October 31, 2006

Inborn morality.

Does this idea bother you?
Marc D. Hauser, a Harvard biologist, ... propose[s] that people are born with a moral grammar wired into their neural circuits by evolution. In a new book, “Moral Minds” (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.

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....

Both atheists and people belonging to a wide range of faiths make the same moral judgments, Dr. Hauser writes, implying “that the system that unconsciously generates moral judgments is immune to religious doctrine.” 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.
If this idea bothers you, is it because you want to be proud of your own morality or because it undermines religion? But maybe your need to feel proud of your morality and your sense that God is involved in the process of making you moral are just more things that evolution wired into your brain.

IN THE COMMENTS: This passage from the writings of St. Paul is found relevant and discussed;
(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.)

Romans 2:14-15 (New International Version)


Unknown said...

It bothers me because it's more mentalist nonsense -- like Chomsky. Eternally untestable, flight of fancy masquerading as science.

Dave said...

Well I can already see in this blog post the potential for the derogation of science and evolution by the religious.

But, even for this anatagonist toward religion, I don't understand how this theory maligns religion. If we assume this theory is, in fact, true, wouldn't a propensity toward religiosity, on average, suggest a genetic cause for piety?

Edward said...

This is an encouraging discovery, especially in a world that seems eternally torn along religious lines.

I like to think that the radical Islamic suicide bombers must know deep down that what they’re doing is wrong.

Of course, consciously, they clearly believe that they’re doing the right thing.

Yet if the suicide bombers are as human as the rest of us, then they must realize somewhere in their brains that the violence they’re sowing violates every imaginable tenet of morality.

This had better be true, because if it’s not, then the suicide bombers and their many supporters in the Islamic world are completely unreachable by our attempts to win them over.

The Drill SGT said...

I think most of this is pure drivel. The exceptions are a few moral imperatives like "protect children"

yashu said...

Interesting that this theory isn't too far off from the very old-fashioned idea of natural law (going back to Hellenistic philosophy)... in that sense it seems something of a throwback...

yashu said...

... putting back together the 'is' and the 'ought', as it were (since skeptical modernity/modern science have pretty much split those 2 realms completely apart)...

No-one-12345 said...

Why is this a problem for religion in general? Throw out the evolution part of it and just stick with the "inborn morality" portion and this falls in line with the Mormon doctrine of the "Light of Christ":


I'm not sure about other religions but I imagine that some probably have similar beliefs about a common underlying guidance towards right/wrong.

KCFleming said...

This is news? I read books about this idea 10 years ago.

The genetic determinists are a depressing breed. But their poistion here is undone by simple observation.

They focus on apes with "feelings of empathy and expectations of reciprocity", and somehow (perhaps via the Underpants Gnome Mechanism) we further evolved the dictums "do as you would be done by; care for children and the weak; don’t kill; avoid adultery and incest; don’t cheat, steal or lie".

My drives to eat, acquire, and procreate need little coercion, and their fulfillment puts me in contradiction with these other supposed drives. Moreover, those empathy rules seem more often observed in the breach, if one is prone to glance at the daily news.

And of course, among animals those rules only apply to the drones, not the alpha males and females. So are they rules encoded by DNA, or simply variable guidelines structured in our brains, but altered by choice?

Frankly, one is tempted to recognize this as the same old tired nature-nurture debate, mock it, kick sand in its mewling face, and steal its girlfriend.

bearing said...

I'm not sure about other religions but I imagine that some probably have similar beliefs about a common underlying guidance towards right/wrong.

Well, the whole idea behind Original Sin is that people do wrong things not because our essential nature is bad, but because we have been corrupted from our essentially good nature.

Christianity doesn't ask "How is it that we human animals are moral beings?" (which is the interesting question that Hauser seems to be trying to answer), so much as it asks, "Why are we immoral, given that our nature ought to be moral?"

And of course, "What are we to do about it now?"

Stephen said...

"moral grammar wired into their neural circuits.." Another variation on the millennia-old argument over free will vs. predestination (which used to be Divine and is now from DNA). When a soldier throws himself on a grenade, it is not a selfless act but something that he was programmed to do; if he didn't sacrifice himself, it is because of his instinct for self-preservation. Typical academic bloviating: great at explaining but lousy at predicting what happens next.

Freeman Hunt said...

I agree with Yashu. "Moral grammar" = Natural Law - God.

Why would this threaten the religious who would only say that they prefer the Natural Law version of moral grammer with God included?

Balfegor said...

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

I think there's a problem with that "implying" here. There's all kinds of other competing explanations you could give, such as that both religious people and atheists grow up in a society that has imposed a particular species of morality on them all. You could even have a kind of social-Darwinian thing here, and note that a morality can confer a competitive advantage on a society (e.g. higher-trust society => lowered transaction costs, etc.) so that societies emerging after millenia of competition are all going to have moralities of various sorts, even if they're not absolutely identical. It doesn't have to have a genetic basis.

The real question, I suppose, would be whether feral children display the same moral intuitions as the rest of us.

rafinlay said...

I see no reason to assume that accepting the premise of a "hardwired" morality leads inevitably to the conclusion that there is only one underlying morality. Evolution has obviously come up with multiple forms of other characteristics. Suppose religions coelesce around the inherent morality of genetic groups and competition between groups leads to elimination/consolidation of religious systems. An unpleasant outcome of this could be the conclusion that you cannot reach accomodation with a religious enemy until one side or the other is essentially destroyed. Evolution in action. Somehow I doubt this is what Dr Hauser had in mind. The eternal yearning to believe that everyone is nice, really, and just like me seems to have a wide-spread influence.

Freeman Hunt said...

The real question, I suppose, would be whether feral children display the same moral intuitions as the rest of us.

Good point. Doesn't current research support the notion that lack of human contact in the first 18 months of life can lead to all sorts of attachment disorders (inability to bond with others or even sociopathy)? Where is the hardwired "moral grammar" in such children?

TMink said...

Not upsetting to me. It is the logical extension of determinism. As a Christian, I have a basis for my morals and ethics. Secular determinists need one too, and this is it.


Joe R. said...

It bothers me because it's more mentalist nonsense -- like Chomsky. Eternally untestable, flight of fancy masquerading as science.
I had a syntax professor tell me that we did not have to dismiss parts of linguistic theory to account for contradicting empirical evidence. (According to this same professor, such a methodology exists in theoretical physics or chemistry etc.) Here I was thinking science was about testing hypotheses and refining theory in the light of new data. Silly me. Theory is much easier to deal with when you aren't bounded by any sort of reality.

Anonymous said...

The real question, I suppose, would be whether feral children display the same moral intuitions as the rest of us.

No, just as some children have speech disorders, some people have moral disorders. But toddlers understand morality quite well. They definitely understand property rights. "Mine!" is one of the first abstract concepts a child learns.

I have always thought this nonsense about some people raised in "underprivileged" circumstances not knowing the difference between right and wrong is baloney. Kids know right from wrong by the time they are five years old. Watch them on the playground. They know what's fair. They know how to make rules. They know when they are being mean. Some of it is taught behavior, but some is instinctive. If you spend any time with kids, you know.

Henry said...

This looks like a very bad idea to me.

Not for religion, but for rationalism, understanding, and tolerance.

The idea of an innate moral sense neatly slides into the bad old xenophobia in which difference is despicable. "We" are civilized. We have a moral sense. "You" are savages. Your moral sense is undeveloped.

To take Edwards example, since the suicide bomber fails to exhibit a moral sense, understanding is impossible. Racism, equating the individual to the group, awaits impatiently in the wings.

tm said...

St. Paul tells us that morality & a sense of God are written on the spirit, so Christians should be sympathetic to the mechanism, if not the theory behind its origin.

Some of the discomfort may come from our sense that moral decisions are reasoned through. I think it's key to note that this theory wouldn't dispute that: it would say that certain core tenets are hardwired, and the marginal cases proceed from those tenets and reason out new moral knowledge.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting to see such a conservative idea get pushed by Chomsky. I guess that, as long as he can take credit for it, it doesn't matter if it follows along with the rest of his thoughts.

Anyway, back to the original question. If I were worried about this, it wouldn't be on the basis of religion. It would be that, thinking along these lines of inborn morality, no criminals would have a chance at reforming themselves. I mean, it's not their fault, they were just born differently - but that doesn't mean we can just let them run around, exercising their warped morality. We'd have no choice but to remove them as a threat and keep them in prison. An interesting movie that someone should make would be what society would be like if this were scientifically true (there are already some similar christian ideas, as others have mentioned) and could be tested for at birth, with some sort of genetic test.

Chris said...

I think, with jpe, that you can take the nativist stuff (i.e., denying that moral judgments are acquired from culture & personal reasoning) without committing to the evolutionary story of the origins of our innate characteristics. I imagine a lot of the story, like Chomsky's similar stuff, will fit perfectly fine with Romans 2:14-15.

tm said...

"putting back together the 'is' and the 'ought', as it were"

Not really. Following Moore, it's always possible to ask whether this in-wiring is a good thing. And it's entirely possible to answer in the negative.

Bryan said...

Why would this conflict with religion? If you believe in God, and believe that God created man in His image (via either evolution or spontaneous creation) then it follows that there should be some moral sense deep inside us. Imperfect, in our fallen condition, but still there.

I'm not convinced of the science here but the idea doesn't bother me at all. And I think it's hard to deny that most everyone innately acts as though this is true: There are normal people who have a moral sense, and there are evil people who do not. You can dress it up in anthropological or psychological clothing if you prefer, it still amounts to the same thing.

Balfegor said...

The idea of an innate moral sense neatly slides into the bad old xenophobia in which difference is despicable. "We" are civilized. We have a moral sense. "You" are savages. Your moral sense is undeveloped.

I think an "innate" moral sense runs directly counter to the old "xenophobia" as you call it -- the belief that there are civilised and barbaric peoples. Civilisation is civilisation because it is cultivated, not because it is innate or natural. The Roman is superior to the Goth, because he has devoted his time to the study of letters and arts, of poetry, of rhetoric, of the classics. The Mandarin is superior to the barbarian because he can compose in the eight-legged style, because he knows the classics backwards and forwards, and because he can write the 10,000 characters of the old-style script. The essence of civilisation is that it is not innate.

Anonymous said...

Following Moore, it's always possible to ask whether this in-wiring is a good thing. And it's entirely possible to answer in the negative.

That's just the question. Unfortunately the article equivocates about just what Hauser is trying to do: explain morality? Or just explain people's beliefs about morality?

yetanotherjohn said...

Jeremiah 31:33

"But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day," says the LORD. "I will put my laws in their minds, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people."

Written approximately 600 B.C.

amba said...

Or that God wired into your brain.

amba said...

Freeman Hunt: Hardwired systems still need activation by the environment. A good example is the "imprinting" by which baby chicks and ducks follow the first thing they see.

Language does not develop in feral children (or in deaf children not taught or brought in contact with Sign) even though their brains may well be hardwired to acquire a human language. It might well be the same with morality. So that would be no test.

Unknown said...

Fascinating discussion. The "hard wired" metaphor, though, might be a little misleading, as it implies an inescapable link between specific neural activity and behavior.

For example, one can reasonably argue that evolution has selected sharing behavior. Everyone knows that we escape this selective pressure every day, perhaps, with a twinge of conscience that might result from evolution, too.

The phenomena that I find most remarkable about homo sapiens is our apparent ability to evaluate our innate urges, often irrationally. Back in parochial school, we were taught to examine our consciences before going to confession. No simple task.

Freeman Hunt said...

Freeman Hunt: Hardwired systems still need activation by the environment.

True. You're right. In that case feral children would be a poor test.

KCFleming said...

Given the ease and frequency by which this system is routinely disregarded and violated, at best we might theorize a soft-wired mechanism.

Having arms and legs and the brainware involved makes you capable of walking, but it doesn't mean you can dance. So stop it, most of you, really.

Anonymous said...

I agree with many of the commenters here: Why would biological evidence for an inborn predisposition to morality threaten religion?

I think the assumption that it would says more about the Times' misunderstanding religion than it does about religion itself.

The real question, as others have pointed out, is not why we have a sense of morality, but why we do what we know or believe to be wrong.

Roger Sweeny said...

There's a very old rationalist tradition here, going back at least as far as the Scottish Enlightenment of the 1700s. Adam Smith's first big book was The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

James Q. Wilson, often characterized as a neo-conservative, tried to bring the idea up to date in his fascinating The Moral Sense (published ten or fifteen years ago, a tribute to what research assistants at a good university can find, and how a broad-minded and broadly educated person can put it together).

Brent said...

The historical Christian faith believes, as Ann quoted from Romans, that God does the "hard-wiring" of basic right and wrong into the heart of man.

Someone believing in suicide bombings, et al, has violated that sense of right and wrong, causing the conscience to be seared.

Which begs the question: if salvation (making it to heaven for eternity and avoiding an everlasting hell) depends on a person's responding to the Gospel - personal belief in and following of Christ - what about the person who never hears the Gospel?

Also known in shorthand as "what about the pygmy in Africa who never hears the Gospel?"

The answer is a continuation of the essence of this post. Again, St. Paul:

. . . although not having the law (God's requirements), are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them) in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel. - Romans 2:12-16 NKJV

This means that everyone is "hard-wired" and will be judged according to the amount of knowledge they have regarding the Gospel and their response to it. If no Gospel knowledge, then judgement according to the inner conscience and whether it was violated.

But the scripture is clear that if one has heard the Gospel, at any time, then he/she will be responsible for their personal response to the Gospel.

Unknown said...

Pastor Jeff,

I guess the ostensible threat is that an innate moral sense does not require a supernatural explanation.

Of course, the natural explanation merely moves the cause and effect peg back a notch, but that's what science does.

And I have no idea about the scientific validity of Hauser's argument, but the thread certainly has been interesting.

Sloanasaurus said...

It's ridiculous to think that morality is a biological trait. Morality is a code of conduct created by Humans. Morality guides us in what to do when the consequences of doing something are non-existent or not obvious.

The scientists are confusing morality with the biological instinct to survive. People don't attack others because it is probable that the "others" will attack back and could injur or kill you. People with lots of bread generally don't steal bread from others because there isn't a need for bread and there is a possibility of getting caught and killed.

Morality prevents us from attacking the defenseless.

Morality prevents us from stealing when there are no consequences to stealing.

Sloanasaurus said...

Someone believing in suicide bombings, et al, has violated that sense of right and wrong, causing the conscience to be seared.

Suicide Bombers have their own moral code. They use this code to override the instinct to survive.

Sloanasaurus said...

Many "scientists" have argued that certain activities such as having sex with multiple partners, is not immoral because it is part of our instinct.

This is true because it is not obvious to instinct how having sex with multiple partners would injure an individual. However, moral codes develop from the understanding of thousands of years of experience. A society may learn that monogomous marriage benefits individuals and will therefore write it into the moral code even though the benefit or avoidance of detriment (such as disease) is not instinctive.

This is why we need moral codes. To develop rules that are not instinctive to the individual.

Unknown said...


I suppose an evolutionary psychologist might argue that sexual behavior is shaped by the drive to reproduce. There are some situations that favor monagamy. Others, polygamy. It could be argued that social institutions, taboos, etc. evolve as a result of these calculations, and not independently.

Cedarford said...

The ancient Greeks believed, as have many cultures, that crime runs in families..that there was such a thing as a "bad seed"...and many, including the Greeks, killed the whole family involved as a way to stop "the bad seed".

Modern day psychologists have documented "crime families" where various psychological traits produce generations of criminality and other dysfunctions - even in children removed as infants and raised elsewhere as adoptees or in foster care.

Not saying we should use the Greek approach, but if criminality is in part biologically based, the less perpetuation of "families with traits strongly predisposing them to criminal behavior", the better.

Call it "Hitlerian eugenics" if you want. Or call it common sense.

If a woman has 4 kids, and all are in jail or dead in gang shoot-outs, perhaps state aid encouraging her to pop 3-4 more out of her oven isn't great social policy.

howzerdo said...

Interesting post. I don't see that it necessarily conflicts with religion, but it seems to contradict the theories of Piaget, Kohlberg, Turiel and other educational psychologists who have researched moral education. I do wonder if it became popular whether it would be used as one more excuse for behaving badly.

Edward said...

That’s our Cedarford! – always so sensitive and tactful…

dick said...

My problem is that how do you completely divorce the nurturing environment and the other societal influences from the hard-wired environment and prove anything. As soon as you claim one thing, the opponent can point to some part of the environment or the hard-wiring that negates it. I think I am seeing someone reach for causal influences in order to firm up a proposition without really having adequate proof one way or the other. We as humans are so dependent on the nurturing environment, particularly when we are new-borns, that it is hard to separate out the hard-wiring from the nurturing (or non-nurturing).

Revenant said...

Moral systems are necessary for a stable society; stable societies help people propagate their genes; ergo moral systems help people propagate their genes. Basically anything that helps genes propagate is selected for, so it would be surprising if humans DIDN'T have a genetic predisposition for belief in moral systems at this point.

Beth said...

Brent, you explain that passage exactly as I was taught it. It's always given me trouble, though, as on some level it makes me wonder if evangelism, spreading the "good news," is in fact a good thing, and less a wonderful gift than a tricky test.

TMink said...

Hey Elizabeth, please splain that to em. I would like to hear more of your thoughts on evangelism please.

By the way, the posts on this have been great. Very thought provoking for me. Thanks!

Hitlerian Eugenics?!?!? I just know that I have to get a license to fish and anybody can produce children that have no chance to thrive. Freedom without responsibility is chaos I guess.


Beth said...

Trey, I have no deep thoughts on evangelism. I have few deep thoughts about anything.

I've just always been troubled by that passage. It's as if by spreading the gospel, we put people in a bind: choose Jesus or go to hell! But if we'd just left them alone, God would make the call on his own, according to how they'd lived their lives. I did think about that once in awhile when I put my yearly Lottie Moon missionary envelope in the collection plate (any Souther Baptists here know what I'm talking about?) On the other hand, I also understood the role of the missionary to be one of exemplifying the gospel, not just putting people to the test with it, i.e. to show the gospel in action, rather than to act as an Inquisitor.

Ok, that's as deep as I'm going.

TMink said...

Thanks Elizabeth! I did not mean to put you on the spot, but I wanted to know more about what you meant.

I am NOT an evangelist, even though I am evangelical. I work as a psychologist doing therapy with hurt people. My job is to help them get back together and make sense of what appened to them. It does involve the Love of Christ, but not the sharing of the Gospel using words.

Still, I certainly do believe in Evangelism. I see your point, but the commandment to spread the Good News seems so clear that I just accept it. But I see your point as well, and I appreciate the compassion behind it.


Kathy said...

C.S. Lewis wrote a book about this very subject: The Abolition of Man.

This next bit may be off topic:

Trey and Elizabeth, I certainly speak from no great scholarship here, but my understanding of scripture (as a Southern Baptist-ish type Christian) is thus:

God has written His law on men's hearts. (That would be men as in people, by the way! :-z )
Each person is responsible for abiding by this law.
No one can successfully do this.
Therefore, each person is already condemned simply on the basis of his failure to follow the law written on his own heart.

You will rarely find a person who believes that he is perfectly living up to the moral standard to which he holds, no matter what that moral standard is. One of the reasons martyrdom is so popular in some forms of Islam is that it assures admission to paradise, which admission is otherwise open to question.

The Gospel is the Good News because of grace. Believing in Jesus as the savior isn't some Christian version of a ritual or magic spell. It's an acceptance that we on our own can't meet the perfect standard demanded of us and that instead of relying on our own merit we will rely on God's grace.

If we don't evangelize, we aren't simply allowing people to meet God's standard on their own terms. Paul was talking about people having their moral code written on their hearts. He wasn't saying that whatever system they concoct to try to atone for their failure to live up to this moral code will be acceptable to God. He is saying that this moral code condemns them even if they don't know anything else.

As for what happens to those who never hear of Jesus, basically scripture is silent on that point. Various Christian traditions have their own theories (some more compassionate than others), but we just don't know.

Kim said...

I think the issue is as simple as fate vs. free will. I should add that it is simply stated, though not a simple concept for most. Catholics believe in free will. Most protestants believe in determinism (per Martin Luther and Calvin). Of course, those of us who believe in free will have a huge problem with this. I think that the assumptions of any experiments could be a huge factor. After all, there are conscious processes that become subconscious, or automated, with enough practice.