Reason v emotion

Ard: So, Molly, can you tell us something about the difference between moral instincts and moral judgements? Are they the same thing? Do we need moral instincts to be moral people?

MC: I think of moral sentiments as emotions that motivate moral behaviour towards other people. So those can be benevolent moral sentiments: so feeling concern and care for others – feeling averse to harming others. There are also malevolent moral sentiments: so feeling like you want to take revenge on someone who has harmed you in some way. And I think of moral sentiments as really motivating decision-making and behaviours, and also judgements – so outputs. And judgements are just one kind of output of this process where you think about a situation, a scenario, and you make a judgement of right or wrong.

Ard: So what you’re saying is, moral judgements are, more or less, when we’re thinking about what’s happening, whereas moral sentiments are when we just kind of feel what’s happening, and in a lot of situations we don’t have time to think about what’s happening: we just react.

MC: Right. So, you might have one person who says, ‘Well, moral judgements are driven by emotions’, and you have another camp who says, ‘No, moral judgements are actually really a prolonged, deliberative process’. And I think they can be both, and the interesting questions, I think, are when do we deploy these more conscious, deliberative processes in moral judgements and decisions? And when do we employ more instinct and fast emotional processes?

Ard: And when do we?

MC: That’s a really good question! We’re working on it.

David: One of the things which Frans de Waal said… He often felt that people would do something and they’d made a moral decision, but then after the fact, they would come up with a great post-hoc justification for why they did it. And he said he often felt that the story which the person told afterwards was just that: it was a story and didn’t actually match up.

MC: They called this ‘moral dumbfounding’: this idea that there’s an emotional reaction that drives the judgement, and any sort of reasoning that takes place is sort of a post-hoc rationalisation. And that’s a very popular account of how moral judgement works, and I think that there is solid evidence from those experiments that that explains how moral judgement works in certain kinds of cases.

But I think that, broadly, there are other kinds of moral decisions that people make where they are factoring in both moral norms and reasons, as well as the emotions at the same time. And I think the field is generally moving away from this sort of false dichotomy – between emotion on the one hand and reason on the other hand – and starting to think of moral decision-making more like the way we think of other kinds of decision-making, which is an integration of different sources of value.

Ard: Are there some illustrations that can help us understand this moral sentiments, moral reasoning? How that works?

MC: So, Josh Greene, who’s a psychologist at Harvard, likes to make the analogy of a camera. So, with a camera you have the automatic mode – point and shoot – sort of pre-fixed settings that work in a variety of situations, and then there’s manual mode, which you can switch into if you want to have really tight control over how you’re going to take the photo.

He likens the moral brain to this kind of a camera where there’s an automatic setting, where moral intuitions can guide our moral judgements and decisions. And then there’s also manual mode, where we can switch into this more deliberative, reasoning mode. And there’s a lot of evidence supporting this kind of a distinction. I like to think about it in terms of different decision-making systems in the brain: so we have a very old system that you could think about as an instinctual system where we approach rewards, we avoid punishments, we have these very innate drives towards good stuff and away from bad stuff, and this can infuse a lot of our moral judgements.
So, in the case where, for example, people are asked, ‘Is it appropriate to kill one person in order to save many others?’ our gut instinct might be, ‘Oh, no. I don’t want to do that because killing is wrong.’ And that’s a sort of automatic reaction that we have to that idea.

So, there’s another brain system – which I call the ‘goal-directed system’, or some people call it the ‘model-based system’ – that is designed to prospect into the future, to represent the state of the world and the link between the actions that we take and the consequences that ensue. And it’s been shown, for example, that when people are under stress, they rely less on this goal-directed system. And equally, it’s been shown that when people are under stress, they’re more likely to make these more emotional moral judgements.

So, it seems like people shift between different modes of thinking. And just like different modes of thinking influence the way people take risks, or decide between a small reward now and a large reward later, they might make different moral judgements and decisions depending on the state that they’re in.

Ard: I have a ten-month-old daughter and she has jet lag, so I have not slept very much the last few nights.

MC: Oh dear.

Ard: So that, probably, will make me behave in emotional ways. Is that what you’re saying? I’m more likely to behave in just an instinctual way than think about it properly?

MC: Yeah.
Ard: That probably explains a few things.