Moral Minds

by Marc D. Hauser

I’m sorry, I just didn’t like this book. It seems a perfectly nice book and the author seems like a knowledgeable fellow. I can’t point to any specific flaws that led me to abandon it only halfway through. Perhaps I should just chalk it up to “bad intellectual chemistry” and leave it at that. But I’ll try to get down in writing what bothered me about the book.

First, I was definitely put off by the discussions of philosophy. Mr. Hauser starts the book by providing a number of slightly different variations on the old moral conundrum “Is it better to kill one person than permit half a dozen people to die?” I have always shrugged my shoulders at this question; it seems a no-brainer to me that you should try to minimize human suffering in all cases. Whether I pull a trigger or watch a boulder mash people down doesn’t really matter -- what matters is the end result. However, Mr. Hauser discussed two alternate ways of thinking about the matter, which apparently some people really believe in, and labeled them by the names of philosophers most identifiable with them. Thus, he had the Kantian view, the Humean view, or the Rawlsian view. He referred to these points of view frequently and applied them to all manner of situations. I found this tiresome; I have no patience for philosophy and want to learn about the science, not the digestion of that science by philosophers.

There was also something tedious about the writing. I can’t put my finger on it, but reading this book felt like wading through molasses: the revelations seemed few and far between, and the discussions of history, personalities, and arguments dragged on endlessly. I lost patience with the book because I felt that I had to read ten pages to learn one interesting idea. That’s way too low an intellectual density for me to tolerate.

I suspect that my criticisms might be unfair; perhaps the book livens up later; perhaps I was in a foul mood when reading it; perhaps the moon was in the wrong phase. Whatever the reasons, this book is going into my “book donation” pile, not my shelves.