Search This Blog

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Defense of Ethical Intuitionism--Part Five

This is the fifth in a series on Ethical Intuitionism (part one, part two, part three, and part four). In my view, moral intuitions are like axioms in mathematics. They are "givens," self-evident facts that serve as a starting point from which other statements are logically derived. One has to start somewhere. One must have certain assumptions that are deemed to be right morally before one can build a superstructure of moral theory. These "starting points," or "axioms," or "intuitions," are apparently something that we born with. We don't have to be taught them, we don't have to defend them, they are universally recognized as true or right. What does this particular theory of morals have to do with my de-conversion from evangelical Christianity? See this post for the answer.

In the last post on this topic, I mentioned the work of anthropologists Richard Shweder and Alan Fiske who surveyed people across the globe and came up with a set of moral intuitions that virtually all peoples agreed on. University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt grouped these intuitions into five categories:

1.Care for others, protecting them from harm. (He also referred to this dimension as Harm.)

2.Fairness, Justice, treating others equally.

3.Loyalty to your group, family, nation. (He also referred to this dimension as Ingroup.)

4.Respect for tradition and legitimate authority. (He also referred to this dimension as Authority.)

5.Purity, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions.

He evaluated people's responses to the following hypotheticals:

Stick a pin into your palm.
Stick a pin into the palm of a child you don’t know. (Harm.)

Accept a wide-screen TV from a friend who received it at no charge because of a computer error.
Accept a wide-screen TV from a friend who received it from a thief who had stolen it from a wealthy family. (Fairness.)

Say something bad about your nation (which you don’t believe) on a talk-radio show in your nation.
Say something bad about your nation (which you don’t believe) on a talk-radio show in a foreign nation. (Community.)

Slap a friend in the face, with his permission, as part of a comedy skit.
Slap your minister in the face, with his permission, as part of a comedy skit. (Authority.)

Attend a performance-art piece in which the actors act like idiots for 30 minutes, including flubbing simple problems and falling down on stage.
Attend a performance-art piece in which the actors act like animals for 30 minutes, including crawling around naked and urinating on stage. (Purity.)

In each pair, the second action feels far more repugnant. Most of the moral illusions we have visited come from an unwarranted intrusion of one of the moral spheres into our judgments. A violation of community led people to frown on using an old flag to clean a bathroom. Violations of purity repelled the people who judged the morality of consensual incest and prevented the moral vegetarians and nonsmokers from tolerating the slightest trace of a vile contaminant. At the other end of the scale, displays of extreme purity lead people to venerate religious leaders who dress in white and affect an aura of chastity and asceticism
(Pinker, "The Moral Instinct").

According to Pinker, these intuitions are a result of evolutionary development. He writes:
The five spheres are good candidates for a periodic table of the moral sense not only because they are ubiquitous but also because they appear to have deep evolutionary roots. The impulse to avoid harm. . . can also be found in rhesus monkeys, who go hungry rather than pull a chain that delivers food to them and a shock to another monkey. Respect for authority is clearly related to the pecking orders of dominance and appeasement that are widespread in the animal kingdom. The purity-defilement contrast taps the emotion of disgust that is triggered by potential disease vectors like bodily effluvia, decaying flesh and unconventional forms of meat, and by risky sexual practices like incest.

The other two moralized spheres match up with the classic examples of how altruism can evolve that were worked out by sociobiologists in the 1960s and 1970s and made famous by Richard Dawkins in his book “The Selfish Gene.” Fairness is very close to what scientists call reciprocal altruism, where a willingness to be nice to others can evolve as long as the favor helps the recipient more than it costs the giver and the recipient returns the favor when fortunes reverse. The analysis makes it sound as if reciprocal altruism comes out of a robotlike calculation, but in fact Robert Trivers, the biologist who devised the theory, argued that it is implemented in the brain as a suite of moral emotions. Sympathy prompts a person to offer the first favor, particularly to someone in need for whom it would go the furthest. Anger protects a person against cheaters who accept a favor without reciprocating, by impelling him to punish the ingrate or sever the relationship. Gratitude impels a beneficiary to reward those who helped him in the past. Guilt prompts a cheater in danger of being found out to repair the relationship by redressing the misdeed and advertising that he will behave better in the future (consistent with Mencken’s definition of conscience as “the inner voice which warns us that someone might be looking”). Many experiments on who helps whom, who likes whom, who punishes whom and who feels guilty about what have confirmed these predictions.

Community, the very different emotion that prompts people to share and sacrifice without an expectation of payback, may be rooted in nepotistic altruism, the empathy and solidarity we feel toward our relatives (and which evolved because any gene that pushed an organism to aid a relative would have helped copies of itself sitting inside that relative). In humans, of course, communal feelings can be lavished on nonrelatives as well. Sometimes it pays people (in an evolutionary sense) to love their companions because their interests are yoked, like spouses with common children, in-laws with common relatives, friends with common tastes or allies with common enemies. And sometimes it doesn’t pay them at all, but their kinship-detectors have been tricked into treating their groupmates as if they were relatives by tactics like kinship metaphors (blood brothers, fraternities, the fatherland), origin myths, communal meals and other bonding rituals.
While these five moral intuitions seem to be a result of evolution, how they are applied practically depends on the sociology of the group. Pinker explains:

All this brings us to a theory of how the moral sense can be universal and variable at the same time. The five moral spheres are universal, a legacy of evolution. But how they are ranked in importance, and which is brought in to moralize which area of social life — sex, government, commerce, religion, diet and so on — depends on the culture. 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 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.

Reassigning an activity to a different sphere, or taking it out of the moral spheres altogether, isn’t easy. People think that a behavior belongs in its sphere as a matter of sacred necessity and that the very act of questioning an assignment is a moral outrage. The psychologist Philip Tetlock has shown that the mentality of taboo — a conviction that some thoughts are sinful to think — is not just a superstition of Polynesians but a mind-set that can easily be triggered in college-educated Americans. Just ask them to think about applying the sphere of reciprocity to relationships customarily governed by community or authority. When Tetlock asked subjects for their opinions on whether adoption agencies should place children with the couples willing to pay the most, whether people should have the right to sell their organs and whether they should be able to buy their way out of jury duty, the subjects not only disagreed but felt personally insulted and were outraged that anyone would raise the question.
This series to be continued.


  1. Agreed 100% that there a "universal human" morality, and then a set of things that vary by culture.

    Cialdini was the first one I read who pointed out some of the funny cross-cultural differences. Speaking of, there was a recent paper published that critiques the homogeneity of the sample population used in many behavioral economics experiments:

  2. Ken,

    I think it's great you're exploring this area. I believe its inclusion is important in this blog's focus area, which in turn is vital to our society's healthy development, as well as our personal growth. I've not read the works you are citing, nor researched the area much, and value your contributions, summaries, etc. (as on virtually all your posts).

    I would like to relate this topic to one other: developmental stage theories. Particularly, I think it will be fascinating and rewarding for anyone not familiar with his work, to look into Ken Wilber. I know his "Integral Spirituality" is closely pertinent, though much broader than just about moral intuition or morality issues. I've not read many of his numerous other books, so am speaking specifically about this one. In it he summarizes and correlates most of the leading "stage theorists" or "structuralists" of the last century or so. Some of them emphasize only one or two of his "lines," such as cognitive or spiritual, and part of his contribution is charting and correlating them all into quite a comprehensive picture of personal and societal development.

    For our purposes here, Kohlberg on moral development is one of the kind of stage theorists he refers to.

    The related point I'd also like to make is that I appreciate and support the effort to take naturalistic (specifically evolutionary, but possibly other) explanations as far as possible in accounting for the moral sense and its universality. However, I don't think doing so should (or actually does) restrict us from exploring possible "spiritual" factors being involved as well. That certainly does not throw us automatically back to solely the Bible or any "revealed" or "supernatural" source. (I like the term "natural spirituality" to demonstrate that both a "one-tier" or unified concept of reality AND a spiritual dimension to that can exist together.)

  3. This blog has so many high-quality posts, Ken. You definitely need some posts that act as series indexes, and then one post linked at the top right of the page that is a table of contents for these index posts. Like on my site.