Moral intuitions

There is a lot of evidence that we form our judgements emotionally. And then our moral reasoning simply serves as a rationalisation of already formed prejudices.

That’s quite an observation. But is it true? Are we really essentially emotional beings who seek to justify our emotionally reactive positions? And might this explain why so few adults alter their moral, ethical, religious or political positions during their lives, despite lots of persuasive information?

This was first demonstrated in 1979 in a study at Stanford by Charles Lord and colleagues. They presented undergraduates with two fictional studies, both with convincing statistics. One study claimed to prove capital punishment works as a deterrent, while the other concluded it had no effect on crime rates.

Before and after seeing the studies, participants were asked to give their views. Those who believed capital punishment is an effective deterrent rated the study supporting their views as credible, while rating the one that challenged their opinion as unconvincing. Those who were opposed to capital punishment reached the opposite conclusions. This phenomenon has become known as ‘confirmation bias’.

Further studies went on to demonstrate that our beliefs are rarely based on a deep understanding of a particular issue. When it comes to belief, it seems we remember facts that support our world view, but ignore or reject information that runs counter to our opinions – and the more passionately we feel about an issue, the more this is so.

The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explored this further, and wrote in The Righteous Mind that in his view ‘moral judgement is caused by quick moral intuitions’. We react, then we justify that reaction intellectually. And then we don’t shift, despite evidence.

Haidt began developing his thoughts that there are six main moral intuitions, namely;
1 Justice and care: cherishing and protecting others; opposite of harm.
2 Fairness or proportionality: rendering justice according to shared rules; opposite of cheating.
3 Loyalty to a group: standing with your group, family, nation; opposite of betrayal.
4 Authority or respect: submitting to tradition and legitimate authority; opposite of subversion.
5 Sanctity or purity: abhorrence for disgusting things, foods, actions; opposite of degradation.
6 Liberty: to behave as I might choose; opposite of oppression.

Some people judge almost everything by two or three – and don’t really realise that there are moral intuitions other than their own. This apparently fuels in them a sense of anger towards others who see things differently. Meanwhile others judge the world by a broader number, which makes them more puzzled by their opponents, rather than angry.

Researchers have found that people’s sensitivities to the six moral foundations correlate with their political ideologies. Does this surprise you?

This all leads to this challenge: to what degree is our world view, opinion-base and general political orientation an emotional reaction to the world we see around us? And are we actually biased, choosing an emotive path that suits our hearts, which we then justify in our heads with a supportive, seemingly rational argument?

For the Christian, does this all raise issues of integrity? Is our selfish opinion used to justify some facts we know? Or can we be truly honest about what we see and perceive around us, forming our views on the facts, not our prejudice?

I imagine the answer tells us a lot about who we are.

Published by John Sloan

Husband, father, grandfather, teacher, pastor and doctor. I am a keen observer of human behaviour, and an avid follower of Jesus Christ

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