On the Psychology of Morality

Dr. Haidt, of the post below, was recently involved in a conference on the psychology of morality, hosted by edge.org. All the article are well worth reading, even if you find yourself disagreeing.

One researcher, Dr. Roy Baumeister, presented this gem:

And so that said, in terms of trying to understand human nature, well, and morality too, nature and culture certainly combine in some ways to do this, and I’d put these together in a slightly different way, it’s not nature’s over here and culture’s over there and they’re both pulling us in different directions. Rather, nature made us for culture. I’m convinced that the distinctively human aspects of psychology, the human aspects of evolution were adaptations to enable us to have this new and better kind of social life, namely culture.

Culture is our biological strategy. It’s a new and better way of relating to each other, based on shared information and division of labor, interlocking roles and things like that. And it’s worked. It’s how we solve the problems of survival and reproduction, and it’s worked pretty well for us in that regard. And so the distinctively human traits are ones often there to make this new kind of social life work.

Now, where does this leave us with morality?  Well, it’s not so much the purpose to facilitate individual salvation or perfection, or whatever, as I quoted McIntyre in our discussions earlier today, but rather morality is the set of rules to enable people to live together. It serves the purpose of making the culture work, as culture depends on cooperating with each other, there’s trust, shared assumptions, things like that.

Of course, some of my faithful readers will confuse innate morality with what the Bible, their Church or religion in general teaches. These are different things. The Bible is quite clear that people have consciences separate from the Law or from various teachings of Scripture. It also points out how men can and do harden their hearts to both. Let’s not get into that in the comments.

Back to Baumeister, it gets better:

As society got larger and more complex and moved to more stranger interactions, laws have had to step in to take their place, because you can cheat a stranger whom you’ll never see again, and get away with it. Anyway, you’re seeing here the neglected interpersonal dimension in understanding morality. Morality depends on relationships. And it’s there, again, to regulate interpersonal behavior so that people cooperate, so that the system can work.

See also Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. Since the middle of the 20th Century we’ve had a massive decrease in social capital (trust between individual members of society built on social interaction). But we’ve also had a massive increase in the number of laws we’ve passed and try to enforce. More on this in another post.

Back to edge.org and Baumeister:

(editor’s note: there’s really quite a bit of good stuff here and I’m already pushing the limits on fair use. This is the last excerpt, you should read the whole thing over here.)

Now, consider some of the traits that evolved to enable people to overcome these selfish impulses so as to do what’s best for the group and the system and so on. Among those, self-regulation is central. I think in part I got invited here, is I have a history of doing research on self-regulation and self-control. The essence of self-regulation is to override one response so that you can do something else —usually something that’s more desirable, better either in the long run, or better for the group.

That is why we’ve called self-control the moral muscle. I’m going to unpack that and comment on both parts. It’s moral: self-control is moral in the sense that it enables you to do these morally good things, sometimes detrimental to self-interest. So if you get lists of morals, whether it’s the Seven Deadly Sins or the Ten Commandments or a list of virtues and so on, they’re mostly about self-control. And you can really see self-control as central to them, so there are the Seven Deadly Sins of gluttony, wrath, and greed and the rest. They’re mostly self-control failures. Likewise, the virtues are exemplary patterns of self-control. So that’s the moral part of the ‘moral muscle’, it’s a capacity to enable us to do these moral actions, which are good for the group, even though overcoming this short-term self-interest.

He goes on to describe his reseach on the limits of self-regulation. And there is a limit, just as there are limits to what our physical muscles can hold or lift or move. What is the limiting factor in self-regulation?

Sugar. Blood sugar, to be specific. People with depleted willpower cheat on tests and have other observable moral failure. Their self-regulation seems to be restored, however, as soon as they replenish their blood sugar. This same effect is observable in all choice-making, not just in the moral sphere. You make better choices when you have sufficient glucose in your system.

What could this mean? Why do I think this is a big deal? Next Post.


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