Morris vs. Hauser, or What’s Universal about Morality?

Seed Magazine featured this debate/discussion between the evolutionary psychologist Marc Hauser and the documentary film maker Errol Morris in a recent Seed Salon. The two sat down to discuss morality, given Hauser’s recent book Moral Minds: The Nature of Right and Wrong and Morris’ recent film Standard Operating Procedure on Abu Ghraib. So they are coming at the question from a wee bit different angle…

Hauser wants to argue for a universal moral module (or at least emotions) while Morris is the relativist. Hauser mentions the categorical imperative and selfish genes. Morris mentions social psychology and interpretations. In their explanations they talk past one another.

But what’s interesting is that the best part of their conversation revolves around the conjunction of people and context. This people/context conjunction is a universality both miss. Given how people and contexts and their interactions vary, it’s also relative.

I think Morris and Hauser miss understanding what they agree upon because we haven’t built a very good framework to give people like Hauser and Morris other ways to talk and to think.

Here’s what I mean, starting with an excerpt from Hauser: “When the Nazis got together to exterminate the Jews, from their perspective, wanton killing of Jews was not wrong. It was perfectly right because Jews were ‘the other.’ You map a distinction by recruiting the most powerful and violent emotions you can—disgust, hate. You call the other parasitic vermin to recruit the most incredible imagery. Once you do that, the emotions wreak havoc and you feel perfectly justified exterminating the other. So this is where I think some the universality comes in.”

For Hauser, the universal are the emotions, whereas groups are comprised by “partiality.” But what if Hauser also recognized the process of mapping as universal, and not just the particular cultural content? We map social distinctions; that is the start of the process of recruiting imagery and emotions, then leading to justifications and behaviors.

Or Morris. He is speaking of documents found at Auschwitz, notes which indicated the need to hide the name of “gas chamber” on architectural drawings. “[I]t made me think that morality is the combination of two things: ‘I’m sorry,’ and ‘I’m sorry I got caught.’ There are two things always operating. There’s you, and then there’s what the world thinks of you.”

Again, an approach that considers the person and the context, which seems to me a universal phenomenon in its own right, but which applies very differently in Auschwitz or in his film The Thin Blue Line.

Salman Rushdie, who has joined the Emory faculty as a Distinguished Writer in Residence (one month a year), said something quite relevant in recent cover story in Emory Magazine. In speaking about the debate over hard-wired morality, universal human rights and society, Rushdie said, “I think in order to create a liveable society… you basically need two things: freedom of expression and the rule of law. Without the rule of law, you get warlords and gangsters, and without the freedom of expression, you can’t have any other freedoms. Why have freedom of assembly if you can’t say what you think? The reason I think that’s a universal right is because we are a language animal. We are an extraordinarily verbal, linguistic species, which explains itself, discusses itself, understands itself, through the use of language.”

We are both a language animal and a species which discusses and explains (or interprets) itself. People can assemble, each with a sense of right and wrong (however formed); but they need a context to express it freely for that to really make a difference.

One thought on “Morris vs. Hauser, or What’s Universal about Morality?

  1. Universal or relative morality isn’t a simple answer to a complex context, but the necessity to account for any actions past, present or future. Then you need to be able to (in words, not in deeds) reduce the moral level of (complex) functional structures of society to the pragmatic level of (simple) here now I. As long as that moral level is valid and reliable for all, no attempts are made to further synthesize context to an even higher level of stratified stability (J. Bronowski). However that breaks down when partiality (Hauser) or sorry/sorry for being caught (Morris) sets in. I believe I can pinpoint those moments: inherent in Western society are Christian (and other denominational) values such as, basically, loyalty/trust and honesty/openness. The turning point for validity and reliability to become invalid and unreliable, is when loyalty is experienced as dishonesty and/or honesty as disloyalty. That happens when (within group) relationships are (between group) challenged and put under tension. Why or why not choose one when the other is equal? These are primarily political fault lines. Politics=ethics. So we must study group dynamics. Eventually that will add up to TRULY independent, individual confirmation, as the founders of democracy meant it, not what we turned it into.

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