Irrational Morality

Morality in the BrainIn their articles, Green and Haidt (2002) argue that not all moral judgments are rational. Brain scans of participants making moral judgments show that a person’s emotions are activated during this process (Green and Haidt, 2002). While there are moral scenarios where emotions do not seem to have an impact, there are other scenarios where the significance is clear.

The importance of emotions in judgment making is apparent for moral scenarios where there is no clear reason or principle why a behavior is immoral. The only signifier is that it inspires a negative emotional response in the judge. While this idea may not have been articulated or researched previously, the occurrence of emotion-based moral judgments is quite common. People witness a variety of acts that inspire disgust or anger, yet no one can really say what is making them angry or disgusted.

What this finding means for morality is unclear. One question that comes up is: “Are moral judgments based on emotion valid?” When making laws or condemning another person’s actions, people tend to supply reasons for their legislation or condemnation. There is a logical argument to why an act should not be committed. In other words, the morality is justified by reason. However, if emotions play such a role in regular judgments of morality, should they be used when creating a code of ethics. When sex between siblings is consensual and protected, there seems to be no reason why it should be prohibited. As long as the couple does not reproduce, no real harm comes out of this act. One may argue that there may be some potential negative psychological effects on the siblings. While this may be the case, this reason is not used to regulate other potentially damaging intimate relationships. People enter into relationships all the time that could have negative emotional and psychological effects. As long as the couple is not made up of related individuals, the government does not intervene. The question remains, is the sheer negative emotional reaction to the thought of incest enough to condemn it? Saletan (2002) puts a lot of effort into finding a logical argument against human intercourse with animals. While he is able to do so, I wonder if he has to?

Emotions are a useful tool for making moral judgments. When a person does not have time to use reason to make a moral judgment, I would guess that he/she could get by using emotions alone. I think that he/she would make the same judgment based on his gut-emotional response as he/she would if the scenario were reasoned out. (IT WOULD BE COOL IF SOMEONE COULD FIND SOURCES TO BACK THIS UP). It also seems hard to believe that most rational judgments came independently of emotion. I’d argue that a great deal of the laws and rules we have today are the result of people coming up with justifications for their emotional responses to events. For instance, a person back in the day saw someone get killed and felt some series of negative emotions. Afterwards, the person probably thought about the event and figured that a rule should be made against killing others. However, to convince others to agree with the rule, a rational argument had to be made. While this situation most likely did not actually occur, it illustrates the point I’d like to make. I feel that morality comes from our emotional responses to events and does not need a logical justification.
*While I will end my posting here, I challenge people to question this claim. Already, I am thinking of a bunch of counterarguments. One in particular involves homosexuality and how that inspires negative reactions in some. I disagree that it is immoral and should be illegal, so I am not sure then how morality should be legislated or validated. Hmm… I guess this is something I need to work on.

Touching on the idea that judgments are made on gut-emotional responses relates greatly to Malcolm Gladwell's ideas about the subconscious mind in the book Blink. If we are not aware of why we have certain emotional responses to negative behaviors or events, then these responses must be playing out at some level and Gladwell offers a very good answer as to where these responses may be emanating from. According to Gladwell, our unconscious mind is "behind a closed door," which we cannot open. Hence, these explanations of our emotional responses/judgments of situations cannot actually be known. This may not be of help in answering why we have these emotional responses, since Gladwell believes we can never fully explain our emotional responses, but what it does provide is an answer as to where these responses can originate from.

Furthermore, Gladwell elaborates on the idea of the unconscious mind by explaining the process of "thin-slicing," which is the ability of the unconscious mind to identify patterns in situations or behaviors in very short periods of time. Using the idea of thin-slicing may help to explain our emotional responses to immoral situations or behaviors. When people encounter negative/immoral behaviors, they recognize that behavior as being negative or immoral from prior situations they may have seen or experienced. Thus, a person's emotional responses and judgments are a result of their simple recognition, or "thin-slicing", of a negative situation. Of course, the thin-slicing itself is due to the unconscious minds' ability to recognize a negative situation using prior negative experiences. This is one explanation of a person's sudden negative response to immoral behavior but since the unconscious mind is 'locked', this can not be ascertained.

Another author who explores these ideas of irrationality and the unconscious mind is Psychologist Rom Brafman who co-authored the book Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior with his brother Ori Brafman. Sway applies many of the findings of social psychology to our irrationality in a number of situations, such as hiring interviews (3 minute clip), in response to potential losses (7 minute clip), and in relation to fulfilling others' expectations (2 minute clip). If you are especially interested in this topic you can watch the full-length recent book talk by Rom Brafman (about 1 hour)...

Brafman & Brafman (2008). Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior.
Greene, J. D. & Haidt, J. (2002). How (and where) does moral judgment work? Trends in Cognitive Science, 6, 517-523.
Saletan, W. (2001, April 5). Shag the dog. Slate. Retrieved from
Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink. 1. New York: Time Warner Book Group, 2005.

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