Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: a social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review, 108(4), 814–834. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11699120
- Rationalism vs. intuitionism
Let me start by the end. This wonderful article closes with a beautiful sentence: “The time may be right, therefore, to take another look at Hume’s perverse thesis: that moral emotions and intuitions drive moral reasoning, just as surely as a dog wags its tail”.
This piece criticizes rationalist approaches in moral psychology and proposes an alternative: social intuitionism.
Rationalist approaches, according to the author, assume that moral knowledge and moral judgment are reached primarily by a process of reasoning and reflection. Intuitionist approaches, by way of contrast, claim that moral intuitions (including moral emotions) come first and directly cause moral judgments. Haidt believes that moral reasoning is usually an ex post facto process (a dog’s tail) used to influence the intuitions (and hence judgments) of other people (other dogs), and not to arrive at new moral truths.
Haidt begins by offering some affectively charged examples, such as incest and other taboo violations. For those cases, he says, an intuitionist model is more plausible than a rationalist model. He then tries to prove that the intuitionist model can handle the entire range of moral judgments.
Haidt relies on a schematic contrast between intuition and reason. Intuition, he says, occurs quickly, effortlessly, and automatically, such that the outcome but not the process is accessible to consciousness, whereas reasoning occurs more slowly, requires some effort, and involves at least some steps that are accessible to consciousness. When one uses intuition, “one sees or hears about a social event and one instantly feels approval or disapproval”.
He then suggests that research on moral development (for example, Kohlberg’s) is trapped in a vicious circle between theory and methods. Rationalist researchers assume that moral judgment results from conscious, verbal reasoning, and therefore they investigate it by using oral interviews that highlight rational discourse and obscure intuitive reactions. Standard moral judgment interviews distort our understanding of morality by boosting an unnaturally reasoned form of moral judgment, leading to the erroneous conclusion that moral judgment results from a reasoning process, and thus reinforcing the mistaken assumptions the researcher had at the very beginning of the study.
Haidt’s model posits that the intuitive process is the default process, handling everyday moral judgments in a rapid, easy, and holistic way. It is only when intuitions conflict, or when the social situation demands a thorough examination of all facets of a scenario, that the reasoning process is called upon.
- The social dimension
According to the social intuitionist model, moral intuitions and moral reasoning are partially shaped by culture. Given that people have no access to the processes behind their automatic evaluations, they provide justifications by consulting their a priori moral theories, i.e. culturally supplied norms for evaluating and criticizing the behavior of others. By the way, this point has been made many times in the past. Already Aristotle, in his treatise on rhetorics, describes how people use cultural commonplaces in persuasive speech to support pre-existing points of view. A priori moral theories provide acceptable reasons for praise and blame (e.g., “unprovoked harm is bad”; “people should strive to live up to God’s commandments”). The term “a priori moral theories” seems to cover roughly the aspect of culture that other scholars call social representations, ideology, background knowledge, topoi, etc.
The social intuitionist model acknowledges that moral reasoning can be effective in influencing other people. Words and ideas can make people see issues in a new way by reframing a problem and triggering new intuitions. Now, this is remarkable: Haidt refers to one of the paradigmatic rationalist philosophers–Plato!–to make the point that moral reasoning naturally occurs in social settings, for example in the context of a dialog between people who can challenge each other’s arguments and provoke new intuitions. This is an odd allusion because Plato embodies the very origin of the tradition that Haidt seems to be attacking, a tradition purporting that moral rules and beliefs ought to be established through rational discourse. When Haidt attacks this tradition, he depicts rationalists as people who think of morality as individual, internal and cognitive. So how can he refer to the same tradition to make the point that moral reasoning is social and interactive?
Haidt does not seem to acknowledge that sometimes rationalists themselves claim that morality develops through social processes and exchanges. Piaget and Kohlberg, for example, give such social processes as much importance as Plato himself; and this is something that Haidt does not seem to recognize fully when treating Piaget’s and Kohlberg’s theories of moral development as cognitive.
More about this. Haidt makes the point that the intuitionist approach treats moral judgment style as an aspect of culture, and that educational interventions should aim at creating a culture that fosters a more balanced, reflective, and fair-minded style of judgment. At this point he says that the “just community” schools that Kohlberg created in the 1970s appear to do just that. How come this is not seen as a contradiction by Haidt?
Let me clarify. There are two important conceptual tensions to be noticed here. One is that Kohlberg is presented as the textbook moral rationalist and then as the proponent of a practical intervention that takes into account the social and cultural aspects of morality (same problem as with Plato). At this point Haidt should make clear what is going on. Either it is the case that there is an internal contradiction in Kohlberg’s system (so that he sometimes treats morality as an exclusively discursive, rational and cognitive matter, and at other times he understands it as a social and cultural process), or perhaps Kohlberg’s view of morality is subtler and more multi-layered that expected (and Haidt’s attacks are therefore aimed at a strawman). In my opinion, the second option is the case (see Donald Reed’s book on Kohlberg, “Liberalism and the practice of Democratic Community”).
The second conceptual tension comes to the fore in paragraphs such as the following: “By seeking out discourse partners who are respected for their wisdom and open-mindedness, and by talking about the evidence, justifications, and mitigating factors involved in a potential moral violation, people can help trigger a variety of conflicting intuitions in each other. If more conflicting intuitions are triggered, the final judgment is likely to be more nuanced and ultimately more reasonable.”
Here Haidt says that, even though in everyday settings morality is intuitive and automatic, in the long run it is desirable that people talk about evidence and justifications, that is, that they get involved in a rational argumentation. Most of the time, then, morality is intuitive and automatic, but it ought to be less emotional and intuitive and more rational and discursive. Now, in saying this Haidt is very close to the very tradition that he is criticizing: Plato, Piaget, Kohlberg, Rawls, etc. (but not cultural relativists like Shweder!) all say things in the same vein. Haidt seems to be close to the rationalist’s heart at this point.
The way in which Haidt articulates nature and culture, and sees innate cognitions and social modeling as complementary is interesting, and reminds me of other contemporary authors such as Michael Tomasello. I quote from Haidt’s paper:
“Morality, like language, is a major evolutionary adaptation for an intensely social species, built into multiple regions of the brain and body, that is better described as emergent than as learned yet that requires input and shaping from a particular culture.” And: “There is indeed a moral Rubicon that only Homo sapiens appears to have crossed: widespread third-party norm enforcement. Chimpanzee norms generally work at the level of private relationships, where the individual that has been harmed is the one that takes punitive action. Human societies, in contrast, are marked by a constant and vigorous discussion of norms and norm violators and by a willingness to expend individual or community resources to inflict punishment, even by those who were not harmed by the violator.”
We agree with Haidt that cognition in general and moral judgment in particular has been seen up to now as an overly intellectual matter. We agree with the turn towards embodied cognition and with the emphasis in the centrality of emotion. Also, Haidt is right in emphasizing the role of practice, repetition, and physical movement for the tuning up of cultural intuitions. “Social skills and judgmental processes that are learned gradually and implicitly then operate unconsciously, projecting their results into consciousness, where they are experienced as intuitions arising from nowhere”. “Moral development is primarily a matter of the maturation and cultural shaping of endogenous intuitions.” Perhaps he’s a bit shallow in his view of third-party norm enforcement as the mark of Homo Sapiens. Culture is certainly much more than that. Social organizations have developed explicit codes, laws, values and customs, complex representational systems, whole languages that allow humans to be aware of norms, to discuss about who is a criminal and who is virtuous, that take rule-following to a complete different level when compared even with the most advanced cases of animals’ social enforcement or punishment of anti-social behavior. But, in general, we agree with his vision of how morality operates in everyday settings.
- The physiological analogy
The problem with previous, prevalent views of moral reasoning seems to be that they do not represent faithfully what most people do most of the time. Haidt thus appears to use a naturalist criterion to argue that his theory overcomes the limitations and distortions of previous ones. Psychological science should be concerned with facts; the relevant fact at hand is here how people really think (most people, most of the time). It is true, for example, that most of the time we don’t spell out all the intermediate steps in moral reasoning; that our gut reactions to moral phenomena are quite automatic. This is a naturalist approach: a good theory of digestion, for example, should explain how animals digest their food in normal conditions (most animals, most of the time). Then, if I eat an inedible plant and I suffer from stomach ache and vomiting, those events should be treated as deviating from the natural, expected digestive process, and should be explained by additional, special theories about poisoning. Moral intuition performs the normal digestion of the moral fact; excessive verbal reasoning is a kind of intoxication.
The comparison between intuition (fast, effortless, automatic, unintentional, inaccessible, metaphorical, holistic, etc.) and reasoning (slow, effortful, intentional, controllable, consciously accessible and viewable, analytical, etc.) is based on this kind of physiological, functional view of the human mind.
Now, the physiological analogy, in my opinion, has some limitations. Think about this: we humans also have mathematical intuitions. If I pay with a 100 bill for something that costs $23 and I’m given a five as change I know immediately that the change is wrong. When someone asks me why, then I can offer justifications, produce an explicit calculation, but that doesn’t mean that such explicit argument was present from the beginning. It’s a justification of my point of view that I produce ex post-facto. Just as in morals. Thus it might be the case that, in many knowledge domains (math, physics, theory of mind, morality), most people, most of the time, produce automatic responses that are intuitive, effortless, quick, etc. Yet that doesn’t mean that math as a knowledge domain is irrational or purely intuitive, because mathematical rules might have been constructed according to rational criteria in the context of protracted ontogenetic or phylogenetic processes. Yet, in everyday settings, we don’t need to spell out all the intermediate steps that take us to a conclusion. We feel immediately that some things don’t make sense or are just wrong.
Let me compare this with Piaget’s theory. Although Piaget did use some biological, even physiological metaphors to account for how our mind tries to make sense of phenomena (e.g. assimilation and accommodation), he complemented this view with an epistemological approach that allowed him to characterize the domain of morality (and other domains of cognition) in a richer way. He incorporated logical, philosophical, sociological and historical considerations into his theories. For example, there is a sociological theory embedded in his differentiation between autonomous and heteronomous moral judgments. This interdisciplinary approach gives him additional criteria to decide what constitutes an interesting, relevant judgment or relevant cognition, beyond the naturalistic criterion of what most people do, most of the time.
When an individual has to deal with a typical moral transgression (a robbery, an act of selfishness, an unnecessary insult against an innocent victim) from within an unquestioned paradigm, then her moral reaction is automatic, intuitive, quick, just as if someone were to ask her “how much is 2 + 2”? But when the situation is new, or when it awakens contradictory moral convictions, then it may trigger a more explicit thinking process, an inner dialogue that in some cases might take her to new insights. Piagetian theory, by the way, gives a precise account of the distinction between experiences that are easily assimilated to the individual’s current conceptual framework and those that trigger cognitive conflict and, eventually, favor conceptual change. This contrast between paradigm continuity and revolution (to use Kuhn’s terms) is familiar to Piagetian psychologists. Again, Piaget takes into account structural and normative aspects of cognition and goes beyond a pure functional, physiological view that is simply interested in what most people do most of the time. Conceptual change might be something that happens rarely, but it might be interesting and relevant once one adopts a richer view of knowledge processes.
Another metaphor: once the roads are built, yes, it is true that cars tend to travel the same roads over and over again, without thinking about the direction they must go. But sometimes psychologists need to take a step back and think about how new roads are constructed (or abandoned). That’s what constructivism focuses on.
- The legal analogy
Haidt says: “The reasoning process is more like a lawyer defending a client than a judge or scientist seeking truth”. He stresses that moral reasoning is not free, that it resembles a lawyer employed only to seek confirmation of preordained conclusions.
Again, it is true that this is how most people reason, most of the time. This is how we think and interact with each other in everyday settings, while pursuing our particular goals. It was already noticed by Aristotle, in his treatise on Rhetoric, that people first offer conclusions and then search for supporting arguments (the opposite order to what we use when we try to present arguments according to logical standards.)
Yet: lawyers are not natural creatures, but they are necessary gears within a legal machine. Where there is a lawyer, there will also be a more complex legal ecosystem that includes other agents and roles. A lawyer, for example, presents her case to a judge, in order to prevail against an opposing party.
Think about it this way: even a scientist acts like a lawyer! When Haidt says: “… a judge or scientist seeking truth” a sociologist of science would disagree with the comparison. A scientist is not an objective judge, she’s an individual human being with particular interests. Yes, she wants to know the truth, but she also is fond of some particular hypothesis, intellectual traditions, lines of research, and tends to be partial, to favor some hypotheses over competing alternatives. And in her career, she has associated herself with such a hypothesis or line of work, and does not want to dilapidate her investment. She has a lot at stake. She’s closer to the lawyer than to the judge (ask Bourdieu, Kuhn, and many others…). It is only as a result of a whole adversarial process that a scientific community, in due time, can start recognizing one of the competing theories as closer to the truth, thus playing the role of judge. It takes lawyers, witnesses and judges to determine the truth within an adversarial system. This is what is called dialectics.
In other words: in thinking of the moral reasoner (or arguer) as a lawyer, Haidt does not distance himself from rationalism. On the contrary, he depicts the moral reasoner as part of a rational, intersubjective process. And he seems to acknowledge this:
“In the social intuitionist view, moral judgment is not just a single act that occurs in a single person’s mind but is an ongoing process, often spread out over time and over multiple people. Reasons and arguments can circulate and affect people, the fact that there are at least a few people among us who can reach such conclusions on their own and then argue for them eloquently (Link 3) means that pure moral reasoning can play a causal role in the moral life of a society.”
Now Haidt should make a decision here. He can either keep on insisting that the interesting, central part of moral judgments is the automatic, intuitive, moral reaction that takes place “inside” the individual, and that persuasion is a causal, lineal “link” by which an individual cognitive system impacts on another cognitive system (“causes” it to change a point of view). Or else, that there is a rational, intersubjective process of moral reflection that exceeds what an individual does at a particular moment, that is played out on the cultural stage, and that can be seen as rational from a larger perspective: social and historical processes of moral elaboration.