Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong

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Marc Hauser's eminently readable and comprehensive book Moral Minds is revolutionary. He argues that humans have evolved a universal moral instinct, unconsciously propelling us to deliver judgments of right and wrong independent of gender, education, and religion. Experience tunes up our moral actions, guiding what we do as opposed to how we deliver our moral verdicts. For hundreds of years, scholars have argued that moral judgments arise from rational and voluntary deliberations about what ought to be. The ...

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Marc Hauser's eminently readable and comprehensive book Moral Minds is revolutionary. He argues that humans have evolved a universal moral instinct, unconsciously propelling us to deliver judgments of right and wrong independent of gender, education, and religion. Experience tunes up our moral actions, guiding what we do as opposed to how we deliver our moral verdicts. For hundreds of years, scholars have argued that moral judgments arise from rational and voluntary deliberations about what ought to be. The common belief today is that we reach moral decisions by consciously reasoning from principled explanations of what society determines is right or wrong. This perspective has generated the further belief that our moral psychology is founded entirely on experience and education, developing slowly and subject to considerable variation across cultures. In his groundbreaking book, Hauser shows that this dominant view is illusory. Combining his own cutting-edge research with findings in cognitive psychology, linguistics, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, economics, and anthropology, he examines the implications of his theory for issues of bioethics, religion, law, and our everyday lives.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Harvard professor Marc Hauser thinks that a radical rethinking about our ideas on morality is long overdue. In Moral Minds, he argues that, contrary to common belief, we don't reach moral decisions by consciously reasoning from principled explanations of societal belief. Instead, he asserts, we possess an inherent moral system; in other words, an ethical instinct. To bolster his case, he cites cutting-edge research in cognitive psychology, linguistics, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, economics and anthropology. A revolutionary look at a hot topic.
Steven Pinker
“About one of the hottest new topics in intellectual life: the psychology and biology of morals. . . fascinating.”
Noam Chomsky
“An account of the nature of the human moral organ . . . a lucid, expert and challenging introduction.”
Peter Singer
“An intellectual feast that provokes thought and should stimulate critical reflection . . . a major contribution to an ongoing debate.”
Antonio Damasio
“The most complete attempt to bring together philosophy, anthropology, cognitive science and neuroscience... daring and wise.”
Daniel Kahneman
“The scientific exploration of morality has advanced at a breathtaking pace… [an] enjoyable book.”
Nicholas Wade
“Unlikely to disappoint.”
“An audacious claim about moral thought...highly accessible to a general audience...a deeply significant intellectual contribution.”
“For a wide audience...a superb overview of one of the hottest topics in the life sciences...a treat.”
“An audacious claim about moral thought...highly accessible to a general audience...a deeply significant intellectual contribution.”
New York Review of Books
“Pathbreaking... relevant to some of the most fundamental contemporary debates in philosophy and public life.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
The book is full of interesting cases describing the changes in moral behavior and reasoning that brain damage can cause, and it includes helpful summaries and moral puzzles for readers to test their ethical sensibilities.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
How do humans develop their capacity to make moral decisions? Harvard biologist Hauser (Wild Minds) struggles to answer this and other questions in a study that is by turns fascinating and dull. Drawing on the linguistic theories of Noam Chomsky, Hauser argues that humans have a universal moral grammar, an instinctive, unconscious tool kit for constructing moral systems. For example, although we might not be able to articulate immediately the moral principle underlying the ban on incest, our moral faculty instinctually declares that incest is disgusting and thus impermissible. Hauser's universal moral grammar builds on the 18th-century theories of moral sentiments devised by Adam Smith and others. Hauser also asserts that nurture is as important as nature: "our moral faculty is equipped with a universal set of rules, with each culture setting up particular exceptions to these rules." All societies accept the moral necessity of caring for infants, but Eskimos make the exception of permitting infanticide when resources are scarce. Readers unfamiliar with philosophy will be lost in Hauser's labyrinthine explanations of Kant, Hume and Rawls, and Hauser makes overly large claims for his theory's ability to guide us in making more moral, and more enforceable, laws. (Sept. 1) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060780708
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 8/22/2006
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 512
  • Sales rank: 883,205
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.53 (d)

Meet the Author

Marc D. Hauser is the author of the highly acclaimed Wild Minds. He has been featured in the New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Boston Globe, as well as on Today,The Early Show, PBS's Scientific American Frontiers, and NPR. Hauser is Professor of Psychology, Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, and Biological Anthropology at Harvard University, where he is director of the Cognitive Evolution Laboratory and co-director of the Mind, Brain and Behavior Program. He is the recipient of a National Science Foundation Young Investigator Award, a Guggenheim Award, a College de France Science medal, and a Harvard College Professorship chair for his excellence in teaching.

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Read an Excerpt

Moral Minds

How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong
By Marc Hauser

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Marc Hauser
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060780703

Chapter One

What's wrong?

You first parents of the human race . . . who ruined yourself for an apple, what might you have done for a truffled turkey?

Hundreds of self-help books and call-in radio stations, together with the advice of such American ethic gurus as William Bennett and Randy Cohen, provide us with principled reasons and methods for leading a virtuous life. Law schools across the globe graduate thousands of scholars each year, trained to reason through cases of fraud, theft, violence, and injustice; the law books are filled with principles for how to judge human behavior, both moral and amoral. Most major universities include a mandatory course in moral reasoning, designed to teach students about the importance of dispassionate logic, moving from evidence to conclusion, checking assumptions and explicitly stating inferences and hypotheses. Medical and legal boards provide rational and highly reasoned policies in order to set guidelines for morally permissible, forbidden, and punishable actions. Businesses set up contracts to clarify the rules of equitable negotiation and exchange. Military leaderstrain soldiers to act with a cool head, thinking through alternative strategies, planning effective attacks, and squelching the emotions and instincts that may cause impulsive behavior when reasoning is required to do the right thing. Presidential committees are established to clarify ethical principles and the consequences of violations, both at home and abroad. All of these professionals share a common perspective: conscious moral reasoning from explicit principles is the cause of our moral judgments. As a classic text in moral philosophy concludes, "Morality is, first and foremost, a matter of consulting reason. The morally right thing to do, in any circumstance, is whatever there are the best reasons for doing."2

This dominant perspective falls prey to an illusion: Just because we can consciously reason from explicit principles--handed down from parents, teachers, lawyers, or religious leaders--to judgments of right and wrong doesn't mean that these principles are the source of our moral decisions. On the contrary, I argue that moral judgments are mediated by an unconscious process, a hidden moral grammar that evaluates the causes and consequences of our own and others' actions. This account shifts the burden of evidence from a philosophy of morality to a science of morality.

This book describes how our moral intuitions work and why they evolved. It also explains how we can anticipate what lies ahead for our species. I show that by looking at our moral psychology as an instinct--an evolved capacity of all human minds that unconsciously and automatically generates judgments of right and wrong--that we can better understand why some of our behaviors and decisions will always be construed as unfair, permissible, or punishable, and why some situations will tempt us to sin in the face of sensibility handed down from law, religion, and education. Our evolved moral instincts do not make moral judgments inevitable. Rather, they color our perceptions, constrain our moral options, and leave us dumbfounded because the guiding principles are inaccessible, tucked away in the mind's library of unconscious knowledge.

Although I largely focus on what people do in the context of moral conflict, and how and why they come to such decisions, it is important to understand the relationship between description and prescription--between what is and what ought to be.

In 1903, the philosopher George Edward Moore noted that the dominant philosophical perspective of the time--John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism--frequently fell into the naturalistic fallacy: attempting to justify a particular moral principle by appealing to what is good.3 For Mill, utilitarianism was a reform policy, one designed to change how people ought to behave by having them focus on the overall good, defined in terms of natural properties of human nature such as our overall happiness. For Moore, the equation of good with natural was fallacious. There are natural things that are bad (polio, blindness) and unnatural things that are good (vaccines, reading glasses). We are not licensed to move from the natural to the good.

A more general extension of the naturalistic fallacy comes from deriving ought from is. Consider these facts: In most cultures, women put more time into child care than men (a sex difference that is consistent with our primate ancestors), men are more violent than women (also consistent with our primate past), and polygamy is more common than monogamy (consistent with the rest of the animal kingdom). From these facts, we are not licensed to conclude that women should do all of the parenting while men drink beers, society should sympathize with male violence because testosterone makes violence inevitable, and women should expect and support male promiscuity because it's in their genes, part of nature's plan. The descriptive principles we uncover about human nature do not necessarily have a causal relationship to the prescriptive principles. Drawing a causal connection is fallacious.

Moore's characterization of the naturalistic fallacy caused generations of philosophers to either ignore or ridicule discoveries in the biological sciences. Together with the work of the analytic philosopher Gottlieb Frege, it led to the pummeling of ethical naturalism, a perspective in philosophy that attempted to make sense of the good by an appeal to the natural. It also led to an intellectual isolation of those thinking seriously about moral principles and those attempting to uncover the signatures of human nature. Discussions of moral ideals were therefore severed from the facts of moral behavior and psychology.

The surgical separation of facts from ideals is, however, too extreme. Consider the following example:4

Fact: The only difference between a doctor giving a child anesthesia and not giving her anesthesia is that without it, the child will be in agony during surgery. The anesthesia will have no ill effects on this child, but will cause her to temporarily lose consciousness and sensitivity to pain. She will then awaken from the surgery with no ill consequences, and in better health thanks to the doctor's work.

Evaluative judgment: Therefore, the doctor should give the child anesthesia.


Excerpted from Moral Minds by Marc Hauser Copyright © 2006 by Marc Hauser. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Prologue : righteous voices
1 What's wrong? 1
2 Justice for all 59
3 Grammars of violence 111
4 The moral organ 163
5 Permissible instincts 242
6 Roots of right 307
7 First principles 357
Epilogue : the right impulse 419
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 6 )
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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 31, 2006

    His Conclusion Lacks Valid Support

    Yes, it is true that even without training, humans have an innate sense of right and wrong. And I agree that this sense of right and wrong is something with which we are born and it is then shaped by nurturing. But to conclude that--because this sense is in our genes and not a direct result of nurturing--it must be the result of evolution is absurd. The most widely circulated book of all time clearly states that people everywhere in the world, whether they received what is known as the Mosaic Law (10 Commandments, etc.) or not, 'do By Nature the things in the law'--know murdering, stealing, etcetera are wrong--because they have a conscience written in their hearts. (Romans 2:14, 15) This is in agreement with the idea of an inborn sense of right and wrong in humans. It took a lawyer two verses to clearly explain something that Dr. Hauser attempts to explain using over 400 pages. Dr. Hauser is grasping at straws. Why do scientists take something so simple and turn it into something so complicated, just to avoid acknowledging a Creator? Because His existence defies their ability to explain, prove, and quantify? That, too, is absurd. Before scientists could measure brain activity, did they deny that people think, feel, and dream? If any among them did, what do we think of those scientists now?

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 21, 2010

    more from this reviewer


    Before you read this author, reseach his recent past. There might be important problems with his work.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 4, 2006

    A Revolution in Understanding Human Nature

    'Moral Minds' creates a new paradigm for the central Western discipline of moral philosophy but it is more. It is an intellectual revolution in the concept of human beings. 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. Hauser's findings and thesis have major implications for the reigning philosophical ideology in American academia--postmodernism. His work decisively shatters postmodern theory of human beings. It delivers the coup de grâce in postmodernism's most sensitive spot--the moral understanding of humankind. In a word, Hauser demolishes the fundamental claims of postmodernism, such as claims that there is no universal human nature and that all human characteristics are social constructions. I have written a fuller appreciation of 'Moral Minds' on my Typepad blog, 'Bag of Worms Yet Words' to which I refer the reader. 'Moral Minds' will be -- and should be -- celebrated and read widely as the long-awaited start of the intellectual revolution in Western thought against the postmodern philosophy that has dragged on since its popular emergence in the 1940s.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 1, 2006


    Hauser presents a revolutionary framework for thinking about the sources of our moral judgment by making the case that morality works in some of the same ways as language. it is revolutionary because it forces us to think about our instinctive moral responses, as opposed to our rational reconstructions. it will be a manifesto for the sciences for years to come.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 1, 2006

    well written and insightful

    this is a remarkably well written book given the difficulty of the material. Hauser manages to explain complicated issues with great clarity. the implications of the ideas are extremely important if not worrying. the basic idea is that we have evolved a moral instinct that enables us to rapidly, albeit unconsciously, decide what is right or wrong. in some cases, these decisions may well be blocked off from cultural influences, including religion. thus, instead of parents teaching children about morality, they have the general principles in mind from the beginning and then culture fills in the details. these ideas are very exciting and fascinating to contemplate, and the book reads like a mystery novel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 12, 2010

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