Last Monday, the Center for Law, Philosophy, and Human Values presented a talk by Stephen Stich related to some of his work on the psychology of norms. The preliminary reading was taken from a book that he co-edited, entitled The Innate Mind: Volume 2: Culture and Cognition. The piece, “A Framework for the Psychology of Norms,” which was co-written with Chandra Sekhar Sripada, is meant to explain how norms work in human psychology. They point out early on that their project is not definition or conceptual analysis, which both would focus on the way the word ‘norm’ is, or should be, used by competent speakers of English. Instead, they aim to pick out a “theoretically interesting natural kind in the social sciences.” In other words, they believe that there exists a category of motivations for human behavior that is meaningfully different from other categories of motivations absent any intentional creation or labeling as such by people. The relevance of such a project to philosophers, and lawyers, is not immediately apparent, so Stich began the meeting with an overview of the philosophical landscape in which the analysis of norms should be placed. The focus in the workshop was on this background material, so that will be my focus here as well.
It is clear that members of different cultures have different moral views. This is also true, but often to a lesser degree, of members of the same culture. However, philosophers disagree about whether these differences would persist under idealized circumstances. Moral disagreements that would persist are dubbed ‘fundamental,’ moral disagreements that would not are dubbed ‘superficial.’ These words are terms of art that are defined exactly the way stated above; the word ‘superficial’ is not meant to be pejorative. Idealized circumstances, as Stich explained, are rationality, impartiality and agreement on all relevant non-moral facts. It is worth pointing out, as one professor did in the workshop, that these criteria are not morally neutral. Utilitarian and Kantian theories both depend on ideas of impartiality and rationality, but some other views explain morality as an extension of the emotional bonds that we have with our families. ‘Agreement on relevant non-moral facts’ can best be illustrated in terms of an example. Two people might agree that killing in self-defense is morally acceptable, but disagree about the moral acceptability of a particular killing because they differ on whether it was actually done in self-defense. That is a disagreement on a relevant non-moral fact.
Different moral theories have different attitudes towards fundamental moral disagreement. For example, ideal observer theories reject their existence. An ideal observer theory analyzes the phrase “x is morally right,” to mean “anyone who is ideally situated would have a favorable attitude towards x.” If there is no fact of the matter as to an ideally situated observer’s attitude towards x, then x is neither morally right nor wrong. A similar approach is taken by qualified attitude theories. They state that a moral claim is justified if and only if the person making it would have the appropriate attitude after going through an idealization process. If two ideally situated people can make opposite moral claims that are both justified, then moral relativism is true. This is the same as saying that the existence of fundamental moral disagreement entails moral relativism. Moral realism is the claim that agreement on non-moral issues would resolve most moral disagreement. The existence of fundamental moral disagreement strongly suggests that moral realism is false.
After explaining the relevance of fundamental moral disagreements to moral philosophy, Stich went on to present some empirical research that has been done that suggests that they do exist. The earliest of these studies did not try to approximate idealized circumstances, but it did yield results that may be of interest to people who care about these kinds of things. One study sought to explain moral differences between members of the Hopi nation and middle-class white Americans in the 1950s with respect to animal cruelty. It was noted that the Hopis would allow their children to play with animals in ways that seem very cruel, breaking the wings of birds, etc. The middle-class white Americans would not allow this type of rough play. The ethnographers sought an explanation based on disagreement with respect to non-moral facts, such as whether animals are able to feel pain, but they were not able to do so. They concluded that these different behaviors revealed a basic difference of attitude. A faculty member in the workshop criticized the methodology here, noting that the conclusion seems to rest on the false assumption that middle-class white Americans would not abide the torture of animals. Other studies have found much cross-cultural diversity with respect to conceptions of fairness that could not be explained in terms of environmental difference or culturally different views towards risk.
Stich then briefly explained the Geography of Morals Project, of which he is a part. Experimenters describe a scenario to different people in different cultures and record their moral intuitions, looking for patterns. The scenario is called “The Magistrate and the Mob.” Participants are asked to imagine a town where an unidentified member of a particular ethnic minority group has just committed a murder. In this town, there is a history of hostility towards members of this group and with the killer at large tension is building. The police chief and judge in the town, after serious deliberation, decide to arrest and convict an innocent member of this ethnic minority in order to prevent rioting that would lead to, among other things, the deaths of several members of the minority group. Their plan is successful and the riots are avoided. Participants are asked whether what the police chief and the judge did was right. Stich and his colleagues have found statistically significant disparities in reactions to this thought experiment in different cultures. The western consensus is that this type of behavior is not acceptable, but in China and rural Turkey this is not the case. This experiment was also criticized in the workshop. It was argued that the question does not make sense for two reasons: 1) it is not clear whether participants are being asked about the moral or political rightness of the decision and the two might not be the same; and 2) if participants are being asked about a political (and not a moral) decision, they cannot seriously answer the question without more information about the political structure of the society where the scenario takes place. (Before this was pointed out, I personally imagined a small town in the United States, even though this was not stipulated. I wonder whether most participants filled in the details with what they know about the political structures of their own societies. If so, their reactions may be based on different relevant non-moral facts creating a significant question about the results of the experiment.) Stich responded graciously that he is happy to accept help in designing further experiments of this kind.
Stich conceded that these experiments are not likely to convince people who have strong convictions against either fundamental moral disagreements, or more generally, against the use of empirical research in this type of philosophical debate. He referred to “Yes, but…” objections; these are objections based on some possible explanation or explanations that those designing a given experiment have probably not taken into account. It is worth noting here that although philosophers and other thinkers may not all agree on what exactly these studies show, there are enough of them, each with their own methodological strengths and weaknesses, that it is hard to say that the findings are all meaningless or mistaken. We might not want to call the differences moral, but there are clearly differences.
The Stich and Sripada picture of the psychology of norms is meant to contribute to the philosophical debate right at this point, where it seems that fundamental moral disagreements have been located. The point of the project is to move the philosophical debate forward using an empirically supported theory of the psychological mechanisms underlying the acquisition and utilization of moral norms and how these have evolved. Norms are rules or principles that “specif[y] actions that are required, permissible, or forbidden independently of any legal or social institution.” They serve as intrinsic motivation, meaning that people will comply with norms even when any instrumental justification for such behavior is absent. They also stir punitive attitudes in observers when violated.
Stich and Sripada assert that the acquisition and implementation of norms can be traced to two separate, but closely linked, innate mechanisms. The acquisition mechanism starts working very early in a child’s development and may shut off at some point after adolescence. This mechanism’s role is to “identify behavioral cues indicating that a norm prevails in the local cultural environment, to infer the content of that norm, and to pass information about the content of the norm on to the implementation system.” The system acts, while it is functioning, automatically and involuntarily. One theory is that, in early development, sad faces made by parents or other caretakers may signal to the child that a normative transgression has occurred. This theory is supported by the fact that psychopaths both react abnormally to sad faces and fail to see most, if not all, societal norms as sources of intrinsic motivation. The implementation mechanism stores the norms acquired by the acquisition mechanism, picks up on normative transgressions by others and generates intrinsic motivation to comply with norms oneself and to punish those who do not. For example, the same mechanism that motivates me to sit still and be quiet at the opera generates feelings of blame towards those who do not behave similarly.
The above layout of the implementation mechanism is extremely simplistic and incomplete. Stich and Sripada noted several other factors that may affect the output of this mechanism besides the input from the acquisition mechanism, such as emotion and explicit reasoning, but there is evidence that suggests that though explicit reasoning may, in certain cases, disengage a norm that is shown to be irrational, the emotional response to the norm’s violation may overpower the rationality of the observer. The observer will not draw on explicit moral reasoning to evaluate a given situation, but instead use it as a post hoc rationalization of an initial emotional response. The example given is a study using a thought experiment involving brother-sister incest where all of the traditional justifications for the taboo (lack of consent, co-dependency, children with birth defects, scorn of the community, etc.) are hypothesized away. Subjects tend to have a problem with such a relationship without being able to explain what it is. This may be because they do not have a good reason for their distaste for such an affair, but there is always the “Yes, but…” objection that they doubt whether the given premises could ever really obtain and lack the ability to articulate their incredulity.
In addition to its potentially controversial implications for moral philosophy, the framework endorsed by Stich and Sripada has various implications throughout the legal system. If correct, it could shed a lot of light on questions of culpability, both in the context of disadvantaged, or merely different, upbringing (the acquisition of different norms) and proper application of the insanity defenses (the inability to acquire norms at all). There may also be important implications for theories of adjudication, particularly if explicit reasoning is often simply just post hoc rationalization of an emotional response based on deeply ingrained norms.
Next time: 01/05/2009 Douglas Laycock