Wednesday, September 12, 2007

the development of moral grammar

I am currently reading a book titled "Moral Minds" written by a Professor at Harvard, Dr. Marc Hauser. He has some very interesting stories to tell us about the evolutionary basis for morality and a seemingly analogous mapping between the development of language and morality. It would probably be injustice to summarize this deeply thought out and well written book, but I take the liberty to say that he suggests the possible existence of a moral "grammar", which I thought was interesting.

I had referred to a similar but vague idea about my development as a child, in one of my earlier posts, ranting against Mr. Hitchens and his anti-god outbursts. I wrote,

I am not a believer. Neither am an atheist. As I always acknowledge, I sincerely do not know what my belief structures are when it comes to religion. However, I believe in a moral basis for empathizing with those in need and this has nothing to do with religion. Hinduism or not, I know that my world-view of what I ought to be doing as a human being has a strong basis in my upbringing. Mr. Hitchens and off late Mr.Dawkins have called this inheritance "cultural genes", some sort of a virus that plagues mankind. I have to say that what I inherited from my religious minded family was not blind faith in an omnipresent God, but an unquenchable thirst for trying to understand who I am, and what my existence is meant to be. when I look back at what has happened in the last twenty or so years of my life is that I have developed a comfortable model of doing this without believing in dogmatic religion and neither being overly rationalistic. That is my model - everyone needs to have their own. What I know is that all the science courses that I have taken in my life have not taught me how to develop the moral code that I practice. I also know that I did not learn this from any religious text or some dogmatic beliefs.

we learn language from our parents and subtleties are picked up though usage, practice and with time. Similarly, Mr. Hauser presents some good examples how we develop the requisite grammar for morality through our observation of others and then the subsequent processing of information gathered from various sources. Seems like a good story to me. Although, it seems like a subjective process, the core fundamentals of what is moral and what is not seem to be passed on quite well across generations. You will ahve to read the book further, for deeper insights on this issue :)

As Mr. Hauser rightly pointed out in his book, it is time that we start separating the basis for moral code from religion. It seems imprudent to assume that a moral code would not have evolved without the effect of religion. I guess what troubles Mr. Hitchens is that the far religious right often invokes God's teachings or presence as the basis for the presence and development of a moral code. By delineating the basis for morality from religion and offering an evolutionary explanation to it, Mr. Hauser in a way has taken away Mr.Hitchens' guns. Mr. Hitchens can now probably rave and rant about the right and the missionaries and how they are poisoning the world. However, the much deeper truth - a moral code would probably now stay untouched from liberals such as Mr. Hitchens and conservatives such as Mr. Coulter, and philosophers and scientists can go about understanding the real truth behind morality and the subsequent implications for mankind.

It is time that we all understand that we do not need to have "faith" or be " believers" to be able to lead full, happy lives. Having said that, we also need to acknowledge that applying scientific rationale to certain aspects of human behavior and development might not offer the best solutions. As Mr. Dawkins eloquently says it, faith is a by-product of mankind's dogmatic unscientific beliefs. However, I see it as a product of the cultural evolution of mankind rather than the biological evolution.

However, now that we all as a species are much wiser - it is probably the right time to revisit our notions about Noah's Ark- if we are Christians, Manu's boat - if we are Hindus. A follow up post on the flood myths will follow.


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