Biology Magazine

Misfires of Moral Psychology

By Cris

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 have, in other words, 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 sound suspiciously modern because they are. This list of “innate” moral concerns is innate only to post-Neolithic and mostly Western societies.

Misfires of Moral Psychology

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 or 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 been evident.


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