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Thursday, July 7, 2016

Moral Psychology: An Introduction

A family’s dog was killed by a car in front of their house. They had heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog’s body and cooked it and ate it for dinner. Is this wrong?
Most, in answering this question, would ramble for a couple minutes, ask if dog-meat is even edible, and finally stumble over a response along the lines of: No, along as no one was harmed. It’s an answer that abides by most of the unwritten, ethical codes of Western society, but still—for most—feels wrong.

This phenomenon—people’s gut dissenting from their brain—is one of the main interests of the field of moral psychology, and it is exactly what the fictional situation above was designed to evoke. This story of a family eating their dog is a creation of Jonathan Haidt, professor of social psychology at NYU and author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012). His work and the ideas that flow from it will be the cornerstone of this three-part series on moral psychology.


Moral Psychology is a field of study that attempts to blend philosophy and psychology in order to understand morality, or—stated another way—it is a quasi-scientific approach to ethics. In the first chapter of his book, Haidt outlines the interesting history of the topic and its growth from developmental psychology to a full-fledged field of research.

Originally, as a subfield of developmental psychology, moral psychology was concerned with the question: Where do Children get morality? It was a fairly straightforward question and had some fairly straightforward answers that most of us are familiar with: nature or nurture. 

If you held to the nature side of things, you would be classified as a nativist, because you believe that morality is inherent (native) to us as human beings. It’s in our genes, or it’s a God-given gift, or something like that. If you’re on the other side of things and you prescribe to nurture, you’d be an empiricist and you’d likely claim that all of our morality is imprinted on us from outside, environmental forces (like parents and society).

At some point, though, developmental psychology was shaken up by superstar-psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg who posited that children figure out morality themselves. His view is called the rationalist model and it was assumed by psychologists around the world for decades.

Haidt rejects these approaches—chiefly, rationalism—as not reflecting normal human experience. To make his point, he tells this story:
A man goes to the supermarket once a week and buys a dead chicken. But before cooking the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he thoroughly cooks it and eats it.
As with the first story, when Haidt and his associated read this scenario to others, subjects usually react with disgust. I’d be concerned if you didn’t too. People could, of course, rationalize themselves to accept such an event—no one was hurt; everything’s all right. But this clearly was not right. Rationalism could not be the answer.

Standing on the shoulders of great philosophers like David Hume, Haidt offers an alternative moral model: intuition over rationality. Our moral discernment, according to Haidt, is based in our intuitive, subconscious reactions, and we simply defend those post hoc with rationality.

To illustrate this model, he offers the example of an elephant and its rider. While the rider has a moderate ability to steer and clearly looks like it as at the head, the elephant is in complete control to go whichever way it sees fit.


This sort of ethical decision-making has since been demonstrated in multiple studies, but few as acutely as the two scenarios put together by Haidt and his assistant Scott Murphy. In their first study, Scott asked atheists to sell their soul for $2. The contract they were asked to sign ended with the sentence, “It is NOT a legal or binding contract, in any way” and the subjects were told they could even rip up the contract after the experiment. Still, only 23% of participants were willing to sign without any goading. In their second study, Scott that asked subjects to drink apple juice that had come into contact with a cockroach but had been thoroughly sterilized. Only 37% were willing to take a sip of the roach-juice.

As I said, this intuition-over-rationality model is now the prevailing ideology in psychology, and it seems to hold water. It appears that, truly, people make their decisions in their gut and back it up with their brain. They may reason themselves to a different decision, but that is not where their morality really lies.

All of this can be a little scary. In fact, for religious people, the entire field of moral psychology can feel a little threatening. It conjures up doubts and leads people to question basic assumptions. We encounter men like Edward O. Wilson who ask if human rights truly exist on some “cosmic shelf” ready to be discovered, or do we hear of the terrors of the world and defend our fear by constructing the illusion of rights. Moral psychology has the power to strip away our foundational beliefs about humanity.

But it also has a special ability—one I hope to explore in the following posts for this series—that can lead us to better understand the complex psychē that God has given us, and how it truly works, apart from any assumptions we may have brought to the table.
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