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

  • From: Donal McEvoy <donalmcevoyuk@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Mon, 6 Nov 2006 11:40:49 +0000 (GMT)

More comments below (this time marked by *):-

>Dr. Hauser presents his argument as a hypothesis to be proved, not as an
established fact. But it is an idea that he roots in solid ground, including
his own and othersâ?? work with primates and in empirical results derived by
>moral philosophers. 

* "empirical results derived by moral philosophers"? Beware anyone who ever
says this. Poor expression or understanding (or both) are among the obvious

Both atheists and people belonging to a wide range of faiths make the same
moral judgments, Dr. Hauser writes, implying â??that the system that
unconsciously generates moral judgments is immune to religious doctrine.â?? 

* I suggest this theory may be falsifiable and is even falsified (cf. the
tribe that eats its dead parents].

Dr. Hauser argues that the moral grammar operates in much the same way as the
universal grammar proposed by the linguist Noam Chomsky as the innate neural
machinery for language. The universal grammar is a system of rules for
generating syntax and vocabulary but does not specify any particular
language. That is supplied by the culture in which a child grows up. 

* (Though no expert on and having only a very generalised idea of Chomsky's
ideas re language-acquisition, which I feel are probably devastating of a
trad.arr. 'empiricist' account but not therefore correct themselves) I
suggest we might need to crucially distinguish the idea that 'rules' are
innate (which is dubious) from the idea that dispositions to grasp language
in terms of rules are innate (which is probably correct).

The moral grammar too, in Dr. Hauserâ??s view, is a system for generating
moral behavior and not a list of specific rules.

* The analogy seems strained: (if I guess correctly) Chomsky argues that the
'rules' in the abstract that underlie our linguistic grammar are universal
between all languages even if their specific forms differ as between
different languages - the 'programme' by which a child learns 'the rules' of
Chinese is the same as the one by which another learns 'the rules' of
English, even though - at another level - the 'grammar' of the two languages
differ. At this other level there are specific grammars, though each is
underpinned by a universal grammar.

*How we can easily leap, if at all, from this to "moral grammar", so-called? 

It constrains human behavior so tightly that many rules are in fact the same
or very similar in every society â?? do as you would be done by; care for
children and the weak; donâ??t kill; avoid adultery and incest; donâ??t
cheat, steal or lie. 

* This is simple to say but lacking in finesse both as a theory and given
what we know historically. Surely there have been societies (and
sub-cultures) were "killing" was extolled, "adultery" and "incest" permitted
etc. - and there could have been more. 

But it also allows for variations, since cultures can assign different
weights to the elements of the grammarâ??s calculations. 

* This allowing for "variations" may well render any such theory
unfalsifiable (as in so-called 'exceptions' that nevertheless are held to
'prove', being mere "variations",'the rule' rather than taken as falsifying
that there is any such 'rule'.

Thus one society may ban abortion, another may see infanticide as a moral
duty in certain circumstances. Or as Kipling observed, â??The wildest dreams
of Kew are the facts of Katmandu, and the crimes of Clapham chaste in

*Leave Martaban out of it. Lovely place, lovely people. Won't hear a word
against them. Been to Clapham Common recently?

Matters of right and wrong have long been the province of moral philosophers
and ethicists. Dr. Hauserâ??s proposal is an attempt to claim the subject for
science, in particular for evolutionary biology. The moral grammar evolved,
he believes, because restraints on behavior are required for social living
and have been favored by natural selection because of their survival value. 

* This raises the question to what extent "survival value" explains the
morality we adopt and in what ways: clearly a morality that is suicidal (a la
Jim Jones [assuming they volunteered, which appears not to be the case]; a la
Kamikazism) is likely in some difficulty propagating itself as against a
morality that promotes a better sense of self-preservation. Equally, most
moralities are not based on simple self-preservation but in fact demand
sacrifices - including, depending on the circumstances, the sacrifice of
one's life.

And this is only to indicate one starting-point for the debate but one which
indicates that it would be mistaken to think (a) "survival value" is in no
way explanatory of morality (b) "survival value" is totally explanatory or
even mainly explanatory of morality.


Try the all-new Yahoo! Mail. "The New Version is radically easier to use" ? The 
Wall Street Journal 
To change your Lit-Ideas settings (subscribe/unsub, vacation on/off,
digest on/off), visit www.andreas.com/faq-lit-ideas.html

Other related posts: