A magazine of forecasts, trends, and ideas about the future
Related: Q and A with Marc Hauser                   David Poeppel's lab                             The "Pyschocivilzed Society"

January-February 2009 Volume 43, No. 1

Reinventing Morality

Evolutionary biology and neuroscience are adding to our understanding of a historically unscientific area.

By Patrick Tucker
Senior Editor


Morality may be something different for everyone; it may be the set of rules handed down by God to Moses on stone tablets, or the system in which karma is passed through the Dharma. But morality is also a decision-making process, one that plays out in the brain in the same way a mechanical decision-making process plays out on a computer. Clerics, theologians, and, in the last century, anthropologists have put forward various answers to the riddle of how our species stumbled upon the concept of goodness. Now, neuroscientists and evolutionary biologists are adding to that understanding. Discoveries in these fields have the potential to achieve something remarkable in this century: an entirely new, science-based understanding of virtue and evil.

Marc Hauser, author of Moral Minds (Ecco, 2006) and director of the Cognitive Evolution Laboratory at Harvard University, is at the forefront of the emerging scientific discussion of morality. David Poeppel of the University of Maryland is on the cutting edge of today’s brain and neuroscience research. I spoke with both of them about what science can contribute to the human understanding of good and bad.

The first thing I discovered is that applying a scientific approach to a murky, loaded issue like morality requires understanding the problem in material terms. You have the event, in this case the moral decision. Then you have the space where the event plays out, the brain. Some aspects of the decision-making process are fluid and unique to the individual. To form a crude and an unoriginal analogy, this would be like the software code that the brain processes to reach decisions about what is morally permissible and what is not. Other aspects are fixed, like hardware.

Marc Hauser is an expert on the former.

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