What Creates Morality? Biology or Religion?

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.

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.
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.

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.

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7 thoughts on “What Creates Morality? Biology or Religion?”

  1. even if we grant that biology creates morality, we could also easily ask, does that mean everyone follows this morality all the time, or even part of the time?

  2. In the Science and Religion news-mail I get, it ws reported that their is neurological evidence that some people are more predisposed to compassion. The brains look different.

    The question then becomes, do we accept that people will differ in how they live their lives? Or will we demand that all people should act compassionately?

    Is there one definition of virtue? Is virtue about behaving in a speicified way, or is it acting according to one's own value system?

  3. to clarify,
    If one is predisposed or talented in 'making money', then will 'making money' (understanding business, investment, etc.) be deemed less virtuous than serving in a soup kitchen?

  4. Interesing material in light of, among others, Romans 2:15. However, it brings up quite a few other questions:

    - If morality is biologically determined what then is the cause of immoral behavior?

    - What ramifications does the answer to my first question have on the concepts of [arguably] genetically-determined "things", like alcoholism, homosexuality, obesity, etc.

    - What then is immorality?

    I could go on. Interesting stuff.

  5. Aside from the ten commandments, or the beatitudes, I don't see much evidence that the church really does further any kind of moral or ethical program other than "following our rules is good/following someone else's rules is bad." Where good and bad are defined as "leading to success in the race for god's favor." That, to me, is a strikingly immoral attitude. If that sounds harsh ask yourself what the ritual and religious status of non-christian do gooding, and do gooding and sacrifices that help non-christians live non-christian lives in the modern day christian church? Very, very, low. People who are outside the covenenant are not treated ethically, or morally, except when it is assumed that good treatment will "save" them and bring them in to the covenant.

    Conversely, a human or genetically based morality doesn't discriminate among actions depending on for whom and by whom they are committed. Its not good to love your neighbor *except* when he's gay, or has gay kids he doesn't want to disown, or is muslim, or fat, or old. If its good to love your neighbor its just good, straight up.

    I see a ton of tribalism in modern religions. I also see a ton of selfishness and fear. In fact, the Christian evangelicals with whom I'm most familiar (through their on line writings) are explicit that they do nothing without fear and greed--fear of a vengeful god, and desire for the goods (salvation/peace/heaven) that they think he controls. These are not ethical standards and can't produce a true morality anymore than standing over your child with a whip in one hand and a cookie in the other can produce a moral child.


  6. Morality IS biological, well at least if you believe the Bible, then you believe it is
    I don't remember the passage but it says the right and wrong is written on everyone's heart, to me that sounds biological
    I am not saying it is easy, but deep down, we know what is right and what is wrong, we just don't always listen, and that is where religion helps

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