Is Morality Irrational?

Morality is often presented as a rational choice. In this sense, rational means that moral decisions are deliberated through thought, as opposed to being acted on instinctively. A moral dilemma requires analysis, or weighing the possible outcomes before taking action. But does it really?

As a society, we know that morality is "good," but we often have trouble defining what morality really means. Is morality innate? Is it taught by society? Can it only exist through fear of god? What does it mean to be moral?

There are two theories about morality which may answer some of these questions. One of them is Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development. The other is morality as presented in the book How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer.

Lawrence Kohlberg is an American psychologist whose research focused largely on moral education and reasoning. A greatly simplified description of Kohlberg's stages of moral development follows:
1. Obedience and Punishment Orientation -- Fear of punishment
2. Individualism and Exchange -- Tit for tat, or hope for reward
3. Good Interpersonal Relationships -- Seeking social approval
4. Maintaining the Social Order -- Rules are rules
5. Social Contract and Individual Rights -- Some rules can be bent
6. Universal Principles -- Underlying principles are better than rules
The idea behind this theory is simple: As children develop, they learn to think about morality in new and more complex ways. Young children initially base morality on their fear of punishment and later on the hope of gaining a reward. While they are a bit older, children are "good" because they seek social approval. By the time they move into elementary school, kids are reaching Stage 4, where rules are rules.

It is thought that many adults remain in Stage 4 for the rest of their lives. They view the world in black and white terms. Rules must be obeyed. The rules people follow are usually determined by the framework in which they were raised and it is difficult for them to see any activity that goes against these rules as being moral.

Stage 5 begins when people become aware that rules have been created by society and can be changed as society evolves or the needs of individuals within the society change. The final stage of moral development is where people understand how it can be more important to base actions on ethical principles instead of on established rules. (Bending one principle to accommodate a more important principle is an accepted part of morality.)

Kohlberg's stages of moral development are based on Jean Piaget's developmental theory. They were established through studying the behavior of others. Subjects were presented with moral dilemmas and the explanations behind their answers were studied and categorized.

By looking at our own society, it's easy to fit different people's behaviors and ideas to these different stages of morality. But this approach makes the assumption that moral decisions are made through rational thought. In other words, we consciously choose to be moral. What if that isn't the case?

In How We Decide, a book which explores the neuroscience behind decision making, Jonah Lehrer describes how decisions are made by either the rational or emotional parts of the brain. The rational brain reasons through decisions and the emotional brain reacts without conscious deliberation.

Given this model, Lehrer contends that morality comes from the emotional brain. He provides examples of how our feelings first determine our moral outrage and how our thoughts about morality later rationalize (think about) these gut reactions.

Lehrer shows morality as a direct result of empathy. Our ability to be moral comes from our ability to empathize with others. To be moral, people do not need rules, but rather need to feel a connection to others. This connection to other people makes it difficult to harm them.

Although Lehrer points to neuroscientific research to back up the idea of innate morality, he also goes on to show how moral capacity is affected by environmental factors. Without the love of supportive parents (or caregivers), children do not learn to empathize. Children who are abused distance themselves and may have trouble forming strong relationships later in life, which may affect their later understanding of moral decisions.

Debates over moral issues such as abortion, euthanasia or gay marriage, often raise questions about what constitutes morality. If morality is defined differently by different people, which morality trumps the others? But what if we are discussing the wrong issues?

Perhaps we should spend more time understanding the development that leads people to want to be moral, instead of wasting time arguing about whose rules define moral decisions.

1 comment:

  1. But, of course, that last injunction assumes that morality is something worth spending time encouraging. Which assumes that it exists on some intrinsic level, which is (according to naturalist epistemology) unjustified, unless we could reduce it to some simpler compelling force, like logic or rational self-interest. Then again, Kant and Aristotle have their own problems, so...

    Looks like you're making the assumption that it
    A) exists on some intrinsic level that is
    B) knowable through intuition more than reason and the senses and is
    C) inherently to be desired, in all situations, by all perfectly rational, informed human beings.

    I suppose that's reasonable enough. Just be honest enough to realize that you're assuming that, and humble enough to realize that you're opening yourself up to those three lines of attack. Because all three are at least as tenuous as Kant and Aristotle's assumptions.

    Not to mention that B conflicts dreadfully (and C more subtly) with standard naturalist epistemology. And that's before we even get into the other criticisms.