Cognitive Science: An Introduction/Moral Thinking

Basics of Moral PsychologyEdit

Morals are examples of "norms," which are ideas related to words like "should" and "ought." There are non-moral norms, though, like rationality, manners, and those of beauty.[1]

Moral reasoning is a thinking process where the set goal is determining whether an idea is right or wrong. To know whether something is "right" or "wrong" one must first know what that something is intended to accomplish. It is individual or collective practical reasoning about what, morally, one ought to do. [2]

Morality seems to involve reasoning and emotions. The "moral emotions" are those emotions that are relevant to moral action and judgment, including guilt, shame, anger, fear, disgust, compassion, and elevation. Having an emotion can trigger a moral judgment or action, but so can the anticipation of an action. We might not do something because we anticipate we'd feel guilty about it later, or do something good because we expect to feel joy or elevation.[1]

Why Do We Have Morals and How Do We Know it Evolved?Edit

Morals were evolved to help us take care of the other people in our groups, but not so much people outside our groups. Such groups can be explained with the ‘Expanding Circle.’

The Expanding Circle

  • Self interest - Self interest is caring about myself and my family.
    • All animals have instincts for gene-preservation.
  • Friendship - Friendship is caring for historical cooperated partners.
    • This is shared with chimps.
    • Sharing food used to be a life-and-death matter for us.
  • Tribalism - Tribalism is caring about us, but not them.
    • Tragedy of Commons
    • Evolved morals in humans took care of this
    • Anthropological survey shows that ethnocentrism is universal.
  • I care about all people or creatures that can have positive or negative experiences
    • Tragedy of common sense morality
    • This requires abstract reasoning and values

In general, the evolved and well-learned behaviours work faster than deliberate ones. [3]

The Development of Moral ReasoningEdit

The Development of Moral Reasoning There are multiple theories that attempt to explain how moral reasoning works, but one of the most known and most influential is by Lawrence Kohlberg. Kohlberg’s work derived from that of Jean Piaget who theorized that moral development is determined by cognitive development. By this he meant the way individuals reason about moral issues depends on their level of cognitive development. Kohlberg found that individuals progress through a series of three levels of moral development, each of which can be broken into two sub-levels. Each stage represents a different approach to thinking about right and wrong. [4] Kohlberg's work emphasized justice as the key concept in moral reasoning, seen as a primarily cognitive activity, and became the dominant approach to moral psychology, heavily influencing subsequent work.[5]

Level 1 - Pre-conventional Morality (most 9 year olds and under)

  • At this level, we don’t have a personal code of morality. Instead, our code is shaped by the standards of adults and the consequences of following or breaking their rules. Authority is outside the individual and reasoning is based on the physical consequences of actions.
    • Stage 1: Obedience and Punishment Orientation
      • The child/individual is good in order to avoid being punished. If a person is punished, they must have done wrong.
    • Stage 2: Individualism and Exchange
      • At this stage children recognize that there is not just one right view that is handed down by the authorities. Different individuals have different viewpoints.

Level 2 - Conventional Morality (most adolescents and adults)

  • At this level, we begin to internalize the moral standards of valued adult role models. Authority is internalized but not questioned and reasoning is based on the norms of the group to which the person belongs to.
    • Stage 3: Good Interpersonal Relationships
      • The child/individual is good in order to be seen as being a good person by others. Therefore, answers relate to the approval of others.
    • Stage 4: Maintaining the Social Order
      • The child/individual becomes aware of the wider rules of society so judgments concern obeying the rules in order to uphold the law and to avoid guilt.

Level 3 - Post-conventional Morality

  • Individual judgment is based on self-chosen principles, and reasoning is based on individual rights and justice. According to Kohlberg, this level of moral reasoning is as far as most people get. Only 10-15% of people are capable of the kind of abstract thinking necessary for stage 5 or 6 (most people take their moral views from those around them and only a small amount of people think through ethical principles for themselves).
    • Stage 5: Social Contract and Individual Rights
      • The individual becomes aware that while rules/laws might exist for the good of the greatest number, there are times when they will work against the interest of particular individuals. The issues are not always clear cut. For example, some people might say the protection of life is more important than breaking the law against stealing.
    • Stage 6: Universal Principles
      • People at this stage have developed their own set of moral guidelines which may or may not fit the law. The principles apply to everyone. E.g. human rights, justice and equality. The person will be prepared to act to defend these principles even if it means going against the rest of society in the process and having to pay the consequences of disapproval and or imprisonment. Kohlberg doubted few people reached this stage. [6]

Thinking and Feeling: A Dual-Process ModelEdit

Popular culture often differentiates thinking and feeling, and cognitive science supports this distinction for moral psychology. There are lots of moral dilemmas that pit thinking systems against feeling systems the mind.[7] More specifically, there is an emotional, fast, automatic, rapid, and unconscious process (we'll call it System 1), and a slow, rational, deliberate, reasoning process (System 2).

Haidt’s Moral FoundationsEdit

Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist who defines moral as: the sudden appearance in consciousness of a moral judgment, including an affective valence (good–bad, like–dislike), without any awareness of having gone through steps of searching, weighing evidence, or inferring a moral conclusion. Moral intuition is therefore the psychological process that the Scottish philosophers talked about, a process akin to aesthetic judgment. One sees or hears about an event and one instantly feels approval or disapproval. Haidt writes that he found Kohlberg's theories unsatisfying from the time he first encountered them in graduate school because they "seemed too cerebral" and lacked a focus on issues of emotion. [8] His approach, which stood in sharp contrast to Kohlberg's rationalist work, suggested that "moral judgment is caused by quick moral intuitions" while moral reasoning simply serves as a post-hoc rationalization of already formed judgments.

  1. Care/Harm: cherishing and protecting others.
  2. Liberty/Oppression: rendering justice according to shared rules.
  3. Authority/Subversion: obeying tradition and legitimate authority.
  4. Fairness/Cheating: the hatred of tyranny.
  5. Loyalty/Betrayal: standing with your group, family, nation.
  6. Sanctity/Degradation: irritation for disgusting things, foods, actions.

Political ApplicationsEdit

Researchers have found severe correlations between the moral foundations and their political ideologies. Right-wing people tend to have all six moral foundations fairly strong. Left-wing people tend to have only care/harm and liberty/oppression strong. Libertarians tend to only have liberty/oppression strong. This is mostly genetics, which means your politics is mostly genetic.[3]

  1. a b Machery, E. & Mallon, R. (2010). Evolution of morality. In J.M. Doris (Ed.). The Moral Psychology Handbook. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, Pages 3--46.
  2. Henry Richardson. (2016). Moral Reasoning.
  3. a b Jim Davies. (2016) Carleton University Lecture Material
  4. Wayne Weiten. (2010) Psychology: Themes and Variations 4th Edition.
  5. Gabriel D. Donleavy (Jul., 2008) Journal of Business Ethics Vol. 80, No. 4, pp. 807-822
  6. Lawrence Kohlberg. (1958). The Development of Modes of Thinking and Choices in Years 10 to 16. Ph. D. Dissertation, University of Chicago.
  7. Cushman, F., Young, L. & Greene, J.D. (2010). Multi-system moral psychology. In J.M. Doris (Ed.). The Moral Psychology Handbook. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, Pages 47--71.
  8. Haidt, Jonathan. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided By Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books. pp. 9–11.