The Human Brain

The Human Brain

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Evolution of a Moral Faculty

Some religious opponents argue that we need religion because it provides us with a moral compass. According to them, without religion we would be wicked, hedonistic creatures that only looked out for their own benefit. But what if we didn’t need religion to be moral? What if evolution endowed us with the components that we need to make moral decisions?

In Marc Hauser’s newest book, Moral Minds, he suggests that evolution has given us the tools that we need to make decisions about right and wrong. He compares this faculty to the evolution of language and describes it as a universal moral grammar. Much of Hauser’s book focuses on our ability to perceive intention and the intentional system’s role in producing decisions about right and wrong.

The crux of Hauser’s argument is based on research that uses a moral dilemma about a trolley that is out of control. Participants are given one of two scenarios:

In the first scenario participants are told that a trolley is out of control and 5 people are standing on the track unable to escape. The only way to avoid the death of the five people is to pull a lever that will cause the train to switch tracks, but there is another person on that track. They are then asked whether or not someone should pull the lever sacrificing 1 person to save the other 5.

In the second scenario participants are confronted with the same out of control trolley, but this time they are told that the lever will drop a large person in front of the trolley, which will cause the trolley to stop, thus saving the five individuals.

What Hauser and his colleagues found was that individuals confronted with the first scenario will, more often than not, say that it is ok to pull the lever. However, those who are given the second scenario will, more often than not, say that it is wrong to pull the lever. Hauser believes that the reason there is a difference between the responses to these two scenarios is because the victim in scenario one would be a foreseeable casualty, but the victim in the second scenario would be an intended consequence.

This, of course, is a simplified version of Hauser’s argument. Check out his book, Moral Minds, for his complete argument for an evolved moral capacity.

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