I've been meaning to deal with this for a while.
At the beginning of June, Prospect magazine launched a blog, First Drafts. The second ever post there was a reply by the evolutionary psychologist and biologist Marc Hauser to my Guardian review of his book Moral Minds. It's entitled 'Did you actually read the book?', and is the first in a series in which authors are given the opportunity to take issue with those reviewing their work.
After allowing that my review captures much of his argument "quite accurately", Hauser charges me with committing three "egregious errors". Now, it strikes me that my "errors", if that's what they are, aren't quite as egregious as Hauser suggests. And in at least one case (no. 2), Hauser in fact seems more or less to concede my point in his attempt to refute it.
Let's take his criticisms in the order he presents them.
1. This concerns my gloss on the results of his "moral sense test", in which subjects are presented with a number of familiar "trolley problems" designed to go to work on people's intuitions about the relationship between intentions and consequences. I wrote:
Hauser reports that only 10 per cent of respondents said it was morally permissible to push the fat man from the bridge. From this and similar results, he deduces a universal ‘intention principle,’ according to which intended harm is morally worse than harm that is foreseen but not directly intended. What is unclear, however, is why Hauser thinks data like these also license claims about the existence of a discrete moral faculty or ‘organ.’ It is one thing to articulate principles that help to make sense of our intuitive responses to moral dilemmas, but quite another to conclude from this that such principles must belong to a particular region of the brain.
This is Hauser's reply:
I did not claim that an understanding of the principles that guide moral judgement licences inferences about neural localisation. What I did say was that an understanding of the principles that guide our judgements enables us to move into detailed studies of the brain, attempting to both localise such psychological processes, chart their development and explore what happens when they break down. This is precisely what my students and I have done. For example, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we recently published a paper that shows that the right temporo-parietal junction is critically involved in dilemmas that entail information about a person’s beliefs. More importantly, the level of activation in this area is modulated by the outcome of an action. Thus, if a person believes he will do harm and his actions cause harm, then the pattern of activation in this region is different than if the person believes he will do harm, but fails to do so. We explored this area in part because of our interest in how beliefs, intentions, goals and action figure into our moral judgements. Thus the theoretical and behavioral work motivates an exploration at the neural level.
The problem with this is that I precisely don't claim that Hauser thinks the data derived from the moral sense test licenses inferences about the neural localization of basic moral principles. Rather, I raise a question about the relationship between the universal principles deduced from those results and "claims" (not "inferences") about neural localization. Hauser's clarification, to the effect that "an understanding of the principles that guide our judgements enables us to move into detailed studies of the brain", in fact doesn't help to clear up the mystery. Indeed, it looks very much as though the thought that moral principles must be neurally localized is functioning as a premise here. Since, as I claim, there's no prima facie reason why tidying up our moral intutions so that they take the form of general principles should lead to "detailed studies of the brain", it's the prior assumption that such principles must be so localized that, to use Hauser's words, "enables us to move" in that direction.
2. The next point he deals with is my assertion that “Moral Minds is full of fascinating reports on psychological experiments, few of which offer any obvious support for Hauser’s ambitious claims about moral grammar.” Hauser's reply is to say that "Moral Minds provides a novel way of looking at our moral psychology, building on the general insights of Chomsky, the more specific ideas expressed by Rawls, and most recently, the work of the philosophers John Mikhail and Sue Dwyer."
This is a much weaker claim than those I had in mind when I wrote that sentence. It's one thing to say, as Hauser does here, that his experimental work offers a different way, innatist, of thinking about moral psychology; it's quite another to claim, as he does in the Prologue to Moral Minds, that "our moral faculty is equipped with a universal moral grammar, a toolkit for building specific moral systems" (p. xvi). That's the kind of "ambitious" claim I had in mind.
3. Hauser's third criticism is his strongest. I wrote:
And there is nothing here to suggest that this nascent discipline will conquer the ‘proprietary province of the humanities’ any time soon.
I did not claim that a biology of morality will conquer the humanities. In fact, Derbyshire fails to quote the complete sentence, which reads: “Inquiry into our moral nature will no longer be the proprietary province of the humanities, but a shared journey with the natural sciences.” The natural sciences are coming into increasing contact with the social sciences and humanities. For me, and many of my colleagues, there is an appreciation that the best work will come from a collaboration, one that recognises both that different disciplines have different strengths, and that each discipline brings some proprietary issues, some of which are open to inter-disciplinary fertilisation. In the case of morality, the biological sciences can provide rich descriptions of how people judge moral dilemmas and how they act in such cases, but it can not dictate what we ought to do. The field is abuzz, and the results are emerging quickly. I am glad to be alive to witness this renaissance, an inquiry into one of the most interesting aspects of human life.
I think here I was probably projecting onto Hauser my own misgivings about the implications for moral philosophy of evolutionary psychology. And of course Hauser's right to upbraid me for truncating the sentence I quoted. Philosophers shouldn't disregard the results obtained by experimental psychology just because they fear for their ownership of certain fundamental issues.