Is our morality derived from our biology?

Lynne Kiesling

Recently I found a striking essay from Marc Hauser, an evolutionary psychologist at Harvard who works in cognitive neuroscience. In this essay at Edge, Hauser argues that our biology is the source of our moral sense.

Recent discoveries suggest that all humans, young and old, male and female, conservative and liberal, living in Sydney, San Francisco and Seoul, growing up as atheists, Buddhists, Catholics and Jews, with high school, university or professional degrees, are endowed with a gift from nature, a biological code for living a moral life.

This code, a universal moral grammar, provides us with an unconscious suite of principles for judging what is morally right and wrong. It is an impartial, rational and unemotional capacity. It doesn’t dictate who we should help or who we are licensed to harm. Rather, it provides an abstract set of rules for how to intuitively understand when helping another is obligatory and when harming another is forbidden. And it does so dispassionately and impartially.

In the body of the essay he proceeds to discuss the scientific evidence consistent with this hypothesis, and it’s a fascinating read. What I found particularly striking is the consistency of his analysis with arguments made over 200 years ago, by David Hume and Adam Smith. Both Hume and Smith argued that our morality is grounded in our human nature in the form of our “sentiments”, and that in many ways these sentiments transcend the specifics of religion or culture. As noted in the Hume moral philosophy entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

These moral sentiments are emotions (in the present-day sense of that term) with a unique phenomenological quality, and also with a special set of causes. They are caused by contemplating the person or action to be evaluated without regard to our self-interest, and from a common or general perspective that compensates for any distortion in the observer’s sympathies resulting from physical or temporal closeness to or distance from the person judged, or extra degrees of resemblance (in language, appearance, or the like).

In Adam Smith’s analytical framework in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, this contemplation takes the form of the impartial spectator. Individuals use the impartial spectator to evaluate the actions of others as well as their own actions, and simultaneously perform that evaluation in light of the context of these actions as well as the impartiality removed from closeness and resemblance.

For both Hume and Smith, grounding morality in these sentiments that they viewed as part of human nature means that morality is not a (deductivist Cartesian) rational construct. This is the sense in which I see substantial consonance between the Hume-Smith moral sentiments argument and Hauser, despite the fact that Smith and Hume did not have these cognitive science insights available to them in the 18th century. For example, this observation of Hauser’s is entirely in keeping with Smith’s categorization of acting and failing to act in Theory of Moral Sentiments:

We tend to see actions as worse than omissions of actions: pushing a person into the factory vent is worse than allowing the person to fall in. Using someone as a means to some greater good is worse if you make this one person worse off than if you don’t. This is the difference between an evitable and inevitable harm. If the person in the hospital or in the factory is perfectly healthy, taking his life to save the lives of many is worse than if he is dying and there is no cure. Distinctions such as these are abstract, impartial and emotionally cold. They are like recognising the identity relationship of 1=1, a rule that is abstract and content-free.


4 thoughts on “Is our morality derived from our biology?

  1. As the quoted material reveals, Hauser disagrees with the Humean position on a connection between emotion and morality. Hauser asserts that this moral code is impartial, rational, and unemotional. For Hume “moral sentiments are emotions.”

    At least on the surface Hume seems more on the right track. Morality and emotion seem so intensively intertwined that Hauser must do a lot of work to disengage them and justify the ‘unemotional’ assertion.

  2. And, as I’ve probably mentioned here before, I like the presentation of Jesse Prinz in The emotional construction of morality. Prinz is explicit in his Humean foundations, and likely aligns better with Adam Smith (though I haven’t read the Theory of Moral Sentiments, so can’t really opine on this).

  3. The above appears to be an attempt to explain the concept of “conscience” in completely non-religious terms. I would argue that conscience exists, but that it is then “formed” by education and experience. I believe this explains, at least in part, the broad range of understanding of the fundamental concepts which constitute “conscience”.

    One example of the range of understanding of these fundamental concepts is the varying interpretations of “Thou shalt not kill”, particularly with regard to the unborn, the “imperfect” very young, the aged and the infirm. Margaret Sanger, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Peter Singer and Jack Kevorkian all shared a common biology with Billy Graham. They shared very little else with regard to this fundamental concept.

    While our morality may be derived from our biology, it is hardly a unique derivation.

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