In Nature, psychologist Paul Bloom has published a short rejoinder to 'social intuitionist' claims that rational deliberation has no role in shaping our moral convictions. His chief argument is that evolved emotional responses cannot explain how our moral sympathies change. A taste below the fold:

The extent of the average person's sympathies has grown
substantially and continues to do so. Contemporary readers of
for example, have different beliefs about the rights of women, racial
minorities and homosexuals compared with readers in the late 1800s, and
different intuitions about the morality of practices such as slavery,
child labour and the abuse of animals for public entertainment. Rational
deliberation and debate have played a large part in this development.

Emotional and non-rational processes are plainly relevant
to moral change. Indeed, one of the main drivers of moral change is
human contact. When we associate with other people and share common
goals, we extend to them our affection. Increases in travel and access
to information as well as political and economic interdependence mean
that we associate with many more people than our grandparents and even
our parents. As our social circle widens, so does our 'moral circle'.

But this 'contact hypothesis' explanation is limited. It
doesn't explain the shifts in opinions on issues such as slavery and
animal rights. Contact cannot explain the birth of new moral ideas, such
as the immorality of sexism or the value of democracy. It doesn't
account for how our moral attitudes can change towards those with whom
we never directly associate — for example, why some of us give money and
even blood to people with whom we have no contact and little in common.
There have been attempts to explain such long-distance charity through
mechanisms such as indirect reciprocity and sexual selection, which
suggest that individuals gain reproductive benefit from building a
reputation for being good or helpful. But this begs the question of why
such acts are now seen as good when they were not in the past.

4 Replies to “Emotion, reason, and moral convictions

  1. I agree with his conclusion but his argument seems to go terribly wrong to the point of being completely self-undermining.
    He wants to establish that ‘Rational deliberation and debate have played a large part in this development [i.e., the change of moral views]’.
    In order to do this, he needs to give examples where ‘the contact hypothesis’ cannot explain the changed moral views. Here is what he writes:
    “What is missing, I believe, is an understanding of the role of deliberate persuasion. Language is an effective tool for motivating sympathy towards others. For example, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped to end slavery in the United States, and descriptions of animal suffering in Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation (1975) and elsewhere have been powerful catalysts for the animal-rights movement. Stories can be morally corrosive too: if we are encouraged to imagine people doing things that anger or disgust us, we are quick to evict them from our moral circle. Examples of this are all too familiar, such as Adolf Hitler’s propaganda against the Jews in Nazi Germany, or the negative depictions of homosexuals put out by anti-gay campaigners in many countries today.”
    So, in fact, according to Bloom our views change as a result of narratives that are capable of producing an emotional reaction in us (sympathy). Novels, descriptions of animal suffering, and the like are the processes. And as far as rationality is concerned these are said to be on a par with Hitler’s propaganda and anti-gay campaigns.
    This just seems very bad. If I was a social intuitionist, I would argue that Bloom has merely provided more evidence for my view. Stories are told, they create an emotional reaction, and views are changed. No rational argumentation seems to be involved in this process, or it comes later.
    He is right that some stories might emerge as a result of people arriving at certain views. But, he hasn’t said anything about that process. It could just as plausibly be that Stowe and Singer first had an emotional reaction to the treatment of slaves and animals, and then they started to theorise.

  2. Although I (like Suikkanen) also agree with the conclusion, I see at least one dilemma for this view. Even though there are cases where advanced moral behavior develops (e.g. caring for unfamiliar distant peoples) it seems like this could be still motivated by the human contact caused by globalization. Our increased contact could just trigger a sort of generalization – that we owe something to all distant peoples.
    A deeper theoretical worry for me is that ethical theory has existed for a very, very long time, with arguably few advances in moral behavior and belief until recently. Why the sudden surge of, say, solidarity movements? Maybe people suddenly got deliberative during the Enlightenment and then especially in the 20th century. But it sure seems like increased literacy, the printing press, etc., and then globalization much later, compete for best explanation.

  3. In addition to the points already made by Jussi and Joshua, it has to be said that Haidt doesn’t deny that rational deliberation and debate play some role in moral thinking. And the way he understands it – as a sort of mutual or reflective triggering of emotional responses – isn’t very far from Bloom’s view either. So Bloom’s suggestion really looks more like a restatement than like a critique of social intuitionism.
    The more interesting question is whether genuine reason-giving plays an important role in moral change, and whether persuasion in a particular direction (such as toward universality) is more likely to influence people than persuasion in the opposite direction. To answer such questions, we’d need a far more sophisticated psychology of rational persuasion and moral emotions than psychologists currently possess.

  4. I agree that Bloom’s reference to the power of stories doesn’t by itself count for reason as against emotions in the formation of ethics. But I suspect a better point could be made of the examples, that stories can highlight for us the salience of some facts as against others, appealing thereby to intrinsically rational aspects of moral judgment. They may thereby make our moral judgments more rational, as when we are led to recognize similarities between ourselves and other beings (other races, genders, species) which we had previously not given due weight. In other cases they can make our judgments less rational, as when they downplay similarities and highlight irrelevant or imagined differences between ourselves and other beings. But even the latter may appeal to a rational attempt to make our moral judgments more coherent, just on the basis of false (though appealing) information.
    Joshua: I don’t think globalization by itself can save the contact hypothesis. Part of what needs to be explained is why we take some kinds of contact to be morally relevant, and others not. People have been encountering strangers for thousands of years, and sometimes helping but sometimes taking advantage of them. Stories, rational (or pseudo-rational) persuasion, or reflection, may explain the difference more than actual physical proximity.
    I wouldn’t equate rational morality with ethical theory though; the latter may attempt to explain the former, but if ethics is based in reason, it can surely be based in the kind of reason that doesn’t require a philosopher to incite us to engage in. And philosophers can be as good at coming up with false theories of ethics as anyone else.

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