I’ve written before about the work of Jonathan Haidt (pronounced “height”). He is a psychologist who has taken an experimental approach to investigating morality. I was highly impressed by Haidt’s analysis of conservative versus liberal versus of morality, for instance. In his previous work, Haidt determined that disgust played a significant role in the moral judgments of conservatives, but not so much for liberals. This result, based upon numerous surveys, sheds light on moral disputes regarding many things, including homosexuality.
Most liberals have no personal interest in homosexual sex, and many of them are disgusted by the thought of engaging in such an act. The liberal’s disgust regarding a particular type of sexual act does not constitute any basis for a moral judgment (in a liberal). For many conservatives, however, the disgust experienced for any thought that they might personally engage in a homosexual act often does provide the basis for a wide-ranging moral judgment against all persons engaging in any homosexual acts. The Science article suggests that many liberals could better understand how disgust might play into a moral judgment by considering their own moral judgments, including those related to the proper way of processing food, the proper type of food to eat or the disgust they might experience regarding symbolic issues.
The May 9, 2008 edition of Science reports that Haidt has taken his research on disgust and morality one step further (online access to this article is limited to subscribers). The article, entitled “The Roots of Morality,” describes Haidt’s experiments and results:
A team of psychologists recently asked dozens of college students to consider several morally charged situations. In one, a friend lies on his resume to land a job; in another, survivors of a plane crash consider cannibalizing an injured boy to avoid starvation. Students who pondered these hypothetical scenarios while sitting at a filthy desk with sticky stains and a chewed up pen rated them as more immoral than did students who sat at a pristine desk. In another version of the experiment, a nearby trash can doused with novelty Bart spray had a similar effect. The findings, in press at Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, demonstrate that emotions such as disgust exert a powerful influence on moral judgments, even when they are triggered by something unrelated to the moral issue, says study co-author Jonathan Haidt. . .”
This pithy article in Science describes Haidt’s position that people rely on their gut reactions to inform them of the morality of a situation, relying on their reasoning skills only after-the-fact. This is “not unlike an art museum visitor who is struck by the beauty of a painting but struggles to explain why.”
In making moral judgments, then, there seems to be a quick and dirty road to judgment based upon gut feelings as well as a slowly and carefully reasoned road. This is not surprising in light of my own real-life experience with moral judgments (regarding both my own judgments and watching the judgments of others).
Nor is it unusual that the brain might have a quick and dirty method and also a more carefully considered (but slower) method for getting the job done. For instance, Joseph LeDoux has demonstrated that there is a quick and dirty neural pathway for experiencing human emotion as well as a more deliberate and intellectualized pathway. These normally work in tandem, but not always.
Similarly, perception appears to be mediated by multiple systems. In The Visual Brain in Action, Milner and Goodale argue that motor neural systems that underlie visually guided action (such as reaching) are distinct from conscious experiences associated with perception (such as recognition and categorization). [I was made aware of this work by Milner and Goodale by Andy Clark's introduction to cognitive science, entitled Mindware (2001)].
Haidt’s work, described in the above-described article in Science, provides further evidence that the brain is actually a big bag of tricks, rather than anything homogenous. Or, as Steven Pinker has put it, “The mind is not a single organ but a system of organs.”