The Emerging Moral Psychology

Dan Jones writes on The Emerging Moral Psychology in April’s Prospect Magazine, an article I came across through The Situationist. He could just have easily called it the emerging moral neuroanthropology, for here is his opening, “Philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, economists, primatologists and anthropologists, all borrowing liberally from each others’ insights, are putting together a novel picture of morality… 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’.”

Jones takes us through “hot morality,” morality guided by intuitions and emotions and not universal laws, drawing on the work of Jonathan Haidt. Then we get “the tale of two faculties,” highlighting the dual processing view (emotion and cognition) of Joshua Greene. Finally we get “A Moral Grammar” via Marc Hauser. Hauser gives us a moral code based on three principles derived from 5000 people who have taken the Moral Sense Test worldwide via Internet (no snarky comments as Greg might say):

• 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.”

Jones then gives us a long take on Hauser’s work with John Mikhail covering how a moral grammar might work. It’s the most interesting piece of the article. While I don’t agree with the innate stance per se (Lakoff‘s embodiment can give us much the same thing in this case), the focus on processes and components is important.

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.

Just as an innate, universal grammar for languages doesn’t entail that all people will speak the same language, the idea of a universal moral grammar should not be taken to imply that systems of ethics will be the same the world over. For example, the grammar for language might say that all grammatical sentences must contain a subject, a verb and an object, but leave open which order they must appear in. So some languages, such as English, settle on a subject–verb–object order, and others, such as Japanese, on subject–object–verb.

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.

A full account of our moral psychology will also have to explain the variation in people’s moral intuitions. Why do a minority of people think it is morally permissible to push the man in the Footbridge dilemma? Part of the answer is that people are likely to differ in the way their brains balance up affective or emotional responses with rational calculations. Such differences could result from as yet unidentified genetic factors or aspects of the environment and culture that tweak a common universal set of moral foundations.

Jones then turns to “Moral Cultures,” noting first that social norms and the structures of social life can shape morality but not going too far beyond the statement “Morality is a social phenomenon.” He then turns to Richard Shweder’s work on the three overlapping domains of morality worldwide: “the ethics of autonomy (individual rights and fairness), community (respects for tradition, authority and group loyalty) and divinity (sanctity and purity of the soul).”

Rather than exploring the rich anthropological and psychological synthesis Shweder brings us (here‘s one relevant essay), we get Haidt’s five-domain expansion: “the world’s diverse moralities are built on top of five psychological foundations, each primed to detect and react emotionally to transgressions or violations of different moral concerns: harm to, and care, of individuals; justice and fairness; in-group loyalty; respect for authority/tradition; and issues of purity and sanctity.”

No such morality article today could be complete without some in-fighting between liberals and conservatives. So here we’ve got the (almost) ending:

There is also evidence that the different moral structures built on the universal five foundations are related to different emotional dispositions of conservatives and liberals. Recent work by David Pizarro and Yoel Inbar of Cornell University, in collaboration with Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University, has explored how the morally charged emotion, disgust, which is frequently evoked by transgressions in the domain of purity, relates to these competing social orientations. The researchers found that the more disgust sensitive a person is, the more likely they are to hold conservative views on a range of social issues. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this link was strongest for the hot-button topics of abortion and gay marriage, views on which are heavily affected by attitudes to bodily purity.

Paul Rozin’s work on disgust (both embodied and sociocultural) might have given us a better model to think of disgust as something neuroanthropological, and how disgust then links to morality. Still, in the end, the Jones piece strikes me as marking several steps forward from how sociobiology and evolutionary psychology might take on morality. But the main assumption of innate/evolved/hard-wired hampers the overall impact of the research, just as the lack of appreciation of how anthropological processes reach even into the things that we might think of as basic components. If technically we know how to manipulate the genetics of plants for agricultural effect, then culturally we know how to manipulate the brains of people for moral effect. It just happens that this process is just as “unconscious” as a lot of the psychology discussed by Jones.

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