This post is the first after a few technical issues. Some of my decision making has been suboptimal, but we will keep trying. The post is based on a commentary, “Is Anything Sacred Anymore?” that appeared in Psychological Inquiry, 23: 155-161, 2012. The authors are Peter H Ditto, Brittany Liu, and Sean P Wojcik. The commentary examines the paper: “The Moral Dyad: A Fundamental Template Unifying Moral Judgment,” by Gray, Waytz, and Young, that appeared in the Psychological Inquiry: An International Journal for the Advancement of Psychological Theory, 23:2, 206-215. I have found commentary articles easier for me to understand since they have to examine two or more positions.
Ditto et al agree with Gray et al about the central role of mind perception in moral judgment and are intrigued by the idea that moral evaluation requires not just an intentional moral agent but also a suffering moral patient, and moreover that this dyadic structure of agent and patient, intention and suffering is the center of morality. They do not agree that interpersonal harm is the very meaning of morality, that no act can be morally offensive unless it is perceived to result in suffering.
As moral intuitionists, Ditto et al interpret Gray et al to mean that perceived harm and suffering are a central part of our gut moral reactions–that we experience actions as morally wrong precisely and directly because of the harm we sense in them. Philosophers have long debated whether the morality of actions should be judged solely by their consequences–ends justify means–or whether acts can be wrong in and of themselves–ends cannot justify some means. On a psychological level, it has been argued that the most distinctive characteristic of moral thinking is the idea of the “sacred”, that moral systems assign certain acts and objects value that defies utilitarian considerations of costs and benefits. Ditto et al provide the example of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The possession of land both sides consider “holy” has taken on almost infinite value, such that no amount of money could convince either side to concede it and obtaining the land seems to be worth any cost.
This notion that people have sacred values presents two patterns of moral judgment that Gray et al need to account for: (a) some actions are seen as morally wrong even when they are seen as causing little or no harm, and (b) consequently, people often judge acts that cause more harm as more morally acceptable than acts that cause less harm.
Ditto et al provide a couple of examples in which outrage flows from what seems to be a completely symbolic sacrilege with no harmful behavioral or economic consequences. The Obamacare regulation requiring insurance with contraception care would be materially harmless; it requires no person of faith to use contraception, and requires no religiously affiliated organization to cover any costs for employees who desire these services. The intense moral umbrage is driven by the commitment to the sacred principle of religious freedom, and the perceived defilement of that principle by a purely symbolic association between the religiously affiliated organization and the morally prohibited act of contraception.
A similar example is the outrage frequently expressed by same sex marriage proponents regarding the issue of “domestic partnerships”. For them, the rights of lgbt individuals are a deep moral conviction, and most place importance on the term “marriage” over and above access to the very rights they wish these individuals to possess. In California, for example, the legal dispute over the constitutionality of an anti-same-sex marriage initiative has been going for years. This is despite the fact that under California law individuals in recognized domestic partnerships have for years had precisely the same rights as married individuals. The Gray et al harm hypothesis cannot cope with this.
As an instance where people find themselves in situations where an act that leads to more objective harm is judged as more moral than an objectively less harmful alternative, Ditto et al provide this example. In one of the early debates between the Republican hopefuls in the 2012 presidential primary when each was asked whether he or she would accept an economic deal with Democrats that included $10 in spending costs for every $1 in increased taxes, all eight of the candidates happily declined that highly advantageous deal, suggesting that compromising with Democrats on tax policy has taken the form of a taboo trade-off.
Nevertheless Ditto et al admit they need to explain why harm and morality judgments are so frequently mixed together. To do this, they suggest the concept of moral coherence processes. Coherence models suggest that individuals construct beliefs and preferences through a process of parallel constraint satisfaction. Such models reject simplifying assumptions about linear causal flow in favor of a bidirectional flow of mental processes in which beliefs, feelings, goals, and actions are mutually influential and are adjusted iteratively toward a point of maximal coherence.
According to Ditto et al, the key insight of Gray et al’s mind perception view is that the archetype of immoral action is one individual intentionally inflicting harm on another; the more intentional the act and the greater the inflicted suffering, the more immoral the act is perceived to be. A coherence perspective suggests that the causal flow should operate in the other direction as well. Feelings of moral condemnation should lead individuals to construct a coherent moral narrative. Acts that feel intuitively immoral should lead to a search for a culprit and a victim, and the more an action feels immoral, the more intention we should ascribe to the culprit, and the more harm and suffering, we should ascribe to the victim.
Ditto et al suggest that the moral coherence view differs from Gray et al by (a) assuming that moral evaluations can arise intuitively and independently from the perception of harm, and (b) consequently, in many cases harm and suffering are better conceived of as constructed post hoc to complete a moral narrative, than being an essential part of the moral intuition itself. Still, interpersonal harm is almost certainly dominant among all moral considerations. But it seems to be human to bestow sacred significance and that coherence processes operate to reinforce sacred values with a favorable cost-benefit ratio even if it has to be constructed after the fact. In a morally coherent world, acts that feel immoral have costs, and acts that feel moral have benefits.
Moral justifications often involve a combination of principled stands and arguments about practical costs and benefits. This involves psychological conflict as we may feel the pull of the sacred telling us that the moral path does not always lead to the most beneficial ends, but this conflict seems most often to evolve toward a coherent moral narrative in which principles and practicality go together in the end.
Our moral evaluations also play an important role in organizing the kinds of “nonmoral” beliefs and judgment processes. At the broadest level, this can be seen as another example of people’s long noted tendency to blur the line between what is and what ought to be.