Haidt’s Moral Intuition (vs ethical reasoning)

This is part two in my series about Jonathan Haidt’s most recent book, The Righteous Mind. To read the first in the series, click on the link here. To see some of the discussion inspiring this post, check out the comment sections of the Amazon reviews of Haidt’s book.

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I had a thought about one aspect of Haidt’s theory that has been bothering me. The bothersome factor has to do with the broader field of social science research as it relates (and as, I argue, it should be related) to Haidt’s research. Maybe someone who has read his book can respond.

I’m reading Chris Mooney’s book The Republican Brain. Mooney isn’t focusing on moral foundations, although he does have a short section where he discusses Haidt’s model and research. Like others have suggested, Mooney sees an obvious correlation between moral foundations and cognitive functioning (Kindle Locations 2075-2079):

“You will probably have noted by now that the moral intuition research of Haidt and Ditto is not fully separate from the [cognitive] research covered in the last chapter. It overlaps. For instance, take conservatives’ greater respect for authority, and their stronger loyalty to the in-group, the tribe, the team. Respect for authority, at its extreme, is hard to distinguish from authoritarianism. And viewing the world with a strong distinction between the in-group and the out-group clearly relates to having lower integrative complexity and less tolerance of difference (although it can also, on a more positive note, mean showing
loyalty and allegiance to one’s friends, and more patriotism).”

An important difference between Haidt and Mooney is the former is arguing for an overarching theory and the latter isn’t. Mooney, instead, simply acknowledges the complexity (Kindle Locations 2087-2089):

“In comparing the psychological, personality, and moral differences between liberals and conservatives, it is not clear which differences come first—which are more deeply rooted, and whether one causes the other or not. But it is clear that they travel together, and that all are reliable dimensions for distinguishing between the two broad groups.”

It would seem that Haidt is overstepping what can be rationally and fairly concluded from the diverse research. We know many of the factors, but we can’t entirely claim to know their causal relation.

So, Haidt’s view of intuition being greater than reasoning has some truth to it while also containing much speculation. We know that all people are predisposed to motivated reasoning. Yes, such bias can manifest as post hoc rationalizations of our intuited moral values. What Haidt ignores or doesn’t fully acknowledge, intentionally or not, is that not all people are equally predisposed to motivated reasoning in all types of situations. Mooney’s book presents a logical argument based on damning evidence about how conservatives are more predisposed to motivated reasoning when it comes to political issues, and it is clear that political issues are inseparable from moral issues in these cases of motivated reasoning.

The problem here has a number of factors.

First, there is the possibility that liberals use intuition less and/or reasoning more in discerning moral values and making moral decisions. Even if liberals use intuition more than reasoning, it is still important that liberals use reasoning significantly more (i.e., use motivated reasoning less) than conservatives. This even undermines Haidt’s critcisms of the sciences being filled with liberals as if this represents an institutionalized and systematic bias. By not wholly engaging the cognitive research (and thus not integrating it into his theory), Haidt appears to want to sidestep the simple fact that liberals have a predisposition suited for science while conservatives have a predisposition that too often puts them in opposition to the major aspects of the scientific enterprise (Mooney discusses this in his book).

Second, the fact that conservatives use motivated reasoning more in these political/moral scenarios ends up problematizing Haidt’s intuitionist theory. How can intuition be separated from motivated reasoning? The simple term of ‘intuition’ covers over a lot of complexity. On the other hand, it might not be possible to entirely separate intuition from reason either. What appears as intuition may just be a heuristic developed from previous reasoning, as some research suggests. So, is Haidt’s ‘intuition’ about feeling over reason or simply about unconscious processes (whether or not those processes originally formed through conscious reasoning)? Reasoning and motivated reasoning can be hard to differentiate in oneself, but importantly the research has clearly distinguished them in actual behavior (specifically in the actual behavior of liberals and conservatives).

Considering all of this, I still feel confused about Haidt’s ‘intuition’. To be fair, part of that confusion might have more to do with me than with Haidt’s theory as I still haven’t yet fully grasped all of the nuances and details of his theory. However, I think part of my confusion is based on the research data being more complex than Haidt’s theory allows for. There might not be a way to fit all of the data into Haidt’s theory which means it is either incorrect or incomplete.

After Mooney’s discussion of moral foundations, he extended his thoughts by discussing the alternative theory of George Lakoff (Kindle Locations 2107-2144):

“However, there is another famous account of the different moral systems of liberals and conservatives, which implies a more uneven distribution of biases. It is closely related to Haidt’s account in some ways, but not others. I’m referring to the account advanced by Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff, in his book Moral Politics and subsequent works.

“Lakoff’s opening premise is that we all think in metaphors. These are not the kind of thing that English majors study, but rather real, physical circuits in the brain that structure our cognition, and that are strengthened the more they are used. For instance, we learn at a very early age how things go up and things go down, and then we talk about the stock market and individual fortunes “rising” and “falling”—a metaphor.

“For Lakoff, one metaphor in particular is of overriding importance in our politics: The metaphor that uses the family as a model for broader groups in society—from athletic teams to companies to governments. The problem, Lakoff says, is that we have different conceptions of the family, with conservatives embracing a “strict father” model and liberals embracing a caring, “nurturing” parent version. The strict father family is like a free market system, and yet also very hierarchical and authoritarian. It’s a harsh world out there and the father (the supreme authority) is tough and will teach the kids to be tough, because there will be no one to protect them once the father is gone. The political implications are obvious. In contrast, the nurturing parent family emphasizes love, care, and growth—and, so the argument goes, compassionate government control.

“Lakoff’s system intriguingly ties our political differences to child-rearing styles (much evidence suggests that Republicans are more likely to physically punish their children). It also overlaps with Haidt’s—particularly when it comes to wanting to care for those who are harmed (nurturing parent) and respecting authority (strict father). What’s more, both accounts overlap with the research on personality and psychological needs—the strict father model, respect for authority, and the exercise of group loyalty all help to provide certainty and order through the affirmation of hierarchy and stability and the resistance of changes to existing social structures.

“But there’s also a key difference. Lakoff’s account implies that liberals and conservatives will have a different relationship with science and with the facts. He told me as much in an interview for this book (and an article in The American Prospect magazine that preceded it).

“The core reason for this differential bias turns on the issue of authority and from whence it springs. In our interview, Lakoff explained that conservatives should have no problem with science or other factual information when it supports their moral values, including free market goals (e.g., the science of drilling for oil, the science of nuclear power). The strict father wants the kids to go out and thrive, and producing energy through technology is an honorable way of doing it. However, science can also be an unruly guest at the party—highly destabilizing and threatening to conservative values, and with the potential to undermine traditional sources of authority that conservatives respect. Scientific evidence “has a possible effect over the market, foreign policy, religion, all kinds of things,” says Lakoff. “So they can’t have that.”

“Liberals, to Lakoff, are just different. Science, social science, and research in general support an approach that he calls “Old Enlightenment reason”: finding the best facts so as to improve the world and society, and thus advance liberals’ own moral system, which is based on a caring and nurturing parent-run family. “So there is a reason in the moral system to like science in general,” says Lakoff.

“Here also arises a chief liberal weakness, in Lakoff’s view, and one that is probably amplified by academic training. Call it the Condorcet handicap, or the Enlightenment syndrome. Either way, it will sound very familiar: Constantly trying to use factual and reasoned arguments to make the world better, and being amazed to find that even though these arguments are sound, well-researched, and supported, are disregarded, or even actively attacked, by conservatives.”

Anyway, this is my long-winded way of presenting my hypothesis. Here is my own speculation based on the data I’ve seen so far:

In an introductory philosophy class, the teacher explained the distinction between morality and ethics, a distinction that seems relevant to my own understanding and relevant to the topic at hand. Morality could be more or less about intuition, whatever intuition may prove to be. However, morality as it is generally used too often becomes conflated with ethics. If morality as distinct from ethics is about intuition, then ethics as distinct from morality is about reason.

Going by the evidence, I would argue that ethics might be more applicable to the liberal value system since for political issues liberals are less predisposed to motivated reasoning. It might not be that liberals don’t use intuition. Rather, maybe liberals just use reason and intuition more equally and maybe even use them more in relation to one another. The difference could be that: Conservatives tend to see moral intuition and ethical reasoning as more opposed or at least less perfectly aligned which fits their own nature; And liberals tend to see moral intuition and ethical reasoning as more inseparable or at least more perfectly aligned which fits their own nature.

What distinguishes the two might not just be which moral foundations they favor. There might be a more fundamental and prior cognitive difference that would motivate such favoring. Liberals and conservatives might not just have different values but actually be different psychological types. If this is true, Haidt is only looking at one part of the picture, the part that emphasizes the conservative view of non-rational moral intuition as primary motivation.

This might also explain why Haidt’s research found that liberals favored certain moral foundations less than conservatives, the explanation being that those more conservative moral foundations may not be as open to ethical reasoning (for they aren’t based on or conducive to the functioning of the liberal trait ‘openness’). For example, respect for authority may not be compatible with an intellectual opposition to motivated reasoning for such an intellectual mindset would place evidence and logic above authority, thus challenging authority. So, liberals would tend to respect authority more when authority respected reason (academics, scientists, etc) while conservatives generally respect authority when reason doesn’t challenge authority (religious apologists, partisan think tank experts, etc). One could argue that this might undermine Haidt’s claim  that conservatives value authority more than liberals. A similar pattern (and discrepancy with Haidt’s theory) might be found with the other supposedly conservative moral foundations as well.

A different theory could be formed by interpreting the moral foundations through the lense of ethical reasoning. Bringing the trait ‘openness’ to bear upon the data might necessitate entirely reworking the scheme of moral foundations.

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For those interested in researching the issue for themselves, here is Haidt’s presentation of his intuitionist theory and following it are some responses by others:







4 thoughts on “Haidt’s Moral Intuition (vs ethical reasoning)

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