[lit-ideas] Re: An evolutionary theory of right & wrong

  • From: Donal McEvoy <donalmcevoyuk@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Mon, 6 Nov 2006 09:07:12 +0000 (GMT)

Brief comments inserted below:-

> Primatologists like Frans de Waal  have long argued that the roots of human
> morality are evident in social animals  like apes and monkeys. The
> animalsâ?? 
> feelings of empathy and expectations of  reciprocity are essential
> behaviors for 
> mammalian group living and can be  regarded as a counterpart of human 
> morality. 

There is a lot in this I think for certain "mammalian..living", especially
primates. It raises the question of the degree and kind of continuity and
discontinuity between human and animal in this regard.

> Marc D. Hauser, a Harvard  biologist, has built on this idea to propose
> that 
> people are born with a moral  grammar wired into their neural circuits by 
> evolution. In a new book, â??Moral  Mindsâ?? (HarperCollins 2006), he
> argues that the 
> grammar generates instant moral  judgments which, in part because of the 
> quick decisions that must be made in  life-or-death situations, are
> inaccessible 
> to the conscious mind. 

Here I don't like (a) the idea of "moral grammar" - the use of "grammar" here
appears to me arguably merely one of the terminological last laggards of the
"linguistic turn" in philosophy, perhaps unwittingly used. "Instincts" would
be better a term than "grammar"; (b) the idea these are "wired into their
neural circuits" - this needs careful adjustment if it is not to be simply
the rhetoric of some overly reductivist pseudo-scientific ideology.

> People are  generally unaware of this process because the mind is adept at 
> coming up with  plausible rationalizations for why it arrived at a decision
> generated  subconsciously.

There is a lot in this I think. However...

> The proposal, if true, would have  far-reaching consequences. It implies
> that 
> parents and teachers are not teaching  children the rules of correct
> behavior 
> from scratch but are, at best, giving  shape to an innate behavior.

"Giving shape to" perhaps, but perhaps also shaping an innate disposition so
that the disposition is modified or changed. 

>And it 
> suggests that religions are not the source  of moral codes but, rather,
> social 
> enforcers of instinctive moral  behavior.

It suggests that religions are not the original source of "moral codes" -
that moral codes precede religions: it does not show that religions therefore
are mere "enforcers" of - as in cultural reflections of - instinct; they may
modify instincts (as per my comment above).


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