Moral Monkeys

By Jeremy Adam Smith | February 5, 2007 | 0 comments

From today's Boston Globe:

Morality, [Marc Hauser] argues, is influenced by cultural teachings but is also so deep and universal an aspect of human existence that it is effectively "hard-wired" into the brain, much like the instinct for language…

A psychologist, evolutionary biologist, and anthropologist, Hauser has felt students grow restless as he talks about the underpinnings of morality. In one class, he said, a student complained, "I know where you're going: Because it's universal, it's biological, and therefore there's no role for religion."

Hauser recalls responding: "I'm not saying you shouldn't derive meaning from religion. I'm just telling you that at some level, the nature of the moral judgments that you make and I make are the same, even though I don't go to church and you do…"

In general, Hauser's morality work is part of a growing movement called experimental philosophy that has philosophers rising from their armchairs and seeking to gather hard evidence on the deep moral workings of the mind: "evidence from evolutionary theory, from comparing humans to other animals, and other methods to derive constraints on the nature of these principles, constraints we couldn't just derive by reasoning alone," said Joshua Knobe, an experimental philosopher at UNC.

I found the student's objection curious. Why can't religion be a formalized, ritualized expression of innate biological instincts? Why couldn't Hauser's research point us to a divine, conscious design for humanity? From this perspective, organized religion is not the font of morality–that lies elsewhere–but it does retain an important role in operationalizing morality in everyday life, helping people to navigate ethical choices, and joining with others in a mutually supportive community. Of course, I suspect the student's complaint has more to do with power than morality.

People interested in these issues might want to read this dialogue at the Daddy Dialectic blog, about the role of religion in raising moral kids.

Tracker Pixel for Entry

Greater Good wants to know:
Do you think this article will influence your opinions or behavior?

  • Very Likely

  • Likely

  • Unlikely

  • Very Unlikely

  • Not sure

About The Author

Jeremy Adam Smith edits the GGSC’s online magazine, Greater Good. He is also the author or coeditor of four books, including The Daddy Shift, Are We Born Racist?, and The Compassionate Instinct. Before joining the GGSC, Jeremy was a 2010-11 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. You can follow him on Twitter!


Like this article?

Here's what you can do:

blog comments powered by Disqus



Greater Good Events

The Greater Good Science Center Summer Institute for Educators 2017
Clark Kerr Campus, UC-Berkeley
Sunday, June 25 - Friday, June 30, 2017 OR Sunday, July 16 - Friday, July 21, 2017

The Greater Good Science Center Summer Institute for Educators 2017

The GGSC’s six-day Summer Institute equips education professionals with prosocial learning strategies, tools and processes that benefit both students and teachers.


Take a Greater Good Quiz!

How compassionate are you? How generous, grateful, or forgiving? Find out!


Watch Greater Good Videos

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Talks by inspiring speakers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Dacher Keltner, and Barbara Fredrickson.


Greater Good Resources


Book of the Week

Roots of Empathy By Mary Gordon Mary Gordon explains how best to nurture empathy and social emotional literacy in all children—and thereby reduce aggression, antisocial behavior, and bullying.

Is she flirting with you? Take the quiz and find out.
"It is a great good and a great gift, this Greater Good. I bow to you for your efforts to bring these uplifting and illuminating expressions of humanity, grounded in good science, to the attention of us all."  
Jon Kabat-Zinn

Best-selling author and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program

thnx advertisement