Monday, September 17, 2007

The Problem with Moral Psychology

Anyone could write this post, and what I’m going to say is nothing new to any student of philosophy, but it is for all that an important point and a little repetition can’t hurt.

I’m talking about this article, which enlists some of the current insights of moral psychology into the cause of urging civility upon the ‘New Atheists.’ Moral psychology—as far as I can tell—is the study of people’s moral motivations and understandings. The author—Johnahtan Haidt—argues that the field has changed dramatically over the past twenty years. Previously the discipline had been dominated by Kohlberg and Gilligan, both of whom placed the focus of moral psychology on overt or conscious reasoning processes—for Kohlberg, reasoning about justice and fair treatment, for Gilligan, deliberating about care. Now, however, moral psychologists are much more likely to investigate the motivations behind our moral behavior by looking at the brain, at our evolutionary prehistory, and at our evolutionary cousins.

Haidt summarizes the results of this change with four principles: first, intuition precedes cognition. Most of our decisions and beliefs are made in an affective flash, which overt deliberation then justifies post hoc. Hence, the reasons people verbalize as being the motivations for their actions, decisions or beliefs are mostly just the detritus of nonconscious processes. Second, moral thinking is not Truth- or Right-Tracking, but rather has the purpose of social doing, and has survived because it is socially useful. Third, moral thinking functions to define and preserve group identity, and hence collective action. Finally, moral thinking is about more than justice (Kohlberg; Kant) and harm (Gilligan; Mill), but is about also at least loyalty, authority, and purity.

So far, so good. I have no problem with any of this; in fact, I find interdisciplinary adventurism, when done with sophistication and conscientiously, completely commendable.

But then there are passages like this--from someone who ought to know better:

“[The new approach focuses] on the emotive centers of the brain as biological adaptations. Wilson even said that these emotive centers give us moral intuitions, which the moral philosophers then justify while pretending that they are intuiting truths that are independent of the contingencies of our evolved minds.”

Or again: “Josh Greene has a paper in press where he uses neuroscientific evidence to reinterpret Kantian deontological philosophy as a sophisticated post-hoc justification of our gut feelings about rights and respect for other individuals.”

Or: “Greene used fMRI to show that emotional responses in the brain, not abstract principles of philosophy, explain why people think various forms of the "trolley problem" (in which you have to choose between killing one person or letting five die) are morally different.”

Passages like these—with clauses impugning moral philosophers as mere ‘pretenders,’ as outdated and nonscientific, as too abstract—are not necessary. They suggest a belief that moral psychology, rather than complementing moral philosophy, is about to replace it. And that is just silly.

Let me make some obvious points. First off, moral philosophers are not just ‘pretending’ that moral truths are independent of the contingency of our evolved minds. There is good reason to think that they are so, just like every other sort of truth. No doubt humans have a tendency to anthropmorphize, and when this results in thinking that the weather is really out to get you, you are making a mistake. But to reduce all of our moral intuitions and theories to irrelevant expiations of our psychological hang-ups is surely just as much of a mistake. Humans are amazing creatures, and the fact that we can construct theories about not only nature but about how we ought to treat one another is a feature that deserves serious scientific investigation. But this fact gets us nowhere in deciding whether these theories are in fact true or not.

Secondly, there are many reasons to be suspicious of Kant’s moral philosophy, but to dismiss it as ‘a sophisticated post hoc justification of our gut feelings’ is certainly not one of them. By this reasoning, Einstein’s relativity theory could be read as ‘sophisticated post hoc justification’ of his ‘gut reaction’ against the stifling atmosphere of Viennean academic physics. This might even be true, but it is hardly of any importance to relativity theory. Just so for Kant.

Finally, ‘why’ people think and act the way they do can be answered in any number of ways, and to think that moral psychology has discovered the ‘true’ why is not only wildly plausible, but wrong. Socrates realized this more than two thousand years ago when he realized that, in a certain sense, ‘why’ he was in jail about to be executed was because of his flesh and bones, but according to another ‘why,’ these flesh and bones were absolutely irrelevant. This is among the oldest and most-tried distinctions in all of philosophy, and it has stuck around so long I presume because it is probably correct. And of course it is likely that we have certain phylogenetically inbred moral tendencies, or at least psychological tendencies that inform our moral deliberations and theories. But this is much like we have more of a tendency to group dots together when they are arranged vertically rather than horizontally, or we have tendency to see the two lines of the Müller-Lyon illusion as being of unequal length. But what does any of this have to do with morality? To make the analogy, certainly the Müller-Lyon illusion has a lot to suggest about how we happen to perceive the world, but it has nothing to say about whether the two lines are in fact equal or not. Similarly, moral psychology might have a lot to say about why there is a tendency to override our attitudes towards justice when dealing with strangers or foreigners, but it has little or nothing to say about how we ought to treat foreigners.

Oh, in case you are still wondering what any of this has to do with the new atheists: Haidt argues that the ‘new atheists’—Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens—while decrying the atavistic and violent behaviors and passions that religious belief both underwrites and perpetuates, in fact display the same sort of Pleistocene moral sentiments and strategies that everyone else, including the religious among us, exhibit. Haidt is surely right about this, but I’m not sure what the point is: is Haidt arguing that Harris, Dawkins, and company are really sort of religious after all? Or is he just pointing out the obvious, which is that they rely upon the same neurological and anthropological architecture as that which underlies their ostensible opponents? Hence, because of this, there really is no difference between the two positions? The failure of Haidt I think to say anything of substance, really, in this debate is just one illustration about the failure of moral psychology in general to say anything substantive about morality itself.


  1. An interesting topic.

    I am not sure if this relates much to your post, but I was reading an article that divided my discipline (international relations) into two different fields. The first was the rational tradition, who focused tended to be on individualism and the rational subject. The second was the irrational trend, who felt there are deeper (unconscious) systems in the world. The importance of this trend is they ask the important question of why people desire their own repression. This can take the form of Lacanian, Freudian, and Deleuzian (and other) approaches to the unconscious.

    Maybe this is part of the new trend in moral philosophy, which is aiming for deeper understanding of how morality is produced as part of systems of desire. This argues that morality may not just be the creation of the free will of the autonomous human subject. The desire for morality is then a crucial phenomenon for study.

  2. At the present time there, there is less and less true civilization left in the world.

    The civilizing principles that allow human functioning to demonstrate the dispostion of PRIOR UNITY, which is the fundamental source of all true morality, have already been destroyed, especially as a result of the terrible course of the twentieth century, and beginning with World War I in particular. World War I and World War II were, effectively, the self-destruction of global civilization (such as it was). As a result of those two happenings (and much more since), nothing but consumer ego-"culture" remains, and the consequent human devastation.

    The one dimensional amoral consumer was celebrated as Time Magazines person of the year last year.

    The present-time human world is fragmented and stupefied, utterly misled by the grossest kind of deluded thinking about "reality". The mass populations of the world are being seduced by the absurdities of "consumerism". It is utter emptiness.

    The global state of humankind is absurd and dark. Everybody is asllep. People do not truly realize the scale of the disaster that IS happening and that we (all of us) are ACTIVELY DOING this disaster, and that we (collectively) can STOP doing the disaster.

    Nothing can possibly stop the disaster except the force of the whole, the inherent integrity of the whole in its prior (at heart) unity. That is the only happening that will righten (and enlighten) the darkness of the human world.

    The current "tribal" disunity simply cannot be allowed to go on any longer, or humankind will self-dstruct. THat is what humankind does in its disunity. It objectifies virtually everything and everyone, tries to control virtually everything and everyone, and (then) will destroy everything and everyone. The "objectification-game" happened long ago. The "control-game" is already in motion. And the "destruction-game" is now in process. At some advanced moment, not necessarily too far into the future, the destruction phase will come to a terminal point---unless this dreadful cycle is stopped.

    What creates objectification to begin with? The presumption of separativeness. The presumption of non-unity, ego, separate "self", separate "point of view". If you bring "absolute points of view" together in the same room, they will automatically create this "objectification, control, and destruction" game.

    It is interesting how this "objectification" anti-"culture" is celebrated by Rand and her disciples as an "advanced" form of human "culture"!!!

  3. Hi Mark,

    Yea, I think that is related. But I would say that the Lacanians, Freudians, Deleuzians, even Foucauldians--they do not claim that reason is simply irrelevant to morality. They argue that reasoning about morality necessarily involves suppression, identification, fantasy structures, etc. In other words, the still operate at the level of rational deliberation and rational normativity, but they claim that there is more to this field than just rationality. The moral psychologists, in contrast, seem to just ignore the rational altogether, and intpreret not only human moral intuitions, tendencies and beliefs but morality itself, moral theory, as just another natural phenomenon. That is what I find implausible, and unnecessary. Basicallly I just don't see moral psychology or moral philosophy as needing to step on each other's toes.

  4. It is kind of weird that a century after psychologism in mathematics was more or less decisively refuted, people are doing it in moral philosophy. I suspect it´s just a return to moral subjectivism--the point of claims like the ones you quote isn´t that moral philosophy is just stupidly justifying reactions that we have as a result of evolution, but that those reactions are all there is to our moral judgments, i.e., that there are, properly speaking, no moral judgments but only feelings. Not exactly a new view.

  5. There definitely are moral judgements to be made. All of the time in fact.
    The question to ask is where is the source of true moral virtue?

    True moral virtue is only to be found at the inherently egoless ROOT-CONTEXT of prior unity with the inherent power and energy of the self-organising priniciple that "governs" the universe. Universe meaning one, whole and indivisible.

    The trouble is that all conventional models of what we are as human beings are "profoundly" reductive in there mis-understanding. They all make too little of Man with a capital M.

    Thus crippled by these wisdom-less flawed presumptions about Truth and Reality we find it impossible, even absurd, to exercise any clarity about all and everything. We havent even begun to do and practice True Philosophy yet,or make anything even remotely like a Truly Human culture. We are beasts in the wilderness cut off from our sustenance at the Heart.

    Quite simply, Wisdom of any kind does not prevail in our "culture". Our entire "culture" is irrefutable evidence of this absence. Even the horrors of the Twentieth Century have made no difference to our myopia. Indeed in our dreadful "sanity" we are all busily creating the next series of monumental horrors---which will most probably destroy us all.

    There is one Reality, one Truth. Every human being is ultimately responsible for this Truth. The alternative to responsibility is not human ordinariness but irresponsibility or human failure.

    We are, regardless of our personal and present state of knowledge about the natural mechanics of the world, ALWAYS responsible for our right relationship to the various conditions of experience, to the beings with whom we exist in this world, and to the World-Process as a whole. RELATIONSHIP is inherently and perpetually a matter of individual responsibility, founded in the intuition of the prior unity of existence-being, prior to the objectifying anal-ytical mind.

  6. anonymous 1,

    i feel ya....Battlefield Earth really spoke to me, too...

  7. To address one line of argument in your post, it seems to me that the point of the Müller-Lyon (ML) illusion is precisely that the two lines are in fact equal; that is, it does seem to “say something about” whether or not the lines are equal.

    A defender of moral psychologism might then point out that we only know the ML illusion to be illusory because through experiment and logic we are able to deduce implied contradictions between the appearance of the lines in certain contexts and their measured lengths. Since we take their measured lengths to be more objective in the sense that they are constant across time and people, we call the appearance of the lines in the ML context an “illusion.”

    With morality, though, what is the other, “objective” sense in which any given moral judgement can be shown to be in contradiction? The apparent lack of one suggests to many that morality is purely subjective.

    --Yobro, SS