12/29/2007 20:28

Moral decision making

Current scientific research in psychology lists heavily toward the conclusion that decision making always precedes conscious rationality. As Jonathan Haidt put it in a recent review, "Moral reasoning, when it occurs, is usually a post-hoc process in which we search for evidence to support our initial intuitive reaction." [Science, 18 May 2007, page 998. Emphasis within quotations was added.]

Decision making may be rational, especially within its own defined context, but it seems to be done unconsciously. Anyone who can't step away from the intuitive idea that rationality is a manifestation of consciousness will misconstrue the scientific hypothesis as denying the rationality of decision making, but the essence of the claim is to deny the consciousness of decision making.

If this hypothesis is correct, all of our conscious explanations are the "rational tail" being wagged by the "affective dog". I like the canine metaphor, both for the allusion to Buddy and his ilk and for the sense of the rapid, pleasant, and seemingly useless effort of the wagging. (It would be pushing the research too far to claim that reasoned explanations are quick, pleasant, and apparently pointless, but it makes a nice esthetic argument.)

Within this paradigm, the rational descriptions of our judgements are an exercise in mythmaking, a conscious explanation of past experience. The utility of this making of explanations seems to be rooted in the social experience. "One thing that is always useful," Haidt says, "is an explanation of what you just did."

This hypothesis is likely to prove correct, I think, but clearly there is more to the story of moral judgement. "Affective reactions push, but they do not absolutely force," as Haidt says. There is objective evidence, some of which he cites in the review, that the emotional response can be overcome by conscious thought or social communication. ("We can use conscious verbal reasoning, such as considering the costs and benefits of each course of action. We can reframe a situation and see a new angle or consequence, thereby triggering a second flash of intuition that may compete with the first. And we can talk with people who raise new arguments, which then trigger in us new flashes of intuition followed by various kinds of reasoning.") All of these courses of action are rooted in social communication, leading to the subordinate hypothesis that moral reasoning is fundamentally a social phenomenon.

A second aspect of the psychological research is the identification of the basis for both the myths and their socially-mediated corrections. For example, our judgement may be based on the actual or expected harm to someone, or on our sense of fair play.

I recall the discussion among state civil service employees about legislative proposals to resume pay increases after what seemed (to us employees) as a long freeze. Those who were in the upper regions of the pay scale favored uniform percentage increases for all employees. "What could be more fair?" they asked. Those nearer the bottom of the pay scale favored uniform dollars increases for everyone. "What could be more fair?" they asked. My reaction was to attempt to represent the views of each group when conversing with the other; I'm not sure whether that did any good at the time, but I was participating in the social corrective process which Haidt's review summarizes.

I found particularly interesting Haidt's suggestion that modern Western cultures have focused moral decisions primarily in terms of harm and fairness, and that liberals do so more than conservatives. He says, "In my cross-cultural research, I have found that the moral domain of educated Westerners is narrower -- more focused on harm and fairness -- than it is elsewhere. ... In addition to the harm and fairness foundations, there are also widespread intuitions about ingroup-outgroup dynamics and the importance of loyalty; there are intuitions about authority and the importance of respect and obedience; and there are intuitions about bodily and spiritual purity and the importance of living in a sanctified rather than a carnal way."

Haidt's data on the narrower moral base of our western and liberal community suggests the need for some corrective to the methods of moral decision making we use. Our moral intuitions might be equally valid, but the conscious and social correction would appear to be less rich. That is, I think it is the rational tail that is not as fully wagged in the West.

If we make use of all five moral foundations identified by Haidt, would we not give ourselves more windows within which to reframe a situation, more conscious tools with which to consider and possibly modify a moral decision, more language by which we can hear the arguments of others on the question at hand? If so, then the new synthesis of moral psychology is offering a way to make our moral decisions more conscious, more thoroughly reviewed, and more broadly rational.