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The Nature of Right and 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 leaders train 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 acommon 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.
The Nature of Right and Wrong. Copyright © by Marc Hauser. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.