On Defining Morality in Moral Psychology – Don Collins Reed

On defining morality in moral psychology

Don Collins Reed

Social scientists commit one or both of two errors when they present studies of morality without offering their account of what morality is. They either fail to appreciate the diversity of moral convictions or exhibit a tendency to hide their own. The temptation to conceal one’s convictions is understandable. We don’t want to be culturally insensitive by suggesting openly that our own moral norms are regnant. The alternative, however, is being covert about the felt authority of our basic moral commitments.

Lawrence Kohlberg (1971) is well known and rightly admired for having confronted this issue head on, most directly in “From ‘is’ to ‘ought.’”

The cultural elites of the individual-liberty-centered West in the global North (and their colonies) regard as morally unacceptable slavery and human trafficking, the abuse of children, the oppression of women, the torture of captives, cruelty to non-human animals, etc. Prevailing norms set the terms for what count as cruelty, torture, oppression, abuse, and trafficking. So even if everyone could agree that, for example, the abuse of children is immoral, we cannot agree across cultures—or always within them—about what counts as abuse. Which of the following if any count? Do corporal punishment by whipping with a strap or switch, forced isolation for sleeping from an early age, arranged marriages for childhood brides, tightly scheduled activities aiming at competitive advantage for pre-teens and teens, circumcision for male infants or female pre- or early-adolescents, and/or severe ordeals during rites of passage at age thirteen count as abuse? We may decide that, in order to keep up appearances, we will not talk about such things, but that is different from being neutral about them.

We cannot avoid being biased in studying morality. Our biases make us selectively attentive and can prompt us to be aptly responsive, and we should assess them by their fruits, not their roots (to borrow an expression from William James, 1902). We have biases against predators and interpersonal conflict and in favor of helping behavior and for landscapes with wider and farther views, etc. Those are good biases to have. As scientists open to critique and expecting corroboration, we should be up front about our moral biases, holding them up for scrutiny.

Here all too briefly is the sort of thing I have in mind;

As a (small “c”) catholic Christian, I am concerned about the common heavy emphasis on reciprocity. There are at least two types of morality: natural morality and inspired morality. Natural morality is a result of human evolution in small band, hunter-gatherer societies during hundreds of thousands of years of prehistory (see Boehm, 2012). Such societies consisted usually of 25-50 individuals, or 5-7 groups of 5-7 family members. Natural morality has been described as “parochial altruism” (Haidt, 2012). We are said to live in “moral tribes” (Greene, 2014). Most of us care about and make sacrifices for members of our own groups because groups consisting primarily of such individuals tended far more than others to survive the toughest of times, like those that occurred in the radical climate shifts of the Late Pleistocene, ending the last ice age, from about 120,000 to about 12,000 years ago.

Natural morality is the system of self-disciplines and social regulations that became species-typical during that era, consisting of the imperatives, ideals, and exemplars that foster the kind of social cohesion that enables reciprocity and cooperation for survival and flourishing, especially in bad times but also in good.

Natural morality is “tribal” or parochial. The press for species-wide concern cannot be derived from the exigencies of the Late Pleistocene, except as a misfiring extension of family and tribal loyalty to the over seven billion humans on the planet.

Inspired morality is quite different. It is a universal ethic of radical compassion associated in some traditions with the achievement of higher consciousness. It is not reciprocity-based. We should love those who hate us, be kind to those who are cruel to us, serve the poor, honor the outcast, etc. As a catholic Christian, I call this “perfect love.” St. Paul called it charity (Gr. agape; L. caritas; 1 Corinthians 13), and St. Thomas Aquinas identified it, citing St. Paul’s description, as one of three theological virtues. Perfect love is an ideal disposition that may require long cultivation and is typically exhibited—as a disposition and not simply in discrete acts—by only a minority in any human population: some caring exemplars, some men and women religious in various traditions, etc.

We need reciprocity, of course, but it is sufficient neither for universal morality nor for perfect love. I agree with Nietzsche (1889) and Elizabeth Anscombe (1958) that, when we give up the Christian God and every similar Great Spirit, we forfeit any claim to those universal laws, rights, and duties that can only be explained by the activity of a universal legislator. The failed Enlightenment Project for justifying morality was and is an attempt to salvage universal morality without recourse to such a legislator (see MacIntyre, 1981).

I concede that this account of morality is biased and controversial; however, because it distinguishes natural from inspired morality, it does not tend to confuse them. It also makes sense of the pervasiveness of “tribalism” without either casting it as an unenlightened or developmentally arrested natural morality or suggesting that it is no morality at all. And by submitting this account for open criticism, one avoids the cultural insensitivity involved in assuming without stating that it is regnant.

All social scientists who study morality should be equally forthcoming. Acknowledging our biases, we can avoid concealing our convictions and merely pretending to appreciate the diversity of the convictions of others.

Don Collins Reed is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Wittenberg University, Springfield, Ohio, USA 45501.


Works Cited

Anscombe, G.E.M. 1958. Modern moral philosophy. Philosophy Vol. 33, (124): 1-19.

Boehm, C. 2012. Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. New York, New York: Basic Books.

Greene, J. 2014. Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them. New York, New York: Penguin Press.

Haidt, J. 2012. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York, New York: Pantheon.

James, W. 1902/1982. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York, New York: Penguin Classics.

Kohlberg, L. 1971. From is to ought: How to commit the naturalistic fallacy and get away with it in the study of moral development. In T. Michell, ed., Cognitive Development and Epistemology. New York, New York: Academic Press. Reprinted in L. Kohlberg. 1981. Essays on Moral Development, Vol. I: The Philosophy of Moral Development. New York, New York: Harper & Row.

MacIntyre, A.C. 1981. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press.

Nietzsche, F. 1889/1977. Twilight of the Idols. In W. Kaufman, ed. and trans., The Portable Nietzsche New York, New York: Penguin Books.