Toward a quest of understanding

Synapse #25: Morality is about emotions, not reason

One of the aspects of neuroscience that fulfills me the most is that it enables me to understand human nature in a way that I believe makes me a more empathetic and compassionate person. One practice that I've started to implement in my life is to pause when I come across ideas or behaviors that I don't agree with—to first seek to understand before passing on constructive criticism or judgement.

Toward this end, I've been reading Jonathan Haidt's "The Rightous Mind" over the last few weeks. Haidt is a moral psychologist who seeks to study why good people are divided by moral issues such as politics and religion. In his book, Haidt makes the strong case that morality is an extraordinary human capacity that makes civilization possible and that we could all benefit from learning more about how we form our beliefs (and why we stick to them so strongly).

This week, I'll be sharing with you one of his key insights from both his own original research and decades of research in development and moral psychology.

Morality is about emotions, not reason

In his book, Haidt uses historical examples and evidence to make the argument that morality is more emotional than rational. For example, in Descartes' Error, the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio observed a curious feature in patients with brain damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. For instance, they would no longer express or feel emotions yet would retain full knowledge what is right and wrong and would have no deficits in intelligence. The area that Damasio's patients fell down on was in making personal decisions about their lives and work—they would alienate their friends and family and make foolish decisions about the right thing to do all of the time.

In other words, these patients had the theoretical knowledge of how to behave morally, but had no way of integrating and applying it into their lives. This process, Damasio concluded, requires emotions.

It appears, then, that making moral judgements depends on the emotional areas of our brains more than the rational parts. To push this theory further, Haidt performed experiments in which he would subject participants to "cognitive load" (e.g., make them hold a long number in their mind) while having them make moral judgements. It turns out that these participants are able to make moral judgements quickly and effectively even while under cognitive load—providing further evidence that morality is more emotional than rational.

The results of this example and other studies can be summed up in what is called the "Jeffersonian dual-process model" which shows that moral judgements are based on emotions and then reinforced by reasoning (with some rare post-hoc reasoning that can affect our morals).

Intuitions come first, reasoning second

One way that Haidt could prove the above model is to present people with disturbing but harmless stories, force subjects to make a judgement on this issue, and have them explain their reasoning behind their judgement. Here's an example of one of Haidt's stories:

Julie and Mark, who are sister and brother, are traveling together in France. They are both on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie is already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy it, but they decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret between them, which makes them feel even closer to each other. So what do you think about this? Was it wrong for them to have sex?

As you can read, these stories were meant to be disgusting and Haidt expected that they would be met with immediate moral condemnation, and this was the case. Only 20% of the subjects indicated that it was OK for Julie and Mark to have sex. The key insight came during the interviews when Haidt asked people to explain their decision. Here's a transcript of one such interview:

EXPERIMENTER: So what do you think about this, was it wrong for Julie and Mark to have sex? SUBJECT: Yeah, I think it’s totally wrong to have sex. You know, because I’m pretty religious and I just think incest is wrong anyway. But, I don’t know.

EXPERIMENTER: What’s wrong with incest, would you say?

SUBJECT: Um, the whole idea of, well, I’ve heard—I don’t even know if this is true, but in the case, if the girl did get pregnant, the kids become deformed, most of the time, in cases like that.

EXPERIMENTER: But they used a condom and birth control pills—

SUBJECT: Oh, OK. Yeah, you did say that.

EXPERIMENTER: —so there’s no way they’re going to have a kid.

SUBJECT: Well, I guess the safest sex is abstinence, but, um, uh … um,

I don’t know, I just think that’s wrong. I don’t know, what did you ask me?

EXPERIMENTER: Was it wrong for them to have sex?

SUBJECT: Yeah, I think it’s wrong.

EXPERIMENTER: And I’m trying to find out why, what you think is wrong with it.

SUBJECT: OK, um … well … let’s see, let me think about this. Um—how old were they? EXPERIMENTER: They were college age, around 20 or so.

SUBJECT: Oh, oh [looks disappointed]. I don’t know, I just … it’s just not something you’re brought up to do. It’s just not—well, I mean I wasn’t. I assume most people aren’t [laughs]. I just think that you shouldn’t—I don’t—I guess my reason is, um … just that, um … you’re not brought up to it. You don’t see it. It’s not, um—I don’t think it’s accepted. That’s pretty much it. EXPERIMENTER: You wouldn’t say anything you’re not brought up to see is wrong, would you? For example, if you’re not brought up to see women working outside the home, would you say that makes it wrong for women to work?

SUBJECT: Um … well … oh, gosh. This is hard. I really—um, I mean, there’s just no way I could change my mind but I just don’t know how to—how to show what I’m feeling, what I feel about it. It’s crazy!

Here, the experimenter is purposefully playing the role of devil's advocate, but the transcript shows an interesting phenomenon which is that people make moral judgements immediately and passionately and are very skilled at coming up with LOTS of reasons to justify their beliefs. In these interviews, the subjects were grasping at reason after reason, no matter the counter facts that the experimenter brought up.

Findings like this have led some psychologists to conclude that judgment and justification are separate processes. For me, this helps me understand why some people continue to hold beliefs even when presented with facts that run counter to their beliefs. If you want to convince someone on a moral issue, you have to appeal to their intuitions and emotions, not their rational parts of their brain.

And to be clear: having our moral reasoning depend on quick emotions isn't necessarily a bad thing. Imagine if every decision we made day to day was as taxing as writing a research paper, taking in all of the facts. We need shortcuts to get us through our day and help us form our world-views. I hope, though, that this insight helps you take the intentional time to question whether your stance on a moral issue is purely emotional and whether it might be prudent to reconsider.

Thanks for reading

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