May 30, 2024

The new morality of neuroscience

David Brooks is fascinated by a scientific explanation of good and bad

The New York Times’s resident conservative,
David Brooks, is clearly intrigued by a neuroscience explanation of morality. In
a column this week he sketched the conclusions of a conference organised by The
Edge about “the new science of morality”.
The conference featured some of the leading figures in the movement, including
Roy Baumeister, Jonathan Haidt, Sam Harris, and Marc D. Hauser.

The conference organiser, John Brockman,
summarised the theme: “For the first time, we have the tools and the will to
undertake the scientific study of human nature… In 1975, [biologist E.O.]
Wilson… predicted that ethics would someday be taken out of the hands of
philosophers and incorporated into the ‘new synthesis’ of evolutionary and
biological thinking. He was right.”

Even David Brooks appeared taken aback by
the revolutionary implications. For instance, Harvard’s Marc D. Hauser is
particularly interested in an evolutionary explanation of evil. Up to now, he
claims, science has shunned the study of evil. But he has an explanation: “evil
evolved, and emerges in daily life, as an accident of our brain’s engineering”.

Brooks pointed out that the speakers
“barely mentioned the yearning for transcendence and the sacred, which plays
such a major role in every human society”. This was made explicit by
neuroscientist Sam Harris, who is better known as one of the “new atheists”. He
says that developing scientific reasons for doing the right thing is an urgent
task. “The failure of science to address questions of meaning, morality, and
values has become the primary justification for religious faith.” ~ New York
Times, July 22

Michael Cook
Marc Hauser