Long thought to be a topic of enquiry within the humanities, the nature of human morality is increasingly being scrutinised by the natural sciences. This shift is now beginning to provide impressive intellectual returns on investment. Philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, economists, primatologists and anthropologists, all borrowing liberally from each others’ insights, are putting together a novel picture of morality—a trend that University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt has described as the “new synthesis in moral psychology.” The picture emerging shows the moral sense to be the product of biologically evolved and culturally sensitive brain systems that together make up the human “moral faculty.”
A pillar of the new synthesis is a renewed appreciation of the powerful role played by intuitions in producing our ethical judgements. Our moral intuitions, argue Haidt and other psychologists, derive not from our powers of reasoning, but from an evolved and innate suite of “affective” systems that generate “hot” flashes of feelings when we are confronted with a putative moral violation.
This intuitionist perspective marks a sharp break from traditional “rationalist” approaches in moral psychology, which gained a large following in the second half of the 20th century under the stewardship of the late Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg. In the Kohlbergian tradition, moral verdicts derive from the application of conscious reasoning, and moral development throughout our lives reflects our improved ability to articulate sound reasons for the verdicts . . . .
But experimental studies give cause to question the primacy of rationality in morality. In one experiment, Jonathan Haidt presented people with a range of peculiar stories, each of which depicted behaviour that was harmless (in that no sentient being was hurt) but which also felt “bad” or “wrong.” One involved a son who promised his mother, while she was on her deathbed, that he would visit her grave every week, and then reneged on his commitment because he was busy. Another scenario told of a man buying a dead chicken at the supermarket and then having sex with it before cooking and eating it. These weird but essentially harmless acts were, nonetheless, by and large deemed to be immoral.
Further evidence that emotions are in the driving seat of morality surfaces when people are probed on why they take their particular moral positions. In a separate study which asked subjects for their ethical views on consensual incest, most people intuitively felt that incestuous sex is wrong, but when asked why, many gave up, saying, “I just know it’s wrong!”—a phenomenon Haidt calls “moral dumbfounding.”
It’s hard to argue that people are rationally working their way to moral judgements when they can’t come up with any compelling reasons—or sometimes any reasons at all—for their moral verdicts. Haidt suggests that the judgements are based on intuitive, emotional responses, and that conscious reasoning comes into its own in creating post hoc justifications for our moral stances. Our powers of reason, in this view, operate more like a lawyer hired to defend a client than a disinterested scientist searching for the truth.
Our rational and rhetorical skill is also recruited from time to time as a lobbyist. Haidt points out that the reasons—whether good or bad—that we offer for our moral views often function to press the emotional buttons of those we wish to bring around to our way of thinking. So even when explicit reasons appear to have the effect of changing people’s moral opinions, the effect may have less to do with the logic of the arguments than their power to elicit the right emotional responses. We may win hearts without necessarily converting minds. . . .
Even if you recognise the tendency to base moral judgements on how moral violations make you feel, you probably would also like to think that you have some capacity to think through moral issues, to weigh up alternative outcomes and make a call on what is right and wrong.
Thankfully, neuroscience gives some cause for optimism. Philosopher-cum-cognitive scientist Joshua Greene of Harvard University and his colleagues have used functional magnetic resonance imaging to map the brain as it churns over moral problems, inspired by a classic pair of dilemmas from the annals of moral philosophy called the Trolley Problem and the Footbridge Problem. [For a review of Greene’s research, click here.]
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What is going on in the brain when people mull over these different scenarios? Thinking through cases like the Trolley Problem—what Greene calls an impersonal moral dilemma as it involves no direct violence against another person—increases activity in brain regions located in the prefrontal cortex that are associated with deliberative reasoning and cognitive control (so-called executive functions). This pattern of activity suggests that impersonal moral dilemmas such as the Trolley Problem are treated as straightforward rational problems: how to maximise the number of lives saved. By contrast, brain imaging of the Footbridge Problem—a personal dilemma that invokes up-close and personal violence—tells a rather different story. Along with the brain regions activated in the Trolley Problem, areas known to process negative emotional responses also crank up their activity. In these more difficult dilemmas, people take much longer to make a decision and their brains show patterns of activity indicating increased emotional and cognitive conflict within the brain as the two appalling options are weighed up.
Greene interprets these different activation patterns, and the relative difficulty of making a choice in the Footbridge Problem, as the sign of conflict within the brain. On the one hand is a negative emotional response elicited by the prospect of pushing a man to his death saying “Don’t do it!”; on the other, cognitive elements saying “Save as many people as possible and push the man!” For most people thinking about the Footbridge Problem, emotion wins out; in a minority of others, the utilitarian conclusion of maximising the number of lives saved.
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While there is a growing consensus that the moral intuitions revealed by moral dilemmas such as the Trolley and Footbridge problems draw on unconscious psychological processes, there is an emerging debate about how best to characterise these unconscious elements.
On the one hand is the dual-processing view, in which “hot” affectively-laden intuitions that militate against personal violence are sometimes pitted against the ethical conclusions of deliberative, rational systems. An alternative perspective that is gaining increased attention sees our moral intuitions as driven by “cooler,” non-affective general “principles” that are innately built into the human moral faculty and that we unconsciously follow when assessing social behaviour.
In order to find out whether such principles drive moral judgements, scientists need to know how people actually judge a range of moral dilemmas. In recent years, Marc Hauser, a biologist and psychologist at Harvard, has been heading up the Moral Sense Test (MST) project to gather just this sort of data from around the globe and across cultures.
The project is casting its net as wide as possible: the MST can be taken by anyone with access to the internet. Visitors to the “online lab” are presented with a series of short moral scenarios—subtle variations of the original Footbridge and Trolley dilemmas, as well as a variety of other moral dilemmas. The scenarios are designed to explore whether, and how, specific factors influence moral judgements. Data from 5,000 MST participants showed that people appear to follow a moral code prescribed by three principles:
• The action principle: harm caused by action is morally worse than equivalent harm caused by omission.
• The intention principle: harm intended as the means to a goal is morally worse than equivalent harm foreseen as the side-effect of a goal.
• The contact principle: using physical contact to cause harm to a victim is morally worse than causing equivalent harm to a victim without using physical contact.
Crucially, the researchers also asked participants to justify their decisions. Most people appealed to the action and contact principles; only a small minority explicitly referred to the intention principle. Hauser and colleagues interpret this as evidence that some principles that guide our moral judgments are simply not available to, and certainly not the product of, conscious reasoning. These principles, it is proposed, are an innate and universal part of the human moral faculty, guiding us in ways we are unaware of. In a (less elegant) reformulation of Pascal’s famous claim that “The heart has reasons that reason does not know,” we might say “The moral faculty has principles that reason does not know.”
The notion that our judgements of moral situations are driven by principles of which we are not cognisant will no doubt strike many as implausible. Proponents of the “innate principles” perspective, however, can draw succour from the influential Chomskyan idea that humans are equipped with an innate and universal grammar for language as part of their basic design spec. In everyday conversation, we effortlessly decode a stream of noise into meaningful sentences according to rules that most of us are unaware of, and use these same rules to produce meaningful phrases of our own. Any adult with normal linguistic competence can rapidly decide whether an utterance or sentence is grammatically valid or not without conscious recourse to the specific rules that determine grammaticality. Just as we intuitively know what we can and cannot say, so too might we have an intuitive appreciation of what is morally permissible and what is forbidden.
Marc Hauser and legal theorist John Mikhail of Georgetown University have started to develop detailed models of what such an “innate moral grammar” might look like. Such models usually posit a number of key components, or psychological systems. One system uses “conversion rules” to break down observed (or imagined) behaviour into a meaningful set of actions, which is then used to create a “structural description” of the events. This structural description captures not only the causal and temporal sequence of events (what happened and when), but also intentional aspects of action (was the outcome intended as a means or a side effect? What was the intention behind the action?).
With the structural description in place, the causal and intentional aspects of events can be compared with a database of unconscious rules, such as “harm intended as a means to an end is morally worse than equivalent harm foreseen as the side-effect of a goal.” If the events involve harm caused as a means to the greater good (and particularly if caused by the action and direct contact of another person), then a judgement of impermissibility is more likely to be generated by the moral faculty. In the most radical models of the moral grammar, judgements of permissibility and impermissibility occur prior to any emotional response. Rather than driving moral judgements, emotions in this view arise as a by-product of unconsciously reached judgements as to what is morally right and wrong
Hauser argues that a similar “principles and parameters” model of moral judgement could help make sense of universal themes in human morality as well as differences across cultures (see below). There is little evidence about how innate principles are affected by culture, but Hauser has some expectations as to what might be found. If the intention principle is really an innate part of the moral faculty, then its operation should be seen in all cultures. However, cultures might vary in how much harm as a means to a goal they typically tolerate, which in turn could reflect how extensively that culture sanctions means-based harm such as infanticide (deliberately killing one child so that others may flourish, for example). These intriguing though speculative ideas await a thorough empirical test.
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Although current studies have only begun to scratch the surface, the take-home message is clear: intuitions that function below the radar of consciousness are most often the wellsprings of our moral judgements. . . .
Despite the knocking it has received, reason is clearly not entirely impotent in the moral domain. We can reflect on our moral positions and, with a bit of effort, potentially revise them. An understanding of our moral intuitions, and the unconscious forces that fuel them, give us perhaps the greatest hope of overcoming them.
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To read the entire article, click here. To reaad some related Situationist posts, see “Quick Introduction to Experimental (Situationist?) Philosophy,” and “Pinker on the Situation of Morality.”