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John Gray: Evolutionary theorists assume their own leanings in morality are universal

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In “The Knowns and the Unknowns” (The New Republic, April 20, 2012), John Gray’s review of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion , Gray notes:

Haidt’s account of the emergence of morality is disputed by other evolutionary psychologists, who argue that group selection is a part of Darwin’s inheritance that should be discarded. The debate has been heated and at times rancorous, an exercise in sectarian intellectual warfare of the kind that is so often fought in and around Darwinism. As is often the case, a larger issue has gone largely unexplored. In evolutionary theories of this kind, what exactly is it that is being explained? Though they think their theories are universally applicable, evolutionary theorists commonly take their local conception of morality for granted. Books such as Marc Hauser’s Moral Minds, one of the more impressive of recent applications of Darwinism to ethics, assume that acting morally is a matter of following rules or principles having mainly to do with justice and the prevention of harm. This may seem self-evident to secular social scientists in American universities, but it hardly squares with how most human beings (or most Americans, for that matter) understand morality.

Haidt’s view is more realistic. “There’s more to morality than harm and fairness … the righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors. Secular Western moralities are like cuisines that try to activate just one or two of these receptors—either concerns about harm and suffering, or concerns about fairness and injustice. But people have so many other powerful moral intuitions, such as those related to liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity.” This recognition that morality has many “flavors” is welcome, but it leaves some important questions unanswered. What if the evolutionary psychologist’s “groupish” understanding of morality fails to square with powerful moral intuitions? Haidt notes that most human cultures have been “sociocentric” rather than individualistic, and quotes with approval the anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s observation: “The Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe … is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures.”

Only six flavours? And if Marc Hauser’s book is “one of the more impressive of recent applications of Darwinism to ethics,” it’s not irrelevant that he resigned from Harvard under the cloud of fabricated research.


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