Are we judges or lawyers?

Paul Bloom in Nature says while modern psychology may be have it right that a moral sense is biological, it cannot explain how morals evolve:

[M]any psychologists think that the reasoned arguments we make about why we have certain beliefs are mostly post-hoc justifications for gut reactions. As the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt puts it, although we like to think of ourselves as judges, reasoning through cases according to deeply held principles, in reality we are more like lawyers, making arguments for positions that have already been established. This implies we have little conscious control over our sense of right and wrong.

I predict that this theory of morality will be proved wrong in its wholesale rejection of reason. Emotional responses alone cannot explain one of the most interesting aspects of human nature: that morals evolve. The extent of the average person’s sympathies has grown substantially and continues to do so. Contemporary readers of Nature, for example, have different beliefs about the rights of women, racial minorities and homosexuals compared with readers in the late 1800s, and different intuitions about the morality of practices such as slavery, child labour and the abuse of animals for public entertainment. Rational deliberation and debate have played a large part in this development.

What is missing, I believe, is an understanding of the role of deliberate persuasion. Language is an effective tool for motivating sympathy towards others. For example, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped to end slavery in the United States, and descriptions of animal suffering in Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation (1975) and elsewhere have been powerful catalysts for the animal-rights movement. Stories can be morally corrosive too: if we are encouraged to imagine people doing things that anger or disgust us, we are quick to evict them from our moral circle. Examples of this are all too familiar, such as Adolf Hitler’s propaganda against the Jews in Nazi Germany, or the negative depictions of homosexuals put out by anti-gay campaigners in many countries today.

Stories emerge because people arrive at certain views and strive to convey them to others. It is this generative capacity that contemporary psychologists have typically ignored.

Bloom sketches some possible ways his hypothesis could be scientifically tested.

If Bloom is wrong there’s a paradox. We may blog away with our opinions, but if no one is going to be persuaded, what’s the point? Motivating the base? [As an economist, I liked Paul Romer’s accessible explanation for why economists fail to persuade, titled “Persuasion and Norms“.]

Related: Dave Johns writes about what scientists have learned about social contagions — the transmission of ideas and behaviors.

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