Experimental results are beginning to shed light on the psychological foundations of our moral beliefsby Dan Jones / April 27, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
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—the highest stages of moral development are reached when people are able to reason about abstract general principles, such as justice, fairness and the Kantian maxim that individuals should be treated as ends and never as means.
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.