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The Evolutionary Psychology of Morality

In a recent article written for the New York Times, The Moral Instinct, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker takes us on a tour of the most recent research on the psychology and evolution of morality. He discusses the primacy of our moral intuitions over reasoning, ways in which our moral instincts can be fooled by difficult situations—and what brain imaging shows us is happening when we are caught in these moral dilemmas. Of particular interest are theories that identify the primary areas of moral judgment. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt notes five: harm, fairness, group loyalty, respect for authority, and purity.

Haidt, in a September piece for Edge, entitled Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion, talks about his five moral "foundations" and the ways that they are applied in religion. The foundations influence more than just religion as Haidt applies them to politics as well. In his findings, Haidt notes that people who identify themselves as politically liberal tend to be primarily concerned with issues of harm and fairness while paying little attention to group loyalty, respect for authority, or purity. Meanwhile, those who identified themselves as politically conservative tended to be concerned with all five of the moral spheres. This may serve to illuminate the ways in which religion is often misunderstood by scientists and academics, and how those of differing political stripes organize their respective priorities.

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Update by NomadSoul

A letter in response to Pinker’s article on the New York Times website suggests the following:

Among the five “moral spheres” of harm, fairness, community, authority and purity, Jonathan Haidt “found that liberals put a lopsided moral weight on harm and fairness while playing down group loyalty, authority and purity.” In fact, liberals do put weight on these spheres: Haidt may simply have been asking the questions from an inappropriate point of view and disregarding Peter Singer’s “Theory of the Expanding Circle.” Liberals put great weight on loyalty to the entire human race (or even all animals), as opposed to one’s own race, nation or clan. They put weight on the authority of empirical evidence (over dogma), the international community (over one’s own country) or the Constitution (over the flag). And they put weight on purity in terms of the environment and sustainability. What appears to be moral “lopsidedness” is the result of applying the spheres to larger groups and more universal, all-encompassing entities.
STEPHEN W. SMITH
Minneapolis

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Stopping the trolley by Figdor

The only rational objection to stopping the trolley by means of the fat man is the degree of uncertainty involved in each of the options available to the motivated bystander (self). Throwing the fat man into the path of the trolley would create a 100% chance of ending one life, but what % chance of saving the other 5? If I am a trolley guru and an experienced fat man tosser who knows the toss will succeed, I don’t have any moral objections to making the toss. It is certainly a significant step to take, killing through action rather than inaction, but a purely psychological boundary. Much could be improved in this world if this psychological boundary could be broken down.

If there’s less than a 100% probability of success, one cannot make this call. Perhaps this is the subconcious qualm present in the study- that the action may not succeed. If the five men get nailed despite the improvised roadblock, then the tosser is on the hook (morally and legally) for an additional death. He can say he did the moral thing by doing everything in his power to prevent the disaster, but in the eyes of society he will be a murderer, regardless of his intent. So, the purely moral thing would be to make the toss, but the community morality will likely strongly oppose such an action, regardless of the actual outcome. In such a lose/ lose situation, I propose a third option: throw yourself in front of the trolley.

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