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On Refuting the Concept of Universal Morality

Cognitive scientist Rebecca Saxe, in her work “The Right Thing to Do”, advises her readers to approach advances in her field particularly those concerning morality not only with enthusiasm but with caution, and for good reason. Although recent developments have led to an increasing degree of belief in the existence of universal morals, the experiments / procedures performed by psychologists and scientists alike are still riddled with valid objections that taint the plausibility of the conclusions they have managed to derive.

In this light, it is reasonable to assume that the argument for a universal brand of morality remains unsound. This paper aims to refute the biological / scientific basis for universal morals on the grounds of insufficient proof. Saxe discusses three procedures done by scientists / psychologists to qualify the existence of universal morals. She cites the theory of Wilson, pointing out that whereas before his theory of the presence of a universal “moral sense” was rejected, today – with the aid of technological advances – interest in his work has been revived.

This is probably due to the fact that new methods brought about by scientific progress can presumably cut across external factors; thus, whether or not there exists some sort of innate human morality can be proven. The issue of natural morality has long been discussed in the field of Psychology. Prior to the works of Hauser, Turiel, and other contemporary figures espousing the said concept, several renowned psychologists – such as Wilson and Kohlberg – have already forwarded the idea.

Kohlberg, known for his work on the stages of moral development, argues for the existence of a universal morality by maintaining that all people undergo a “monotonic universal moral development” (Saxe). Eventually Kohlberg’s theory, like Wilson’s, was rejected until such time that interest in moral universals – studying it with the use of moral dilemmas – reemerged. The first of the three works related by Saxe was that of Marc Hauser and John Mikhail, who replaced Kohlberg’s method of collecting information (via solving problems) with juxtaposing the notion of human morality and Noam Chomsky’s take on the development of language in man.

According to Hauser and Mikhail, morality operates in the same way as language does, and that it is moral instinct, not moral reasoning, that enables one to determine whether an action is right or wrong. They tested their assumption through the use of the “Trolley Problems” (Saxe), and concluded that moral instinct is universal; only the justifications for the moral dilemmas presented in the “Trolley Problems” (and for any moral problem, for that matter) vary with respect to external factors such as culture and race.

This qualification is meant to answer the probable objection regarding the diversity of reasons people might have in response to moral problems – most notably that which is presented by Saxe in the beginning of her article (Mike and stealing a bus ticket to get to a wedding). The second work presented by Saxe is Elliott Turiel’s, strengthened by results obtained from Looking-Time Experiments conducted on pre-verbal infants and toddlers.

Turiel asserts that all people (with the exception of psychopaths) recognize the distinction between morality and convention. This distinction is said to be evident even during infancy as shown in separate experiments conducted by Valerie Kuhlmeier and Emmanuel Dupoux. The final recounted procedure makes use of the all too familiar MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). In experiments conducted by Jorge Moll, subjects were tasked to read statements – some having moral content, others completely neutral – while their brain activity is monitored.

Moll observed that a particular region of the brain becomes active when moral statements are read, leading him to propose that the medial orbito-frontal cortex plays an important role in moral reasoning. This discovery, supporters of the theory under scrutiny suppose, is an outright evidence of the existence of innate morality in man. The preceding experiments do not come without objections, most notably from the field of anthropology.

With regard to the first experiment, although the respondents vary in race, age, and other external factors, it cannot be discounted that they all share a common characteristic – that of having Internet access. Anthropologists may argue that such commonality cannot be trivialized: the similarity in results obtained by Hauser and Mikhail may be a consequence of the respondents’ apparent exposure to Western culture and values (i. e. , Internet access and use) and not because of a universal moral intuition inherent in everyone.

The counter argument aimed at looking-time procedures follows the same line of reasoning as that in the first experiment, albeit broader in scope. Anthropologists claim that the distinction between moral and conventional rules is not biological but environmental – that is, it is a construct born out of and shaped by history and culture and is therefore not innate nor universal. Such a position is strengthened by observations of the Manyika tribe made by anthropologist Anita Jacobson-Widding, who purports that the tribe has no concept of morality.

The effect of such a bold claim, of course, is the debunking of the very existence of a universal morality. Moll’s use of the MRI as a means to uncover a region of the brain devoted to moral reasoning does not do much to support the theory of universal morals. To begin with, the assertion that moral reasoning is localized in the medial orbito-frontal cortex is already in itself controversial. Joshua Greene of Princeton University debunks the findings of Moll, saying that he was not able to locate a region specific to moral reasoning as suggested.

Apart from that, even if such a discovery was made, its impact on the theory of universal morals is negligible, for two reasons: the innateness of morality still cannot be established, as well as its universality; and the question of how the idea of moral-conventional distinction was introduced cannot be answered. In conjunction with the objections presented in Rebecca Saxe’s article, there is likewise substantial literature available that attests to the failure of the theory of moral universals, one of which is Nicholas Wade’s article entitled “Is ‘Do Unto Others’ Written Into Our Genes?

”. In understanding the human emotion of being dumbfounded, Wade was led to the conclusion that two varied mental systems gave rise to the idea of morality. The first one is the ancient system of morality which evolved prior to the development of language in man, and which accounts for what is known as “moral intuition” in Hauser and Mikhail’s work. The second system – the modern one – evolved after the human faculty of language, and can be considered “moral judgment”.

This system is responsible for the conscious, reflective deliberation of the justifications behind one’s intuition with regard to a given act (whether it is right or wrong). Obviously, it is the first system that is important in the discussion of universal morality. When analyzed, it is evident that morality, as far as it is understood in this paper, is believed by Wade to be a form of adaptation by man to his environment. To quote him: “The emotional responses of moral intuition occur instantaneously — they are primitive gut reactions that evolved to generate split-second decisions and enhance survival in a dangerous world.

” This statement is seconded by Jesse Prinz of the University of North Carolina, who claims that contrary to what is purported, there is no biological mechanism that causes a person to acquire certain moral norms. At the rate of development science and technology is experiencing, it is possible that there will come a time that a biological / scientific basis for morality will be established through more fool-proof experiments and procedures.

Today, however, the results of the experiments enumerated by Saxe provide little support to the theory that morality is ingrained in each person biologically, uninfluenced by outside forces, most notably by culture. As such, until such time that the theory will be backed by potent evidence, it is best to suspend belief over it. References Wade, Nicholas. “Is ‘Do Unto Others’ Written Into Our Genes? ” 18 September 2007. 18 May 2009 <http://dericbownds. net/uploaded_images/Wade_Moral. pdf> Prinz, Jesse. “Against Moral Nativism. ” September 2004. Subcortex. com. 18 May 2009 <http://subcortex. com/PrinzAgainstMoralNativism. pdf>

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