May 28, 2007
Moral Reasoning Done To Justify Intuitions?

People reach moral judgments intuitively and then create rationalizations to explain their subconscious conclusions.

In a review to be published in the May 18 issue of the journal Science, Jonathan Haidt, associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, discusses a new consensus scientists are reaching on the origins and mechanisms of morality. Haidt shows how evolutionary, neurological and social-psychological insights are being synthesized in support of three principles:

1) Intuitive primacy, which says that human emotions and gut feelings generally drive our moral judgments;

I see a lot of moral rationalizing where people try to come up with rational arguments to justify moral judgments they made for other reasons. How can I tell? When presented with flaws in logical reasoning about morality most people try to restructure their logic to keep the same conclusion rather than change to a different conclusion.

It perhaps says something about the lingering effects of the Enlightenment period in the West that most people feel a need to construct rational-sounding arguments to justify their moral beliefs. Or maybe the rationalizing serves the primary purpose of building arguments to persuade others?

2) Moral thinking if for social doing, which says that we engage in moral reasoning not to figure out the truth, but to persuade other people of our virtue or to influence them to support us; and

I agree with this point:

3) Morality binds and builds, which says that morality and gossip were crucial for the evolution of human ultrasociality, which allows humans - but no other primates - to live in large and highly cooperative groups.

It is worth noting in this context that people who join political parties choose most of their political positions after they join their party. They find out from other members what position they should take on a variety of issues. My interpretation: Political parties are like tribes and people behave in them in ways similar to how earlier humans behaved in tribes. People choose a political party which seems to share some values and styles of cognition. Then they demonstrate loyalty to their political tribe by subscribing to its myths.

"Putting these three principles together forces us to re-evaluate many of our most cherished notions about ourselves," says Haidt, whose own research demonstrates that people generally follow their gut feelings and make up moral reasons afterwards.

Well, it only forces some of us to re-evaluate. Others are happy to ignore anything that challenges the myths they want to believe.

Conservatives have more subsystems in their moral processing brain centers.

Haidt argues that human morality is a cultural construction built on top of - and constrained by - a small set of evolved psychological systems. He presents evidence that political liberals rely primarily on two of these systems, involving emotional sensitivities to harm and fairness. Conservatives, however, construct their moral understandings on those two systems plus three others, which involve emotional sensitivities to in-group boundaries, authority and spiritual purity.

When offspring genetic engineering becomes possible I expect parental choices to produce bigger differences in how people morally reason. Conservative-leaning people will make their children morally reason even more strongly in the conservative style. The liberals will do likewise. So the size of the center will shrink. This will lead to deeper political divisions and perhaps civil war in some countries and wars between countries.

I also expect offspring genetic engineering to produce more other styles of moral reasoning including ones that are rare today and others that do not exist at all today. Who knows, maybe genetic engineering will move libertarianism up in the ranks of moral reasoning styles.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 May 28 04:19 PM  Brain Ethics Law


Comments
James Bowery said at May 29, 2007 1:09 AM:

Anthony Burgess, author of the book "A Clockwork Orange" was the artist in residence while I was in the undergraduate program at the Iowa City Writer's Workshop back in 1974. I think he based his book on the work of Jose M.R. Delgado, M.D. published under the book with the damn spooky title: "Physical Control of the Mind: Toward a Psychocivilized Society".

I managed to get a copy of the book finally, and discovered wonderful passages such as the following on page 115:

ESB [electrical stimulation of the brain -- JAB] may evoke more elaborate responses. For example, in one of our patients, electrical stimulation of the rostral part of the internal capsule produced head turning and slow displacement of the body to either side with a well-oriented and apparently normal sequence, as if the patient were looking for something. This stimulation was repeated six times on two different days with comparable results. The interesting fact was that the patient considered the evoked activity spontaneous and always offered a reasonable explanation for it. When asked, "What are you doing?" the answers were, "I am looking for my slippers," "I heard a noise," "I am restless," and "I was looking under the bed." In this case it was difficult to ascertain whether the stimulation had evoked a movement which the patient tried to justify, or if an hallucination had been elicited which subsequently induced the patient to move and to explore the surroundings.

This passage is eerily reminiscent of a passage from Richard Dawkins' "The Extended Phenotype" chapter titled "Host Phenotypes of Parasite Genes":

"Many fascinating examples of parasites manipulating the behavior of their hosts can be given. For nematomorph larvae, who need to break out of their insect hosts and get into water where they live as adults, '...a major difficulty in the parasite's life is the return to water. It is, therefore, of particular interest that the parasite appears to affect the behavior of its host, and "encourages" it to return to water. The mechanism by which this is achieved is obscure, but there are sufficient isolated reports to certify that the parasite does influence its host, and often suicidally for the host... One of the more dramatic reports describes an infected bee flying over a pool and, when about six feet over it, diving straight into the water. Immediately on impact the gordian worm burst out and swam into the water, the maimed bee being left to die' (Croll 1966)."

My question is: How much of our "moral reasoning" is the expression of extended phenotypes?

Looking around at a lot of "moral reasoning" among the politically correct, it seems more like the bee than a hypocritical religious authority getting his rocks off with his devotees.

Bob Jenkins said at June 1, 2007 10:47 AM:

Habits are things you can do automatically. They can be orders of magnitude faster and easier than figuring things out from scratch. Intuitive thinking, near as I can tell, is thinking by habit. Ideally you developed those habits in the first place for a reason, so you ought to be able to go back and reconstruct the reasons your intuition tells you something. If you give reasons for intuitive thinking, they're reconstructed. If your reconstructed reasoning turns out to be wrong, is the habit wrong? Or did you make a mistake in reconstructing the reasons? Both are possible. It's better to check for mistakes in the reconstruction first, because discarding habits is very expensive.

I agree though that if habits themselves turn out to be what is flawed, and better habits are known, habits should be changed.

Doug said at June 2, 2007 1:27 PM:
People reach moral judgments intuitively and then create rationalizations to explain their subconscious conclusions.
It seems understanding of anything starts off as nonverbal or non-logical understanding. Before there can be an articulation, there has to be something to articulate; whatever that is, it seems it must be thus-far inarticulate. As for our determining courses of action by means other than verbal reasoning, it seems that what's remarkable is instead whatever little role is given to verbal reasoning. On an evolutionary account, animals determined their courses of action for tens of millions of years without recourse to speech, and it seems primates supplemented their tribal political life for millions of years with logoi no more sophisticated than cries and gestures. When the members of an animal species, then, develop speech, it seems they had better not give up the faculties of judgment that natural selection, death, has been refining in them for tens of millions of years. They'd better not make themselves slaves to some predicate calculus, if they want to go on living.
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