Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Dumbfounded by Morality

Jon Haidt on the reasons people give justifying their moral judgements:

So what’s really clear, you can see it in the videotapes of the experiment, is: people give a reason. When that reason is stripped from them, they give another reason. When the new reason is stripped from them, they reach for another reason. And it’s only when they reach deep into their pocket for another reason, and come up empty-handed, that they enter the state we call “moral dumbfounding.” Because they fully expect to find reasons. They’re surprised when they don’t find reasons. And so in some of the videotapes you can see, they start laughing. But it’s not an “it’s so funny” laugh. It’s more of a nervous-embarrassment puzzled laugh. So it’s a cognitive state where you “know” that something is morally wrong, but you can’t find reasons to justify your belief. Instead of changing your mind about what’s wrong, you just say: “I don’t know, I can’t explain it. I just know it’s wrong.”

So the fact that this state exists indicates that people hold beliefs separate from, or with no need of support from, the justifications that they give. Or another way of saying it is that the knowing that something is wrong and the explaining why are completely separate processes.


  1. I do believe that social conditioning plays a massive part in determining one's moral values. The reasoning goes: if everyone thinks an action is right, then it must be right. And I think we know pretty well that changing one's longheld beliefs, even in the face of reason is just damn hard.

    I disagree with his stance on what's moral and what's not though. He says that liberals ignore the pillars of "Hierarchy, Respect, and Duty", and
    "Purity and Pollution". Err.... no, we do. At least I do. I just put the rights of the individual before the archaic "rules" of society - such as no gay marriage, forced veiling of Muslim women, etc.

  2. This is Haidt's early insights and I agree emphatically!!

    I find the problem is that Atheists see this clearly in theists, but are blind to it in themselves. Using the the term "Humanist" as a rationalization of preferences is just such an example.