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09/18/2007

Evolution and morality

Today’s Science Times includes an interesting article about Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist who studies morality. He hypothesizes that our brains have evolved two levels of morality:

Dr. Haidt (pronounced height) began his research career by probing the emotion of disgust. Testing peoples reactions to situations like that of a hungry family that cooked and ate its pet dog after it had become roadkill, he explored the phenomenon of moral dumbfounding — when people feel strongly that something is wrong but cannot explain why.

Dumbfounding led him to view morality as driven by two separate mental systems, one ancient and one modern, though the mind is scarcely aware of the difference. The ancient system, which he calls moral intuition, is based on the emotion-laden moral behaviors that evolved before the development of language. The modern system — he calls it moral judgment — came after language, when people became able to articulate why something was right or wrong.

The emotional responses of moral intuition occur instantaneously — they are primitive gut reactions that evolved to generate split-second decisions and enhance survival in a dangerous world. Moral judgment, on the other hand, comes later, as the conscious mind develops a plausible rationalization for the decision already arrived at through moral intuition.

Moral dumbfounding, in Dr. Haidts view, occurs when moral judgment fails to come up with a convincing explanation for what moral intuition has decided.

Over at Edge, Haidt talks about his research at length in his own words (and there’s a discussion of those words).

Tangential question: Depending on whom you ask, morality is either a social construct, the law of our deity, or an evolutionary adaptation — but does it ultimately matter? If morality is the product of evolution, does that make it any more or less “right” than if comes from some other source?

-Greg Dahlmann

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