December 3, 2023

What happened to the old science of morality?

Hi there,

Just one month ago, the Edge
Foundation sponsored a fascinating seminar
on “the new science of
morality”. The big names of neuro-morality attended, including Jonathan Haidt,
Sam Harris, Roy Baumeister, Paul Bloom, and Marc Hauser. Reporters from leading
newspapers came as well and spread the word.

One of these luminaries, Marc Hauser, led a
symposium on how thinking about morality as an evolved system of neurological
rules could be used to make the
world a better place, make governments work better, improve corporate
governance, law, the internet, and so on.

Unfortunately, as we
report below
, Marc Hauser is now caught up in his own moral conundrum. His
employer, Harvard University, has admitted that he was guilty of eight
instances of academic misconduct. The nature of these offences is not altogether
clear, but they seem to involve faking data for his work on animal cognition.

Speaking personally, I have always had
reservations about neuro-morality. Reducing ethics to genetics and neurology
eliminates free will and radically changes the nature of what it means to be

Academic misconduct is not exactly a
hanging offence. However, if Hauser’s new science is true, rational morality consists of following arbitrary social conventions. It is a bit unsettling to learn that a
prophet of an ethical revolution has been ignoring the fairly basic conventions of academic
research. It will be interesting to see how the new science of morality
develops from here.


Michael Cook