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.


6 thoughts on “Marc Hauser – Are We Engaged In Meta-Meta-Ethics Here?

  1. Hi Richard, welcome.

    You have a really good collection of links there. Not only relating to Hauser – I found the Stanford videos interesting,and Peter Atkins is on good form there, as always.

    I listened to Hauser ( There were only a couple of places where he referred to cognition in other primates, and so what he takes from his own research in that area is tainted. But he covers lots of ground where he is reflecting on current understanding in several areas of evolution, areas where he is not the primary source, or not the sole primary source, or not a source at all. And he does tell a good story; his explanations are very clear. All the greater the pity he had to go and blow it all.

    There is probably a lot that we can still take as valuable from his popular books, since popular books nearly always encompass a wider field than the author’s research. I haven’t read his books on morality yet. But maybe the price will plummet and they will still be worth having if read with caution.

    1. Hi Ron.

      Thank you for the kind welcome – appreciated.

      Whoever is most at fault in this disturbing case, is now of little to no concern to most people – academics & non-academics alike.

      The damage is already done. Hauser is now perceived as wholly guilty, and a manipulative fraud (whether he is or not), and ‘persona non grata’ in the eyes of professionals & public

      I’d be surprised if “Evilicious” is ever printed – a great tragedy in my view, as I have learned so much from ‘Moral Minds’ – but to many others with power & influence, I think they will be breathing a huge sigh of relief.

      The field he was researching – Moral Theory – will now come to a grinding halt, especially as there won’t be sufficient public-private funding.

      My own work on the “Mega Instinct” and Cobsciousness will also suffer too – no-one who can publish & promote it are likely to touch it, citing commercial interests probably (eg not enough readers interested to buy the book).

      Hauser’s ‘character assassination’ is nothing new – Socrates was an early example, Joad, Orwell & Chomsky another, in recent times.
      There are countless other examples – most of which unknown about. Nobody cares – or not enough do.

  2. Thought this might be of interest – correspondence with an academic philosopher:

    Dear G

    “Even if we suppose these factors to be nefariously at work, there’s still the small matter of ‘why ?’ What has
    Hauser done to bring down on him the wrath of your rogue elements of the Corporate/ Military State ? You are
    and have throughout been absolutely silent on this point”

    RWS Excerpts (continued)
    .21 if Hauser said this in ‘Moral Minds” (2006), what else was he going to say in the follow-up sequel “Evilicious” (2012)(not yet published) ?
    “Many people presumably know they have done something wrong, based on reactions by others, but don’t admit to the wrongdoing or take responsibility.
    Some of these people are excessively narcissistic, a disorder that can bleed into the presidency, as when….President George W. Bush failed to admit to the public, that he went to war with Iraq, for reasons other than the one concerning weapons of mass destruction” – Marc D. Hauser (‘Moral Minds’ – Chapter 3 “Grammars of Violence” Page 155)

    Hauser – from Harvard (with strong links to Chomsky) wrote this in 2006 – at the height of this insane, undeclared ‘War on Terror’. 

    Bet you a fiver “Evilicious” doesn’t get published.

    Best ~ Richard

    Dear Richard

    My naiveté, political and personal, is perfectly possible. On what, however, is your own perception of
    the ‘engine-room’ of Harvard based ? First-hand knowledge ? I doubt it. Then what ? Secondary sources,
    just as mine is, most likely. 

    Vague, unsubstantiated references to ‘rogue elements’ within the ‘Corporate/ Military State’ and to Harvard’s
    supine reliance on ‘public and private funding’ are hardly likely to convince any reasonable person looking for a 
    modicum of producible evidence to support what otherwise appears to be a rant. 

    Even if we suppose these factors to be nefariously at work, there’s still the small matter of ‘why ?’ What has
    Hauser done to bring down on him the wrath of your rogue elements of the Corporate/ Military State ? You are
    and have throughout been absolutely silent on this point. 

    You are alleging a ramp against Hauser, which you can’t prove, for reasons you can’t specify. Hardly
    a satisfactory argumentative position, I should have thought. 


  3. From : XYZ321
    To : Richard W. Symonds

    I find interesting parallels with Ministerial Responsibility in this country. In theory a Minister
    is responsible – answerable and sackable – for everything done or omitted by his department.
    In practice we recognise that there is a grey area. If a policy fails which the Minister has
    personally initiated, then he’s clearly responsible. If a clerk steals data and sells it to the media
    or to a foreign power, then the Minister can’t reasonably be held responsible. It’s too far down the
    line from what he can personally control. Between these extremes it can be and often is uncertain
    how far a Minister is to be held accountable.

    Back to Hauser :

    Hauser released a statement Wednesday, saying that although he has fundamental differences with the findings, he acknowledges that he made mistakes.

    ‘I let important details get away from my control, and as head of the lab, I take responsibility for all errors made within the lab, whether or not I was directly involved,’ he stated.

    ‘I am saddened that this investigation has caused some to question all of my work, rather than the few papers and unpublished studies in question.

    ‘I remain proud of the many important papers generated by myself, my collaborators and my students over the years. I am also deeply gratified to see my students carve out significant areas of research at major universities around the world,’ Hauser said.

    It seems that Hauser denies personal dishonesty in any respect. He does, however, concede that there were errors
    in the data on which some published papers were based; and that as head of the unit he must carry the can. It’s a
    tricky one. He can hardly be expected to check all data that his team produces. But if the erroneous data occurred in a
    paper that was attributed solely to himself, then the paper shouldn’t have been thus attributed. Equally if the data occurred in a paper that he joint-authored, I feel he has to take the blame. It’s badly careless to let unchecked work go out under one’s name even as part-author, especially when he ran the unit.

    My sense is that he was unlucky rather than dishonest. Where Harvard is at fault is not in any conspiratorial way
    but in cultivating a climate in which there is such enormous pressure to publish. I suspect that some of Hauser’s
    juniors fiddled or were careless with data in order to make names for themselves, to get published papers on to
    their CVs. I’m rather sorry for Hauser, who seems to me a decent sort and no kind of fraud. But of course this is just
    my impression; I have no special knowledge.

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