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Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong Hardcover – August 22, 2006

ISBN-13: 978-0060780708 ISBN-10: 0060780703 Edition: 1st
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

How do humans develop their capacity to make moral decisions? Harvard biologist Hauser (Wild Minds) struggles to answer this and other questions in a study that is by turns fascinating and dull. Drawing on the linguistic theories of Noam Chomsky, Hauser argues that humans have a universal moral grammar, an instinctive, unconscious tool kit for constructing moral systems. For example, although we might not be able to articulate immediately the moral principle underlying the ban on incest, our moral faculty instinctually declares that incest is disgusting and thus impermissible. Hauser's universal moral grammar builds on the 18th-century theories of moral sentiments devised by Adam Smith and others. Hauser also asserts that nurture is as important as nature: "our moral faculty is equipped with a universal set of rules, with each culture setting up particular exceptions to these rules." All societies accept the moral necessity of caring for infants, but Eskimos make the exception of permitting infanticide when resources are scarce. Readers unfamiliar with philosophy will be lost in Hauser's labyrinthine explanations of Kant, Hume and Rawls, and Hauser makes overly large claims for his theory's ability to guide us in making more moral, and more enforceable, laws. (Sept. 1)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Scientific American

You are driving a train when you see five hikers on the track ahead of you and a siding with a single hiker. Is it okay to flip a switch and send the train onto the siding, killing one hiker but saving five? Most people say yes. Would it be okay for a doctor to harvest organs from a healthy person to save five patients? Most people say no. But they often do not have a clue why they think one of these choices is okay and the other is not. And that fact is a clue that we have an innate moral faculty. Like competent speakers who do not understand the grammatical underpinnings of language, people tend to have strong, gut-level opinions about what is moral but are unable to give coherent explanations. Marc D. Hauser, a Harvard University psychologist, wants to do for morality what Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguist Noam Chomsky did for language—he wants to discover the universal "moral grammar." Chomsky suggested that humans are born with a "universal grammar," a cognitive capacity that helps us acquire language and shapes the way we apply language rules. Hauser thinks our moral grammar works the same way, helping us isolate moral lessons from our culture and make judgments about right and wrong. In Moral Minds, Hauser reviews what we already know about innate human faculties—for instance, that even infants seem to understand that people and animals have intentions, whereas inanimate objects do not. And he presents evidence that our universal morality is probably based on rules about fairness, proportionality and reciprocity, among other things. The material is captivating and ranges from philosophy to anthropology to psychology, including some of Hauser’s own original work. Hauser’s main failing is that he sometimes loses the thread of his argument; he piles on the detail but fails to make it clear how his examples support his argument. The upshot, though, is that we do not yet know exactly how our moral grammar works or even which cognitive capacities contribute to our moral faculty. Hauser’s achievement is to argue convincingly that such a faculty exists and to raise some of the many questions that have to be answered before we will fully understand it.

Kurt Kleiner


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco; 1 edition (August 22, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060780703
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060780708
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.5 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #827,537 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Marc Hauser is a scientist, educator, innovator, and humanist. With broad training in the biological and social sciences, as well as philosophy and linguistics, he has published over 200 scientific papers and six books, including most recently Moral Minds (2006, NY: Harper Collins). During his 18 years as a professor at Harvard University, he worked on topics in animal cognition, moral psychology, cognitive development, cognitive neuroscience, behavioral economics, linguistics, anthropology, and philosophy. In the last three years, he has worked with high at-risk youths, bringing the tools of the mind and brain sciences to help change their lives, including their capacity to learn and make meaningful decisions. This work continues today. He is married to Lilan Hauser and has two daughters, Alexandra and Sofia.

Customer Reviews

3.1 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

122 of 137 people found the following review helpful By Herbert Gintis on September 9, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
When Darwin discovered natural selection, he was quick and remarkably insightful as to how this might affect our understanding of our own species, Homo sapiens. Alfred Russel Wallace, the impressive co-discover of the theory, never agreed to its application to humans. He considered our mental faculties far too advanced to be accounted for by the same forces that gave rise to pond scum and even chimpanzees. The debate continues to this very day, and will not be resolved in the forseeable future.

Nevertheless, there is now little doubt but that we share many of our mental faculties with other species, including, as Marc Hauser shows us in this fine volume, some of our moral capacities. Even those we do not share with our evolutionary relatives, he claims, are clearly the product of biological evolutionary forces. I think his argument accurately reflects our current state of knowledge, and is impressive indeed. Sociobiology, which was roundly rejected and indeed excoriate by most behavioral scientists when first proposed by Edward O. Wilson in 1975, has been fully vindicated.

The past decade has seen a strong push for the notion that ethics is a part of science, and the philosophy of ethics, in principle, ought not to be that different from the philosophy of physics. In particular, our ethical notions do not come from some rarified Platonic realm, or the capacity to perceive synthetic a prioris, or our superior informational processing power, but rather from our evolution as a species that has spend most of its history living in small bands of mobile, propertyless, stateless, hunter-gatherers.
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64 of 77 people found the following review helpful By Nan Chen on August 8, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This is a horribly written (at times incoherent) and poorly argued for book. Hauser's main thesis is that humans have a "moral grammar" analogous to the universal grammar made famous by Chomsky's theory of human language acquisition. Unfortunately Hauser offers little evidence to support his "theory" of universal moral grammar. His theory is actually a loosely held together notion that is more armchair speculation than actual systematic scientific theory.

My first complaint is stylistic. I am usually not a stickler for style in scientific writing but the book is so bad in this area that something must be said to warn the potential reader. The reader is subjected to prose that meanders between the redundant to the trivial to the nonsensical. For example, odd phraseology such as describing at one point how one can "literally" pull "propositions" out of a hat slow the reading down and makes the reader wonder about the English proficiency of the writer. Hauser also repeatedly makes seemingly absurd claims without any justification such as claiming that Swedes would wage warfare on anyone who would dare to try to tell them to change religions (p. 416). I am not being nitpicky here; the book is filed with these kinds of stupid, nonsensical, and absolutely bizarre statements.

Content wise, the book also fails. Hauser tries to establish his "theory" by listing a hodgepodge of empirical studies from ethology, neuroscience, psychology, anthropology and economics which he claims support it. Unfortunately the reader is not given any reason whatsoever to believe this.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Tomas Kellner on March 30, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I agree with Rick: great idea, poor execution. Various moral and social systems have long tried to codify and explain away through religious and other naratives what is only natural to us. Kudos to Mark Hauser for bringing our innate "moral organ" to broad attention.

His writing however is another matter. I suggest, read his introductory chapter "What Is Wrong?" and then cherry-pick from the rest of the book as much of the following material is highly repetitive. This is topic waiting to be tackled again by another, stronger writer.
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32 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Mark E. Rhodes on July 10, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Hauser ends his book "Moral Minds" as follows.

"The notion of a universal moral grammar with parametric variation provides one way to think about pluralism. It requires us to understand how, in development, particular parameters are fixed by experience. It also requires us to appreciate that once fixed, we may be as perplexed by another community's moral system as we are by their language. Appreciating the fact that we share a universal moral grammar, and that at birth we could have acquired any of the world's moral systems, should provide us with a sense of comfort, a sense that perhaps we can understand each other." (p 406)

I have rarely started a book with such delight only to end it with such disgust.

Hauser is not only wrong but lazy when he says we may be "as perplexed by another community's moral system as we are by their language." It is *impossible* to be as perplexed by another community's morality as we are by its language. (Though female genital mutilation and honor killings horrify me, they do not perplex me: I "get it" but I also reject it.)

As for acquiring "any of the world's moral systems," Hauser never identifies and distinguishes them. I would like to know if he's thinking there are six major moral systems, or fifty, or several hundred if not thousands. The only moral systems he has a serious interest in are those of Kant, Hume, and Rawls, but Hauser never makes clear in what sense those three men were speaking different moral languages. Further, he attributes the three systems to these specific individuals and not the communities wherein these men grew up and presumably had the parameters of their native moral tongues permanently fixed.
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