The Origins of Morality
May 2007 Jonathan Haidt, associate professor of
psychology at the University of Virginia, reviews a new consensus that scientists are reaching on the origins and
mechanisms of morality in the May 18 issue of the journal Science. He poses questions such as:
- How much money would it take to get you to stick a pin into your palm?
- How much to stick a pin into the palm of a child you don't know?
- How much to slap a friend in the face (with his or
her permission) as part of a comedy skit?
- What about slapping you father (with his permission) as part of a
Haidt argues that the way in which you answer such questions may reveal something about your morality - and even your politics.
His findings show, for example, that conservativestend to care more about issues of hierarchy and respect, while liberals concentrate on
caring and fairness.
Haidt's review shows how evolutionary, neurological and social-psychological insights are being
synthesized in support of three principles:
- Intuitive primacy - human emotions and gut feelings
generally drive our moral judgments
- Moral thinking if for social doing - we engage in moral
reasoning not to figure out the truth, but to persuade other people of our virtue or to influence them to support
- Morality binds and builds - morality and gossip were crucial for the evolution of human
ultrasociality, allowing humans - but no other primates - to live in large, highly cooperative groups.
"Putting these three principles together forces us to re-evaluate many of our most cherished notions
about ourselves," said Haidt. His own research indicates that, in general, people follow their gut feelings and
make up moral reasons afterwards.
"Since the time of the Enlightenment," Haidt said, "many philosophers have
celebrated the power and virtue of cool, dispassionate reasoning. Unfortunately, few people other than philosophers
can engage in such cool, honest reasoning when moral issues are at stake. The rest of us behave more like lawyers,
using any arguments we can find to make our case, rather than like judges or scientists searching for the truth.
This doesn't mean we are doomed to be immoral; it just means that we should look for the roots of our considerable
virtue elsewhere - in the emotions and intuitions that make us so generally decent and cooperative, yet also
sometimes willing to hurt or kill in defense of a principle, a person or a place."
According to Haidt, human morality is a 'cultural construction' that has been built on top of - and
constrained by - a small set of evolved psychological systems. Haidt considers that political liberals base their moral
perspectives mainly on two of these systems, involving emotional sensitivities to harm and fairness. Conservatives, on the other hand,
utilise the same two systems and an additional three, involving emotional sensitivities to:
- in-group boundaries
- authority, and
- spiritual purity
"We all start off with the same evolved moral capacities," said Haidt, "but then we each learn
only a subset of the available human virtues and values. We often end up demonizing people with different political
ideologies because of our inability to appreciate the moral motives operating on the other side of a conflict. We are
surrounded by moral conflicts, on the personal level, the national level and the international level. The recent
scientific advances in moral psychology can help explain why these conflicts are so passionate and so intractable.
An understanding of moral psychology can also point to some new ways to bridge these divides, to appeal to hearts
and minds on both sides of a conflict."
You can take a short test of your moral intuitions by visiting .
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