Monday, March 23, 2009

Morality and Sentiments

I think this fine write-up of ongoing research on the relationship between the emotions and morality is on the right track:

Whatever role one believes emotions should play in moral judgment, new research demonstrates that the influence of these low-level passions is profound. In fact, a study published in Science earlier this month suggests that many moral judgments are mediated by the same emotional mechanism that is activated by rotten leftovers and dirty socks.

“We started from this funny phenomenon where people will describe…moral offenses as ‘disgusting’…and we were wondering whether that actually means that people are feeling disgust,” explains Hanah Chapman, a graduate student in Psychology at the University of Toronto and the study’s lead author. “In its basic form [disgust] has to do with food and eating and really concrete things. So it was surprising to us that it might be involved in something as abstract as moral codes.”
The specific way I find it to be on track lies in key words like research and study, which signal that people are actively testing these hypotheses rather than philosophizing about them.

Which is to say: it seems to me the way we will ever establish anything counting as knowledge about morality -- what moral claims are, how morals originate, how moral claims (or meta-moral claims) can be grounded, etc. -- is via the scientific method. Speculative philosophy can generate and feed hypotheses into this process but cannot alone resolve anything.

Read the whole thing.


Anonymous said...

I have drifted towards the position that the word "morals" is about as empty of meaning as many other "loaded" words like, e.g., "beauty."

Parbly (stole that degenerate form of "probably" from Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker) fairly hard to study "morality" scientifically since there is no general agreement about what is moral.

Paul said...

Marc Hauser and other scientists appear to be finding evidence for a sort of universal moral grammar common to all humans. Rather fascinating.