The Mind and Moral Misconduct

By John Lussier

In 2011 the science researcher Marc Hauser resigned from his position at Harvard, after having been found guilty of eight separate acts of scientific misconduct. Hauser’s misconduct consisted of problems in “data acquisition, data analysis, data retention, and the reporting of research methodologies and results.”

Concerns came from the graduate students working with Hauser, saying that he had incorrectly coded the behavior of his research subjects: cotton-topped tamarin monkeys. Under investigation by Hauser was the ability of these monkeys to recognize themselves in a mirror. Previously this capability had been found in chimps, orangutans (not to mention humans), but Hauser’s research seemed to show that this specific species of monkey was also able to recognize themselves in a mirror.

For Hauser, this self-recognition was an important part of the tamarin’s understanding of the world, itself, and its actions. If the tamarin was able to recognize that it's mirror image was not another monkey, but itself, it was probably capable of understanding its own actions and reflecting on their effect: a vital part of morality.

This was exactly the subject of Hauser’s 2006 book, Moral Minds: The Nature of Right and Wrong. In it Hauser examined the nature of morality, and the type of mind that makes it possible. Humans, perhaps along with a small group of animals, uniquely possess a mind that can distinguish ourselves from the world, reflect on interactions, and make intuitive judgments about what’s going on around us. We have the capability to judge between right and wrong [1].

Not only can we judge between right and wrong as a species, but we do so with what Hauser calls a “universal moral grammar”. Following the thought of Noam Chomsky on language, Hauser believes humanity's sense of morality is grounded in the mind. Universally, humans categorize actions into those that are either forbidden, permissible, or obligatory. These judgments are made intuitively, and in the case of social actions are almost instantaneous and without reflection. It is only after these categorizations that human emotions and reasoning come into play. Hauser thinks this universal moral grammar came to be through human adaptation. Having a moral mind helped humans survive in a world with conflict, differences, and tribalism, he argues.

While this moral grammar is universal, its expression is culturally informed. We all have a sense of fairness, but what is considered fair for a North American male in his late 20's is most likely going to be different than fairness considered by elders from an aboriginal tribe in Australia. In other words, we all utilize the categories of fairness, obligation, and that of permissible or forbidden actions--but we will not all agree on the exact contents of those categories. Interestingly, Hauser believes that some animals, in a less developed manner, are capable of these same judgments.

Hauser’s look into the nature of morality and the mind is fascinating piece, albeit one tinged by his own misconduct. While his inappropriate actions are not enough to completely throw out his theories about the mind, they do remind us of the need for moral reflection. Particularly, we must look outside ourselves for our sense of morality. While we have innate moral intuitions and grammar, these seem to fail us often. There is something inside of us that looks first towards the self and our own good (a selfish gene?), even in acts of service. Instead, we should look outside ourselves to the person of Christ.

“Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ...” (Philippians 1:27a)


[The above is part of a series on sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and the nature of the mind by Master of Divinity student, John Lussier.  In this series he will be asking some pretty big questions: How might biology inform our sense of the moral? Where do emotions and reason come in? Who are we and what were we made for?  Definitive answers are often hard to come by, but sometimes becoming informed is just as much about learning to ask the right questions.  We hope you will come alongside him--and us--on this intellectual journey! ]


[1] Hauser’s work with humans tends to focus on artificial tests on morality. You can actually take a look at these tests online: