We perceive our moral judgments as grounded in principled reason. Cognitive science shows our reasons are less principle than public relations. (More)

The Righteous Mind, Part I: How We Judge

This week Morning Feature explores Jonathan Haidt’s new book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Today we examine how we make moral judgments, and the respective roles of conscious reasoning and unconscious intuition. Tomorrow we’ll consider why we make moral judgments, and why we evolved to seek affirmation over truth. Saturday we’ll see the different moral models of progressives, conservatives, and libertarians, and how we can better discuss our differing moral judgments.

Jonathan Haidt earned his Ph.D in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. He is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, where his research includes applied social psychology, culture, ethics, and social cognition. Dr. Haidt was the principal developer of moral foundations theory, and is presently a visiting professor teaching business ethics at New York University. He also authored The Happiness Hypothesis, published in 2006.

A Man and His Chicken

Consider this hypothetical story from the opening chapter:

A man goes to the supermarket once a week and buys a chicken. But before cooking the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he cooks and eats it. He lives alone and no one else knows he does this. Is this morally wrong?

Dr. Haidt suggests that progressive or libertarian Westerners usually give nuanced answers. They admit the man’s act is disgusting, yet recognize that the chicken is already dead and no one else knows about the act. The man is strange, but he is free to do as he wishes in the privacy his home, as long as he doesn’t harm anyone. Yet Dr. Haidt also notes that conservative Westerners – and most non-Westerners – will disagree. They will argue that the man is morally wrong, even if he hasn’t harmed anyone, even if no one else knows what he does, because the act itself is inherently immoral.

Why do progressive or libertarian Westerners usually give different answers for this example than conservatives and non-Westerners? The answer lies in culture, and in how and why we make moral judgments.

The Elephant and the Rider

Recall how you felt as you read that hypothetical story. As you reached the end of the second sentence, you probably felt a flash of disgust. The third sentence may have pushed disgust into physical revulsion. You may have swallowed hard, as if to stop the vomit reflex. Perhaps you even felt that reflex. You had probably decided you did not like the man.

Then came the question: “Is he morally wrong?” Upon reading that, you may have begun a conversation in your mind. You began conscious reasoning, weighing your disgust against other factors – the chicken was already dead, he lives alone, no one else knows – based on moral principles such as harm and personal liberty. Having completed that process, you made a moral judgment. Or at least that’s how you experience it.

Dr. Haidt offers readers the metaphor of an elephant and a rider. The elephant is your unconscious mind, what Daniel Kahneman calls System 1. The rider is your conscious reasoning, what Kahneman calls System 2. The elephant makes immediate decisions, often without our awareness. The rider is your conscious mind, forming feelings and fragments of ideas into logical thoughts.

We imagine the rider as the pilot, looking at the path ahead, evaluating conditions and consequences, and steering the elephant based on analysis and reason. Most ethicists and philosophers back to the time of Plato have said that’s how our minds should work. And because we like to believe we think well, we think that’s how our minds do work.

The Press Secretary

Yet cognitive science now shows the rider is the elephant’s press secretary, not its pilot. That conscious reasoning you used to weigh your disgust against other factors and moral principles was not you rider making a decision of whether the man in the story was morally wrong. It was your rider a seeking a story to justify a decision your elephant already made.

Evidence for this includes neuroscientist Antonio Damasio‘s work with people who had suffered damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain behind and slightly above the bridge of the nose. People who suffer such damage will have no emotional reaction to a photo of kittens cuddling with a ball of yarn, or to a photo of a mutilated body. They can’t hear the elephant of their unconscious minds, but the rider of conscious reasoning still works. Given a situation and a set of options, they can forecast possible outcomes and list the benefits and risks. Yet even having done that conscious reasoning, most people who suffer from damage to the VMPFC find it almost impossible to make even simple choices. They lose their jobs and often their families. Dr. Damasio’s research strongly suggests that emotions are essential to making decisions. Conscious reasoning can list the pros and cons of alternative options, but unless we feel something about those pros and cons … we can’t decide.

Based on this and several other studies – see my comment below – Dr. Haidt concludes that while the rider can prepare an issue brief, only the elephant can make a decision. The elephant uses parts of the brain and cognitive processes that evolved over hundreds of millions of years. The rider is comparatively recent, having evolved as our hominid ancestors began to develop speech. The elephant interacts with the world around us. The rider tells stories about the elephant and the world.

In Dr. Haidt’s model, the first task of conscious reasoning is not to seek objective truth, but to justify your intuitive decisions to yourself. Its next task is to justify those decisions to others. If they agree, the elephant is happy. If they disagree – and if their agreement matters to the elephant – the rider looks for another story. If the rider can’t find any story justifying that decision that others accept, the elephant may make a different decision … and the rider will tell a story to explain that change-of-mind.

And because your elephant knows our cultural ideal is of the rider-as-pilot, your elephant lets your rider be the star of its own stories. You tell yourself a story of making decisions by conscious reasoning – and you believe that story – because you know other people are more likely to accept those stories.

Tomorrow we’ll discuss why your rider evolved to be a press secretary rather than a scientist, and why we evolved to make moral decisions.

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Happy Thursday!