Archive of ‘psychology’ category

What the Philosopher and Psychopath Have in Common

“If you are able to honestly examine the moral arguments in favour of slavery and genocide (along with the much stronger arguments against them), then you are likely to be either a psychopath or a philosopher.”

– Jonathan Haidt and Fredrik Bjorklund, “Social Intuitionists Answer Six Questions about Moral Psychology”, in Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Ed), Moral Psychology, Volume 2, MIT, 2008, p196.

Can’t argue with that.

Why Happiness Has Nothing To Do With Morality

Let us, today, stop using happiness – or its analogue pleasure – as the end of morality. To think such is to put the cart firmly before the horse. Yet such thinking is rife in moral philosophy today (I’m looking at you utilitarians).

Why is it backwards to seeing happiness as an intrinsic good? Let’s take a quick excursion into the evolutionary psychology of emotion,  care of a recent TED talk by philosopher Daniel Dennett:

[ted id=”485″]

To apply this strange inversion of logic, as Robert Beverly MacKenzie so beautifully put it, to morality:

An act does not make us happy because it is good.

An act is good because it makes us happy.


The Future of Morality

As I struggle and strain, on a daily basis, to make sense of that strangest of human capacities that is morality, and struggle to suggest to my peers that it might not be what they – and two millennia of philosophers – think it might be, I come across a chapter in a book that might well be a manifesto to the New Synthesis in Morality.

colored_pencils_chevre_sIt’s authored by Jonathan Haidt and Selin Kesebir, and it’s to appear in an upcoming edition of The Handbook of Social Psychology, although it’s available for download directly from Haidt’s home page.

Get it. Read it. Because this is it, folks: this is the End of the Beginning of the New Synthesis, the path hacked through the jungle of confusion to a new destination, and the Beginning of the Middle of the actual hard work of mapping the complex terrain of our moral faculty.

Haidt et al’s main thesis is as follows: (more…)

Right-thinking as a Moral Foundation

I’ve finally had an opportunity to read through the challenge to Jon Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory by Craig Anderson, of the University of Wisconsin, and I’ve found there are differences with my own similar challenge.

Craig suggests that truth/right-belief could be considered as a sixth moral foundation:

The central aspect of this morality is that people tend to moralize the beliefs that they hold to be true.  Not only do individuals care that they themselves have proper beliefs, but they further feel that others should share those same beliefs.

On the surface, this is similar to my claim that truth/honesty could be a sixth moral foundation. However, there is a significant difference that becomes apparent when you dig deeper into what Anderson is suggesting.

First of all, I’d disagree that “people tend to moralize the beliefs that they hold to be true.” That includes too much that isn’t moral. I believe it’s true that ‘in Australia we drive on the left-hand side of the road’. If someone thinks we drive on the right, I don’t experience moral outrage, although I may be prompted to correct them. Further, if they think we should drive on the right, again I don’t feel moral outrage in the same sense as if they’d said we should cheat on our friends or eat our children. We don’t moralise beliefs that we hold true, we do the opposite, which brings me to Anderson’s next point.

I think the key point that Anderson is making is encapsulated in the second sentence in the quote above, particularly that people “feel that others should share those same beliefs.” Anderson offers the following example:

A very clear example of this form of morality can be seen in the clash between religions, or even somewhat in the clash between the religious and the secular. People of each religious group see their own canon of beliefs as the truth, and that others are wrong, immoral, or sometimes even inhuman, just for not believing in the right god(s).

However, I would suggest that Anderson is not talking about a moral foundation as such, but he’s adroitly recognised an underlying characteristic of all moral discourse. What makes moral matters different to matters of convention is that morals feel categorical: they feel as though they should apply everywhere and to everyone.

Driving on the left or the right is a norm of convention. A relevant authority could overturn the norm and none of us would be left reeling in moral outrage. On the other hand, inflicting harm on others is a moral norm, and cannot be arbitrarily overturned by an authority. Morals are different in that we feel that they’re somehow universal, and that if they apply to me, they should also apply to everyone else. As a consequence, it’s fully expected that individuals would “feel that others should share those same beliefs.”

Why is this not a moral foundation? Haidt proposes there are “innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of ‘intuitive ethics’.” He’s talking about things like harm/care as one vector, in-group/loyalty as another, etc. But they are all categorical: if I believe it’s wrong to harm person X in situation Y, or to be disloyal to authority Z, then I believe it’s also wrong for others to behave the same way.

The categorical nature of moral norms cuts across all the moral foundations, and thus cannot be a discrete moral foundation in itself. Instead the categorical nature of moral norms is an underlying functional characteristic that defines them as moral norms.

To test this, we could try to tease right-thinking/categoricalness from the other moral foundations. If we could find issues that triggered on the right-thinking/categoricalness scale that didn’t trigger the other moral foundations, then it could be a discrete moral foundation. For example, if there were issues where it was impermissible for person X to do Y but not person Z to do Y. But I’d expect it would be found that there are no moral issues that are categorical without also being related somehow to another moral foundation. Further, I expect it would be found that all other moral foundations would also trigger right-thinking categoricalness.

In contrast, my challenge suggests truth/honesty as a moral foundation, distinct from the other moral foundations. As I mention in my earlier post, an example might be that it’s judged wrong for person X to lie even if it has a positive outcome according to one of the other moral foundations.

Now, Anderson does mention truth and lying, so there is some crossover with my challenge, but truth is really contingent to Anderson’s main claim about right-thinking. It’s just that people promote right-thinking/categoricalness only about things they hold true, not that being truthful is morally obligatory in and of itself.

Honesty and the Moral Foundations

Further to yesterday’s post is a fascinating story that’s all over the news here in Australia – a story that illustrates my point that honesty is one of the pillars of morality, and is discrete from other Moral Foundations.

In January 2006, former Australian Federal Court judge Marcus Einfeld was speeding in his car. Normally, the penalty for such an offence, minor as it is, is $77. However, Enfield currently faces the prospect of going to jail for a considerable length of time – some have even called for life imprisonment.

Why? Not because of the trivial speeding offence. But because he deliberately mislead the court concerning his involvement in the incident, i.e. perjury.

So we’re faced with a situation where a prominent member of society (who is likely being punished more harshly because of his prominence as well as for hypocrisy) is facing an incredibly steep punishment over a trivial offence – all because he lied.

In this case, we can see that – legally, at least – dishonesty is treated to be a major transgression, while the original offence of speeding is negligible in comparison. Honesty, in and of itself, is morally significant – significant enough that I think it could comfortably qualify as a Moral Foundation distinct from the other five.

A Sixth Moral Foundation?

Here’s one way to make a buck in during the global economic downturn:

If anyone can demonstrate the existence of an additional [moral] foundation, or show that any of the current 5 foundations should be merged or eliminated, Jon Haidt will pay that person $1,000.

todd_oathThis comes from, the home of Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory. This posits that there are “five innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of ‘intuitive ethics.’ Each culture then constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world, and conflicting within nations too.”


The Evolutionary Psychology of Bullying

Bullying is tragic. And evidently it’s not uncommon (although, surprisingly, the Internet doesn’t seem to know whether incidence of bullying in the schoolyard is on the up or down over the past several years – can anyone enlighten me?).

But are our anti-bullying programmes working to combat bullying? Apparently some are, but even the most effective programmes only marginally reduce bullying; none seem able to drive it out of the schoolyard altogether. Why?

Well, here’s one theory: some children are biologically predisposed to bullying because such behaviour lent their ancestors a selective advantage in our evolutionary past. (more…)

Why Free Will Doesn’t Matter

Free will is an illusion. There, I said it. Now, let’s move on. For it matters not a jot.

Only, it seems we can’t move on. Despite evidence, physical and metaphysical, to the contrary, a majority of people refuse to acknowledge that we have no free will.

diceBut perhaps this is a good thing? Evidently, people who believe in free will behave in more magnanimous ways. Even if it does result in some startlingly incoherent beliefs:

If we don’t have free will, a perverse kind of anarchism emerges, one which seems to encourage us to act any way we choose.

Hang on… If we don’t have free will – meaning we don’t have choice – we end up having anarchism, where we act any way we choose. That’s pretty clear…

All this says to me that the psychological notion – the illusion – of free will is important in every day life, but let’s divorce that from the physical and metaphysical notions once and for all.

Philosopher, Saul Smilansky, has already outlined a similar position, called Illusionism. From what I’ve read of it, it needs some polish – mainly because the topic as a whole is horrifically confused and riddled with equivocation over what different terms, like ‘free’, mean – but it offers a compelling roadmap to escape the free will dilemma. Basically:

Illusionism is the position that illusion has a large and positive role to play in the issue of free will. In arguing for the importance of illusion, I claim that we can see what it is useful, that it is a reality, and why by and large it ought to continue to be so. Illusory beliefs are in place concerning free will and moral responsibility, and the role they play is largely positive. Humanity is fortunately deceived on the free will issue, and this seems to be a condition of civilized morality and personal value. (Smilansky, 2005)

So free will is a kind of ‘error theory’. It doesn’t really exist, but it’s useful to assume it does.

Why am I sympathetic towards this view? Because my own research indicates a similar thing might apply to morality. Yeah yeah… That’s even more contentious than free will, but let the truth take us where we will. Wishful thinking about free will or morality won’t change the facts.

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