Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Moral Intuition

The New York Times reported yesterday on some of Jonathan Haidt's work on the evolutionary roots of human morality. Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, wrote about some of his research in the Spring/Summer 2005 issue of Greater Good.

The Times piece discusses Haidt's interest in "the phenomenon of moral dumbfounding--when people feel strongly that something is wrong but cannot explain why."
Dumbfounding led him to view morality as driven by two separate mental systems, one ancient and one modern, though the mind is scarcely aware of the difference. The ancient system, which he calls moral intuition, is based on the emotion-laden moral behaviors that evolved before the development of language. The modern system — he calls it moral judgment — came after language, when people became able to articulate why something was right or wrong.

In exploring our moral intuitions, Haidt has identified five components of morality that are common to most cultures. Two--preventing harm to others and reciprocity/fairness--concern treatment of individuals. The other three promote behaviors geared toward strengthening one's group: loyalty to the in-group, respect for authority and hierarchy, and a sense of purity or sanctity. The article goes on to explain the political dimension of some of the research Haidt has conducted with a grad student, Jesse Graham:
They found that people who identified themselves as liberals attached great weight to the two moral systems protective of individuals — those of not harming others and of doing as you would be done by. But liberals assigned much less importance to the three moral systems that protect the group, those of loyalty, respect for authority and purity. Conservatives placed value on all five moral systems but they assigned less weight than liberals to the moralities protective
of individuals.

Haidt makes some pretty provocative claims about the relationship between moral intuitions and political beliefs. I'd be curious to see how he gauged people's opinions of these different moral systems. It seems to me there's a chance that liberals might actually "attach greater weight to moral systems protective of individuals," and assign less importance to group interests like respect for authority, simply because they self-identify as liberals. That is, as liberals, they know they're supposed to demonstrate a preference for individual rights and have a knee-jerk reaction against words or concepts (like "loyalty" and "authority" ) that are associated with conservatives, especially with the current administration). Real-world political allegiences might bias their responses and misrepresent these people's true moral beliefs and behaviors.

Either way, the Times piece, and Haidt's website, are worth checking out. For more on the evolutionary basis of our moral judgments, check out the work of Joshua Greene at Harvard, which I blogged about a few months back.