Is Character Really Just a Matter of Moral Intuitions?

Jonathan Haidt’s Social Intuitionist Model (SIM) is an innovative, popular scientific theory of morality that challenges character-based understandings of moral behavior. The SIM suggests that morality is primarily an intuitive process. It follows the well-evidenced dual process model of psychology, which specifies that we process our circumstances in two modes: a fast, automatic, unreflective cognitive-emotional mode and a slower, deliberative cognitive-emotional mode. It is easy to find everyday examples of automatic processes, such as driving an automobile. Simple tasks and daily decisions become automatic to reduce the time and energy needed for routine activities. There is evidence that many moral judgments are quick and automatic.

The SIM prioritizes automatic, intuitive responses over rational thought, claiming that rational moral thought primarily occurs after one has already acted intuitively. Therefore, deliberative thoughts are rationalizations that help to justify one’s actions and convince others that one acted rightly. Relegating moral reasoning to just a social appeasement or influence process has attracted criticism because it eliminates the role of conscious, deliberative activity in morality. Haidt’s debunking of moral reasoning has some credibility because many moral judgments and actions occur quickly and without reflection because it’s obvious that undeserved rudeness and theft are wrong. It’s appropriate to recognize that there are limits to rationality and intentionality, but Haidt’s virtually complete discrediting of human reasoning impoverishes us morally. (We might also note the irony of his carefully reasoned debunking of reason.)

Haidt adds that post-action moral reasoning can affect others’ moral intuitions, although it rarely affects one’s own intuitions or judgments. This social element is often overlooked, but it is more than a little odd. According to him, my reasoning can influence you morally, and your reasoning can influence me morally, but it is quite unlikely that either of us can guide our own decision making and actions with the rational grounds that can influence other people.

To indicate the limits of Haidt’s prioritization of intuition, I contrast it with Aristotle’s prioritization of practical wisdom (phronesis) in three ways. Aristotle prioritized practical wisdom because he believed that acting morally requires understanding how to act well and that humans can and ought to reason morally.

First, many circumstances activate more than one moral intuition (e.g., fairness, care, loyalty, or authority concerns), and these often conflict. Haidt tells us how one could act on a single intuition, with a flash of justice or care, but fast, automatic processing cannot help much with conflicting intuitions. Does one just plump for a course of action based on some emotional feel or somehow split the difference? In simple situations, that will work well enough, but it falls far short of mature morality in complex situations. Aristotle suggests that practically wise individuals are better at recognizing which of several moral considerations is most important in a situation or at blending several moral concerns. Wisdom allows one to better blend moral concerns such as fairness, care, and loyalty based on situational factors and one’s overall aims.

Second, we occasionally find ourselves in confusing or very fraught circumstances that make it difficult to know what to do. The intuitionist model leaves us frozen or panicked by such challenges. In contrast, a wise individual can reflect on what is most important in the situation, how one can do the most good, and then choose the best course of action in difficult circumstances.

Third, the SIM doesn’t explain how many automatic intuitions become established. There is good evidence that humans have some basic moral instincts (e.g., justice, care, and loyalty). But many actions become automatic intentionally, often following deliberation. Although we sometimes neglect to improve our moral judgement, people decide they want to become better individuals all the time by cultivating greater fairness, courage, generosity, or patience. Intentional practice often leads to automatic responses. Aristotle taught that a characteristic (e.g., generosity) becomes a virtue when it becomes largely automatic through intentional practice and properly valuing the characteristic. By neglecting the intentional cultivation of moral qualities, Haidt unreasonably (and inhumanely) limits what is morally possible. Ironically, his moral theory tells us that we are far less morally capable than we seem to be.

We cannot afford to discredit the role of reason in morality, especially when nationalism, tribalism, and intolerance are on the rise. Wisely resisting morally unacceptable social and political trends requires being able to reflect on what is wrong and why it is wrong and being able to systematically plan how we will combat these trends. Knee-jerk opposition will only inflame these trends, so we need to attend carefully to the moral concerns at issue and articulate them clearly. Haidt does not offer any resources for this effort. We must look elsewhere. My favorite inspiration is Aristotle and the many contemporary theorists who are appropriating his ethical theory. There are others who can inspire us to be our best selves as well. However clever debunking theories seem to be, we must keep in mind that moral guidance and inspiration are the real purposes of moral theory.

Professor Blaine J. Fowers is a Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the Jubilee Centre and is a Professor in Educational and Psychological Studies at the University of Miami. You can read more on this topic by Professor Fowers here.

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