The argument in Moral Minds is that we have evolved a moral instinct, a dedicated set of neural circuits designed to deliver moral verdicts of right and wrong. The foundation of this moral capacity is a universal moral grammar, a set of principles that assess the beliefs, desires and goals of an agent with respect to his or her actions, and the consequences for the welfare of others. What this thesis suggests is that much of our moral reasoning may be illusory, mediated instead by intuitive and unconscious processes that are, to some extent, immune to cultural influences.]
Though much of Jonathan Derbyshire’s review captures much of my book Moral Minds quite accurately, there are some egregious errors that I would like to flag. I will quote directly from Derbyshire so that there is no misunderstanding.
Problem one. My moral sense test aims to probe moral intuitions by asking respondents how they imagine they would act in various hypothetical moral dilemmas. One such dilemma asked respondents to imagine themselves standing on a bridge from which they can see a tram hurtling towards five people stranded on the track. The only way to save their lives is to drop a heavy weight in front of the tram. A fat man also happens to be standing on the bridge. Should you push him to his death in order to stop the tram, or leave him, in which case those on the track will die?
Derbyshire writes that, “Hauser reports that only 10 per cent of respondents said it was morally permissible to push the fat man from the bridge. From this and similar results, he deduces a universal ‘intention principle,’ according to which intended harm is morally worse than harm that is foreseen but not directly intended. What is unclear, however, is why Hauser thinks data like these also license claims about the existence of a discrete moral faculty or ‘organ.’ It is one thing to articulate principles that help to make sense of our intuitive responses to moral dilemmas, but quite another to conclude from this that such principles must belong to a particular region of the brain.”