Misfires of Moral Psychology

Over the past decade there has been a sea change in the way we assess moral reasoning, judgment, and behavior. The old view, developed and championed largely by introspective philosophers, was that people actually reason about choices before making decisions that have moral or ethical impacts. While some decisions are in fact made this way, it is often the case that moral judgments are made instantaneously and intuitively. These kinds of snap moral decisions are then justified or rationalized, but only after the fact. People are not, in other words, mini-Kants or model-Rawls when it comes to certain kinds of moral judgments and behaviors.

This new perspective owes much to the work of moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt. He has been at the forefront of research into moral decision-making, which is grounded in evolutionary theory. Because people have been living in groups for hundreds of thousands of years, it really isn’t surprising that prosocial or “moral” behaviors are often the result of intuition or snap judgments that are later explained by recourse to reason. Humans are the most prosocial of primates and it would be surprising if this ability were not highly developed.

In recent years Haidt has extended these basic insights to politics and other domains (such as religion), where the terrain is much more uneven and confounded by modern culture. The ideas, in other words, have been extended and applied in ways that are questionable. In this recent article on Haidt from The Chronicle, the overextension is apparent.

After being asked how people came together to build cooperative societies beyond kinship, Haidt asserts that “morality” was the key:

A big part of Haidt’s moral narrative is faith. He lays out the case that religion is an evolutionary adaptation for binding people into groups and enabling those units to better compete against other groups. Through faith, humans developed the “psychology of sacredness,” the notion that “some people, objects, days, words, values, and ideas are special, set apart, untouchable, and pure.” If people revere the same sacred objects, he writes, they can trust one another and cooperate toward larger goals. But morality also blinds them to arguments from beyond their group.

If we take ethnohistoric hunter-gatherers for our model of how people formed larger and more cohesive groups in the ancient past, Haidt’s “morality” answer is patently wrong. These groups were held together by kinship ties first and by extended or fictive kinship second. Their “religions” (i.e., shamanisms) weren’t grounded in morals and weren’t much concerned with morals. While such groups had moral norms and ethical rules, these weren’t twined with supernaturalism and had an independent, non-spiritual basis.

Large communities held together by religion-faith-morals are a recent development in human history, no more than a few thousand years old. The kind of community that Haidt describes is a post-Neolithic formation that has its origins in the Axial Age. So does the idea that religion is a matter of “faith.” These are not ancient or evolutionary ideas. Moralizing gods and religions are relative newcomers to the supernatural world.

Haidt’s mistake here is a common one: observe modern or relatively recent cultural formations and then uncritically project them back into the ancestral or evolutionary past. This mistake has other consequences, which are evident in what Haidt calls “innate” or evolutionary moral foundations:  “care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.” These “innate” concerns sound suspiciously modern; I suspect at least a few are products of post-Neolithic and Western societies.

Todd Schorr's "Hunter Gatherer"

I’ve spent several years immersed in the ethnohistoric hunter-gatherer record and can’t recall much or any concern with liberty-oppression. This is the kind of concern that arises when you have centralized authority and government, which were absent for most of human history. Nor can I recall much concern for authority-subversion. Again, these kinds of concerns are related to centralized authority and government which didn’t exist in our hunting-gathering past. While hunting-gathering societies are concerned with ritual purity, translating this as sanctity-degradation has a distinctly Axial feel to it. Degradation, in particular, smacks of the Christian fall from grace.

Haidt’s “foundational morals” aren’t innate or universal. The list is provincial, limited in both time and space. Had Haidt tested his list against history or made cross-cultural comparisons, this would have been evident.

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8 thoughts on “Misfires of Moral Psychology

  1. Tim Dean

    I think you’re being fairly uncharitable towards Haidt. True, his foundations are contentious – and they ought to be challenged and scrutinised through further research. But his account of religion being significant in the evolution of morality – the cultural evolution, at least – is probably close to the truth.

    It may be that primitive hunter/gatherer groups didn’t employ religion as their moral core. Rather they may have adopted systematised supernaturalist accounts for other psychological reasons. However, once agriculture set in and group sizes increased “beyond kinship”, religion may have served an important role in binding large groups together, spreading social and moral norms and encouraging conformity with those norms.

    Philip Kitcher offers a similar account in his new book, The Ethical Project, where he says the innovation of an “unseen observer” to encourage conformity was an important enabler of mass society.

    Haidt’s account may be unrefined, but I think he’s aware of the issues you raise and he’s also particularly sensitive to cultural and temporal variation. I think he deserves a more charitable reading, with criticism that serves to refine and improve his views rather than dismiss them entirely.

  2. Cris Post author

    I’m not sure it is uncharitable, but perhaps the best way to decide is to look at a basic timeline or chronology of the evolution of morality.

    What we today call “moral” or ethical behavior has been around for a very long time. Although hominins surely were evolving “morality” (i.e., more intense sociality) in conjunction with their larger brains over millions of years, for the sake of discussion let’s give “morality” a more recent starting point. “Morality” surely flowered or took off in association with the signs of behavioral modernity we see during the Upper Paleolithic transition, which begins about 55,000 years ago. We can call this the point of “moral” liftoff.

    For the next 45,000 years of hunting-gathering, “morality” surely continued to develop and evolve. It did so without being based in “religion” or supernaturalism. Shamanisms aren’t focused on “moral” behaviors; they serve mostly epistemic and medical functions. Moral/ethical norms and behaviors during this long period time are primarily the product of kinship, whether actual or fictive.

    Around 12,000 years ago, the agricultural transition begins. It takes several thousand years for it to take hold and larger communities start appearing perhaps 8,000 years ago. Over the next 4,000 years these communities grow larger but do so without “moralizing” gods or moralizing religion. The earliest Mesopotamian religions aren’t grounded in morals but toward the close of the Mesopotamian era, they begin moving in this direction.

    Moralizing gods and religions appear perhaps 3,000 years ago (after large communities had already developed in many areas of the world), and become rather more common as a result of the Axial transition which began around 500 BCE. The idea that religion and morality are inextricably linked or imbricated takes hold only in a few societies, mostly in the West.

    Given this timeline, it is evident that “moral” behavior isn’t a product of modern, moralizing religions. With this in mind, it is careless and misleading to claim that “morality” evolved due to these recent and particularized kinds of religions. Such carelessness plays into a discourse which some religious scholars and religious organizations would like to see established as the dominant one.

    Haidt is playing right into this narrative or has fallen victim to it. Either way, he needs to be more careful about what he says and what he claims. I’m not sure his lab-based research will reveal any of these things; he needs to think harder about primate sociality, hominin sociality, hunter-gatherer sociality, and early Neolithic sociality. All this sociality is “moral” and “ethical” but not religious.

    Let’s not be blinded by the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic narrative which suggests that “morals” aren’t possible without God or the All-Seeing-Eye which Judges. This narrative also suggests that “morals” somehow became more refined or developed in conjunction with these new religions. Someone’s interests are being served by this discourse.

  3. J. A. Le Fevre

    On record as a proponent of ‘religion did (does) it’, I feel compelled to jump in. Reading the article linked makes J. H. look a bit dyslexic if not conflated on the question of morality. To wit: ‘Haidt sees morality as a “social construction” that varies by time and place.’ Verses: [Haidt] ‘made his name arguing that intuition, not reason, drives moral judgments.’ And: Haidt [proposes] ‘six innate moral foundations: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.’

    I don’t see these positions as contradictory so much as requiring mediation. Something he may do, if I knew him better.

    What little better I do know of his work suggests that at some level at least he is making the same mistake that has gone rather viral in academia, prompted by a John-Dylan Haynes experiment (discussed here:
    that has been misconstrued to challenge the existence of Free Will by the likes of Jerry Coyne (and many others):

    I can accept that Haidt’s ‘six moral foundations’ are innate, delivered by our biology. These, however, are biases, not decisions. The intuition he is credited of positing driving moral judgments, however is much more than innate, and incorporates as well reason and experience – understanding that most of that reason and all of that experience came before the fact of the decision. Athletes do their serious training before the main event, artists practice and rehearse before their sittings/performances. Humans do most of their reasoning before decisions are made – some of it years before (but reasoning done days or hours before has more impact, I suspect). The brain remembers this, and responds accordingly.

    Religion, I contend, brings leadership into the equation. Priests and shaman keep alive the myths, the rituals, rehearsed among all from birth: the community is trained and conditioned towards the decisions that make them more effective citizens.

  4. Cris Post author

    Nice points, though I wish to note that the role of the shaman is radically different from the role of the priest. The two are linked by the lowest of common denominators: supernatural specialists. Beyond this there isn’t much continuity, due primarily to the fact that the functions of idiosyncratic shamanisms are much different from the functions of systematic religions. The former arose more or less spontaneously due to ordinary brain-mind operations; the latter arose in conjunction with the needs of elites-rulers. The former weren’t needed to make small kinship groups prosocial and cohesive; the latter apparently were.

  5. J. A. Le Fevre

    Thanks. Agreed that there was a dramatic re-invention required to grow communities into cities/states.
    If I might urge you to consider a couple of other comments in the original post.

    C: ‘can’t recall much or any concern with liberty-oppression . . . degradation, in particular, smacks of the Christian fall from grace.’

    H/G are particularly concerned with reputation and honor. Degradation leads to ostracization, effectively an early death in most cases. This is closely tied to the ‘anti-cheating’ response so loved by game theory folks. And oppression would be death to their egalitarian structure, which is carefully, artfully negotiated. They show a lot of concern when their liberties gets challenged (see Boehm, ‘Hierarchy in the Forest’).

    C: ‘ … it is often the case that moral judgments are made instantaneously and intuitively.’
    Addressed in my last post: Snap decisions are made from a long integration of reason and experience. Whether we chose to rationalize them later or not.

    C: ‘While [traditional societies] had moral norms and ethical rules, these weren’t twined with supernaturalism and had an independent, non-spiritual basis.’
    I disagree, and think that if you look a bit closer at their myths you can see a lot of moralizing and behavior norm setting. Ditto for the pagan myths – many cultural anthropologists argue that nothing in traditional or pre-industrial societies is really un-twined from the supernatural. Mentioned on an earlier thread, but oral traditions have a very different feel to them from doctrinal texts, but they are moralizing, reinforcing of norms all the same.

  6. Cris Post author

    When “degradation” is used in a moral context, as Haidt uses it, it has much less to do with HG reputation and honor than it does with a sense of moral impurity or fouling. HG impurity doesn’t lead to being ostracized; it leads to bad luck or lower probability of success in any given endeavor.

    I would argue that the entire concept of “liberty” is Western and mostly out of place when discussing HGs. Without centralized authority, the concept of liberty doesn’t mean much. Liberty is an enlightenment construct and is the converse of oppression. In mostly egalitarian societies, liberty isn’t really a concern. There really wasn’t much oppression. If you don’t like a leader or faction, you vote with your feet.

    It’s simply a fact that HG “morals” and ethics aren’t grounded or based in their supernaturalism and I’m not much interested in arguing the point. The literature on this is huge and persuasive. Myths of course touch on moral-ethical themes, but the vast majority of morals-ethics are grounded in kinship and rules regarding treatment of kin and reciprocity.

  7. Kevin

    Equally important as his errors regarding the supposed evolutionary basis for religiosity – I think – are the entailments of Haidt’s position that moral decisions are often – if not always – in no way a result of reason and that therefore we should respect decisions based on snap judgements as much as we respect decisions based on reason.

    One of the entailments of this position is that philosophy has no use outside of the classroom. Unfortunately, this is an idea that seems to be gaining traction. See, for example, Stanley Fish’s article in the NY Times in which he states that “[Philosophy] is a special, insular form of thought and its propositions have weight and value only in the precincts of its game.”( http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/01/does-philosophy-matter/ )

    The above is the kind of thinking that makes me imagine Bertrand Russell rolling in his grave. And in the context of psychology, I know of no convincing argument against the idea – which Fish dismisses – that even when reason isn’t apparent, it may be working in the background, if perhaps in an unexamined way. Isn’t the concept of the subconscious still alive and well? And if, for example, you accept the dogmas of others without examining why, aren’t you ultimately accepting a belief system which is no doubt the result of the reasoning of others?

    And again on the topic of religion, perhaps it would do Haidt well to examine the extent to which philosophy (reason) has shaped religious doctrine.

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