don't think secular ethics has to be heartless or even "soul-less." That is my whole dilemma and the question for the age of rationality. How does one approach ethics based on rationality without the cold hearted tone of the "Communist Manifesto" but also without having to resort to unverifiable fairy tales? Rationality (not necessarily enlightenment) is precisely what I am desperately seeking where an argument about right and wrong doesn't have to be dressed up in fantastic intangibles to be convincing. Milosz was a brilliant, lyrical poet. But he too is speaking out of despair. The punishment for unethical behavior must be here and now - by earthly, ethical laws. Our reluctance to give up the notion of a "thereafter" is not based on our sense of justice but rather on the terrifying prospect of an ultimate nothingness which may indeed be all there is after the last breath is breathed.

For societal dialogue, we need to rely on our earthly understanding of doing good while making good as the basis of our ethics. Spirituality needs to be an individual quest - for those who seek it. And perhaps that's all there is to it - an infinite quest and not a definite answer in the realm of spirituality.

We can perhaps some day all agree on what defines "common good," here on earth, but may never agree on the meaning of the universe or our existence. It is precisely when one or more humans claim to have the last word on that question that conflicts begin and blood is shed. We need to keep the two pursuits separate. That is what I mean by secular ethics.

Peace on earth is a juicy carrot. But how to achieve it is debatable and will always remain so. The last time I checked, Americans were still fighting for peace in Iraq. The US majority supported that peace initiative, including 99 of 100 senators. Nothing less should be expected from a country with a prominent tradition of secular ethics!

At this point, my sage advice to you is to prepare for that looming ball of fire. Lower your expectations of people (the masses). Learn to see them as total losers and morons unwilling to use their heads to help themselves. That way you are rarely disappointed and are pleasantly surprised more often. ;-)

I actually agree with you about the pessimism you express vis-a-vis the tenacious foolishness of most of humankind. But I still cannot in good conscience admit that non-secular ethics, ie religion is the answer. If it has not worked for a few thousand years, why would it in the future? One definition of insanity is to perform the same act repeatedly and expect a different result. Right? Otherwise Iraq would not be burning right now. India and Pakistan would not be on a constant edge. That ball of fire that is coming down will be a "sacred" one brought down by the frenzy and fervor of the "believers" eager to reap the harvest of their good deeds.

I wish America did have secular ethics! We have "holy" rollers in the Congress and a crusader in the White House.

At this time I have no expectation of anyone except myself - to be able to live out my life guided by the "moral compass" in my brain, without giving in to superstitous bullies.

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