Ethics & Public Policy Center

Where Do Our Morals Come From?

Published in The Week on January 26, 2017

If you’ve picked up a newspaper lately, you might have noticed that moralizing is driving us all insane. When it comes to what’s morally right and wrong, our various political clans are not just talking past each other anymore — they are setting their hair on fire and becoming violent. This is not good.

One person who has certainly noticed this is Jonathan Haidt, one of the most interesting public intellectuals today. A social psychologist by training, his work focuses on the sources of morality. He’s well known for his so-called Moral Foundations Theory, which was created “to understand why morality varies so much across cultures yet still shows so many similarities and recurrent themes.”

This theory suggests that our moral intuitions are rooted in at least five “foundations”: care/harm; fairness/cheating; loyalty/betrayal; authority/subversion; sanctity/degradation. Our persistent moral disagreements, such as those ongoing between conservatives and progressives, in this framework, stem from the fact that some of us are more “attuned” to certain of these foundations than others.

I like to regard Haidt as more of a philosopher than a scientist. As a philosopher, then, he has made some contributions to a debate that has been ongoing for centuries: Is morality an irrational emotion? Or is it fundamentally a feature of our rational minds? For millennia, the consensus of all philosophers (and of Christian theology) was that morality is fundamentally rational. Aristotle pointed out that all rational thinking is ultimately ordered towards some perceived good, and its function is to help us discern between good or bad, an essentially moral purpose. Plato and his followers insisted that man’s nobility lies in his desire for ultimate truth, goodness, and beauty, and that all these are really facets of the same ultimate reality, making the pursuit of truth (rationality) impossible to divorce from the pursuit of the good (morality). Christian thinkers took those balls and ran with them. John’s gospel describes Jesus Christ, God made man, as “the Logos,” a Greek philosophical term for the rational principle underlying all reality, and also “the Truth” personified. Reason and morality, then, are both equally facets of the will of God that we must all discern and follow.

While Niccolo Machiavelli implicitly and slyly made those arguments, the true break came with the radical skeptic David Hume, who argued that this is all rubbish. Morality is really no more than a special kind of feeling, Hume said. The moral philosophy of Emmanuel Kant, the giant of Enlightenment thinking, was essentially a doorstop book-length subtweet of Hume, trying to rescue the idea of morality as a feature of rationality (he called morality “practical reason”) from Hume without having to rely on the metaphysical supports that the Greeks and Christians used.

Today, in academic philosophy, the idea of morality as a feeling has mostly won the day, albeit with moral rationalists fighting a vigorous insurgency. Which brings us back to Haidt, who seems to think he has found a slam-dunk scientific proof of the correctness of Hume’s view that morality is indeed a feeling. In a very widely cited article with the eloquent title “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail,” he makes two separate empirical points. The first is that, in a laboratory setting, when presented with morally distasteful stories, such as incest, most people strongly feel that these things are wrong, but are mostly unable to articulate rational reasons for why they feel they’re wrong. The second is that, experimentally, people form moral judgments based on intuition first, and then come up with rationalizations for them later.

This is not convincing, and it does not prove that morality is just an irrational emotion, a feeling.

Yes, of course, people have moral intuitions and feelings. But is that all there is to morality? The point that people intuit morality before they reason it doesn’t mean the instinctive response causes the rational response.

For example, mathematics is the very model of a rational undertaking. Yet virtually all great mathematical discoveries came first from a flash of intuition — Archimedes or Fermat suddenly believing that some result must be right, even though they don’t quite know why — followed by much ex-post rationalizing to prove their intuition. Indeed, if you did even high school-level math with any gusto, you probably experienced just the peculiar feeling I am describing. Should we therefore conclude that all mathematics is fundamentally irrational, and only consists of ex-post rationalizations of people’s private intuitions, and that it’s fundamentally futile to try and discern whether somebody’s math is more right than somebody else’s? No. Yet the process I’ve described is the same as the one Haidt describes.

I’m not trying to pick a fight or just to be pedantic. There’s actually an important point here.

Part of Haidt’s political (as opposed to academic) project is to help us engage in moral debate without driving each other — and ourselves — crazy. Haidt gives TED talks about how his moral foundations theory can help progressives and conservatives stop talking past each other by realizing that they are using the same bricks to build different moral edifices. But if morality is fundamentally just irrational emotion, then all moral dialogue is ultimately pointless.

Dietrich von Hildebrand — an early 20th century moral philosopher whom Hitler reportedly loathed so much that when he annexed Austria he ordered his secret police to “get” von Hildebrand, then based in Vienna, as their first priority (Hildebrand escaped in the nick of time) — was particularly passionate about this. If morality is fundamentally irrational, he reasoned, then moral reasoning is impossible; then moral dialogue is impossible; then the only truly effective way to settle moral disputes is through violence. And that’s the mechanism he saw at work in the rise of fascism, which he experienced first-hand — a point on which Mussolini agreed.

Those who believe in the rationalism of morality would say that we have moral instincts and intuitions, and that the very hard work of moral reasoning and moral education is precisely to align those instincts and intuitions with authentic moral reasoning. This is how you achieve moral progress, both at the level of the individual and at the level of society. But we can never get there if both academics keep asserting that morality is just how you feel.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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