George pointed me to this interesting essay by Marc Hauser entitled It Seems Biology (Not Religion) Equals Morality.
In the essay Hauser, author of Moral Minds, suggests that recent psychological and neuroscientific research is reaching the consensus that humans are equipped with an innate and universal moral sense. As Hauser writes:
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.My main critique of this research is that it firmly rooted in the cognitive tradition of ethics. Hauser's research focuses solely on moral judgment, asking people to evaluate moral dilemmas. This is only a small part of the moral life and Hauser does admit the limitations of this research toward the end of the essay.
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.
Many ethicists are now arguing that we need to recover the virtue tradition in ethics. We need to spend less time researching how people make moral judgments and more time on issues of character formation, actually developing a science that helps us become better people. Morality isn't a calculus. It's hard work and sacrifice.
This is where, I think, religion can be helpful. If we grant that Hauser is correct, that due to our shared human nature we already know what is right and wrong, then we don't need to go to church to figure this out. We already know what to do. What we need is some assistance, training, support, encouragement, modeling, motivation and accountability in following through. Church should focus on character formation. And there is nothing biological, natural or easy about any of this. It's why Christians call it spiritual discipline and Buddhists call it practice.