Friday, May 12, 2006

The origin of moral judgements

A user of this blog posted a comment saying:

"Psychologist Jonathan Haidt (at the University of Virginia) argues that people make moral judgements not through rational thinking but through the same sort of intuitive process by which they make aesthetic judgments. Rational reasons are generated after-the-fact as a plausible 'cover'."

I'm not convinced that the hypothesis of psychologist Jonathan Haidt, although it has some merits, can serve as a total explanation. It seems to me that such a complex question as the origin of moral judgements is unlikely to be resolved by means of a single, simple cause (eg intuition).

I am more inclined to believe that there are several factors at work.
Reason and emotion often work together, subjectively, as mental faculties, and ethics is an area where this happens more frequently than in other areas.

I think that it is only our idea that reason and emotion should be in opposition.

In fact, I would say that it is a measure, if not of mental health, at least of mental well functionality how much reason and emotion can influence and complement each other.

The more dysfunctional a mind is, the more conflict there is in that mind between reason and emotion.

It seems to me that Haidt has chosen for his experiments particular cases of ‘scenarios’ which are bound to provoke disgust, and consequently ‘moral’ rejection with or without a reason.

(Actually, I’m not even sure whether we could call a condemnation of ‘wiping your toilet with a national flag’ a ‘moral judgement’ at all. It’s more akin to an aesthetical appraisal.)

But it’s doubtful that all moral judgement adhere to that pattern of following from disgust or similar feelings.

So, it’s impossible to generalize from his experiments, because they portray only a sub-class of moral judgement, a special sub-class to which his theory may find suitable application.

His examples of moral judgement are not the ones that you would find philosophers debate about in ethics books.

That he is blurring the line between moral and aesthetic judgements he is aware himself, as one can see from the following quote from his interview:

“Now, by moral judgment I mean any time you have a sense that someone has done something good or bad. Think of how often you have that sense. If you live in a city and you drive, you probably have that sense many times a day. When I read the newspaper, I think unprintable thoughts, thoughts of anger. So I think moral judgment is ubiquitous. Not as ubiquitous as aesthetic judgments. As we walk around the world we see many beautiful and ugly things. But we don’t deliberate about them. We just see things as beautiful or ugly. My claim is that moral judgment is very much like aesthetic judgment. In fact, whenever I’m talking with philosophers who are trying to get me to clarify what I’m saying, if I ever feel confused, I just return to aesthetic judgment, and that saves me.“

He seems to define ‘moral judgement’ in emotional terms (‘you have a sense’, ‘I think thoughts of anger’ and so on), so it’s not surprising that he finds that moral judgements, as he defined them, have a non-rational source.
QED. It is rather circular.

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