Posts Tagged ‘moral psychology’

I was recently with a longtime friend who revealed that he does not believe in morality. He thinks the only ultimate good is his own happiness. Now, he tries to act in a way that others see as moral because he believes that that is conducive to his own happiness, and he acknowledges having emotions about what other people do (learning about mass murder would make him unhappy for instance), but he refuses to connect these emotions to any propositional knowledge. For him, words like “wrong,” “right,” “ought,” and “should” have no meaning apart from an instrumental one (“If you want to be happy, you shouldn’t go around murdering people – unless you really really enjoy murdering people”).

I agreed with him that there is no way to prove that morality exists, but I maintained that it’s a properly basic assumption. Morality is like causality. The mere fact that A has followed B 1000000 times doesn’t mean it will do so the next time unless we assume causality (see Hume). We can’t prove causality from anything else; it is a fundamental category of our understanding — just the way our brains organize our sensations of the world (see Kant). In the same way, for most of us, moral judgments are inescapable. When we see someone torture an innocent person to death, we judge that act as wrong, indeed evil. My friend does not apparently judge that act as evil; he says knowing about the act would simply cause him negative emotions.

I didn’t ask him what those negative emotions would be, but my guess is that anger would play the predominant role. If the perpetrator “got away with it,” that anger would mixed with indignation or resentment. But why would you experience indignation or resentment at a criminal’s getting away with murder? Why not fear, which is presumably what asocial animals would experience if they witnessed something like this? Why not melancholy?

We are angry because we believe that the act is wrong and unjust, and should be stopped or punished with force or even violence, if necessary. If the act goes unpunished, we are indignant or resentful; the criminal “owes” something that has not been paid. Our moral judgments cause our emotions; they don’t spring from nowhere, purposeless.

Recently, psychologists have been learning more about how emotion and moral intuition are connected, something Adam Smith knew 250 years ago. Sensitivity to moral concerns is not associated with study of moral philosophy or reasoning capabilities, but with strong empathetic abilities (see Haidt, who is wrong on moral philosophy but right on moral psychology, and Margolis).

With no intended disrespect to my friend, I suspect he scores very low on the empathy spectrum. He fails to see that other human beings have legitimate interests of their own and deserve to be able to pursue happiness just as much as he is. He needs treatment in becoming empathetic — in fact, we all need that treatment from time to time.

Here’s where literature comes in. Literary fiction’s central social function is to train our empathetic organ. When we read fiction, especially with complex, nuanced characters, we put ourselves in the place of some of the characters. We see the world through their eyes and come to understand and value them. We can witness an infinite variety of events, characters, and actions that have never actually existed, so allowing us to fine-tune and to extend our empathy to situations that challenge our intuitions, typically by bringing them into conflict, or that make us think of possibilities we have never previously considered. Literature has other, more personal functions as art and entertainment, but its central social function is training us to empathize. That’s the reason why children should read literary fiction, and why it should be taught in schools, not just considered a private hobby. (more…)

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Jonathan Haidt is everywhere these days, giving interviews and TED talks, promoting his working papers in the media, writing for the websites yourmorals.org and civilpolitics.org, and publishing The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012). A moral psychologist by training, Haidt has successfully cleared the jump to public intellectual, now dispensing didactic advice to Americans about what ails their politics. The Righteous Mind reflects those aspirations, not just summing up his own original research on the psychological foundations of political ideology for a general audience, but also shoehorning in some surprising interpretations of moral philosophy and conjuring out of the whole stew some advice for American politicos (and what could be more important than that?).

Did you know that moral philosophers do not believe in intuition? Did you know that David Hume thought that reason was weak and ineffectual against the tide of passions? Did you know that Bentham and Kant were probably on the autism spectrum, and that that fact explains their moral philosophies? Did you know that Kant was a philosophical rationalist, and that philosophical rationalists think that morality is all about justice and fairness? Philosophical rationalists also think that children learn about morality through experience, just like Lawrence Kohlberg, Haidt’s nemesis in moral psychology — and totally not like Hume.(*)

If you did not know these things, which might especially be the case if you are a moral philosopher, Haidt is here to enlighten you. As he helpfully informs us, he took a couple of philosophy courses as an undergraduate, before he realized that it was all bunkum.

Haidt begins (more…)

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In his book The Righteous Mind (review coming soon) and in a coauthored paper with Ravi Iyer and others, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt claims that libertarians are essentially amoral(*): they care less about care, fairness, authority, loyalty, and sanctity than conservatives and liberals and care most of all about liberty. (I blogged the latter study here.)

But it turns out that one of the chief surveys on which most of this research rests looks geared toward generating biased outcomes for libertarians specifically. The “Moral Scenarios” survey asks respondents to judge the morality of certain actions, all of which involve the exchange of money. Here is one example:

A professional sports player has played for his hometown team for the past 10 years and has never played anywhere else. Recently, he was offered a lot of money to play for his hometown team’s rival in a different city. Losing their best player to a rival team would upset many people in his hometown. However, he decides to take the offer and play for the rival team.
How morally offensive is this?
Not at all offensive Extremely offensive
How upsetting is this?
Not at all upsetting Extremely upsetting
How angry does this make you feel?
Not at all angry Extremely angry

You can give your reaction on a 1-7 scale.

Now, two things are peculiar about this survey. First, all the questions are about the exchange of money. Other questions are about the morality of a manufacturer’s making a less safe car to save money, auctioning off a place in the liver transplant queue, and so on. Thus, the questions seem almost calculated to elicit defensive responses from libertarians, who more than conservatives and liberals tend to be committed to the justice of market exchange. It’s therefore no surprise that libertarians are less likely to answer that these actions are “morally offensive” than are liberals and conservatives. If the survey consisted of moral dilemmas in which the pursuit of equality (sanctity) had perverse consequences, then liberals (conservatives) would likely be the defensive ones with lower average scores on “moral offensiveness.”

Second, the questions are overwhelmingly tilted toward eliciting an emotional, intuitive response rather than a reflective one. I don’t think of morality as a sliding scale of “offensiveness,” but Haidt does, and he forces his respondents into that philosophical straitjacket. My own response to almost all of these scenarios was “it depends.” There was no option for that, of course. So I chose an answer right in the middle of the scale. It turns out that middling answers on these scenarios puts you well below the typical liberal and conservative responses. Again, since libertarians often tend to elevate reason (possibly excessively) and denigrate emotion as a guide to moral judgment, they are less likely to take extreme positions on these questions. That tendency alone further biases the results toward libertarians’ appearing comparatively amoral.

(*) “Essentially amoral” is my gloss on his findings. He criticizes libertarians as being extreme exemplars of so-called “WEIRD” (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) morality, caring only about rights and not about other moral dimensions.

This post has been updated to add the footnote above.

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An interesting but occasionally infuriating article by Drake Bennett in the Boston Globe argues that research into the psychology of disgust undermines systems of morality. Here are some claims that I find particularly poorly justified:

The agnosticism central to scientific inquiry is part of what feels so dangerous to philosophers and theologians. By telling a story in which morality grows out of the vagaries of human evolution, the new moral psychologists threaten the claim of universality on which most moral systems depend — the idea that certain things are simply right, others simply wrong. If the evolutionary story about the moral emotions is correct, then human beings, by being a less social species or even having a significantly different prehistoric diet, might have ended up today with an entirely different set of religions and ethical codes. Or we might never have evolved the concept of morals at all.


To Haidt, all of these results buttress his belief that moral reasoning is simply an after-the-fact story we create to explain our instinctive emotional reactions, in this case a strongly held but arbitrary feeling of disgust. “Moral reasoning is often like the press secretary for a secretive administration — constantly generating the most persuasive arguments it can muster for policies whose true origins and goals are unknown,” he wrote in a 2007 paper in Science.

I’m sure that for some people on some issues disgust can ground their moral judgments. But that’s not the same as saying that moral judgment simply is disgust – which is a philosophical question that no amount of empirical science could ever answer. (The article doesn’t give any space to philosophical views on the matter.) Moreover, I think it far more likely that in most circumstances disgust is a post facto emotional response to something we already believe to be wrong on other grounds. Indeed, the article does present some evidence on this score:

But to David Pizarro, the most interesting — and perhaps most important — question to answer is how flexible disgust is, how much it can change. Fifty years ago, many white Americans freely admitted to being disgusted by the thought of drinking from the same drinking fountain as a black person. Today far fewer do. How did that change? Did their sense of disgust ebb as they spent more time in integrated restaurants and workplaces and buses, or did they find ways to actively suppress their feelings? Pizarro isn’t sure, but he’d like to find out.

Did people stop being racist because they stopped finding integration disgusting, or did they stop finding integration disgusting because they decided it was OK? The latter seems like the only plausible account.


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