Monthly Archives: September 2007

Moral Psychology and Development: An Introduction (Part 1 of 4)

This essay is the first in a series of four essays concerning moral psychology and development. Moral psychology is an important area of knowledge for understanding various attitudes and beliefs regarding morality and, more importantly, for effecting moral progress. A society’s collective attitudes and beliefs toward social justice issues like animal rights are ultimately the collection of individual attitudes toward those issues. If we can better understand individuals at the psychological level, it will help us to better understand our society. In this series of essays, we will primarily look at moral psychology as it has developed during the 20th century up to the present. We will not consider evolutionary psychology or anthropology in this series of essays. Evolutionary psychology and anthropology are interesting for exploring the limits of our collective violence and altruism, as well as where we fit in an aggressive-altruistic continuum and how we arrived there, but compared to contemporary moral psychology, they don’t contribute much in the way of explaining how we behave and why in our modern industrial and informational societies.

Two Dominating Theoretical Groups of Moral Philosophy

There are two dominating groups of theories of moral philosophy which have been with us since the Enlightenment. For the sake of simplicity and brevity, I am going to discuss just the two groups of theories, rather than the specific theories under each group. One of the dominating groups in moral philosophy concerns actions and “the right” (often referred to as non-consequential or deontological theories). The other group concerns consequences and “the good” (often referred to as consequential theories). Theories other than the two dominating theories include virtue ethics, social contract theory, and various moral doctrines and precepts of religions. Again, for the sake of simplicity and brevity, we will not consider these other theories in this series of essays.

A theory of the “right” is primarily (and in, e.g. Immanuel Kant’s case entirely) cognitive, logical, and philosophical; and heavily emphasizes the intention of the actor and justice in determining “right action” while diminishing the consequences of actions in determining “right action.” Examples of theories in this philosophical group are Kantian morality, contemporary deontology, and rights-based theories. Another distinguishing characteristic of theories of the “right” is that they generally consist of prohibitive restrictions on behavior rather than a normative claim on all behavior. In other words, the moral agent is generally free to do whatever he or she wants, as long as he or she does not violate certain moral principles, such as justice, in his or her actions.

A theory of the “good” is primarily affective, empirical, and psychological; and heavily emphasizes the consequences and preference satisfaction of all sentient beings having an interest in the consequences in determining “right action” while diminishing the intention of the moral agent in determining “right action.” British sentimentalism and utilitarianism are examples of theories in this psychological group. Another distinguishing characteristic of theories of the “good” is that they generally attempt to maximize “the good” for all parties potentially having an interest in the consequences in all choices of action (e.g. utilitarianism), rather than merely prohibiting certain action which violates justice or a similar moral principle. Depending on how seriously the consequentialist takes the obligation of maximizing the “good” for everyone involved, the theory can significantly restrict freedom of action in everyday life, because most, of not all, actions should probably be subject to moral evaluation and only certain actions will maximize consequences, assuming we can calculate a maximum good in any specific choice. Most consequentialists, however, don’t take the theory that far, and look at consequentialism as a theory of justification in specific choices or conflicts rather than a theory of deliberation on all actions.

Two Dominating Theories of Moral Psychology

Just as there are two dominating groups of theories of moral philosophy, there are two dominating theories of moral psychology which correspond to the theories of philosophy.

Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

The dominant psychological theory corresponding to theories of action, justice, and “the right” is Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development. It emphasizes logic and cognitive reasoning in moral development and is primarily philosophical in nature.

Kohlberg was a brilliant psychologist who performed significant research in moral psychology and taught at the University of Chicago and at Harvard University. He was influenced by the great child psychologist Jean Piaget. His research consisted of in-depth interviews of many people of various ages (children and adults), from various socio-economic groups and from different cultures. In his interviews, which consisted of narrative moral problems and follow up questions, Kohlberg was not so much interested in the content or conclusions of his subjects, but the cognitive reasoning behind the content or conclusions. A subject could arrive at the same conclusion, but the cognitive reasoning could be at drastically different stages of development.

Kohlberg came up with six stages of moral development with two stages in each of three levels: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional. The stages are based on cognitive reasoning in arriving at moral decisions, with the highest stage being based in universal principles of justice and/or fairness. We will look at Kohlberg’s stages in more detail in the second essay of this series.

Hoffman’s Theory of Empathy Development

The dominant psychological theory corresponding to theories of consequences, feelings, and “the good” is Martin Hoffman’s Theory of Empathy Development. It emphasizes empiricism and emotion and is primarily psychological in nature.

Martin Hoffman is a Professor of Psychology at New York University who has engaged in three decades of study and research on moral development. Whereas Kohlberg’s theory emphasizes cognitive reasoning in moral development, Hoffman’s theory emphasizes affective/emotive response in moral development, including guilt and compassion, but particularly empathy and empathic distress.

While Hoffman has stages in his theory, he downplays the stage aspect of it compared to Kohlberg. Hoffman has two levels of empathy development, immature and mature, and two stages within each level. The highest stage in Hoffman’s theory is one where empathic distress extends “beyond the situation” into areas removed from the here and now. In this higher stage, people will respond with empathic distress to individuals and groups far removed from their geographical location, or removed temporally, such as slaves long ago. One might also say that “beyond the situation” implies a response of empathic distress removed from one by kin, such as overcoming racism, speciesism, or some other cultural prejudice. We will look at Hoffman’s theory in more detail in the third essay of this series.

Philosophy and Reason versus Psychology and Passion

At the core of these different perspectives of moral philosophy and psychology, cognitive and affective, is a dichotomy as old as philosophy itself: the struggle between reason and passion.

Immanuel Kant saw the degree of morality inherent in a given act as proportionate to the degree that one does it in accordance with obedience to the moral law that reason dictates as opposed to one’s passions or desires. For Kant, a moral philosopher who sought to define morality, only the good will is inherently good, and the good will is at its greatest when it triumphs over a base passion to do other than what reason and the “moral law” (i.e. morality defined) dictate one ought to do.

David Hume, on the other hand, believed that “reason is, and ought only to be, a slave of the passions.” For Hume, a moral psychologist who sought to explain why we behave morally, our sentiments of approbation and disapprobation determine what, for us, is moral or immoral. Reason only helps us determine what is most likely to be pleasing to our sentiments and beneficial to social utility (assuming our passions are directed toward social utility, and Hume thought our “calm passions” were in that direction, in the same way we have a “calm passion” for natural beauty). Interestingly, Hume believed that only social utility supports our calm passion for justice, and that without utility, we have no use for justice. For Hume, this explained the unjust treatment of women and Native Americans, and moral progress meant widening the circle of the moral community.

It is important to emphasize that Kant was offering us a rational definition of morality and a prescriptive code, while Hume was offering us his empirical observation of why we do what we do. Many people misinterpret Kant and Hume by conflating moral philosophy and psychology. Arthur Schopenhauer ridiculed Kant severely for postulating reason instead of compassion as a “basis of morality” (i.e. the motivating factor behind moral behavior), but what Schopenhauer failed to realize was that Kant was attempting to rationally define morality, not attempting to offer empirical observations on motivations for it. Hume, on the other hand, has been misinterpreted by many of today’s moral relativists as offering a moral philosophy or definition dependent on our feelings, and thus what is “moral” for me might be “legitimately” different from what is “moral” for you. What today’s moral relativists fail to realize is that Hume was silent on moral philosophy and definition; Hume was discussing only his empirical observation of moral motivation and psychology.

In morality, both philosophy and psychology can be broken down into primarily cognitive and primarily affective schools of thought. Also, moral philosophy is a primarily cognitive enterprise, while moral psychology is a primarily affective enterprise. Words like “primarily” are important here, because while there are major differences in these areas of thought which are irreducible and irreconcilable, they sometimes interrelate and sometimes have each other’s primary considerations as secondary considerations. Hume may be correct, in a certain sense, that our passions ultimately dictate our behavior, but it is also true that reason, impartiality, and justice can be our passion. In fact, through reason, we can intentionally cultivate virtuous passions and let our baser passions atrophy, thereby cultivating our character into a noble one providing us with a more fulfilling existence.

We will explore Kohlberg’s and Hoffman’s theory in the next two essays in the series, respectively, and wrap it up with a fourth and concluding essay, which will address practical considerations for advocates.

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On “Imposing” Beliefs on Others

I was going to discuss moral psychology and development this week, but certain discussions last week have led me to postpone psychology and discuss the “imposing” word instead.

When discussions of animal rights come up, and especially when those discussions lead to an assertion by an animal rights advocate that veganism is a moral imperative, a comment is often made implying, if not stating outright, that we shouldn’t be imposing our beliefs on others. This is particularly prevalent among those who see morality through the foggy goggles of cultural relativity; instead of seeing morality through careful reasoning, justice, empathy, and most importantly, impartiality. This “anti-imposition” position is also prevalent among those who see the entire subject of morality as “muddy waters”, “messy”, or “subjective” (subjective in the way that a preference for a certain amount of sugar in one’s tea is subjective).

To be clear: there are muddy areas of morality and genuine dilemmas and conflicts where right and wrong are ambiguous (e.g. decisions about, say, justified war or conflicting rights). There are also honest and interesting disagreements in the realm of meta-ethics and between different moral theories, which can be ambiguous. However, there are also areas of morality where right and wrong are obvious, but due to traditional prejudices, individual habits and the like, these areas happen to be controversial in a given place and time (e.g. human slavery and, dare I say it, animal rights).

The point is that just because something is controversial doesn’t entail that it is also “muddy”, “messy”, or “subjective.” Ending slavery was so controversial that it was one of the significant causes of the American Civil War; but from a rational, just, empathic, and impartial moral standpoint, ending slavery was a moral imperative and that is plain and obvious to anyone capable of consistent moral reasoning.

As we will see in this essay, attempting to persuade others that ending slavery or going vegan is a moral imperative is not imposing that belief on another; it is merely advocating in favor of that belief.

What Do You Mean By “Imposing”?

To start with, I think it is helpful to define what we mean by “imposing.” Imposing, by definition, implies force of some kind. Politically, the sovereign state can impose laws, restrictions, and taxes through force and/or threat of undesirable personal consequences. As a practical matter, the individual cannot impose any belief on anyone in liberal democracies that is not already a law without getting into trouble with the law themselves (assuming non-guardian relationships). So, by discussing moral issues and participating in public demonstrations, nobody is imposing beliefs, circumstances, or behavior on anyone, unless they are using some kind of force or duress; and if force is the case, they are also very likely breaking the law.

Do You Mean Persuading?

If we are talking about persuading or convincing others of certain beliefs, then we should call it persuading or convincing, not “imposing”. I see nothing wrong with attempting to persuade or convince others to our beliefs, especially if our beliefs result in less violence and harm in the world. If someone feels guilty, for example, because I’ve told them how buying flesh or animal products contributes to severe harm and suffering that makes them feel very uncomfortable, I may have imposed on their conscience, but I have not imposed my beliefs, behavior, or any actions on them. Is imposing on someone’s conscience by informing them of facts, circumstances, and perspectives of which they were previously unaware a bad thing? No, it’s not. If anything, I’ve done them a favor by informing them of something they ought to know or a perspective they should consider.

So, vegans will continue to not impose our beliefs on anyone, but we will not stop attempting to persuade people of living a less harmful and less violent life, even if that means imposing on their consciences.

Impositions: On Persons Versus On Consciences

Let’s address this question of who is imposing beliefs on whom when it comes to nonhumans and their right to live free of gross injustice, serious harm, and murder (murder being defined in the moral sense as the intentional killing of the innocent).

Non-vegans impose, in the ultimate sense of the word and all of its force implications, extremely violent beliefs and actions on 10 billion land animals (i.e. persons) annually in the United States alone and impose that way of life on vegans (i.e. persons) every day by breeding, enslaving, and killing “food” animals (or buying product from those who do) and forcing vegans, through the law, social institutions, and their vast numbers, to refrain from imposing our much more sane and just beliefs and actions on them. Because non-vegans have so much overwhelming power in every way, imposing beliefs is simply not an option for vegans, while imposing beliefs and actions (on nonhumans and vegans) is the only way non-vegans do what they do (innocent animals are not giving their consent to be slaughtered any more than an innocent 3 year old child would give that consent). Vegans, as a practical matter, have only persuasion and reasoning, or imposing on consciences, as a viable way of changing the world at this time.

Granted, society-at-large is a bit like a speeding freight train that can’t exactly stop on a dime or turn sharp corners, regardless of its engineer’s wishes, and will impose on anything in its immediate path, including animals and vegans. Fortunately, however, individuals within society are NOT like freight trains. Individuals can stop on a dime and turn sharp corners, changing their moral lives rather quickly and permanently.

So, we can now see that the suggestion that vegans impose beliefs on others is, at best, a thoughtless misuse of the word “impose”, and most often, absurd. Individual consciences may be imposed on, but if consciences can be imposed on, then something out there isn’t morally right and consciences should be imposed on. Imposing on consciences is not the same thing at all as imposing on persons themselves or forcing (imposing on) people to do things that their consciences do not dictate the need to do. Vegans will only start imposing beliefs on persons when we have persuaded enough people with enough political power to be capable of imposing on persons who have not been persuaded via an imposition on their conscience (perhaps because, like many felons, they lack an adequate conscience).

The Moral Neutrality of Imposition

Finally, imposition itself, like power or intelligence, is morally neutral. It is the moral content of what is being imposed which has either positive or negative moral value. For example, the Nazis imposed their beliefs on Jewish people and the allies. I think that was a morally wrong imposition. On the other hand, the allies in World War II imposed their beliefs on the Nazis. I think that was a morally right imposition.

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Animal Rights, Science, and Religion

The five major religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Hindu/Brahmanism, Islam, and Judaism) all have a heavy influence on the thought, especially the moral thought, of people throughout the world, even in highly educated countries, and even at a time when science has knocked humankind off our imagined pedestal of being at the center of the universe with the sun and stars revolving around us, and utterly separate from and clearly above nature and other species.Science: An Astronomical Perspective of Our Universe

We now know that not only is our Solar System heliocentric rather than geocentric, but that our Sun is just one very typical, garden-variety star of billions of stars within our own galaxy, and that our galaxy is just one of hundreds of billions of galaxies within the visible universe (visible using the Hubble Space Telescope), each galaxy containing billions of stars themselves. Many of the galaxies in our Universe seen through the Hubble are over a billion light-years away (for perspective, our Sun is 8 light-seconds, or about 90 million miles away; one single light-year is about 3.9 million times that distance). The Universe is vast, and we are most likely not at the center of it. From this perspective, we have significantly more in common with gnats, dust mites, and amoebas than we might have otherwise thought and mammals are our brothers and sisters on this miniscule home we call Earth.

Science: An Astronomical Perspective of Time

The Universe is estimated to be approximately 14 billion years old. Many galaxies, including our Milky Way galaxy, formed about 13 billion years ago. Our Solar System formed about 4.6 billion years ago. The Cambrian explosion of diversity of life on Earth occurred about 550 million years ago. The first humans appeared about 350,000 years ago. If we put the 14 billion year age of the Universe on a 24 hour scale for perspective, then Earth formed almost 8 hours ago and the first humans appeared on Earth a little over 2 seconds ago, at 11:59:58pm. No longer can we claim a privileged position in the Universe. Again, we have much in common with beings who we consider having very short, relatively insignificant lives.

Science: Down to Earth

The theory of evolution is so foundational to our current knowledge of living organisms, including ourselves, that biology and modern medicine would not make sense today without it. Established scientific theories like evolution and relativity are not “just theories” randomly tossed onto the wall to see if they stick. On the contrary, established scientific theories provide the core principles of a scientific body of knowledge which have been confirmed thousands of times by empirical studies performed by independent scientists attempting to falsify them. If evidence from empirical studies counter any of a given theory’s principles, the theory is appropriately replaced in part or in whole. We know from evolution and modern biology that we are on an overlapping continuum of sentience with all other living organisms, with many more similarities than differences. Indeed, there are many nonhumans, some of whom we kill by the billions annually for trivial preferences, who are smarter, more sentient, and more self-aware than many humans. For example, normal pigs, chickens, dogs, and “cattle” are far more self-aware and intelligent than any infant or severely mentally disabled human. Humans are 2 – 4 years old before they can compare in self-awareness to so-called “food” animals. No longer can we claim a privileged position in the biosphere, at least not one untainted by characteristics which overlap in highly relevant ways (morally speaking) with many other species. Indeed, the difference in characteristics between us and other species, like Darwin said, is one of degree, not kind, and we can verify that the degree is significantly overlapping, even in that sacred characteristic which generates so many anthropocentric claims of superiority: intelligence, which by itself, is really little more than a handy tool that can be used for good or evil.

Science: Putting Us in Our Place

It is true that none of the science above disproves claims about the existence of God, the Absolute, Brahma, or Ultimate Reality. In fact, science, given its epistemological standards of empirical verification of logical theory and its insistence on scientific claims being falsifiable, has nothing to say about such matters. Science also has nothing to say about morality and ethics and what we ought to value in our life. But our newly and more properly conceived place in the Universe given to us by science over the past 150 years ought to offer us a different perspective about morality, especially as it relates to nonhuman animals. Apparently, God has had little or no effect on our folly and hubris in relation to Earth and other species, which we are continually polluting and abusing, respectively. Perhaps science can provide the information and perspective, and with appropriate maturity and judgment, we can recognize that we are not the center of the Universe; that we are not different from many other species on Earth in any morally relevant way which would justify our use and abuse of them; and that if we continue on our self-destructive trend, Earth will take care of the problem by becoming so sick and hot that we cannot survive here.

Religion: Monotheism

Let’s very briefly turn to the monotheistic religions of the Middle East and ask a few questions. If God is beneficent, would God want us, as individuals, to personally contribute to the torture and slaughter of 10 billion of animals annually in the United States (50 billion worldwide)? Perhaps we can get a hint from Genesis before The Fall of Man: “God said: ‘See, I give you every seed-bearing plant all over the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food; and to all the animals of the land, all the birds of the air, and all the living creatures that crawl on the ground, I give all the green plants for food’. And so it happened. God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good.” Given these verses in Genesis, is not breeding, torturing, and slaughtering 10 billion animals annually the epitome of The Fall? How many animals do we need to breed, torture, and slaughter annually before we hit the rock bottom of The Fall? Wouldn’t a beneficent God want us to treat animals as we would like to be treated by God, perhaps with kindness instead of ruthless cruelty? Wouldn’t a beneficent God be utterly disgusted and revolted by our carelessness, ignorance, indifference, cruelty, greed, and gluttony? I think so.

Religion: Mindfulness and Compassion

For those who look to Eastern religions for moral guidance and inspiration, are we really mindful, compassionate, and observing the skillful means of nonharming when we personally contribute to the torture and slaughter of animals, including when those animals and their bodily fluids are labeled with marketing slogans like “certified humane”, “free range” or “cage-free”? Is slaughter ever humane or compassionate? How much do we really know about these so-called “humane” animal products? Is ignorance preferable? Would we like to be born as the future victim of someone’s oral cavity? Does “cutthroat compassion” make any sense? We cannot eat animal products with both mindfulness and compassion operating concurrently. If we are consuming animal products “mindfully,” we cannot be also consuming them compassionately, which also calls into question the existence of genuine mindfulness; and if we are consuming animal products “compassionately,” we cannot be mindful of the reality of that being’s slaughter, which also calls into question the existence of genuine mindfulness and compassion. Perhaps all we are mindful of when consuming animal products is our attachment to trivial preferences and unskillful actions.

Coming Up: Secular Moral Philosophy

For agnostics, including many scientists, the next blog entry or two will address secular moral philosophy and moral psychology. We’ll see that regardless of our religion or lack thereof, there are always much more compelling reasons to embrace animal rights and veganism than to continue onward in the glaring moral blind spot which has defined and grossly distorted our moral obligations to animals, especially in light of modern knowledge of nutrition and veganism.

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