Marc Hauser – Moral Minds

April 04, 2008

Marc Hauser is an evolutionary psychologist and biologist. He is Harvard College Professor and Professor of Psychology, and Director of the Primate Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at Harvard University. He is the author of a number of books, including The Evolution of Communication, Wild Minds: What Animals Think, and Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong.

In this interview with D.J. Grothe, Marc Hauser expounds his theory that morality has biological origins while challenging the common view that morality comes from God. He compares the human capacity for morality with Noam Chomsky’s notion of a universal grammar, arguing that there is a “morality module” in the brain. He explains how his theory accounts for differences in morality across cultures, and discusses how morality could have evolved and what genetic benefit it might have afforded. He also explores the implications of his theory for the legal system, and for cultural institutions like religion and the family.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

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My guest this week on Point of Inquiry is Mark Couser, an evolutionary psychologist, a biologist. He is Harvard College professor and professor of psychology and director of the Primate Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at Harvard. He’s the author of a number of books, including The Evolution of Communication, Wild Minds, What Animals Think and Moral Minds How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, which he’s on the show today to talk with me about. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, Mark Houser. Thanks very much for having me. 

15 years ago, when I started thinking about morality, not just in terms of doing what God says, not just in terms of being a good Christian, but in more philosophical terms, I ran across this big argument of C.S. Lewis’s argument goes the fact that people seem to be pretty similarly moral across many cultures, he says, is proof of God’s existence, that God’s the one who wrote that morality in our hearts. How else could it have gotten there? Well, Professor Howser, you agree with C.S. Lewis that morality is largely universal and innate. But you argue in your book that there’s a better explanation for it than saying it comes from God. You say that we have the shared innate morality because it’s evolutionarily determined. 

Right? I mean, I think, you know, there’s an issue that comes up with trying to account for how the system got there. And I think, you know, today is to keep my one is that for those people who want to have the faith they have. Science shouldn’t kind of meddle in that view because it’s there. What you want to believe, people should believe what they want. But insofar as there is disagreement, then the question is, you know what? One view offers theories of an account versus another. And here are these where it’s tough. If people want argued that, you know, we have the similarity to because of God and a biologist wants to come along and say, no, it’s because of evolution. Science has a way of testing its hypotheses. And religion doesn’t traffic in those areas. So it’s only a question of what we can do with that kind of conflict. And I think there’s really no where to go in the sense that I can say, look, I’m going to give you an idea for why the universe reality comes from biology by, for example, appealing to the similarity in the time course in which people acquire these moral systems, looking to animal studies to see that some of the same mechanisms that drive our moral judgments here in non-human animals. 

That’s a size with very, very different cultural wars, belief systems and so forth, nonetheless show similarities in their moral judgments. So, you know, at that point, I’m going to go to what kind of evidence I can provide for universality, for the role of biology. And if it comes back, we’ll know God gave it then. There’s not really anywhere for us to go. 

In which way is this idea of yours of moral grammar? Parallel to Noam Chomsky’s idea of universal grammar, of how we’re all equipped with an innate language faculty in innate grammar built into our brains? 

Well, I think it builds strongly on on Chomsky’s ideas for language, which were really brought to the fore in the 1970s by the late political philosopher John Rawls. These are ideas that have floated around within moral philosophy for many, many years, but really hadn’t been treated seriously in terms of empirical work until really first in one sense. The philosopher John McKale began to run some experiments and then we jumped on board and began doing more work. But the basic idea that Chomsky laid out for language was really an argument about the mind in general. So Chomsky said, look, there’s a system for building linguistic systems, expressed linguistic systems like French and English and Korean. 

But underlying the variation that we see in terms of the expressed languages is a common code or, you know, what you refer to as a universal grammar so that there are certain kind of rules and regulations for how you build languages that have a shared common foundation. And what we have started to do is to sort of take that argument seriously for other kinds of domains of knowledge, like morality or music, and ask the question, could it be that? Are all the systems of rich knowledge that humans have as part of our species? That sure, there’s lots of cultural variation, but underlying that variation are a set of common principles or rules for building that variation. And so the basic work now is to try to see what those underlying universal principles might be and how they constrain the express form of different kinds of moral systems language. 

You just intimated it’s not just acquired or just innate. It’s both. But the structure of the mind means that there’s this innate faculty for language, specifically, according to Chomsky, you just said, well, there’s this language module in the brain. You’re saying that about morality, too, that there’s a morality module. It’s not just that the brain has this capacity to learn whatever it’s going to learn. It’s not just this universal learning machine, but that there’s a specific capacity for morality question. How do you distinguish your idea of moral grammar from the idea that the brain is just this great learning gizmo that just acquires moral knowledge, just like it would acquire any other kind of knowledge? 

The the way that typically one goes about doing that in other areas outside of morality, is this never useful? Is one piece of evidence that you don’t have as kind of general purpose learning machine that can learn anything is you show cases, for example, where a certain part of the brain is damaged or a certain circuit, the brain damage. And what that leads to is very selective damage in terms of a particular capacity as opposed to damage kind of across the board. So here’s a simple example. There is evidence in human beings that when a certain part of the brain basically kind of linking the back of the brain called the occipital lobe, which mostly does vision with a temporal lobe, which does things like object recognition. When that part of the brain is damaged, what patients suffer from is, of course, devastating, is they fail to be able to recognize familiar faces. So a person wouldn’t recognize their family members or famous people, but they have no problem recognizing other objects. So it’s various selective two faces. So that’s the kind of evidence that one looks for in terms of selectivity of a function. And that gives you confidence. The brain is not just this general purpose learning machine. So the question is, can we find things like that with the moral domain? And we have one case that we published about a year ago with colleagues of mine at the University of Iowa and USC, particular Antonio DiMaggio’s team, where there are patients who have damage to a particular part of the frontal lobe, which has been strongly implicated in emotional processing. This is an area that you see involved when we make decisions, especially social decisions that are emotionally rich. This area, when damage seems to lead to very inappropriate kinds of deficits. So what we find in this case is that for a wide range of moral problems, these patients who have damaged this area show perfectly normal patterns of moral judgments. I mean, they show the pattern of judgments that healthy individuals lacking brain damage show. But there’s a small class of moral problems where these patients show a very characteristic and different pattern of judgment than do people who lack brain damage. And that is when moral dilemmas involve some individual doing something aversive and harmful to another. But with the consequence that many people will survive. These patients tend to lean in the direction of supporting. Doing that action because it leads to the greater good or in kind of philosophical terms, they lean more in the direction of a utilitarian decision where the consequences as opposed to the means seemed to predominate in their decisions. So this is a very classic case of a very, very specific and narrow deficit that leans in the direction of some aspects of the brain being quite selectively involved in certain aspects of our moral decision and does not lead to an overall general deficit in cognitive capacity. 

Before we get into some of the implications of your theory, tell me a little bit more about the study that you did that led you to write this big book? 

Well, I don’t think it was only one study that really kind of led me to read this. I had been doing some work and writing with Noam Chomsky on language, thinking a lot about language, evolution and reading his work. You know, deeply and obviously very affected by its own work. And I was I was doing that work. It struck me that many of the questions that Chomsky and many of his colleagues and people in linguistics had been applying to language were the kinds of questions that should really be applied to any domain of knowledge. So, for example, Chomsky, you know, said, look, we look at our knowledge of language. We should be describing the kind of principles that give people who are mature that knowledge. And then we should be asking about the development of those principles. How are they acquired? And then we should be asking about how they are used in conversational exchanges. How do those systems evolve? And are they specific to language as opposed to other domains of knowledge? And so it just struck me that those are the kinds of questions you should ask about morality. And when I started looking around at the field, which was very, very rich with lots of extraordinary work in the field, these are the kinds of questions that really weren’t being raised to the moral domain. So the more and more I looked at, the more I sort of was reading some of the work in both philosophy and law and biology. It struck me that this is a time to kind of put these ideas together, to try to lead the field in a slight different direction, which is to take the questions that have long been raised for language very seriously in terms of those same kinds of questions from morality. And, you know, the XIV for me is that science moves by raising new questions where people haven’t really raised them before and finding ways to answer those questions. And, you know, since the book was published in 2006, there’s been just an explosion of empirical work in this area. So it’s not merely of interest because the questions are interesting, but because now there are really no new data on a table that people can kind of wrestle with. 

If this moral grammar mark is innate, if if it got there through evolution, natural selection, why was it selected? How do we know that morality helped our genetic survival? 

There are a couple things here to unpack in terms of the issue. The fact that, you know, the argument that we’ve brought forward and people like John McCollough, both Ford points to the biology of morality. Doesn’t Nessel a point to the mechanism by which that biology came to be? In other words, it’s both possible that this was something that was highly selected for. And it’s also possible that the thing we call our moral sense or moral faculty is a byproduct of some other aspect of development that brought these things into concert with each other and allowed for certain kinds of moral decisions to be made. So, for example, people up there will hotted morality of all. That’s the kind of question I find virtually impossible to answer, because morality is not just one thing. They way that language is not just one thing. We can ask questions, however, like when we make a moral decision, what are the kinds of psychological neuro biological processes that enter into that decision? So here’s an example. Everybody agrees that when we make a moral decision or when we engage in morally relevant behavior, like helping someone or harming them in a state of revenge, that our emotions are involved. No one denies that. But one of the questions we can ask is to what extent are the emotions specific to morality and those other morally specific emotions? And secondly, to what extent to the emotions precede the judgment as opposed to falling out of a judgment. So let’s take a sort of example, something that we’ve begun to work on. Consider psychopaths. Here is a group of people who clearly have emotional deficits in all clinical diagnoses. They don’t seem to experience things like shame and remorse and guilt and empathy, and they clearly do things that we consider to be morally inappropriate. They often kill others. So the question is, do emotions which are clearly damage, caused them to not understand the moral domain? They don’t. What’s right or wrong, or do they understand what’s right and wrong? But because of the emotional deficit, they fail to do the right thing. 

They just don’t care that it’s wrong. 

They just don’t care. Exactly. So what you need to do is you need to present psychopaths and other control populations that are not psychopathic with moral dilemmas. And there’s basically two possible outcomes, at least two. One is if emotions are causally necessary to make a proper moral judgment, the nation show a very different pattern of judgment than do people who are not like about it. But the alternative is if you don’t need emotions to make moral judgments, but you need them for the behavior. And their pattern of judgment should be the same as people who are not psychopathic. But they will do the wrong thing. Mm hmm. So we’re now in the process of putting exactly those data. So. To make a long story short, how this evolved. What was selected for and so forth is the question that we don’t really have good answers to. People have speculated the fact that once humans evolved into the state that they’re currently in, where there are relatively large groups of genetically unrelated individuals, there were strong selection for certain kinds of mechanisms, like being able to track the reputation of others, being able to punish cheaters. Being able to punish those who don’t punish cheaters. And so those kinds of mechanisms may have come in, but whether they came in form morality. Or for something else. And then basically we’re used by a moral system. Is the question which is completely up in the air. 

Mm hmm. Mark, I want to talk about the universality of this moral grammar. How do you account for the amazing diversity of views about what’s right and wrong across cultures and throughout time? If it’s all preprogramed and hardwired by evolution, doesn’t that therefore mean that we’d all believe the same things about good and bad and right and wrong if it’s preprogramed? 

Well, this is where the analogy to line would think is very useful. In the same way, there are different languages. There are different moral systems. But those differences do not go against the universal hypotheses because of the falling. Chomsky’s notion of a universal grammar has to do with extremely abstract computations or calculations. They’re unconscious and they’re inaccessible. There’s no content in those computations. They’re abstracts with having to do with where you can move certain words and affray. So, for example, in English, when we create a W.H question of what, where or why kind of question, we move parts of the sentence around to create a functional question. But the computation or the operation has no content as a mislay the content of those words. It tells me what the class of words like nouns and verbs and adjectives and determiners. The parallel with the moral case is that these rules that we’re imagining are also very abstract. They have to do with example when, if ever, is it permissible to use someone as the means to the greater good? When is it permissible to contact someone in what part or on what part of their body? The content of those rules and how they’re fleshed out is what the local culture will do in perhaps some of the same way. The local culture gives us the lexicon of English and not Korean. So the parallel basically here is very similar to language, I mean, again, if the idea is right, is that morality like language will have very abstract computational operations having to do with the nature of permissible harm and help. 

But then each culture will give that abstraction some content, which will end up looking like the cultural variation. 

We see the variation across these different moral systems. You’re saying other cultures, they have different moral languages, just like they have different languages. Your point is that we all have this innate, hardwired, evolutionarily determined capacity for morality, for this moral language. But in language. Well, you just said it. Every language has verbs and nouns, even if the languages are different. But are there things that every system of morality holds to be right and wrong, even if the moral grammar is different across moralities? 

Yes. So the idea would be that, for example, me here, something that, you know, is looking like it might show up across a wide cultural group, but where we we’ve only started so renewable. Our Web site called the Moral Sense Test, is a Web engine that’s designed to get a lot of data from people from all over the world. We now have a translate into three languages, Dutch, Spanish and Chinese with that database. Here is something that comes up quite consistently. People judge harm that’s based on using someone as a means to the greater good as worse than a harm. It’s basically foreseen as a side effect. Let me give an example. These are we’ll be quite familiar to some of your listeners, but it is one example of many simple which these famous trolley problems. So, for example, a tri’s comedian on track. If it continues, it will kill five people if they haven’t tracked, but a person is the next. The track for the switch turning trolley onto a side track where it will kill one. OK. The second case is very similar to the try’s coming long. If it continues, it will kill five. But you can throw somebody onto the track. That person will die, but that person will stop the child from advancing in the fight will be safe. Now, in the second case, you need that person as the means to the greater good. You are using him as the means, the greater good. In the first case, it’s just a consequence. It’s a consequence of an action, which is the basis of the ongoing threat off onto something else. So here people judge the first case as far more permissible than the second case. People generally say it’s not permissible. So this is a kind of a distinction cutting across many different dilemmas which pops up and seems to be quite generally agreed upon. You don’t find gender differences. You don’t find the effects of religious background. You don’t find the effects of educational background, again, controlling for things like age. This is a lots of cultural variation that does not seem to impact upon that kind of distinction. So, you know, one of the goals of our work and we’re now just beginning to this is not just use these very large Internet samples, but also work together closely with anthropologists working in small scale kind of anthropological societies, small scale, you know, Hunter-Gatherer societies where we translate these dilemmas into the foreign language. We present them with these dilemmas and we look at their kind of judgments. So there are two kinds of things that we expect some of these abstract distinctions we expect to find cross culturally in the same way that there is certain linguistic distinctions or operations if you find cross culturally. And then we begin to expect to find the signatures of cross-cultural variation that some cultures will do things differently. We expect that the question is where can culture play in variation? 

And whereas a constraint, right, certain Muslim societies believe female genital mutilation or honor killings are okay, but just because that’s their moral language, it doesn’t mean that they’re getting that content from that morality module in their brains. You’re allowing for that diversity within your theory. 

Well, that’s right. And and so one of the ways in which the variation comes in, here’s one way of making it very explicit. Let’s go back to those two trolly problems. OK. Now, the way I described them, I said there are five people in the track main track. And as one person is sidetracked, what is one person next to you that you can throw? I didn’t say any about who those people are. Now, let’s imagine testing those two dilemmas on two populations. Let’s imagine that we go to Israel and we ask Israelis, five, pull up ahead. Are Palestinians and the one on the side track Israeli? Do you flip the switch? Well, we don’t want to go to Israel to ask that question. We know the answer is going to be for a large part of the Israeli population. Given the war, they’re going to say, no, you don’t let the five die. Now go to Palestine and say the five of the head are Israelis and the one of the sidetracks, the Palestinian. What will they do? Well, we’ll get the same kind of answer as we did in Israel. So here what you’ve done is in cases where you’ve got major disagreement among two cultures, in this case, a war, an ongoing war, the ingroup outgroup distinction is going to completely swamp any other effect because those are very powerful effects. The point that we want to make is that if I go to Israel and Palestine and asked in those two dilemmas and say nothing about who those people are, they’ll get exactly the same answer. They will say it’s permissible to flip the switch, but not permissible to throw them in. So the idea is that what’s going into lots of the variation we see in some of these cultures are going to be influenced tremendously by this kind of ingroup group distinctions. And so that’s why what makes this project very difficult, but also very exciting, is that you want to pick apart what’s going to be specific to the missile system as opposed to how moral judgments are being influenced by things that are outside of the moral domain and not specific to them. So ingroup outgroup is not specific to the moral domain. We do all sorts of ingroup Agaba things all the time for non-moral reasons. But the fact that it is there greatly affects any kind of moral behavior we engage in. 

Here you are a scientist at a leading research institution. But you are saying to religious people, like we started off our conversation talking about that morality doesn’t come from God. You have evidence, you have an argument. It comes from biology. But the theory that you put forth in moral minds is not advancing a specific morality. You’re just arguing that the general capacity for morality is hardwired. Here’s the question. Do you think that if you got it right, if morality comes from exactly where you say it’s coming from evolution and not from the supernatural or from God, that it has implications for what shape that morality should take? I mean, a morality based on the scientific worldview seems to me like it’d be a lot different than a Bible based morality, especially when it comes to the culture war, questions like abortion or stem cell research or something. Are there implications? Morality in your theory? That’s the question. 

Well, yes, I mean, there are too. And in some cases, you know, all flag, as you know, mildly utopian. But you know, why I.B.? 

So the first thing is that I think recognition of some of the kinds of psychological maxims that we and many people seem to be uncovering about the biology morality, I think does have implications for how certain kinds of institutions proceed. More specifically, if you think about the law, that is in one sense trying to figure out what we ought to do because it’s a prescriptive field. Right. But what we’re we’re doing in biology is descript, that we simply describe how people act or how they judge the law traffics in asone of what should human society look like. Right. Tend to vary by culture. 

But given the laws mission to figure out what we should do, the laws would be much better off if it understands how people do behave. You know what other constraints and people’s understanding of the world, what kinds of psychological biases that may be evolutionarily ancient play into their decision making. 

Their biological constraints. 

You say biological constraints. And so, for example, in general, people tend to see actions that cause harm as worse than emissions, that cause the same harm. 

So we, for example, block active euthanasia, giving someone an overdose, but we permit terminating life support, the emission of killing. Right now, the reason why that’s presuming there at some level is because we tend to see the action is worse, the emission. But if you sit down with people who have that view, who say, look, no, give me someone an overdose, which is bad. Right. But to me, left supporting a line in the dies. OK. Now you work through the fine logic. Say, look, when a doctor sees a patient who’s in pain and suffering and there’s absolutely no here on the horizon and decides that terminating life support is the most humane thing to do and they die. What you have is the documented diagnosis. Doctors intention is to end the pain and suffering, and the consequence is the patient dies. Now, let’s say the active case, the doctor says there is no cure. The person is in pain and suffering. I give them an overdose and they die. Description is exactly the same way, differences with injection. They die right now with termination Life-Support. 

They die in a few hours or a couple of days, maybe painfully. What’s worth more pain or less pain? Well, I’m sorry. I go to active euthanasia that given diagnosis. Right. 

But the point is that the psychology seems to evolve to say that actively killing somebody is worse than admitting. And there are good reasons to see why the brain evolved that distinction. 

But understanding that the brain evolved to make that distinction or understanding that our ancestors thought X was good versus Y, it doesn’t necessarily tell us how it should be today. 

That’s right. It doesn’t say what it ought to be, but it simply says, look, if you’re going to try to implement a policy that in some sense it goes against the descriptive biology or psychology, you have to recognize that these are not going to really be easy for a long time. We treated animals strictly as property while property has no emotion way. My tennis, no emotion. So I want to throw it across the room and crashed it. Who cares? But if that’s your view towards animals, then course when you don’t like your dog, you keep the dog and no one cares. Well, we now know dogs have feelings at some coal. They’re the same as humans. Who knows? But once you take them out of his own property, your restrictions on what you ought to do with them changes. But, of course, to change people, to think differently took a lot of work. And, you know, of course, not everybody is on board with that one. But for those who are, they would never think about kicking an animal because they’ve been educated. OK, so point one is simply that having that information in our hands may give good guidance terms of what kinds of legal policies will be difficult to change and which ones are not. Here’s, for example, when Sweden decided to change which side of the road they drove on, it happened in one day. No one cared. And off they went, because, like you mentioned, everyone agrees. If Sweden came and said, look, today we actually had the best religion for everybody. Our country would be Judaism. Well, you know, that’s not going to change overnight because there are already certain biases. They’re there about what religion they want to have. So in the same way, understand the kinds of biases that people have that maybe evolutionary ancient could make it easier in some sense for the law to basically build in an understanding of what it can be hard people accept and how they may have to basically customize the information in such a way to feed into what the biases already are. 

Understanding that these moral intuitions are irresistible to us, given our evolved psychology, might help us be more understanding of why people have the moralities that they have. 

Your say are why it’s harder for people to accept certain things. I mean, you know, for example, take the euthanasia case. Belgium in the Netherlands no longer have a legal distinction between active and passive euthanasia. What they do is that a board of doctors, together with a family, makes a decision about which way to go. Now, presumably it hasn’t been trivial for people in those countries who had a different view to just change overnight. 

But presumably, as those things become much more part of the local culture, they will. But here’s the catch. There’s no question that people can get around and think about a particular case like euthanasia. Does this mean that they have now basically eliminated the action versus omission distinction? No, that would not be the case. Give them a new case where action emission is a distinction. And my guess is the psychology will go right back to where it was, which is that actually worse than emissions? 

Mm hmm. So what the law culture can do. Or a law can do or a religion can do is give people a way of thinking definitely about a specific case. 

You said there was a second point when we’re talking about implications. 

So the second point is maybe maybe if you can show people that underlying their fundamental disagreements is a common code where they don’t disagree, maybe maybe some of these conflicts will go away, maybe among smart people maybe who will sit back and step away from their emotions and look at the issue, maybe legally, maybe if the Israelis and Palestinians on some level knew that there’s a common moral code, maybe some, this will go away. I mean, I doubt it because there is such deep seeded issues about the emotions and resources and rights and so forth. It’s a much more complicated story, but maybe some conflict. And this is the utopian side. Maybe some copies will go away when people at the opposite end of the conflict see that there’s more somewhere than it ever anticipated between people they hate. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can purchase a copy of Moral Minds How Nature designed our universal sense of right and wrong through our Web site, pointon inquiry dot org. Mark, you just talked about the law a couple minutes ago. There are some, I think, some really big implications of your theory for how we punish people in our society. If someone seems to lack this innate. Brogrammer, you were talking about psychopaths and they commit horrendous crimes. Does that mean they’re just brain damaged and that they have a medical condition? Or in other words, does it mean that this really shouldn’t be a criminal justice problem? 

One of the big issues, lots of causal responsibility. You know, who who is responsible for their actions and how should we think about that? OK, where he’s your age old question. 

But if you’re arguing that people have their view about this being right or that being wrong, because it’s innate. It’s hardwired. It’s a function of their brain. Are they responsible for that? 

So the issue is what was responsible me. Let’s let’s go back to psychopathy. So one of the key issues and laws, you know, for example, the model penal code is that the individual who committed the crime did so knowingly. And we know that the law makes exceptions to different kinds of actions. So, for example, crimes of passion are often given very reduced sentences because the idea is that in the heat of the moment, he wasn’t himself. Yeah, right. Few people would be able to control their passions. Right. OK, so we know that a person’s psychological state bears tremendously on how the law sees the crime. So negligence is different than accidents. So consistent the law traffic’s not a zone and there’s a lot of gray areas. The question now becomes, to what extent does our understanding of the biology of the mind impact upon these decisions and their course? There’ve been some very famous cases. I mean, many, many years ago in the 70s, when people point to the fact that many convicts in prison who were very, very aggressive and violent happened to have an extra Y chromosome. And the claim was that this extra Y makes them aggressive and therefore it’s not their fault, so to speak. Now, the reason why they ultimately got thrown out of the chorus could not be used as a defense because there are people who were X, Y, Y who were not violent. So it’s really an issue about kind of determinism and the extent to which of the biology really predetermines a certain kind of outcome or biases, a certain kind of outcome, and the extent to which the person could be held responsible for their own actions. The extreme core cases, of course, are people who have some kind of very significant mental problem, who have low IQ near the retardation end of the scale. People suffering from autism who have problems with inferring what other people believe and desire there. It’s a harder are you because, you know, what are they responsible for? And so where this gets very tricky is how much you pin on the individual terms of what they’re doing knowingly. In the case of a psychopath, if my intuition is right that they do things knowingly but they just can’t help themselves, then the law needs to take into account the fact that they can’t control themselves. 

You’ve got an impulsivity problem. I want to talk about institutions, cultural institutions like churches, schools, the family. One of the insights of evolution is that everything evolves, even these kinds of institutions. And if that’s so, they’ve evolved over the course of our civilization. And most people consider these institutions to be the way that morality gets passed down from one generation to another. You’re saying morality is innate biological. Isn’t that inherently against the argument that these institutions are vital and necessary if people are going to be good and avoid being bad? 

Well, I mean, I think one of the things that the fields of biology and psychology of uncovered over the last several years is that inside every human, there are parts of the brain that are geared towards doing good and there are parts of the brain they’re geared toward doing that. I mean, we’ve kind of got both those. And so, as is the standard, we argue the traditional view from economics, that we’re kind of rational creature who only cares about maximizing our own good. He has clearly been rejected to a large extent by some of the very creative experiments in beer economics, where even if he could be simply selfish, were sometimes very fair. We distribute resources to others, even if we could take it all ourselves. So it’s true that in some cases what people see institutions like religion and law doing is giving us our morality. But that view is clearly wrong because that would suggest that people who are atheists are just immoral, which we know is not true. And that’s also the case that people religious belief, moral, which is also not true. So the point is that even when those institutions are working, a, they really don’t guarantee any kind of moral righteousness or virtue and be even in the absence of those institutions. There is a high degree of moral behavior. So there are two questions here that your one question can be divined. Two is why did, for example, institutions like law and religion evolve in the first place? And the case of religion, given that it’s not necessary for moral behavior, but certainly impacts upon it? What’s the difference between a morally virtuous person who’s religious versus one who’s not? What does it say about. Their own personalities about their biology. Why is that to go towards religion? People do not. And to what extent is religion really necessary? So I think that second question. Is religion necessary? Is really a population question. Because what it really raises the idea that, look, there are many people who act perfectly morally, virtuously in the absence of religion. But given that so people don’t. Was religion a necessary consequence? Mm hmm. 

I feel like we’re just scratching the surface on all this. But a couple more things really quickly before we move on to religion. Not only are some religious types concerned about the implications of your thesis, what you just said about religion not being necessary to being moral, etc., but also some academics, especially on the left, they charge you with being scientistic, making science answer questions. It can’t really answer that. You’re leaving no room for how culture determines morality. You’re making it all biologically determined. 

Well, I think that a big misreading both biology and culture. So I guess, you know, because they’re why I’m leaving our culture. You know, my first question is, well, first of all, what do you mean by culture? 

Right. And to me, it’s our biology that enables our culture. 

I mean, the cultural variation doesn’t dictate the content. It is what allows for cultural variation in the same way that it’s our biology. And on the biology of a dog that allows for our language. So the view that I have, which again, I see is very much similar to the Shamsky kind of view language. Is that what the biology is doing? It’s setting up constraints on the possible moral systems with those possible worlds. This is exactly what the culture is doing, is allowing for variation. Now, one way in which this idea would be completely rejected is, is that, you know, look, culture are going to do whatever he wants. He doesn’t care at all about the biology. In other words, there’s any kind of moral system as possible, any kind of moral system is learnable that just freewheeling. Well, I mean, that’s in some sense an empirical question. I mean, for example, is it a case that anything we chose to make, a fad of beauty we can make, is that a beauty or does the biology of beauty constrain what would be acceptable, the biology of the beauty module, the thing in our brain that lets us decide or know what to track? 

Yeah. You know, what’s the esthetic? 

And I think, you know, increasingly what the study of beauty is suggesting is that it’s not everything goes, but is a cool way to think of it is probably, I think is exactly analogous to the moral problem. So. Take language. You and I could sit here right now and invent some really bizarre linguistic system where we said, look, we’re going to embed seven phrases inside of each other, make really, really long sentences, describe what’s going on around us rather than, you know, shorter sentences. Now, it’s true. We can pi get really good at doing this, because usually when people speak their mind to embedded phrases, maybe three. And if you’re really complicated, maybe four. OK. The reason for that is because our memory systems greatly constrain what we can remember. And that’s a major constraint. It’s not linguistic. It’s a constraint on the expressiveness of language. So the question becomes not could we invent really bizarre never before expressed moral systems, but one, would they be learnable and would they be learnable in the same way that our natural moral systems are learn? And secondly, would they be sustainable? How long would they last? So let’s say we read the following rule. Anybody who walks in our door in the next five minutes, we’re just shooting them. You know, it’s not going to last. Right. That will not last in the cultural norm. So the real question is for cultural variation are not can the mind, which is infinitely creative, perhaps invent any kind of wild moral system it wants? Or rather, how learnable would it be and how sustainable would it be over historical time? 

Mm hmm. I just want to turn to religion again before we finish up. You said earlier that science shouldn’t meddle with people’s religious beliefs. Science can make its claims and people could take them or leave them, right? Yeah, people look at the evidence, they’re persuaded. Then, you know, then they adopt the view for philosophers when it comes to ethics. Well, the question’s kind of moot. Of course, ethics precedes religion. You know, when we’re talking about cultural institutions, talked about how you don’t need religion to be moral, et cetera. Are you out to convince people with your research that morality comes from nature and not the supernatural in some way? Aren’t you making the point that people don’t need God to be good? 

Well, I think we need science to make that claim. 

So, I mean, I think for me, I mean, I wrote an article with Peter Singer many years ago, the fact that you don’t need science to argue that people are good without religion because there’s just lots of it. That’s true. 

In fact, I think that was published in Free Inquiry magazine. We’ll have a link on our site. 

Exactly. So, I mean, I think science does need to do any work there. 

I think as we kind of point to a few minutes ago, there is both strong evidence that non-religious people are good and also bad. And it’s equally good evidence that religious people are both good and bad. So I think sciences does have to doing work there. History gives us that information. I guess the question is. I just as rather than to kind of, you know, religion versus non-religious or why people kind of, you know, go towards faith versus what people don’t. I have a very close friend who is extremely smart, very successful businessman who is very spiritual. 

And whenever there are kind of mysteries in the world, you know, he kind of seeks explanations that are kind of spiritual, you know, religious and worth. And we have this kind of endless debate where I go, why go there? I mean, you know why? I just say that these are things that we don’t yet understand. But may one day we will. Right. And, you know, we got to go around circles. And for me, it’s like, look, there are thousands. A thousand things I don’t understand. And many that I’m sure I will die with. But when I don’t understand something, I don’t go. Well, I’m sure the supernatural affirmation of this. I mean, maybe there is, but it just it is not where I go. 

Yeah. You don’t say I don’t know the answer to this mystery. Therefore, God is the answer to this mist. 

That’s right. And Snuggies, I have a disdain for it. 

For me, it’s just that science is a powerful tool. It will not provide the answer to everything. Maybe we’ll never know the answer to. But for me, that doesn’t mean I go well. There are just things that work in mysterious ways. And I’m sure, you know, God’s got an explanation. And I don’t mean that in a dismissive way. I simply mean that as that’s not the kind of explanation that I find satisfying. So. Well, I find satisfying is science is doing the darndest to try to figure out how the world works. We may read a situation where the limits of our brain constrain what we can possibly explain, understand. And I’m sure I will die with many mysteries still with me, you know, and so very young. I’ve been wondering why there are no green mammals know green, everything else. 

But why no green mammals? 

Well, maybe we’ll never even answer that question. But I find it more satisfying to think that for many of the puzzles that have faced us in historical times, science has provided rich explanations, at least to me, satisfying explanations. The puzzle 100 years ago, many of them are not puzzles today. 

Thank you very much for joining me on Point of Inquiry, Marc Couser. And you are much more severe. 

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Contributors to today’s show included Debbie Goddard and Sarah Jordan. And I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.