Moral Instinct

19 February 2010

Two years ago Steven Pinker wrote an intriguing piece in the New York Times entitled The Moral Instinct. Dr. Pinker is a Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University who conducts research on language and cognition. This article in many ways stirred me and lead to a paradigm shift in my thinking about morality. I am a cognitive behavioral psychologist and my training regarding moral development looked at morality as a rationally driven developmental process (Piaget & Kohlberg). In other words, it was believed that morality developed as one’s cognitive capacity to think advanced. It also helped me to get more comfortable with letting go of the notion that religion is the sole driver of morality in society.

 

Pinker’s article is a long one and I cannot do it justice here, but I want to share some of his major arguments.

 

Morality is a complex concept shaped by evolution, neurobiology, and culture. Pinker states that “Moral goodness is what gives each of us the sense that we are worthy human beings. We seek it in our friends and mates, nurture it in our children, advance it in our politics and justify it with our religions. A disrespect for morality is blamed for everyday sins and history’s worst atrocities. To carry this weight, the concept of morality would have to be bigger than any of us and outside all of us.” Looking at morality from a scientific perspective causes concern in those who hold the view that it is sacred and the unique domain of religion. Regardless, Pinker urges us to step back and look at it in a systematic way. Much research has been conducted on the concept and he touches on the most important findings that have shaped the modern understanding of this topic.

 

Moral judgment it seems is a “switch” on a continuum of valuations we make about other’s or our own behavior. We may judge a behavior as imprudent, unfashionable, disagreeable, or perhaps immoral. The switching point on that continuum, where judgments are made that deem a behavior immoral, is in some cases universal (e.g., rape and murder); however, the line is not so clear about other acts. For example there are individuals who today may flip the switch of immoral judgment when looking at someone eating meat (e.g., an ethical vegetarian), using paper towels, shopping at Walmart, or even smoking. The zeitgeist (accepted standard of conduct and morality), certainly does shift over time. Pinker notes “…. many behaviors have been amoralized, switched from moral failings to lifestyle choices. They include divorce, illegitimacy, being a working mother, marijuana use and homosexuality. Many afflictions have been reassigned from payback for bad choices to unlucky misfortunes.” And he adds “This wave of amoralization has led the cultural right to lament that morality itself is under assault, as we see in the group that anointed itself the Moral Majority. In fact there seems to be a Law of Conservation of Moralization, so that as old behaviors are taken out of the moralized column, new ones are added to it. Dozens of things that past generations treated as practical matters are now ethical battlegrounds, including disposable diapers, I.Q. tests, poultry farms, Barbie dolls….. Food alone has become a minefield, with critics sermonizing about the size of sodas, the chemistry of fat, the freedom of chickens, the price of coffee beans, the species of fish and now the distance the food has traveled from farm to plate.

 

The root of these moralzations are not rational he argues. When people are pressed for the reasons why they find a particular behavior morally repugnant they struggle. Pinker discusses Jonathon Haidt’s research that suggests that people do not engage in moral reasoning; rather they engage in moral rationalization. According to Pinker, Haidt contends that “they begin with the conclusion, coughed up by an unconscious emotion, and then work backward to a plausible justification.” Again when pressed for justification for their judgment of certain behaviors as immoral “many people admit, “I don’t know, I can’t explain it, I just know it’s wrong.”

 

So, morality may not be a cognitive developmental progression. Well alright then, but where does it come from? Research is building toward substantiating that there are genetic implications – suggesting that it may very well be instinctual. Pinker contends “According to Noam Chomsky, we are born with a “universal grammar” that forces us to analyze speech in terms of its grammatical structure, with no conscious awareness of the rules in play. By analogy, we are born with a universal moral grammar that forces us to analyze human action in terms of its moral structure, with just as little awareness.” If this is the case then a moral sense should be universal, and in fact there appear to be five universal morals that transcend all cultures. Again reflecting Haidt’s research Pinker lists “… harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity — and suggests that they are the primary colors of our moral sense. Not only do they keep reappearing in cross-cultural surveys, but each one tugs on the moral intuitions of people in our own culture.”

 

If we accept that morals are in fact universal and instinctual, then how do we come to terms with the blatant discrepancies seen across cultures? Pinker contends that culture itself is the culprit. How the five spheres are ranked in terms of importance, in and across cultures, accounts for these differences. Pinker notes:

Many of the flabbergasting practices in faraway places become more intelligible when you recognize that the same moralizing impulse that Western elites channel toward violations of harm and fairness (our moral obsessions) is channeled elsewhere to violations in the other spheres. Think of the Japanese fear of nonconformity (community), the holy ablutions and dietary restrictions of Hindus and Orthodox Jews (purity), the outrage at insulting the Prophet among Muslims (authority). In the West, we believe that in business and government, fairness should trump community and try to root out nepotism and cronyism. In other parts of the world this is incomprehensible — what heartless creep would favor a perfect stranger over his own brother?

 

The cultural divide that exists today in the United States makes sense when we look at it from this perspective. Pinker writes:

“The ranking and placement of moral spheres also divides the cultures of liberals and conservatives in the United States. Many bones of contention, like homosexuality, atheism and one-parent families from the right, or racial imbalances, sweatshops and executive pay from the left, reflect different weightings of the spheres. In a large Web survey, Haidt found that liberals put a lopsided moral weight on harm and fairness while playing down group loyalty, authority and purity. Conservatives instead place a moderately high weight on all five. It’s not surprising that each side thinks it is driven by lofty ethical values and that the other side is base and unprincipled.”

 

 

When you compound these moralistically different vantage points with other common errors of thought (e.g., confirmation bias, fundamental attribution error), and a lack of rules of engagement, it is no wonder that our (US) political system is so paralyzed.

 

Pinker delves into the neurological factors associated with morality and the evolutionary evidence and arguments for an instinctual morality. He reviews several important studies that provide evidence for these hypotheses. But, he argues that morality is more than an inheritance – it is larger than that. It is contextually driven. He notes: “At the very least, the science tells us that even when our adversaries’ agenda is most baffling, they may not be amoral psychopaths but in the throes of a moral mind-set that appears to them to be every bit as mandatory and universal as ours does to us. Of course, some adversaries really are psychopaths, and others are so poisoned by a punitive moralization that they are beyond the pale of reason. ” He further contends “But in any conflict in which a meeting of the minds is not completely hopeless, a recognition that the other guy is acting from moral rather than venal reasons can be a first patch of common ground. One side can acknowledge the other’s concern for community or stability or fairness or dignity, even while arguing that some other value should trump it in that instance.

 

Pinker closes with:

Our habit of moralizing problems, merging them with intuitions of purity and contamination, and resting content when we feel the right feelings, can get in the way of doing the right thing. Far from debunking morality, then, the science of the moral sense can advance it, by allowing us to see through the illusions that evolution and culture have saddled us with and to focus on goals we can share and defend.

 

Again this comes down to getting away from intuitive thinking when it comes to important and complex issues. This not so simple, but very doable step, continues to stymie the best among us.

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