Wednesday, March 07, 2007

On the connection between moral reasoning and emotion (by guest blogger Joshua Rust)

I have been recently listing to a series of lectures on the psychology of human emotion, distributed as a podcast from the UC Berkeley website. In lecture 22, Professor Dacher Keltner argues that the Western/Platonic propensity to distinguish emotion and reasoning is peculiar and, to some extent, pernicious.

For example, On Lawrence Kohlberg's theory of moral development, children start as emotional and thus immoral. It is only once they are able to contain these emotions to the point that they can take on other people's perspectives that they are able to achieve some degree of moral clarity.

Keltner argues that emotions are central to most of our day-to-day decision making and reasoning. To illustrate this, he presents a thought experiment to the class (formulated by John Haidt, 2001) which is intended to draw out our intuitions as to how emotions fit into our moral judgments. By way of warning, the thought experiment is disturbing (by design). From the podcast:

Does this person deserve to be punished or not? A guy goes to the supermarket and he decides he is going to cook himself some chicken. He get some organic chicken that is plucked and packaged in cellophane, he takes it home, he shuts his curtains, he unwraps the chicken, he has sex with the chicken, cooks it and eats it. Do we punish that guy?

Your emotional response, much like my own and that of the class to which Keltner is lecturing, is immediate and visceral—revolting disgust (perhaps followed by the sense of relief that comes with the realization that we philosophers only have to subject our students to the relatively tame trolley examples).

But the question remains: should this person be morally punished? (community service, jail, etc.) The kaleidoscope of emotive responses followed by a set of rational deliberations concerning privacy and rights manifests, in sequence, upon the faces of Keltner's students. In spite of overt disgust exhibited by Keltner's class, not one of them thought that he should be morally reprimanded. Moreover, when the chicken example is presented to psychology undergrads across the country no more than 20%-30% of the students recommend that he be punished (it's not just Berkeley students).

Haidt presented the chicken example to a wide cross-section of the world's population. Against that contrast, the data shows that the typical American undergraduate response is extremely unusual. In many other places the visceral emotional response isn't countervailed by a belief in rights, freedom, and personal privacy; in places such as Brazil upwards of 70-80% of those surveyed thought that this individual should be punished.

Haidt takes this as evidence that our emotions figure prominently in our moral decision making.

The survey's results are interesting. But does does Haidt's conclusion follow? Has he shown a connection between emotional and moral judgment, undermining a Platonic tendency to drive a wedge between the emotional and the rational, and then locate moral judgments on side of the side of reason?

One reading of the evidence does not appear to undermine Kohlberg's theory but support it. The judgment not to punish the man is a moral judgment; and is one that is seemingly arrived at in spite of strong a emotional force to the contrary. My partner pointed out that it is the ability of reason to swim against the current of emotion that allows, for example, someone supporting equal rights for homosexuals in spite of, perhaps, being repulsed at the thought of gay sex. The fact that the considered judgment comes after the immediate emotional response, further suggests that traditional philosophers are right to distinguish reason from emotions.

Nevertheless, I think that Haidt is right to suggest a deeper connection between our emotional capacities and our moral judgments. Against the above Kohlbergian reading, it is important to see that the study only shows that American students don't think the man should be punished. The link between punishment and moral judgment is a contingent one. It seems to me perfectly coherent to think that he has done something wrong, say from the point of view of Virtue Ethics, but nevertheless also hold that he should not be punished. Perhaps what the survey shows is that American undergrads feel as though we ought to reserve the institution of punishment for the most heinous violations.

Along these lines, MacIntyre distinguishes between the Aristotelian virtues on the one hand and a "morality of law" on the other. As a first approximation, virtues are skills—qualities of mind or character—that bring about a shared end, most generally characterized as the good. The phronimos or expert has the skill to both discriminate and respond appropriately to a variety of unique situations. A morality of law, however, is primarily a set of prohibitions on injurious actions (murder, theft, etc.) that intolerably undermine the possibility of the good (After Virtue, 151-2). Perhaps we don't think of the action as violating a morality of law, but nevertheless use our emotional response as a guide to moral evaluation concerning his character. On such a distinction, our disgust is deeply connected to a moral evaluation, even if we don't think that the man's action justifies punishment.


Anonymous said...

I think I'm confused.

I'm having trouble seeing what Keltner's argument is supposed to be. We have cultural disagreement as to whether he should be punished... therefore emotions play an important role in moral judgement? Are we to think that the difference in judgement is explained by differences in emotions? What's the evidence for that?

Anonymous said...

Enjoyable post. It seems as though the mechanism in question here might be straight-forward judicial decision: The students are being asked to play the role of a judge, to decide if the situation calls for formal punishment that is consistent with their notions of justice and the coherence of their legal tradition. However, this is still ambiguous: did the students not think this person should be morally reprimanded in any sense? Such as the private reproof that this was bad for his marriage or physical health?

On the legal interpretation, I am reminded of how US Supreme justices will at times talk about their personal disgust and moral disapproval while noting that their sense of justice and role as judge does not permit this to control their decision. However, I still don’t think this suggests a separation of rationality and emotion, just an expression of a different form of emotion about justice and the craft of adjudication. There are perhaps other ways emotion can factor in; for example, Posner talks about the role emotion plays in combating the “availability heuristic,” allowing the judge to empathize with the absent parties. I like MacIntyre’s thoughts, but I wonder if law is a bit less ‘rational’ than he suggests; for example, I’m thinking of Robert Solomon’s words about the role that retribution plays – is the practical good of the community in view when we punish a murderer, or are we cleansing the land, paying back debt, and putting the world back into balance? (Passions of Law, 1999) The same would seem to apply to every day moral ‘reasoning.’

Unknown said...

Michael--thanks for the thoughtful extension of MacIntyre's thought. Jonathan--I think your confusion concerning Keltner's argument reflects my own, which I tried to express in the post. The data shows that people, generally, see a link between their emotional and moral responses. This seems less so in the United States, although the data only implies that people are wary of punishing the person in question. If the thought experiment does show a link between our moral judgments and emotions, I think much of the force of the thought experiment derives, not from the third-person percentages, but from the first-person experience we go through upon hearing it. We register our disgust, and witness the internal dialog, perhaps ending with a resolution not to punish the man. But in spite of this conclusion I do not find myself in place of moral indifference. What explains that judgment? Did I run through the Categorical Imperative or a utility calculation? No--when I look inside I find that, indeed, I do use my emotions as partial guide to moral judgment.

Anonymous said...

i like chickens and eggs alot, so i think its mean for the man to have sex with the chickens, even though they are dead. When will we start respecting the animals and more importantly the dead. Gosh, people can be so sick sometimes.