by Rich Koster

In a review of Marc Hauser’s landmark book, Moral Minds, New York Times critic Nicholas

Wade sets out two similar ethical scenarios.

In the first, five people are walking along a railroad track oblivious to the train rushing toward them. Another person is walking on the parallel track.  You are at the switch. Would it be the right thing to do if you threw the switch and saved the five at the loss of the one?  Most people surveyed said Yes, it would be the right thing to do.

In the second scenario you are standing above the track and you realize that by throwing a heavy object into the path of the train it will stop it and save the five persons.  A very fat man is standing next to you, but is it right to push him into the path of the train in order to save the others?  Most people surveyed said No, it is not.  (New York Times, October 31, 2006)

Wade points out these different responses as the kind of evidence Hauser cites to posit an ingrained moral sense in all people that has evolved over the centuries.  

Hauser’s thesis is that people are born with a “moral grammar” wired into their neural circuits by evolution, and it is this innate sense of right and wrong that rises up and guides our actions in the midst of a crisis.

A lot of people are upset that Harvard professor Hauser seems to elevate biology and “innate evolved capacities” over social learning and the teaching of religion-based moral codes.  He has particularly received some sharp rebukes from conservative Christian scholars and critics.

In a response to such criticism, Hauser says both inputs are essential, the innate and evolved capacities as well as the social learning, and “we can all benefit from a better understanding of the way that biological processes guide our unconscious moral judgments and thereby exert powerful influences over how we perceive the world.”

If Hauser is right and we are all “wired” with an innate “moral grammar”, this premise supports a broader concept some call moral universalism.

From what I have read, it seems that moral universalism is defined as the premise that among all the laws and rules and guidelines for behavior found in various human cultures there is a bottom line and fundamentally coherent ethic which can be found in them all.

There is currently a remarkable, but yet not novel, attempt to locate and expand that common ethic in the so-called Golden Rule. Contributing Editor John Morgan reports that  later this year a "Charter for Compassion" will be announced, the result of many inputs from many faith traditions around the world and initiated by writer and world religions teacher Karen Armstrong.

John teaches a college course on philosophy and ethics and is requiring his students to read the materials on the web site, charterforcompassion.com.

Most of us associate the Golden Rule with Jesus of Nazareth, and in the form he is reported to have worded it in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 7, verse 12:  “Do for others what you want them to do for you.” (Good News Bible).

What Matthew reports Jesus to have said next, however, is also highly significant:  “This is the meaning of the Law of Moses and of the teachings  of the prophets.”  He may as well have said, “all law and all religious teaching”.

The Christian Apostle, Paul, echoed Jesus in  his letter to the Romans, Chapter 13, verse 10: “If you love someone you will never do him/her wrong; to love, then, is to obey the whole law.”

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In both instances, Jesus and Paul seem to be saying that there is indeed a fundamental common ethic that transcends culture and religious tradition.

When I reflect on this premise, and particularly on the Golden Rule, I am reminded of the song, “What the World Needs Now Is Love, Sweet Love”, and the very next words:  “It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.”

What the song says is that all the golden rules  in the world will not produce good behavior and loving actions unless there is a disposition of heart that impels us to do what love

demands.  Despite our best intentions we so often find that the love we wish to act out in our lives is not the pure and perfect love that ALWAYS seeks the best for everyone.

The recent and marvelous film, Taken, depicts the single-minded devotion of a father for his

daughter, brilliantly portrayed by Liam Neeson.  But that single-minded devotion is just that, for Neeson’s character pursues the objective of his daughter’s salvation heedless of any other interest or concern.

Whether we wish it or not, we all tend to scale our loving actions according to the value we

place on its object.  As when in an episode of Hawaii 5-O, McGarrett asks the head of a

murderous Arkansas clan how they could so nonchalantly kill people,  the fellow replies, “They’re not kin.”

But even so, our love for “kin” may also not be the self-less love of the Golden Rule. When a neighbor locked his separating wife in the house  and burned it down, he told police, “If I can’t have her no one else will.”  Reading the news story, my wife remarked, “At least he really loved her.”

So in real life it makes a huge difference if we know the five people about to be crunched by

the onrushing train.  Again, would you not be far less apt to push the fat guy onto the tracks if he happens to be your only son?

In the end, even if we try to come up with a moral code based on disinterested love, what good is it as a guide when such a pure and perfect love is an impossible goal?  However we may be innately wired with a moral grammar, when push comes to shove, literally, there are powerful urges within us to act first and foremost in our own interest.

If we consider the way we scale our acts of love according to the value we place on their

object, we begin to realize how hard it will be to reach the kind of world envisioned by the

Charter of Compassion.  When push comes to shove, literally, you may find it impossible even to throw that switch and save the five strangers when you recognize the one person on the other track to be your own wife or child.

This, then, is my final caveat when it comes to Hauser’s premise of  a wired grammar preceding and trumping all the social rules and moral codes ingrained in us through the years.  That grammar may have “love” as its verb, but the direct objects will likely be the persons and institutions that have already gained our deepest loyalty and devotion.

Rich Koster is the former Editor of the UNIVERSALIST HERALD.


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Conscience and Unenforceable Obligations

The Universalist in Me


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