In his forthcoming book, "Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong" (Ecco), and in other recent papers, Hauser suggests we may have a moral "faculty" in our brains that acts as a sort of in-house philosopher-parsing situations quickly, before emotion or conscious reason come into play. Hauser compares this faculty to the mental quality that allows human beings to acquire and use language naturally and effortlessly.
It's a suggestive analogy, inviting questions about just how far the similarities run. Is human morality, like language, largely universal (gratuitous killing is bad) but with plenty of room for local variation (in some cultures, killing your daughter if she loses her virginity before marriage is not considered gratuitous)? Is it easy for children to adapt to these local differences, depending on where and how they are raised, but difficult for adults-just as it's hard to learn French at 40?
Whether the analogy to language is "airtight" or "useful because it allows you to ask good questions" is an open issue, Hauser says. But scholars think the answers to these questions are of more than academic interest. "My hope is that by better understanding how we think," Greene writes on his personal website, "we can teach ourselves to think better." Christopher Shea's column appears biweekly in Ideas. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org Globe Newspaper Company