A moral psychology perspective on prospective practices

One of the questions I’m interested in exploring is whether and how prospective practices – such as a scenario exercise or techno-economic modelling – translate into action.  This has been identified as a key problem by other scholars (e.g. link) and a knowledge gap (e.g. link).  Considering moral psychology may provide stimulating perspectives for developing new ideas and new lines of inquiry.

Jonathan Haidt is an influential social and moral psychologist who has developed a “social intuitionist” model of moral judgement as a cognitive process.  Haidt describes this model along with some key principles of moral psychology in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (also see his website).

The title, The Righteous Mind, was chosen “to convey the sense that human nature is not just intrinsically moral, it’s also intrinsically moralistic, critical, and judgmental” (p.xiii). One thought provoking argument made by Haidt is that “you’ll misunderstand moral reasoning if you think about it as something people do by themselves in order to figure out the truth” (p.59).  He develops an evolutionary psychology style argument that moral reasoning is a skill that humans “evolved to further our social agendas – to justify our own actions, and to defend the teams we belong to” (p.xiv-xv).

I thought about these arguments whilst listening to speeches made in the US election process.  Lots of moral judgements and arguments are articulated with often partial or questionable links to reality.

Two particularly interesting principles that are articulated and defended in The Righteous Mind are that “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second” and that “morality binds and blinds”.  Related to this the book examines the social and strategic functions of moral reasoning.

The first principle summarises the research finding that moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously and, subsequently, these intuitions “tend to drive our later reasoning” (p.xiv). The book discusses related findings interpreted as showing that “moral reasoning was mostly just a post hoc search for reasons to justify the judgements people had already made” (p.47).

Haidt argues that “moral reasoning is usually done to influence other people” (p.27) and that our capacity for reason “was designed to seek justification, not truth”.  According to this view of morality, moral thinking is “much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth” (p.89).  For example, Haidt argues that “moral talk serves a variety of purposes such as managing your reputation, building alliances, and recruiting bystanders to support your side in the disputes that are so common in daily life” (p.55). 

To Haidt human beings are “intuitive politicians” who strive “to maintain appealing moral identities in front of our multiple constituencies” (pp.87-88).  However, in doing so, “people are trying harder to look right than to be right”.  “People care a great deal more about appearance and reputation than about reality” (p.86).

Haidt admits that some of these views on human nature appear somewhat cynical.  However, he maintains that the weight of research findings indicate that the rationalist view of moral judgement is incorrect.  He goes so far as to point to a “rationalist delusion” in moral psychology.

The third part of the book focusses on the assertion that “morality binds and blinds”.

Haidt argues that a key aspect of human nature is our “groupish tribalism” in which we create teams or groups who form and share moral narratives.  These groups define and defend sacred objects and/or sacred values.  This process binds them more closely together.  The advantage of this process is that it helps group members to cooperate and to compete with other groups.

However, Haidt argues that this process also has negatives – i.e. the “blinds” part of principle, whereby the reasoning and perception of group members is impaired.  Haidt contends that the social process of sacralisation blinds people and shuts down open thinking.

In an interview with Bill Moyers he makes some related arguments about such impairments:

“We all feel as though we’re living in reality but them, they’re caught up in this matrix [in a “consensual hallucination”], they’re the ones in la-la land.  But we’re all in la-la land.  If you are part of a partisan community, if you are part of any community that has come together to pursue moral ends, you are in a moral matrix”


“Wherever people sacralise something there you will find ignorance, blindness to the truth, and resistance to evidence”

A related key claim is that humans “evolved to live, trade and trust within shared moral matrices” (p.313), i.e. within shared networks of meaning.  Psychologists like Haidt make the explanatory argument that human minds were designed for “groupish righteousness” (p.370).

This idea that people live within, trust within, and exchange shared moral matrices is something that is perhaps most clear in politics.  For instance consider the stark differences between the moral matrices of Democrats and Republicans as has been on display in the current US election process.  Outside of politics I’ve also had the experience of entering and having to navigate such matrices.

Interesting stuff, but back to prospective practices…

One line of inquiry is suggested by Haidt’s claims that human beings are deeply intuitive creatures “whose gut feelings drive our strategic reasoning” (p.370) and that we have an internal ‘press secretary’ who is crafting justifications for our decisions and moral judgements.  That is, if the primary purposes of strategic reasoning are often to justify our intuitive judgements and/or to maintain ones’ reputation then prospective practices could be viewed as generating resources that can be used strategically by actors for such purposes.  This may be a key way that they help to enable action.

Related to this point Haidt cites French cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, noting that:

‘They [Mercier & Sperber] concluded that most of the bizarre and depressing research findings make perfect sense once you see reasoning as having evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people.  As they put it, “skilled arguers … are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views” (Haidt, 2013, p.104).’

Haidt’s argument that moral thinking, most of the time, is “much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth” also resonated with my own experiences and some of my research findings.  Participants in and convenors of prospective exercises may be more interested in maintaining or building support amongst key constituencies than in discovering the truth.  If this is correct it will shape the production, evaluation and use of anticipatory knowledge.

As noted earlier in this post many of the findings of research into moral psychology also raise questions about how reasoning skills are deployed.  If moral reasoning is often employed to help form post-hoc arguments (to justify positions taken earlier on other grounds) then we should expect the outputs from prospective exercises to also be used to help form these arguments.

Research into moral psychology also suggests that we need to further take into account the ways that people “live, trade and trust within shared moral matrices”.  The moral matrices of participants in prospective practices will influence the process and outputs e.g. by distorting and/or restricting thinking.   Additionally, they will influence the ways that outputs are interpreted and used.

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