Consider a situation where a father uses corporal punishment with his children – he thinks hitting his children is an acceptable and effective way of disciplining them. How about a protestor who burns his nation’s flag out of anger for the rife corruption in his country? Think of say, individuals who picket and lobby against same-sex marriage legislations, or members of the community who support pro-choice policies. What about individuals who engage in deviant sexual behaviours such as cross-dressing? Your emotional reaction to each of these actions suggests that judgments of what is deemed moral or immoral is made on intuitive grounds rather than on reasoned or rational routes.
The psychology of morality was at one point in time understood from a rational, cognitive-based approach. That is, moral decisions are reasoned, and they become increasingly refined as we get older. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt, however, proposes that moral decision-making is heavily influenced by quick, intuitive and emotional judgments of the situation. Haidt argues that often, we make decisions about the moral merits and demerits of a situation using quick, intuitive and emotion-based routes, it is only after the decision has already been made that we provide a seemingly rational and ‘reasoned’ justification for our position . If you’ve ever gotten into a discussion about touchy, sensitive topics (same-sex marriage, abortion, religion, politics – pretty much any topic that would make dinner conversations awkward), you might have noticed individuals reacting strongly to positions that oppose their long-held views. Such reactions are expected – people have formed opinions and views of such matters, and providing disconfirming or challenging alternatives to those preconceptions stirs uncomfortable emotions in them. Haidt suggests that we have five moral dimensions – these are standards by which most countries and cultures around the world deem important and ‘intuitively acceptable.’ That said, even within the countries and cultures themselves, there will be variations – certain religious or political groups within a country, for instance, may place differing values on one dimension more than others . The five dimensions are:
• Care vs. harm – This dimension relates to minimization of harm (in all its forms – physical and psychological) towards other sentient beings. An act that harms others is quite easily seen as immoral until, of course, it is justified through other means.
• Fairness vs. cheating – The extent to which an act is seen as fair, just, and promotes equality among members of a particular group or community. Acting fairly benefits the society and helps ensure shared distribution of benefits to members of that group or community. What is fair and just, of course, varies depending on who you think deserves a larger slice of the pie.
• Loyalty vs. betrayal – The extent to which an act is seen as displaying allegiance, fidelity and faithfulness toward a group. How important is it, for instance, for you to be seen as patriotic by others?
• Authority vs. subversion – Some communities and systems of governance, for instance, value deference to authority more so than others. Should we respect and defer to our leaders and to our traditional values in most, if not all instances?
• Sanctity vs. degradation – The extent to which an act is seen to promote purity, cleanliness. Acts that ‘defile’ bodily and psychological sanctity – deviant sexual acts, for example, can elicit disgust and shape our judgements.
The next time you engage in an intense discussion on what is deemed moral or immoral, consider if the issue can be framed using the dimensions listed above. Does the issue concerns actions or decisions that will result in care and harm to others? Is the issue one related to adherence to, and respect for authority? When we judge others for their leisurely weekend habits, are we really just reacting emotionally to acts we would not think of engaging in ourselves? Our social intuitions shape our moral judgments – what we feel strongly determines what we consider “right” and “wrong” with the world, and the people around us.