Monthly Archives: September 2012

Marc Hauser – Are We Engaged In Meta-Meta-Ethics Here?

Descriptive Ethics: How people behave, and what they believe about morally.

Normative Ethics: What are the moral codes we live by? How do we resolve moral problems?

Meta-Ethics: What is ethics all about? Where do we get our moral codes from?

Meta-Meta-Ethics?: What can we understand about ethics when a Harvard professor who has engaged in the study of the evolutionary origins of ethics is found to have committed misconduct in his research into non-human primate behaviour? What does this say about his work on the origins of morality if we can’t be sure his misconduct does not extend to his work on morality? Do you have to understand ethics and abide by ethical standards when studying ethics in order to be sure you do actually understand ethics? Would it be acceptable for a moral nihilist to ‘cheat’ on his research into moral nihilism, and would he actually be cheating? I blame Rationalism for getting us into this sort of mess.

The results are out, as reported in the Boston Globe: Former Harvard professor Marc Hauser fabricated, manipulated data, US says. (Report here).

Here’s Hauser in a POI podcast about his book Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong.

This case has been going on for a while and now the details are out in the report. The report covers some very specific research on non-human primate cognition, which does not particularly address the question of the origins of morality. And, of course, there is no suggestion that any of the collaborators or other researchers investigating the origins of morals have done anything wrong. It doesn’t even address Hauser’s specific contribution to the work on the origins or morality. But it does leave a lot of suspicion hanging there. It does leave a nasty taste in the mouth.

Science isn’t infallible, because it is carried out by fallible humans; and though the methodologies of science are intended to compensate for our fallibilities they too are implemented by fallible humans. Our fallibility seems inescapable. I guess Harvard will want to bury this as soon as possible; and without evidence to suggest further problems with his work I don’t suppose any public enquiry will look any deeper.

There are genuine and inherent difficulties associated with the psych sciences. This only makes matters more difficult, for other researchers and us onlookers.