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The Moral MindReview - The Moral Mind
by Henry Haslam
Imprint Academic, 2005
Review by Albert D. Spalding, JD
Jul 11th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 28)

Whence the idea of "conscience"? The moral notion of ought, and the acknowledgment that we sometimes do things that we ought not do, requires an acceptance of the premise that there exists a moral standard to which we aspire. If we consciously determine to do that which we ought to do, we are acting as if that moral standard is somehow higher than, or at least different than, our natural inclinations. And if we admit that from time to time we have not "been ourselves," ethically speaking, or, we "didn't know what we were thinking" when we violated our own moral standards, we are likewise giving cognizance to a conflict between what we understand to be the right mode of behavior, and our own demonstrated actions. What is the source of this inner conflict, this acknowledgment of an occasional gap between our preferred morality and our own actions? As Henry Haslam asks the question in The Moral Mind, "Why don't we go along with the dictates of our biological natures?"

This is a question that has haunted humankind since the beginning of recorded history. Socrates wrestled with it in the Meno and the Protagoras, concluding that the question is itself fallacious because no human being ever knowingly desires -- or, therefore, does -- that which is bad (see Meno 77e). St. Paul lamented in the Christian New Testament that he knew what was right but could not bring himself to do it (Rom. 7:12-25). In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain has Huck forego his duty to return Jim, a slave, to his slave-owner, by declaring, "All right, then, I'll go to Hell." In his Descent of Man, Charles Darwin identified this inner dissonance as the essential characteristic that differentiates humans from lower animals. The gap between moral belief, on the one hand, and wilful human action, on the other, creates a tension that runs through literature, philosophy, religion, moral psychology, and a variety of other disciplines and contexts.

Henry Haslam is a natural scientist who works from strong evolutionary presuppositions. His essay summarizes his conclusions about the development and nature of human morality. He draws heavily from evolutionary theory, and from his beliefs about our animal ancestry, in an effort to articulate a naturalistic explanation for the phenomenon of the human conscience. The Moral Mind takes into account the apparent similarity of human and animal "ethical" behavior, and Haslam explores the question of conscience with a certain optimism about the insights that science in general, and evolutionary theory in particular, can offer.

The idea of conscience includes both an expectation (regarding the possibility of an external, objective set of moral standards) and a disappointment (that human intentions and behaviors too often fall short of such standards, however those standards are derived or understood). As John Hare observes in The Moral Gap, the dilemma created by moral expectations (and the resultant disappointments) can be addressed in one of three ways: by human attempts to intentionally close the gap between such expectations and observed behaviors; by denying that the gap exists (that is, by lowering moral standards until they are equated with actual human behavior); or by developing an integrated religious, social or economic theory that accommodates the dynamics of the dilemma. Attempts to close the gap have included various classical, faith-based and modernistic moral theories and strictures, including (and especially) Aristotelean virtue theories. Efforts to deny the gap have emerged from a variety of neo-Darwinist empirical theorists, who, like Socrates, would conclude that morality must necessarily consist of the sum of observed behavior.

Haslam's investigation falls into the third category. He, like Darwin, acknowledges that the moral sense -- the human conscience -- represents a deep and spiritual challenge that should not be readily brushed aside. For Haslam, it is not enough to pretend that redemption is simply a matter of education and volition. Similarly, his work takes into account the frustration felt by most people as they observe evil at the hands of others (and as they occasionally experience real disappointment upon reflection of their own ethical negligence).

The Moral Mind consists of a survey of both moral philosophy (as understood by moral theorists) and the moral sense (as articulated by some natural and social scientists). The theoretical aspects of the former are described in traditional terms (logical positivism, moral relativism, emotivism, etc.). The cognitive aspects of the latter are founded largely on robust evolutionary claims in regard to moral instincts, the development of social customs, and the human tendency to drift, from time to time, in the direction of selflessness and altruism. Whether these claims are warranted, or simply represent wishful thinking on the part of some evolutionary theorists, is a question that is necessarily left to the reader.

This work is not held out as a comprehensive treatise on moral cognition. But it serves well as an introductory investigation that is guided by an author who has a profound regard for scientific truth, as well as an intellectual openness to the transcendent and the spiritual. The Moral Mind offers a stimulating introduction to the questions about conscience and morality that continue to hover over a the investigation of the moral sense by philosophers and scientists, and that continue to inform the efforts of theists who struggle to reconcile scientific findings with an evolution-friendly understanding of creation and theology.

 

Works Cited

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man (1871). Darwin. Ed. Philip Appleman. New York: W. W. Norton, 1970.
Hare, John. The Moral Gap : Kantian Ethics, Human Limits, and God's Assistance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Plato. "Protagoras" and "Meno." Trans. W.K.C. Guthrie. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1972.
Twain, Mark [Samuel Clemens]. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Random House, 1996.

 

© 2006 Albert D. Spalding, Jr.

Albert D. Spalding, JD, is an associate professor at Wayne State University School of Business Administration.  He teaches legal studies and ethics.


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