Monday, October 29, 2007

The Universal Moral Grammar

I pulled up an old article published on the web by Discover Magazine this morning and read, "Harvard psychologist Marc Hauser's new theory says evolution hardwired us to know right from wrong." Yet, that's not quite what Marc Hauser is saying.

Instead, it would be more correct to say, Hauser is asserting something along these lines: Our concept that there is such a thing as right and wrong is hardwired into us by our evolution. We have a sort of universal "moral grammar", but not a universal "moral language". For instance: The notion it is wrong to harm an innocent person is universal, but specific notions of who is innocent and who is not innocent are far from being universal.

Yet, most certainly, Hauser is not saying right and wrong exist independent of us. In Hauser's world, man is the measure of right and wrong -- not some metaphysical standard of right and wrong.

Oddly enough, saying "man is the measure of right and wrong" does not preclude a god having something to do with that measure. For, if I were religious, I could always say something like, "God inscribed a universal moral grammar upon the human heart."

Of course, were I both religious and uncomprehending, I could say something like, "God inscribed morality upon the human heart." But that implies there is only one true morality -- and implying that is just as silly as asserting there is only one true human language.

Another way of illustrating the distinction between moral grammar and moral language would be to say morality is hardwired into us much like tool use is hardwired into us. Humans naturally create and use tools. But the specific kinds of tools humans use can vary from culture to culture. And how tools are used can even vary from person to person. So, too, morality is hardwired into us on one level, yet is determined by our culture on another level, and on yet a third level is individual.

4 comments:

Webs said...

Wow! This is going straight into Google Notebook. No longer do I have to give a fumbling explanation on morality when the immoral Atheist argument comes up. I just paste this link...

Paul said...

Thank you, Webs! I've encountered that same "immoral atheist" argument. Hauser's work would suggest we are really all on the same footing, however.

C. L. Hanson said...

Would you like to include this post in the Humanist Symposium?

Paul said...

Chanson, I'd be honored! How do I go about doing that?