Morality is a tricky business. Experts are
held to a higher standard of probity. That’s why church sex abuse scandals and
the double lives of some televangelists have done such damage to the cause of religious
morality. Perhaps, too, this is why academic misconduct by one of the leading
exponents of the “new science of morality” has rattled scientists and
In August Harvard University announced that
a popular lecturer, 50-year-old Professor Marc D. Hauser, was guilty of eight
instances of unspecified scientific misconduct, three involving published
papers and five unpublished material. “There were problems involving data
acquisition, data analysis, data retention, and the reporting of research
methodologies and results,” a university official admitted. Harvard has
resisted pressure to reveal the dreary details. But the word on the academic
grapevine is that Hauser may have performed experiments without a control
group, making them utterly useless.
“If it’s the case the data have in fact
been fabricated, which is what I as the editor infer, that is as serious as it
gets,” said the editor of the journal Cognition, Gerry Altmann, who has
withdrawn a 2002 paper of which Hauser was the lead author.
Professor Hauser’s future is uncertain. The
case is being investigated by the Federal government, as it may involve misuse
of research funds. He has taken a year’s leave of absence and told the New York
Times that “I acknowledge that I made some significant mistakes” and that he
was “deeply sorry for the problems this case had caused to my students, my
colleagues and my university.”
If you rank bad deeds on a scale of 1 to
10, with murder and paedophilia at 10 and expletives deleted at 1, “academic
misconduct” is about 2.5. But Hauser’s misdeeds are different. His interests
extended far beyond whether tamarind monkeys can recognise themselves in a
mirror. He was a leading figure in the “new science of morality”. This is a movement
which argues persuasively that right and wrong are based on biologically-determined
gut feelings, not reason. It is a revolutionary effort to wrest right and wrong
from the pulpit and plonk it on the lab bench.
Hauser is one of the movement’s
leading figures. His most recent book, Moral Minds: How Nature Designed
Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong (2006), was highly praised. A leading bioethicist declared
in the New England Journal of Medicine that it “offers us the most important scientific contribution
to moral psychology in many decades”.
There are many different approaches to this
reevaluation of morality. One influential strand explains fairness or sexual
taboos as civilised versions of the physical disgust we experience at the thought
of eating cockroaches or faeces. The history of ethics, they argue, goes from
oral to moral.
Hauser has been deeply influenced by the
controversial linguist Noam Chomsky and believes that morality is like language.
Just as there is a universal grammar, with particular applications, there is a
universal capacity for moral thinking, but each culture has its own moral toolkit.
That is why we all profess to be moral, but we find each other’s moral codes
This approach has unsettling consequences
for the man in the street. If my morality and the morality of Pathan tribesmen
in Afghanistan are as different as English and Pushtu, how can I say that
female genital mutilation is wrong? Nor is banning abortion “reasonable”, any
more than Chinese is more “reasonable” than Spanish. Nor does morality have any
link to transcendent values. As Hauser wrote in Moral Minds, the “marriage
between morality and religion is not only forced but unnecessary, crying out
for a divorce”.
But do Hauser’s troubles discredit the new
science of morality? To err is human and disgraced preachers haven’t discredited
the doctrines of Christianity. Up to a point, this is true of disgraced professors, too.
But Hauser and his colleagues are not just preachers
of received dogmas. They are the founders of a visionary new approach to
morality. They have many followers among bioethicists who are seeking to
replace ethics based on transcendental values with materialistic explanations. If
biology is the foundation for morality, then objections to stem cell research,
abortion, and euthanasia, for instance, are based on nothing more substantial
than the “yuck factor”. In 2010, it’s time to rip up the rule book our
Paleolithic ancestors used and write our own.
Unhappily, Hauser’s misstep suggests that
the founders might not even respect their own rule book. “I believe that
science, and scientists, have an important role to play in shaping the moral
agenda. We have an obligation to use facts and reason to guide what we ought to
do,” he contended forcefully in a recent
essay on The Edge.
Well, facts and reason didn’t stop Professor
Hauser from stooping to academic misconduct. No big deal, perhaps, in
comparison to murder or torture. But it does make one hesitate to hand over the
future of morality to Ivy League professors. Who knows what barriers they might
breach next? The working title of Professor Hauser’s next book is “Evilicious:
Explaining Our Evolved Taste for Being Bad”. It will make interesting reading.
Cook is editor of MercatorNet.