moral reasoning

The Power of Moral Reasoning

5 October, 2020

In the past two decades, social science has painted a pretty dour picture of the power of moral reasoning. To explain why people disagree so profoundly about ethical and political questions, pundits and scientists have claimed that humans systematically disregard evidence from experts, and that we rely on gut feelings instead of reason. 

According to this pessimistic view, most of our moral judgments spring from automatic, unconscious and affective reactions. When we feel disgust toward someone, our disgust is what leads us to condemn their actions. Conversely, according to this theory, moral reasoning rarely shapes our moral judgments, but rather serves to justify our emotion-based judgments after the fact.

But is this pessimistic perspective the right one? Audun Dahl, associate professor of psychology at the University of California, says to sort out the place of reason in human morality, we need some clarity about just what we mean by moral reasoning. The philosopher Jonathan Adler, in the introductory chapter to his edited 1,000-page tome Reasoning (2012), defined the titular process as ‘a transition in thought, where some beliefs (or thoughts) provide the ground or reason for coming to another’. Moral reasoning is a specific type of reasoning, by which moral principles provide the grounds for moral judgments.

To ask whether people reason about moral issues, we need to answer two kinds of questions. Firstly, what kinds of moral principles and beliefs do people hold at the outset? And secondly, do people form moral judgments based on those prior principles and beliefs – that is, do humans form moral judgments that align with their moral principles and beliefs? It turns out that they do, from a surprisingly young age.

Hundreds of studies have shown that children as young as three to four years form judgments based on processes of moral reasoning.

Recently, the case against moral reasoning has begun to unravel. It turns out that the effects of gut feelings on moral judgments range from small to nonexistent. Even if being disgusted makes you judge moral violations slightly more harshly, no amount of disgust can make you judge that saving a drowning child is wrong. Other critics argued that studies purporting to show that adults are unable to explain their moral judgments – so-called ‘moral dumbfounding’ – suffered from methodological limitations. When those limitations were removed, researchers found little or no evidence for moral dumbfounding. Lastly, although emotions are integral to our moral sense, emotions and thoughts are more intertwined than researchers once assumed.

Without this moral reasoning capacity, notions of human rights and social justice would be unimaginable. But with this capacity, what Martin Luther King called ‘the arc of the moral universe’ can, slowly, continue to zigzag toward justice.

Psyche, Aeon Media, Audun Dahl, 16 September 2020. Read the full article here.

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