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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
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
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
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.
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.
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.