How do we make moral choices?

Most of us don’t often reflect on the machinery of our moral reasoning. When we do think about it, we may fall back on this classic approach. First, you think through the “problem,” often using some abstract, and more often than not extreme, example to arrive at a “reasonable” ethical principle. Next, you simply apply this principle, or “rule,” to the situation at hand, and presto, you’ve worked out what to do. When asked to think about our moral thinking we are apt to fall back on this, or a very similar, story. If it worked for Socrates, it has to have something going for it, right? It turns out that scholars in philosophy, theology, psychology, and neuroscience have begun to turn away from this well-worn account of ethical judgment as a rational process in favor of a “different view of morality” that sees the process as “more like aesthetics” than ratiocination.

This newer way of thinking about moral reasoning was outlined in a recent column, “The End of Philosophy” by David Brooks (New York Times, April 6, 2009). In his piece, Brooks notes that moral judgments just don’t seem to work the way we have theorized them. In fact, as Michael Gazzaniga has noted, moral reasoning has often been found to have no connection to “proactive moral behavior” at all. Moral reasoning seems to actually come after moral judgment rather than being its source. For this reason, many researchers now see moral judgment as much more like aesthetic judgments.

In the same way that one knows that a cup of coffee tastes good – we just know it, we don’t have to think about it – we make “snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not” all the time. It is only after these initial judgments of moral preference that we begin to think about why we feel as we do. Rather than the judgment being the result of a rational process, it is actually an intuitive decision drawing on emotion in a similar way to how we react to a beautiful painting. Or, when we reach for the fair trade and sustainably grown coffee we do so not so much because a long process of rational judgment has lead us to think that this is the proper course, we do so because it feels right. It’s not that different from what makes us want to drink it once we’ve bought it – it tastes good.

Philosopher Steven Quartz explains the neurological roots of this process this way, “Our brain is computing value at every fraction of a second. Everything that we look at, we form an implicit preference. Some of those make it into our awareness; some of them remain at the level of our unconscious, but . . . what our brain is for, what our brain has evolved for, is to find what is of value in our environment.” This process of evaluating is deeply connected to our emotions and these feelings direct our later reasoning about a particular judgment. What we often take to be in charge of the process of moral discernment – reason – is actually controlled by our emotions. “The emotions are, in fact, in charge of the temple of morality, and . . . moral reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as a high priest,” says psychologist Jonathan Haidt.

In short, it would seem that the science of human moral judgment is telling us that morality is an art and not a science. While this recognition is a relatively new development in contemporary philosophy and cognitive science, it resembles an idea with a long history. For centuries, beginning with the first great “systematic” Christian theologian Origen of Alexandria (185-254 CE), the idea persisted among theologians and mystics that the human mind or soul includes certain sensory capacities, “spiritual senses,” that are capable of, among other things, perceiving good and evil. That is, many theologians maintained that moral judgment was somehow akin to sensibility and thus to aesthetics. In fact, in the early modern period the group of divines known as the “Cambridge Platonists“ maintained variations of this view and they exerted direct influence on the so-called “moral sense theorists“ of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713), Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746), David Hume (1711-1776), and Adam Smith (1723-1790). Perhaps these old ideas are worth another look in light of their newfound apparent plausibility?

For the original column by David Brooks see here.

For information on Michael Gazzaniga’s book, Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique (HarperCollins, 2008), see here.

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