Moral intuitions as evolutionary modules

People have moral reactions to the situations they observe around themselves — within the work environment, in the family, on the street, or in international affairs. This is a psychological fact that is prior to moral philosophy. How should we understand this feature of ordinary human consciousness and cognition?

Jonathan Haidt is a moral psychologist who has some fairly original ideas on this subject. His most recent book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, attempts to lay out a theory of moral psychology that puts moral intuition and judgment ahead of conscious moral reasoning, and independent from the content of what we refer to as moral philosophy.

Moral philosophers often take their cue from Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy, according to which moral judgment is a conscious process of reasoning. Haidt suggests a very different way of understanding our moral reactions — as intuitions more similar to sensations of taste than considered rational judgments based on principles and facts. In fact, he identifies six “moral taste receptors”: harm, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity (kl 103). Essentially, our moral intuitions about a complex situation stem from the degree to which these “receptors” are triggered by features of the situation. And the moral reaction comes first, whereas the moral reasoning and arguments come after the fact.

Haidt also works within the intellectual framework of evolutionary biology — the idea that the enduring traits of a species are the result of a long process of innovation, selection, and adaptation, governed by the selective reproductive success created by the trait. This puts him in roughly the same intellectual space as the sociobiologists; but his approach has much greater sensitivity to the nuances of moral intuitions and dispositions than scientists like E. O. Wilson have shown (On Human Nature: Revised Edition). (It should be noted that Haidt praises Wilson’s work on human nature and evolutionary psychology; kl 655.)

I’ve used the term “moral emotions” here, but Haidt actually prefers something else: moral intuitions. He describes his view as “social intuitionism.” Intuitions are the quick judgments we come to about situations before we have time to think them through in a cognitive fashion. Disgust is a paradigm intuition: the quick revulsion we have at the idea of drinking a glass of blended cockroaches and fruit juice is prior to any rational concerns we might eventually have about health effects. The basic premise is this:

Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. (kl 989)

Haidt offers six principles of moral intuition and thought based on experimental findings:

  1. Brains evaluate instantly and constantly.
  2. Social and political judgments are particularly intuitive.
  3. Our bodies guide our judgments.
  4. Psychopaths reason but don’t feel.
  5. Babies feel but don’t reason.
  6. Affective reactions are in the right place at the right time in the brain.

If moral reactions have an intuitive-cognitive basis, then it is natural to ask how these reactions are structured and classified. Haidt offers this interesting preliminary classification of the “moral modules” and their triggers in our moral intuition system:

This is a very interesting presentation of the dimensions of moral intuition: care/harm; fairness/cheating; loyalty/betrayal; authority/subversion; and sanctity/degradation. Each pair has a potential role to play in the early evolutionary history of hominids as social organisms: protecting and caring for children, securing cooperation with others, forming coalitions, forming hierarchies, and avoiding toxic contamination. And, finally, Haidt suggests how these characteristics relate to a set of virtues: kindness, fairness, loyalty, deference, and temperance, for example. (Only “liberty” is omitted from his original list of the moral receptors provided above.)

This topic is of interest here for several reasons. One is the straightforward interest that we all have in understanding better where moral reactions come from. But the other is a more theoretical interest: to have a broader set of ideas about how consciousness and action work in real human beings. Haidt offers a clear and in some ways testable theory of how moral emotions and intuitions interact with rational deliberation, and this is a valuable contribution to the theory of the actor that we so plainly need in the social sciences.

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