Marc Hauser’s “Mistakes”


Marc Hauser, a Harvard University professor, reportedly admits, “I acknowledge that I made some significant mistakes.” He has been placed on leave and been judged by a his university to be “solely responsible” for eight instances of scientific misconduct.” (NYTimes, August 13, 2010).


A 15-year old boy breaks into his parents’ liquor cabinet, gets drunk, takes the family car out, smashes it and seriously injures a small child. People say, “Yes. Johnny made a mistake.”

What’s wrong with this kind of scenario?

Chauncey Billips throws a bounce pass to a 7’2″ player that rolls out of bounds. Chauncy admits, as they return down that court, that it was a mistake.

Johnny hurries to finish his math quiz and writes 16 as the result of 36/2. Johnny clearly has made a mistake.

Marc Hauser, a psychologist or evolutionary biologist (it’s not clear from the news articles exactly what his discipline is) is supposedly a sort of expert on morality, having published, among other things, a book entitled Moral Minds, which develops some interesting theories about how morality supposedly evolved in the course of human evolution. Central, according to an earlier NYTimes article, is the concept of moral grammar, an innate capacity to make moral judgments. The NYTimes wrote, “The moral grammar evolved, he believes, because restraints on behavior are required for social living and have been favored by natural selection because of their survival value.”

There may well be a moral grammar. But there is also moral reflection that can and does supercede the “moral grammar.” The thesis that a moral grammar that has evolved because it has group survival value misses one of the key questions, namely the truth or falsity of moral beliefs. A person like Hauser may in fact think doing wrong is just making a mistake, since it is, for him, just the hard-wired moral grammar not working properly. But then this leaves open the question of whether there really is any good reason for not doing wrong/for doing right. Or, why it matters whether the moral grammar works properly.

The alternative picture is that we have a moral choice and we have good reasons for not doing wrong and for doing right. This is why there is a very important difference between someone’s making a mistake and someone choosing to do wrong.

If Tiger Woods looks down the fairway and judges that he needs a five-iron, only to have his shot fall 20 yards short, he’s made a mistake. If Tiger Woods chooses to have affairs with women other than his wife, he isn’t making mistakes; he’s choosing to do something wrong, where saying “he’s choosing to do something wrong” does not parse to “he didn’t apply his innate moral grammar correctly” or “he didn’t act in accord with society’s norms.” (His judgment that he’d be able to get away with it might well be a mistake.)

Alvin Plantinga has famously argued that naturalism cannot be rationally believed because it is self-defeating. (His argument, as I understand it: If naturalism is true, then beliefs, while they may be adaptive or non-adaptive, are merely brain states and cannot meaningfully be considered true or false. But then naturalism itself is just a brain state that may be adaptive or non-adaptive, but cannot be meaningfully considered to be true or false.) Some people out there have a “naturalism” brainstate and I happen to have a “nonnaturalism” brainstate. So what? If there is no truth, only brainstates, why do science? And if naturalism is true, there is no truth, only brainstates. If naturalism is true, then nothing is true, including naturalism. (Echoings of the Cretan lier here?)

The Hauser delusion seems to be a species of this general problem with naturalism. If moral beliefs just are brainstates that developed over time, then if my brain results in behavior that doesn’t agree with how most people’s moral minds function, it might make sense to say I made a mistake. (Might make sense…) But if brainstates somehow involve ideas that may or may not correspond with reality, then my moral brainstates can in some sense be true or false, valid or invalid. And when I choose to do something I know to be wrong (like Johnny knows it’s wrong to steal his parents’ booze and Buick, Tiger Woods knows it’s wrong to be unfaithful to his wife, and Marc Hauser should know it’s wrong to misrepresent scientific data), then it’s not a “mistake.” It’s something quite different from a mistake.

When I make a mistake, I’m choosing to do what I take to be right (choosing a 5-iron) but for some reason it’s not actually right. When I do wrong, I’m choosing to do what I take to be not-right. (Granted I can do “objective” moral wrong by “mistake”–I may, for example, judge that a person has forfeited her right to the truth by doing x when, in fact, she hasn’t done x.)

The concept of ‘choice’ is important here. Choice involves a cognitive, conceptual component that, as far as we know, does not exist even in the highest animals. (Eg, see this NYTimes article.) Consider a hypothetical primate group that has evolved a form of monogamous mating. The behaviors of the group could well include significant sanctions for participants that violate this norm. So when a male in that group is attracted to a female who is mated with another male, awareness of those sanctions may well keep him from pursuing her.

In human society too, there are sanctions that keep people in line. But people also consider things other than those sanctions. Plato brought this out already in the Apology. He told the myth of the person with the ring that made him invisible and pointed out that he would still have reason to do the right thing. Someone considering Woodsian-philandery might in fact correctly believe that he could get away with it and still decide not to do it because of a commitment to the moral value of fidelity to the promises he had made.

Such considerations and decision-making seem quite orthogonal to the kinds of “decisions” that even the primates in that hypothetical group make. It involves a level of abstract thinking that seems closely connected with language. The ability to think about promises made in the past (inconceivable without human language). The ability to consider oneself as a self, a being that must deliberate and make choices (rather than just the ability to someone just make decisions). (This ties in with the earlier point that we seem to need something other than brain states to deal with ideas about truth and the meaningfulness of any human abstract thinking.)

Of course, all this philosophy may miss the point in many cases. For one can plausibly maintain that people know very well that what Johnny did was wrong but they choose a form of group self-delusion by mitigating Johnny’s misbehavior through choosing the word “mistake.”

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