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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 skit?

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:

  1. Intuitive primacy - human emotions and gut feelings generally drive our moral judgments
  2. 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 us
  3. 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 www.yourmorals.org.

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