Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Science of Morality

By Michael Cook

A leading researcher into the biological basis of morality has been found guility of academic misconduct.

Morality is a tricky business. If you are an expert, people tend to hold you to a higher standard of probity. That’s why 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 bioethicists.

In August, Harvard University announced that a popular lecturer, 51-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Hauser, was guilty of eight instances of unspecified scientific misconduct, three involving published papers and five unpublished material.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is what I as the editor infer, that is as serious as it gets,” said the editor of Cognition, Gerry Altmann, who has withdrawn a 2002 paper of which Hauser was the lead author.

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”.

Academic misconduct seldom makes headlines, but Hauser’s case is 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”, a movement that 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.

Earlier this year a high-profile conference brought together some of the movement’s leading lights. Along with Hauser there was Jonathan Haidt, whose theory is that modern morality is based on primal feelings of disgust, and another Harvard professor, Joshua D. Greene, who argues that it is an anachronistic hang-over from the Palaeolithic era.

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 incomprehensible.

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 any more “reasonable” than Chinese is more “reasonable” than Spanish.

Nor does morality have any link to transcendent values. As Hauser wrote in his 2006 book, Moral Minds, the “marriage between morality and religion is not only forced but unnecessary, crying out for a divorce”.

But how can 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 obviously true.

But Hauser and his colleagues are not just the preachers but the founders of a new approach to morality. And it is a stand that has many followers among bioethicists. If biology explains 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 Palaeolithic rule book and write our own.

Unhappily, Hauser’s misstep suggests that the founders might not even respect their own rule books. “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,” Hauser contended forcefully in a recent essay on The Edge.

Well, facts and reason didn’t stop him 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 Harvard professors. Who knows what barriers they might breach next?

Hauser’s next book is said to be titled Evilicious: Explaining Our Evolved Taste for Being Bad. It will make interesting reading.

Michael Cook is the editor of the bioethics newsletter BioEdge.