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The role of reason in moral reasoning

Instincts signOne would hope that when faced with a difficult moral decision, people would give that decision careful deliberation. Unfortunately, recent work by social intuitionists argues that most moral judgments are intuitive (that is, not based on reasoning but on gut feeling), and that consequently most moral reasonings are but mere rationalizations that are supposed to justify this gut feeling. Fortunately, not all hope is lost. Philosopher Richard Patterson (Emory University) and colleagues argue that while reason’s influence cannot be seen in the immediate context of a moral decision, it can exert long-term influence on moral judgment.

More exactly, social intuitionists state that most people, most of the time, make moral judgments (and decisions in general) (1) quickly, (2) without deliberation (or with intuition), and (3) through “hot” (that is, emotional) processes. Then they defend these judgments with reason—but reason plays no role in making the decision itself. Instead, reason merely serves emotion. Not surprisingly, most people cannot defend their moral decisions in a coherent way because ultimately their decisions came not from reason but from intuition.

Patterson and colleagues do not deny this picture at all, but they do want to point out that this picture leaves much out. Most importantly, it ignores reason’s ability to exert discipline and cognitive control on emotions and impulses through the power of long-term cognitive processes. They identify three ways in which reason can do this: (1) reactive impulse control, (2) proactive impulse avoidance, and (3) proactive reshaping of intuition.

First, reactive impulse control can take many forms, but the authors decided it best to focus on reappraisal. Reappraisal “catches” an impulse and then recontextualizes it so that different emotions and desires will attach to that impulse. For example, for a smoker, thinking of a cigarette results in thinking of pleasure and satisfaction, but if that smoker wants to quit, reappraisal offers a powerful tool for quitting: when the smoker catches himself or herself desiring a cigarette, the smoker will force himself or herself to think of smoking as a dirty, obnoxious death sentence. Over time, his or her thoughts of cigarettes will change. In other words, practice makes perfect: frequent use of reappraisal increases its efficacy.

Second, proactive impulse avoidance means that a person can reason ahead of time to avoid situations where that person may act impulsively. For instance, an alcoholic may avoid going to parties that serve alcohol.

Third and finally, one can proactively reshape one’s intuitions. A student, for example, may be unmotivated to study for a test, but, realizing this, can use caffeine or the stress of failing the test to make himself or herself motivated. Typically, people who reshape their intuitions aim for the “Goldilocks” effect: they want just the right level of emotion (in this case, not too unmotivated but also not too stressed or hyper). Similarly, through seeing ahead and/or training, people can balance a variety of emotions such as anger, confidence, embarrassment, etc.

In (at least) these three ways, reason can exert cognitive control over emotion. Again, Patterson and colleagues freely admit that, in the spur of the moment, the social intuitionists are right: most people usually make impulse judgments. But, in the long view of a decision, that very impulse judgment may have been radically reshaped by reason, and so what a person feels is in fact the result of deliberation. The social intuitionists may not agree with this, and hopefully this disagreement is the result of reason, not intuition.

For more, see “Reasoning, cognitive control, and moral intuition” in the journal Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience.


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