Will the Real Moral Judgment Please Stand Up?

The Implications of Social Intuitionist Models of Cognition for Meta-ethics and Moral Psychology

Abstract

The recent, influential Social Intuitionist Model of moral judgment (Haidt, Psychological Review 108, 814–834, 2001) proposes a primary role for fast, automatic and affectively charged moral intuitions in the formation of moral judgments. Haidt’s research challenges our normative conception of ourselves as agents capable of grasping and responding to reasons. We argue that there can be no ‘real’ moral judgments in the absence of a capacity for reflective shaping and endorsement of moral judgments. However, we suggest that the empirical literature indicates a complex interplay between automatic and deliberative mental processes in moral judgment formation, with the latter constraining the expression and influence of moral intuitions. We therefore conclude that the psychological literature supports a normative conception of agency.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    We acknowledge that talk about ‘our’ concept of moral judgment is ambiguous between the concept actually held by the folk or a version that refines and systematises elements of the folk concept. Perhaps we could test the first empirically by doing a survey but we think it unlikely that this will deliver a clear answer. The accounts we favour do the second. As one of us has argued elsewhere (Kennett 2006) we think the concept that makes best sense of moral practices which are universal—of offering justifications, excuses, and of holding responsible—is expressed in the platitude that moral requirements have the status of reasons.

  2. 2.

    We set aside a number of concerns about the dumbfounding experiments and Haidt’s interpretation of the results here but see Kasachkoff and Saltzstein (2008) and Kennett (forthcoming).

  3. 3.

    Haidt might not agree that his theory is emotivist but we think that his interpretation of public moral ‘reasoning’ as a process by which exposure to the responses of others may evoke new intuitions in us as clearly consistent with the emotivist claim that a function of moral judgment is to influence the feelings of others. Haidt has argued against charges of emotivism, noting that the moral intuitions on which moral judgments are thought to be based are not purely affective (Haidt and Bjorkland 2007b). However, our understanding of the SIM is that the moral judgment is based largely on the affective, evaluative component of the intuition.

  4. 4.

    Hierarchical views like Frankfurt’s have been criticised on a number of grounds. It is not immediately clear, for example, that second order desires need be a product of reflection—they might just happen to us—or that reflection will issue in second order, rather than first order desires. Frankfurt however clearly takes reflection be essential to personhood. He says “ it is only in virtue of his rational capacities that a person is capable of becoming critically aware of his own will” (pp. 11–12). It is critical reflection on his desires that constitutes him as a person rather than a wanton. If this is right then a mere hierarchy of cognitive states will not do the trick. Controlled processes which take as their subject the question of where the agent herself should stand on a particular issue will be required.

  5. 5.

    Jones (2003, p.194) argues persuasively that “the commitment to rational guidance is the commitment to the on-going cultivation and exercise of whatever abilities it is that enable the agent to have and display the capacities that are characteristic of reason-responders.” She thinks that these capacities will include various kinds of emotional responsiveness. In this respect we interpret her as providing an account of ideal rational agency.

  6. 6.

    Psychopaths are also deficient in self-regulatory capacities but unlike Haidt we think these capacities require the kind of reflective self-awareness that is central to rationalist and sophisticated sentimentalist accounts.

  7. 7.

    For more detailed arguments supporting this general conclusion see Fine and Kennett (2004), Kennett (2002, 2006) and Kennett and Matthews (2007).

  8. 8.

    Their impairments in empathy differ from those of the psychopath. Blair (1996) has shown that autistic children are somewhat sensitive to others’ distress (emotional empathy) even though they have great difficulty with perspective taking (cognitive empathy). In addition, recent research with adult populations with Asperger’s syndrome finds that although they are impaired in cognitive empathy, they score similarly to neurotypical controls on measures of emotional empathy (Dziobek et al. 2008; Rogers et al. 2007).

  9. 9.

    This example also cited in Kennett (2002).

  10. 10.

    We are not suggesting here that intuition plays no role whatsoever in the process of moral reasoning in the case of autistic individuals. Perhaps Sinclair’s initial realisation that he should do something was in the nature of an intuition. But in this case it is plain that there is a reliance on explicit controlled processes in order to resolve a puzzle and reach a practical conclusion about what ought to be done. Moreover the process of reflection is reflexive, it does involve taking oneself to be responsive to reasons and Sinclair sees his efforts in this light.

  11. 11.

    We believe this is consistent with the view held by Jones and also argued for in Bennett (1974) and Kennett (2001) that conflict between sympathy and considered judgments should sometimes prompt a reconsideration of the judgments themselves since we are not omniscient about value and our sympathies are often (though not infallibly) reason tracking. Such reconsiderations are part and parcel of ideal reasons responsiveness. Huck Finn clearly fell short of this ideal in making his moral judgments, nevertheless it seems reasonable to assume that his ‘real’ moral judgments were the judgments for which he could provide an explicit (though no doubt flawed) justification and with respect to which he regarded himself as weak.

  12. 12.

    While it might be argued that such correction requires external promptings rarely found outside the laboratory we would disagree. We do often draw each other’s attention to mood as influencing our judgments and we often correct for mood unprompted. It is not uncommon for people to explain judgments and actions which they reflectively disavow in terms of the contaminating effects of emotion etc. “I was too angry (tired, upset, down, excited). I didn’t mean it”.

  13. 13.

    The study found complex and somewhat unexpected interactions between private versus public setting, motivation to control prejudiced responses, and implicit attitudes.

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Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank Neil Levy, Edward Hare, and audiences at the Australasian Association of Philosophy Conference 2007, Monash University, Radboud University and the University of Oxford for helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper. The authors acknowledge the support of the Australian Research Council for this project. We thank audiences at the Australasian Association of Philosophy Conference 2007 and at Monash University, Radboud University, and the University of Oxford for stimulating and helpful discussions. We owe particular thanks to Neil Levy and an anonymous referee for forcing us to clarify our argument at a number of points.

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Kennett, J., Fine, C. Will the Real Moral Judgment Please Stand Up?. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 12, 77–96 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-008-9136-4

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Keywords

  • Meta-ethics
  • Moral judgment
  • Automatic processing
  • Moral intuitions
  • Moral agency
  • Reason-responding
  • Reason-tracking