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Morality: where it came from, where it gets us

May 17, 2007
Courtesy University of Virginia
and World Science staff

How much mon­ey would it take to get you to stick a pin in­to your palm? How much to stick it in­to the palm of a child you don’t know? How much to slap a friend in the face (with his or her per­mis­sion) as part of a com­e­dy skit? What about if your fa­ther took the place of the friend?

How you an­swer such ques­tions may say some­thing about your mo­ral­i­ty, even your pol­i­tics. Con­ser­va­tives, for in­stance, tend to care more about is­sues of hi­er­ar­chy and re­spect; lib­er­als fo­cus more on car­ing and fair­ness. 

Clash­ing mor­al views un­der­lie many vi­o­lent con­flicts, Haidt ar­gues. 


Sci­en­tists are reach­ing a new con­sen­sus on how mo­ral­i­ty orig­i­nat­ed and how it works, ac­cord­ing to psy­chol­o­gist Jon­a­than Haidt of the Un­i­ver­si­ty of Vir­gin­ia in Char­lottes­ville, Va. 

Haidt penned a re­view of the sub­ject to ap­pear in the May 18 is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Sci­ence. Un­der­stand­ing mo­r­a­lity, he ar­gued, might help peo­ple see why dis­putes over mo­ral­i­ty leads to vi­o­lent con­flicts glob­al­ly—and learn to re­solve such clashes.

“We are sur­rounded by mor­al con­flicts, on the per­sonal lev­el, the na­tion­al lev­el and the in­ter­na­tion­al lev­el,” Haidt said. “Re­cent sci­en­tif­ic ad­vanc­es in mor­al psy­chol­o­gy can help ex­plain why these con­flicts are so pas­sion­ate and so in­trac­ta­ble. An un­der­standing of mor­al psy­chol­o­gy can al­so point to some new ways to bridge these di­vides, to ap­peal to hearts and minds on both sides.”


Ev­o­lu­tion­ary, neu­ro­lo­g­i­cal and social-psy­cho­log­i­cal in­sights are con­verg­ing on an ac­count of mor­al rea­son­ing based on three prin­ci­ples, Haidt claimed:
  • Emo­tions and gut feel­ings gen­er­al­ly drive our mor­al judg­ments.

  • We en­gage in mor­al rea­son­ing not to learn the truth, but to win oth­ers over to our view­point.

  • Mo­ral­i­ty was cru­cial for the ev­o­lu­tion of hu­man ultra-sociality, which lets us live in large, high­ly co­op­er­a­tive groups. Gos­sip was al­so cru­cial; it’s the ve­hi­cle through which we seek to win over oth­ers, again us­ing mor­al rea­son­ing.

To­geth­er, these prin­ci­ples force us “to re-evaluate many of our most cher­ished no­tions about our­selves,” said Haidt, whose own re­search has found that peo­ple gen­er­al­ly fol­low their gut feel­ings and make up mor­al rea­sons af­ter­wards. (You can take a short test of your mor­al in­tu­itions at www.yourmorals.org).

“S­ince the time of the En­light­en­ment,” Haidt said, “phi­loso­phers have cel­e­brat­ed the pow­er and vir­tue of cool, dis­pas­sion­ate rea­son­ing. Un­for­tu­nate­ly, few peo­ple oth­er than phi­loso­phers can en­gage in such cool, hon­est rea­son­ing when mor­al is­sues are at stake. The rest of us be­have more like lawyers, us­ing any ar­gu­ments we can find to make our case, rath­er than like judg­es or sci­en­tists search­ing for the truth. This does­n’t mean we are doomed to be immor­al; it just means that we should look for the roots of our con­si­der­able vir­tue else­where.” 

Haidt ar­gues that mo­ral­i­ty is a cul­tur­al con­struct built on, and con­strained by, a hand­ful of evolved psy­cho­log­i­cal sys­tems. Lib­er­als re­ly main­ly on two of these, in­volv­ing emo­tion­al sen­si­tiv­i­ty to harm and fair­ness. Con­ser­va­tives draw on these two, plus three more: sen­si­tiv­i­ty to in-group bound­aries, au­thor­i­ty and spir­it­u­al pu­r­ity.

“We all start off with the same evolved mor­al ca­pac­i­ties,” said Haidt, “but then we each learn on­ly a sub­set of the avail­a­ble hu­man vir­tues and val­ues. We of­ten end up de­mon­iz­ing peo­ple with dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal ide­olo­gies be­cause of our in­a­bil­i­ty to ap­pre­ci­ate the mor­al mo­tives op­er­at­ing on the oth­er side of a con­flict.”

* * *

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How much money would it take to get you to stick a pin into your palm? How much to stick it into the palm of a child you don’t know? How much to slap a friend in the face (with his or her permission) as part of a comedy skit? What about if your father took the place of the friend? How you answer such questions may say something about your morality, even your politics. Conservatives, for instance, tend to care more about issues of hierarchy and respect; liberals focus more on caring and fairness. Scientists are reaching a new consensus on how morality originated and how it works, according to psychologist Jonathan Haidt of the Un iversity of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. Haidt authored a review of the subject to appear in the May 18 issue of the research journal Science. Getting to the bottom of this, he argued, might help people un derstand why disagreements over morality leads to violent conflicts globally—and how to resolve such clashes. Evolution ary, neurological and social-psychological insights are converging on an account of moral reasoning based on three principles, he claimed: Emotions and gut feelings generally drive our moral judgments. We engage in moral reasoning not to learn the truth, but to win over others to our point of view. Morality was crucial for the evolution of human ultra-sociality, which lets us live in large, highly co op erative groups. Gossip was also crucial; it’s the vehicle through which we seek to win over others, again using moral reasoning. Together, these principles force us “to re-evaluate many of our most cherished notions about ourselves,” said Haidt, whose own research has found that people generally follow their gut feelings and make up moral reasons afterwards. (You can take a short test of your moral intuitions by visiting www.yourmorals.org). “Since the time of the Enlightenment,” Haidt said, “philosophers have celebrated the power and virtue of cool, dispassionate reasoning. Un fortunately, few people other than philosophers can engage in such cool, honest reasoning when moral issues are at stake. The rest of us behave more like lawyers, using any arguments we can find to make our case, rather than like judges or scientists searching for the truth. “This doesn’t mean we are doomed to be immoral; it just means that we should look for the roots of our con siderable virtue elsewhere—in the emotions and intuitions that make us so generally decent and co op erative, yet also sometimes willing to hurt or kill in defense of a principle, a person or a place.” Haidt argues that morality is a cultural construct built on, and constrained by, a handful of evolved psychological systems. Liberals rely mainly on two such systems, involving emotional sensitivities to harm and fairness, he explained. Conservatives draw on these two, plus three more: emotional sensitivities to in-group boundaries, authority and spiritual purity. “We all start off with the same evolved moral capacities,” said Haidt, “but then we each learn only a subset of the available human virtues and values. We often end up demonizing people with different political ideologies because of our inability to appreciate the moral motives operating on the other side of a conflict. “We are surrounded by moral conflicts, on the personal level, the national level and the inter national level. The recent scientific advances in moral psychology can help explain why these conflicts are so passionate and so intractable. An un derstanding of moral psychology can also point to some new ways to bridge these divides, to appeal to hearts and minds on both sides.”