Explain and assess Haidt’s ‘moral foundations’ theory

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This essay will explain and assess Moral Foundations Theory (MFT), which was originally developed by Haidt, and which he has since worked on with a number of collaborators. The first part of this essay will outline the philosophical background of the theory, especially its relationship to Continental rationalism and British empiricism. This will be followed by an explanation and description of Haidt’s Social Intuitionist Model (SIM), which provides the essential mechanism by which MFT functions. Next will come an unpacking and explanation of the general claims of MFT, and the specific foundations it postulates. Finally, there will be an assessment of some of the various critiques of the theory, during which its strengths and weaknesses will be considered. It will be concluded that MFT is a strong theory on the whole, which builds on firm philosophical and scientific foundations and provides good descriptive representation of moral systems.

MFT rejects the rationalist notion that morality can be accessed by a priori reason. Put simply, there are four main justifications for this:

  1. there are two cognitive processes that occur in humans – reasoning and intuition – the former of which has been overemphasized;
  2. reasoning is frequently motivated by other concerns;
  3. the reasoning process tends to construct post hoc justifications, even though we experience the illusion of objective reasoning; and
  4.  moral action covaries with moral emotion more frequently than with moral reasoning.

This is the heritage of Continental philosophy, whose champions were figures such as Descartes and Kant. The philosophical forerunners to MFT were the British empiricist philosophers, especially Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume, and Smith. These men believed, to quote Hume, ‘that Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.’ In philosophy, this position now falls within the school of intuitionism. This ‘refers to the view that there are moral truths and that when people grasp these truths they do so not by a process of ratiocination and reflection but rather by a process more akin to perception.’ The social element comes in because intuition occurs in relation to other people. As Haidt puts it, ‘when faced with a social demand for a verbal justification, one becomes a lawyer trying to build a case rather than a judge searching for the truth’.

Based on this intellectual heritage, Haidt developed the ‘Social Intuitionist Model’ (SIM). It is important to explain this properly because the ‘SIM is the prequel to MFT’, and provides the mechanism by which the latter works. There are a series of links in the SIM that explain how people relate to moral problems.

  1. The first is the intuitive judgement link. ‘The model proposes that moral judgments appear in consciousness automatically and effortlessly as the result of moral intuitions’.
  2. The second is post hoc reasoning. This entails moral reasoning (rather than judgement), which is an ‘effortful’ process in which individuals search for support for an existing, intuitive moral judgement. Research has revealed that ‘everyday reasoning is heavily marred by the biased search only for reasons that support one’s already-stated hypothesis.’
  3. The third is the reasoned persuasion link. This is the process by which the individual verbalises their reasoning in an attempt to persuade others of the validity of their already-made position. This reasoning can sometimes affect the views of others, but this rarely happens because moral judgements are not based on logical arguments but on intuition. It has been hypothesised that persuasion, when it occurs, is effective because it elicits new intuitive judgements in the listener. The importance of using affective persuasion to change affectively based attitudes has been demonstrated by Edwards and von Hippel.
  4. The fourth is the social persuasion link. Due to the fact that people are so receptive to the development of group norms, ‘the mere fact that friends, allies, and acquaintances have made a moral judgment exerts a direct influence on others, even if no reasoned persuasion is used’. This may indicate only outward conformity on occasion, but researchers have shown that private judgements can often be directly influenced by the views of others.

There are two additional links that are hypothesised.

  • One is the ‘reasoned judgment link’ by which people may at times reason their way to a judgment by sheer force of logic, overriding their initial intuition’. This tends to occur, however, when the ‘initial intuition is weak and processing capacity is high’. In other cases, it frequently leads to a kind of dualist way of thinking, where reasoned judgment is revealed verbally but the intuition continues to operate. Interestingly, on this point MFT diverges from the moral theory of Hume and the argument from pure intuition. If this link does exists, there is no explanation of how one can reason their way to a set of premises or axioms that can be used to support logic argument – unless, of course, they reason in a circle.
  • The other link is the ‘private reflection link’, through which moral reasoning can have an indirect causal effect on moral judgement by triggering a new intuition. This is said to be why role-taking is so effective in creating new moral judgments. As Haidt puts it, ‘Simply by putting oneself into the shoes of another person, one may instantly feel pain, sympathy, or other vicarious emotional responses.’

MFT makes several broad claims, which will be presented here in no particular order.

  1. Firstly, it rejects the assumption of monism that all moral systems are ultimately reducible to a single goal or principle, most commonly generalised as forms of ‘justice’, ‘pleasure’ or ‘happiness’. Instead, it is pluralist and contends that there are numerous (but finite) basic values or virtues. As Isaiah Berlin put it, ‘there is a plurality of ideals, as there is a plurality of cultures and of temperaments.’ This is derived from the fact that it is heavily influenced by evolutionary biology, especially the concepts of kin selection and reciprocal altruism. It also builds on more recent work by de Waal (1996), Ridley (1996), among others. As there are a multitude of adaptive challenges faced by human beings, it seems likely that there are also many different mental tools fitted for a variety of purposes.
  2. The second claim is intuitionism, which has already been discussed at some length. To reiterate briefly, it is the assertion that ‘moral judgments, like other evaluative judgments, tend to happen quickly’, without any considerable regard for reasoning or drawn out evaluation. This aspect is encapsulated by Haidt’s (2001) SIM. Moral reasoning (as opposed to moral judgment) is generally utilised for strategic purposes in order to ‘to explain, defend and justify our intuitive moral reactions to others’.
  3. The third claim is nativism, which is the belief that there is a set of innate predispositions within human beings (‘innate’ in this case means ‘organized in advance of experience’). These are determined by genetic inheritance, but the ‘first draft’ of moral development is malleable and is changed during childhood and to an extent even during adulthood. Graham et al. employ the metaphor of writing a book, distinguishing between nature’s ‘first draft’ and the ‘editing process’ that begins with experience. Morality, therefore, ‘is innate and highly dependent on environmental influences’. The belief that nature has installed a kind of ‘preparedness’ in certain species, one of which is humans, is suggested by studies of rhesus monkeys conducted by Mineka and Cook (1988). Graham et al. (2012) ‘think of this innate organization as being implemented by sets of related modules which work together to guide and constrain responses to each particular problem.’
  4. The final claim is that morality is influenced by cultural learning. This takes places through a set of ‘learning modules’, which are innate and can be used to build on one’s genetic inheritance. For example, the tendency to bow in deference or respect is common to many cultures, but this is adapted to locally-specific cultural contexts and by ‘the time a Hindu girl reaches adulthood, she will have developed culturally-specific knowledge that makes her automatically initiate bowing movements when she encounters, say, a respected politician for the first time.’ In an American household, however, this foundation might be dropped early on. Despite both girls starting off with the ‘same sets of universal learning modules….the universal (and incomplete) first draft of the moral mind gets filled in and revised so that the child can successfully navigate the moral “matrix” he or she actually experiences.’ Different societies use different foundations to build their moralities, and some use all of them.

MFT, therefore, is an intuitionist theory contending that human moral systems are the combination of innate predispositions and cultural learning. Additionally, judgements are made rapidly on the basis of a plurality of in-built mechanisms, which have been ‘hardwired’ into humans over the course of our species’ evolution. The rest of this essay will present, explain, and assess, in no particular order, the specific foundations postulated by MFT. There are supposedly five or six empirically supported ‘foundations’ for moral judgements, but MFT allows for others being discovered in the future.

  1. The first is the care/harm foundation. Human offspring ‘are unusually dependent, and for an unusually long time’ and the intuitive reactions of females have been ‘optimized to detect signs of suffering, distress, or neediness’ for the purpose of raising more offspring. ‘The original triggers of the Care/harm foundation are ‘visual and auditory signs of suffering, distress, or neediness expressed by one’s own child’, but they can be activated by other children, baby animals, stuffed toys with childlike qualities, or descriptions of suffering. This foundation leads to the creation of terms such as ‘kind’ and ‘cruel’, which are valued differently by different cultures (e.g., classical Sparta vs. Buddhist societies).
  2. The second is the fairness/cheating foundation. Social animals face non-zero-sum games in which it is advantageous to cooperate. Creatures ‘whose minds are organized in advance of experience to be highly sensitive to evidence of cheating and cooperation, and to react with emotions that compel them to play “tit for tat”, had an advantage over those who had to figure out their next move using their general intelligence.’ Social partners with reputations for certain types of behaviour are therefore labelled with words such as ‘fair’, ‘just’, and ‘trustworthy’.
  3. The third is the loyalty/betrayal foundation. It was advantageous for our ancestors to form cohesive groups when competing for territory and resources. This same behaviour can be seen in troops of chimpanzees. So humans have developed an innate predisposition to form groups. This manifests today in numerous areas, from nationalism to sports and brand loyalty.
  4. The fourth is the authority/subversion foundation. Dominance hierarchies are common among many primates, and the ability to recognise and react by forming strategic relationships yielded an evolutionary advantage. Modules of the human mind in this foundation explain why we submit to many useful but constraining societal structures, such as the police force and political leaders. The varied development of this foundation explains why different societies (modern-day China vs. America) or groups (social conservatives vs. liberals) value authority in different ways.
  5. The fifth is the sanctity/degradation foundation. Human evolution carried adaptive challenges, such as moving from tree-based to ground-based living, living in larger, denser groups, and eating more meat, some of which was scavenged. This exposed us to a greater number of pathogens and parasites, and we therefore developed a pre-emptory, in-built sensitivity to factors other than the ‘sensory properties of potential foods, friends, and mates.’ ‘Disgust and the behavioral immune system have come to undergird a variety of moral reactions, e.g., to immigrants and sexual deviants’

There are numerous criticisms of MFT, most of which are directed at one of the four main claims undergirding it: nativism, plurality, cultural learning, and intuitionism. One problem with nativism, for example, is that it is difficult to determine the extent to which the mind is ‘hardwired’. As Graham et al., put it: ‘opinions range widely from minimalist positions, which say that there is hardly any writing on the “first draft” of the mind, to maximalist positions such as massive modularity’ Indeed, the ambiguity here has led some to criticise MFT, and nativism in general, on the grounds that it lacks empirical neuroscientific evidence for the existence of modules. However, this is not reasonable at present. Given that the field is yet to ‘find a set of genes that, collectively, explains 5% of the variance in how tall people are what chance is there that anyone will find a set of genes that code for mental modules (such as loyalty or sanctity) whose expression is far more subject to cultural influence than is height?’

There is also considerable criticism of the emphasis MFT places on intuitionism. For example, some argue ‘that that intuition and reasoning are best seen as partners in a dance, in which either partner can lead and the other will follow.’ However, whatever the prominent role of reason, this seems misleading at the very least. As has been referenced already in this essay, and as Hume showed in his Treatise, it is not clear how reason can establish the first principles from which logical argument follows. Moral axioms cannot be given a logical foundation, and to the extent that they exist in nature and are ‘hardwired’, they cannot be expressed. Therefore, they are beyond realm of reason by their very nature. To say that reasoning can lead when it is necessarily guided by intuitive first principles is therefore unsupportable.

Interesting critiques come from the monists, who disagree with the pluralism hypothesis. Gray et al. believe that the care/harm foundation is the only one that is truly foundational. Graham et al. (2012) call this Procrustean, citing the fact that certain moral judgements, such as disgust, appear not to be accounted for by the care/harm foundation. Their confidence in this matter, however, is arguably misplaced. Disgust over, say, a dirty environment could be seen as a cause of harm. Perhaps those creatures with a predisposition to avoid unclean environments encountered fewer pathogens, for example, or were at less risk of being exposed to small but dangerous creatures such as spiders and snakes. Clearly, emotions, such as disgust, can potentially be explained by the care/harm foundation. The difficulty here arises in attempting to make bold comment about the way our ancestors perceived the links between various phenomena and their effects. While it is possible to argue that matters of disgust have little to do with harm, perhaps there is link that has not yet been discovered.

Some critics suggest that there should also be an oppression/liberty foundation. This is the potential sixth foundation being worked on by Haidt. Others point to the fact that MFT might be missing a waste/inefficiency foundation. These critiques focus on the particular pluralisms chosen for MFT. This is really a matter of fine-tuning, rather than any fundamental.

This essay has sought to explain and assess Haidt’s MTF. It has emerged that its central claims are extremely well-founded. The SIM has strong roots that date back to the empirical tradition in Britain and which still have not been successfully overturned. With the developments in psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology, both intuitionism and nativism rest on firm foundations. There are philosophical and other objections that can be targeted at the pluralism element of MFT. This is not to say that it is incorrect but rather that the confidence with which the claim is made is not justified. This essay has not sought to address deontological critiques of the MFT. There are those who would argue that MFT is asking the wrong questions, namely what morality is rather than what it should be. However, given that this problem was so adequately dealt with by Hume in his Treatise, it seems appropriate that scholars building on his legacy should develop a descriptive moral theory instead.


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