Me: “I find Morano Gelato to be really delicious.”
Friend: “Dude what the fuck is wrong with you? It sucks.”
I cannot count the number of times that I’ve witnessed Dartmouth students express a completely subjective preference for something or other—the attractiveness of a fellow student, the deliciousness of a certain gummy snack (seriously, I was condemned for disliking Gushers recently), the pleasantness of a musical album—only to be declared “wrong” by their peers and subjected to a laughable attempt to discredit their taste. OK, some people do seem to just have “good taste.” That’s an issue that I will not pursue further. But surely some people’s taste buds just happen to experience food differently, while others just find themselves attracted to particular individuals. In many of these aesthetic matters, it seems silly to pronounce a preference as lesser than another; There appears to be something very biological, automatic, and uncontrollable about our aesthetic judgments. The question of “why” we find someone hot or prefer Cheez-its to Cheese Nips is difficult to answer.
What about our judgments of right and wrong? Common sense points toward some fundamental differences between the moral and aesthetic stuff. First, we like to think that we consider abortion unjust for a reason. The basis to this belief seems responsive to the conscious deliberation of ourselves and persuasive others. My friend’s reasons for why my crush is unattractive will likely not affect my perception of her beauty, while my professor’s reasons for why the Greek system is an abomination may change the way I experience the moral rightness of my fraternity. Second, there is probably more at stake in moral matters. These notions of right and wrong form the basis of most of our social contracts, spawn large-scale human conflict, and perpetuate immeasurable suffering.
Drawing on insights from moral psychology, I want to show you that our moral judgments actually look a lot more like our aesthetic tastes: intuitive and far more independent of conscious reasoning than we might think. And this information ought to influence the way we disagree with one another.
Throughout my catholic education, spanning baptism to confirmation, I never really bought into the whole God thing, barring a few intermittent retreats where I was essentially forced to convince myself that I had found Him. By sophomore year of college, I was a Militant Atheist. I found new Gods in the New Atheists, guys like biologist Richard Dawkins and the late journalist Christopher Hitchens (I even borrowed Hitchens’s phrase “anti-theist” in describing my attitude toward God, just to be extra provocative). The New Atheists’ account of God is pretty clear: He’s not real, at least not outside of the human mind. Supernatural agents probably arose out of a cognitive module, a “hypersensitive agency detection device,” that is otherwise highly adaptive. Basically, we’re biased to make false positives—detecting an agent when none exists—because the costs of false positives (thinking the water hose is actually a poisonous snake) are not as detrimental false negatives (sorry you’re dead now). So, humans started attributing agency to all sorts of phenomena (i.e. weather) and boom!, Gods were born. According to the New Atheists, religions co-opted these supernatural agents to explain reality and deify moral codes, essentially brainwashing their practitioners in the process.
Thus, the New Atheists criticize religious people for their metaphysical and moral beliefs. For a long time, I hated religion for this bastardization of reason, and wasn’t shy in expressing it. What I later learned was that there is much more to religion than belief. And much more to belief than reason.
The Righteous Mind by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt changed everything. I learned that the human proclivity for religiosity has likely moved beyond an evolutionary by-product to inscribe itself in the human genome. That is, hunter-gather tribes who created sacred moral codes to suppress selfishness and promote cooperation were able to outcompete other tribes for resources. As the theory goes, gene-culture co-evolution ultimately ensured that the tendency to construct shared moral networks among human groups has become an innate part of who we are (that’s why it “feels good” to become part of such networks). The explicit moral doctrine of successful religious doctrines, insofar as they have enabled human groups to function effectively, thus becomes somewhat arbitrary. The benefits of religion, I learned, are about belonging, not just believing. In casting religions as “bad” for their purported “beliefs,” I as Militant Atheist was ignorant to an integral component of religiosity.
Thus, I gained a valuable lesson in intellectual humility. In the certainty that my understanding of religion was correct, I was proliferating the very dogmatism that I aimed to denounce. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to accept that the infinite complexity of this life should preclude certainty. Or, as a way smarter dude, Albert Einstein, put it: “The one who undertakes to set himself up as judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the Gods.” Ironic, I know. But you get the point.
I started off my Dartmouth career as a philosophy major because I wanted to figure out what was right. But during an internship at Psychology Today magazine, whilst spending 8 hours a day monitoring psychologists’ blogs on the PT website, I discovered the wealth of knowledge to be gained from the empirical study of human nature. Naturally, I was drawn to the field of moral psychology, the study of how human beings form their moral judgments. Once again, what I learned changed everything.
Until the ‘90s, developmental theories controlled the field of moral psychology, contending that moral development occurred through the increasingly sophisticated application of conscious reasoning. This perspective corroborated the every day experience that most of have with regard to our moral lives. However, more recent lines of research have stressed the role of unconscious, emotional processes in the formation and maintenance of moral beliefs. This shift countered the emphasis on reason and harkened back to philosopher David Hume’s famous dictum, that “Reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions.” According to Jonathan Haidt’s social-intuitionist model, moral judgments are usually the result of quick, automatic intuitions, stemming from our genetic heritage and socio-historical context. Reason is employed more as a post-hoc construction to support a desired conclusion—what we already believe—rather than an instrument for any fact-of-the-matter.[i]
Today, a more dual-process model predominates in moral psychology, in which two subsystems in the brain compete for the final say in our moral lives. On this view, there exists a fundamental tension between our social-emotional intuitions, shaped by our personalities, evolutionary past and culture-bound experiences, and a more “cognitively controlled” system supporting abstract thinking and reasoning, instantiated in more recently evolved structures in the brain. On this view, we can transcend our inherited or unconscious intuitions in favor of more consciously controlled beliefs. But it was important to learn that that the embeddedness of our intuitions is a formidable opponent.
What I have omitted in this discussion is the experimental evidence that supports these theories. But in one of my favorite studies, the brain activity of fifteen Democrats and Republics were observed in response to information that threatened the credibility of their candidate. Unsurprisingly, brain regions associated with negative emotions and responses to punishment lit up to the threatening information, but when counter-information that reinstated credibility of their candidate showed up, the ventral striatum activated—one of the brain’s primary reward centers, which releases pleasurable waves of the neurotransmitter dopamine (cocaine and heroine are addictive because they trigger this dopamine release). An attachment to our moral teams, it appears, might literally be addictive.[ii]
In broadly sketching the space of moral psychology, I hoped to present the degree to which our moral lives are subject to forces outside of conscious control, to what extent we are motivated to form moral tribes and seek evidence for what we already believe. I think that we can recognize a commonality here: we are all human beings, and none of us have full control over what we are and what we believe. Can we not view the space of morality, and the various unconscious forces that maintain it, as something dissociable from the agents who engage in its discourse? In derogating individuals for their ideas, we might be missing the mark, projecting our frustration with a certain belief onto its host.
Condemning somebody for their moral inclination thus starts to look a bit more like mocking them for their preference for Gushers over Fruit Roll-Ups. Consider the following quote from philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who advocates not for a moral relativism, but a moral pluralism: “I came to the conclusion that there is a plurality of ideals, as there is a plurality of cultures and of temperaments…if a man pursues one of these values, I, who do not, am able to understand why he pursues it or what it would be like, in his circumstances, for me to be induced to pursue it.” Just as we can appreciate the variety of humans’ aesthetic tastes, so too can we appreciate, or at least empathize with, other people whose moral pallates differ from our own.
I don’t mean to de-value the importance of moral deliberation. Certainly our moral values are of supreme importance, sometimes so consequential that there’s no time for persuasion. In such extreme cases, reconciliation ought to be hastened by force (see: the Holocaust). But we must remember that we cannot coerce people into change their beliefs. And if your objective is to convince others that abortion should be legal, or that fraternities should not exist, mere argumentation, especially if conveyed in an offensive tone, will probably not work.
All this warmth and fuzzyness making you want to vomit? Well, even if you do really hate your moral opposites and have no vested interest in their well-being, the evidence suggests that no matter how strong and irrefutable your reasons, your argument will fall on deaf ears if shrouded by hostility or anger. Research in moral psychology reveals that if you want to uproot a moral belief, you’ve got intuition and its various defense mechanisms to deal with. By way of illustration, Martin Luther King Jr. was a master at appealing to intuitions, always orating in a calm, reflective tone that asked for reconsideration rather than inciting defensiveness. He eschewed a language of opposition in favor of establishing kinship, referring to his moral adversaries as his “white brethren.” Because emotion plays such a crucial role in the maintenance of moral belief, you’ll have to change people’s hearts in order to change their minds. As Militant Atheist, I had not yet learned this lesson. Coming from a place of antagonism and certainty, I did not put my listeners in a position to be receptive to my ideas. Rather, their minds scrambled for counter-reasons as soon as I opened my mouth.
In this article, I have endeavored not make any normative claims about what is moral. I am extremely grateful that many people way smarter than me are working on that great mystery. However, in light of recent research in moral psychology, and my own mistakes having been convinced I was absolutely right in matters of morality, I feel fairly confident in suggesting we ought to bring more compassion into the arena of moral discourse. Given highly deterministic nature of our moral beliefs, and the ineffectiveness of militancy, we should question the anger, name-calling, and antagonism that often underlie our moral dialogue. Perhaps poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said it best: “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
At present, the space of moral discourse often looks like a battlefield. In transforming to a more compassionate space, we encourage collective engagement--an aggregation, rather than a division, of humanity's noble (albeit fallible) pursuit of the Good.
[i] The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt.
[ii] Westen et. al, 2006.