Tuesday, October 10, 2006

moral intuitions and their dumbfounding

Jonathan Haidt, doodle filched from The Believer mag website

With mixed feelings I'm going to turn my back for a while on such current political matters as the murder of the courageous journalist Anna Politkovskaya by those loyal to the corrupt Putin regime, the plight of the Chechnyan people she highlighted, the multiple failures of the war on terror, the sufferings of the Palestinians in Gaza, the proposed sanctions on North Korea etc etc. I’ve decided to focus instead on some of the work on moral philosophy and psychology I’ve been reading. I feel strangely guilty about this turning of the back, as if I’m betraying various causes, even though I have no readers and am obviously making no difference. I can console myself with the point that there’s never a propitious time to give global politics a rest…

‘One forms half the conclusions of one’s life without any distinct knowledge that the premises have even passed through one’s mind,’ wrote Anthony Trollope in his 1860 novel Framley Parsonage, and it seems an unexceptional comment. Others might well argue that the number of ‘conclusions’, if they can be called such, that we form on an essentially unconscious level, would constitute considerably more than half of the total.

It all begs the question – how do we form our conclusions, or our opinions and judgments? Do we make our aesthetic judgments in much the same way as we make our moral judgments, or are the processes by which we arrive at different types of judgment themselves quite different?

A number of theories and positions have been developed on these questions, but the work of Jonathan Haidt, a prominent social and moral psychologist, has struck me as more convincing than most. Here’s an interesting quote from him (the source is here):

I think whatever is true of aesthetic judgment is true of moral judgment, except that in our moral lives we do need to justify, whereas we don’t generally ask others for justifications of aesthetic judgments.

According to Haidt’s social intuitionist model, we don’t generally arrive at moral conclusions through a process of reasoning, though reasoning (or rationalisation) is essential in justifying our already-arrived-at judgments, to ourselves as well as others. He describes reasoning as the ‘press secretary’ of our moral intuitions, engaging in ex-post-facto spin-doctoring. He backs up this view with a rich body of experimental evidence, in which subjects are told ‘morally challenging’ stories and asked to comment about the rightness or wrongness of the actions in the stories. The stories include an act of incest between a brother and a sister, the eating of their pet dog by a family after it has been killed in an accident, and a man who regularly masturbates with a chicken carcass before cooking it. The details of the stories indicate that no physical harm is done to any living being by these actions, and there are no nasty hidden consequences (for example the act of incest, which is a one-off, is performed using a condom, and the female is taking the pill). Many subjects naturally respond negatively to these stories, but struggle, on reflection, to find adequate justification for their censure, a process Haidt calls ‘moral dumbfounding’.

So where does Haidt think these moral intuitions come from? You might’ve already guessed, but I’ll write about that in my next post.


pavlov's cat