Breach of trust

Michael Cook
16 September 2010
Reproduced with Permission

Morality is a tricky business. Experts are held to a higher standard of probity. That's why church sex abuse scandals and the double lives of some televangelists have done such damage to the cause of religious morality. Perhaps, too, this is why academic misconduct by one of the leading exponents of the "new science of morality" has rattled scientists and bioethicists.

In August Harvard University announced that a popular lecturer, 50-year-old Professor Marc D. Hauser, was guilty of eight instances of unspecified scientific misconduct, three involving published papers and five unpublished material. "There were problems involving data acquisition, data analysis, data retention, and the reporting of research methodologies and results," a university official admitted. Harvard has resisted pressure to reveal the dreary details. But the word on the academic grapevine is that Hauser may have performed experiments without a control group, making them utterly useless.

"If it's the case the data have in fact been fabricated, which is what I as the editor infer, that is as serious as it gets," said the editor of the journal Cognition, Gerry Altmann, who has withdrawn a 2002 paper of which Hauser was the lead author.

Professor Hauser's future is uncertain. The case is being investigated by the Federal government, as it may involve misuse of research funds. He has taken a year's leave of absence and told the New York Times that "I acknowledge that I made some significant mistakes" and that he was "deeply sorry for the problems this case had caused to my students, my colleagues and my university."

If you rank bad deeds on a scale of 1 to 10, with murder and paedophilia at 10 and expletives deleted at 1, "academic misconduct" is about 2.5. But Hauser's misdeeds are different. His interests extended far beyond whether tamarind monkeys can recognise themselves in a mirror. He was a leading figure in the "new science of morality". This is a movement which argues persuasively that right and wrong are based on biologically-determined gut feelings, not reason. It is a revolutionary effort to wrest right and wrong from the pulpit and plonk it on the lab bench.

Hauser is one of the movement's leading figures. His most recent book, Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong (2006), was highly praised. A leading bioethicist declared in the New England Journal of Medicine that it "offers us the most important scientific contribution to moral psychology in many decades".

There are many different approaches to this reevaluation of morality. One influential strand explains fairness or sexual taboos as civilised versions of the physical disgust we experience at the thought of eating cockroaches or faeces. The history of ethics, they argue, goes from oral to moral.

Hauser has been deeply influenced by the controversial linguist Noam Chomsky and believes that morality is like language. Just as there is a universal grammar, with particular applications, there is a universal capacity for moral thinking, but each culture has its own moral toolkit. That is why we all profess to be moral, but we find each other's moral codes incomprehensible.

This approach has unsettling consequences for the man in the street. If my morality and the morality of Pathan tribesmen in Afghanistan are as different as English and Pushtu, how can I say that female genital mutilation is wrong? Nor is banning abortion "reasonable", any more than Chinese is more "reasonable" than Spanish. Nor does morality have any link to transcendent values. As Hauser wrote in Moral Minds, the "marriage between morality and religion is not only forced but unnecessary, crying out for a divorce".

But do Hauser's troubles discredit the new science of morality? To err is human and disgraced preachers haven't discredited the doctrines of Christianity. Up to a point, this is true of disgraced professors, too.

But Hauser and his colleagues are not just preachers of received dogmas. They are the founders of a visionary new approach to morality. They have many followers among bioethicists who are seeking to replace ethics based on transcendental values with materialistic explanations. If biology is the foundation for morality, then objections to stem cell research, abortion, and euthanasia, for instance, are based on nothing more substantial than the "yuck factor". In 2010, it's time to rip up the rule book our Paleolithic ancestors used and write our own.

Unhappily, Hauser's misstep suggests that the founders might not even respect their own rule book. "I believe that science, and scientists, have an important role to play in shaping the moral agenda. We have an obligation to use facts and reason to guide what we ought to do," he contended forcefully in a recent essay on The Edge.

Well, facts and reason didn't stop Professor Hauser from stooping to academic misconduct. No big deal, perhaps, in comparison to murder or torture. But it does make one hesitate to hand over the future of morality to Ivy League professors. Who knows what barriers they might breach next? The working title of Professor Hauser's next book is "Evilicious: Explaining Our Evolved Taste for Being Bad". It will make interesting reading.