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Intrinsic sense of the right ( and the wrong ) November 5, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in ideas, science.

Here is something interesting now :

Primatologists like Frans de Waal have long argued that the roots of human morality are evident in social animals like apes and monkeys. The animals’ feelings of empathy and expectations of reciprocity are essential behaviors for mammalian group living and can be regarded as a counterpart of human morality. In a new book, “Moral Minds” (HarperCollins 2006), he argues that the grammar generates instant moral judgments which, in part because of the quick decisions that must be made in life-or-death situations, are inaccessible to the conscious mind. People are generally unaware of this process because the mind is adept at coming up with plausible rationalizations for why it arrived at a decision generated subconsciously.

The proposal, if true, would have far-reaching consequences. It implies that parents and teachers are not teaching children the rules of correct behaviour from scratch but are, at best, giving shape to an innate behaviour. And it suggests that religions are not the source of moral codes but, rather, social enforcers of instinctive moral behaviour.

So religion relies on morality to make sense and it is morality that gives meaning to religion, not the other way around.

Both atheists and people belonging to a wide range of faiths make the same moral judgments, Dr. Hauser writes, implying “that the system that unconsciously generates moral judgments is immune to religious doctrine.” Dr. Hauser argues that the moral grammar operates in much the same way as the universal grammar proposed by the linguist Noam Chomsky as the innate neural machinery for language.

Chapter one of the above book is available here. A good summary of what is to follow.

I was infact talking to my lab-mate Sanjika the other day ( and later to Sadiq ) and remember mentioning this.

a) Different religions have the similar set of guideliness of rights and wrongs – something on the lines of – “do as you would be done by; care for children and the weak; don’t kill; avoid adultery and incest; don’t cheat, steal or lie.” I would say these are very objective.

b) Different religions differ in the idea of purpose of life and how to attain it – essentially subjective.

c)Different religions that grew farther apart have less in common than those that grew close by. Judiasm /Christianity /Islam in one class, and Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism is another class. And what they have in common are those suggested in category (a) and they tend to differ quite a bit in category (b).

I dont intend the 3 points above to any kind of a conclusive ‘proof’ or statement on the subject but still they strongly suggest (to me atleast) that religion is a man-made institution, or an evolutionary construct much like marriage is. In other words, it has evolved because it has helped the species survive which, by the way, appears to be changing, atleast in the case of religion ! Although personally, I believe a (successful) marriage is a beautiful thing anyway.

Indeed one of the most stimulating pieces of reading in the recent weeks !



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