New theory of ethics may transform moral psychology

New theory of ethics may transform moral psychology
Ethics and Attachment: How we make moral judgments (Routledge, 2018). Credit: Bar-Ilan University

There is consensus among moral psychologists that moral judgment is intuitive and is accomplished by a rapid, automatic, and unconscious psychological process. However, psychologists say little as to what moral intuitions are and how they work: what exactly are the underlying cognitive processes of these judgments that operate quickly, effortlessly and automatically? How are moral situations represented in our minds? What cognitive processes intuitively glue together different moral situations to one category?

In his new book, Ethics and Attachment: How we make moral judgments (Routledge, 2018), Israeli psychologist Aner Govrin, Ph.D., of the Program for Hermeneutics and Cultural Studies at Bar-Ilan University, suggests an innovative framework for understanding moral judgment. His theory, the "attachment approach to moral judgment", combines evidence from research in moral psychology, infant research, and categorization, and then looks at various moral situations to show patterns and regularities. The new theory has the potential to transform moral psychology because it shows for the first time that moral judgment is a computation process, and people from different cultures compute in the same manner even though they reach different, and even conflicting, conclusions.

Why does cruelty towards a helpless kitten bother us much more than trampling on ants? Why are we disgusted when an elderly woman is robbed and yet admire Robin Hood? How can it be that people who share a general moral code are poles apart when it comes to judging the morality of abortion or capital punishment? Govrin's book provides an answer to an array of seemingly very divergent and baffling questions such as these.

At their core, says Govrin, moral judgments require us to judge relations between two parties. Moreover, moral judgments are not limited to judging one isolated component of a moral situation, such as intentionality or the extent of harm caused, but rather require an assessment of an entire relationship that is held up to our prior expectations of how relationships of this type should be handled. One of the most important factors in judging relations is assessing the asymmetry of power between the parties.

As part of this assessment we first break down the moral situation into its most basic components. Within the dyad we identify relations between two sides: strong/weak, dependent/independent, helpless/in control. We have a range of expectations as to how the strong party in a dyad should and should not behave towards the weak side. We perceive moral failure when, as observers, we believe that the conduct of the strong towards the weak has violated our expectations.

We represent each of the parties in ways that are comparable to the way we perceive child/adult relationships and, therefore, all our efforts are geared toward constructing the reality of the moral situation in terms of a child—adult dyad. We also evaluate the relationship between the parties. We possess a schema for the dyadic relation, centered on our knowledge of adult obligations to children.

This is why although robbery is in itself deemed wrong, we will unequivocally condemn a thief robbing an elderly woman, but maybe less so someone who defrauds his insurance company, and we might even salute the legendary heroic outlaw Robin Hood. The intent is the same; the action is the same and the damage is the same: an unlawful appropriation of someone else's property. And yet, these are three different dyads with three different relationships between victim and thief, resulting in three different judgments.

This social cognition is universal. We always expect the strong to protect the weak or at least cause him no harm. This expectation stands behind every person's moral in every culture. However, even though the cognitive calculation is universal, our relations towards each of the sides, and sympathy and hostility we feel towards them, constitute an unstable and variable set of factors which differ from person to person and from culture to culture. Thus, suffering per se is not enough to elicit empathy without some attachment to the victim.

And yet, even though they reach contradictory conclusions two observers for and against, say, capital punishment, analyze the moral situation using the same computational process: Detect a dyad, quickly identify the child-like and adult-like components of each party and assess whether and to what extent there was a violation of expectation.

How do we know what to expect from the strong side? According to the theory, this intuitive knowledge is based on our earliest experience, from the first year of life, when we were part of a dyad in which we were the weak side and our life depended on the devotion, care and protection of the stronger side. In the first year a powerful early organizing process takes place which eventually enables the infant to abstract what is common to all moral situations.

Dr. Govrin published a condensed version of the book in 2014 in the scientific journal Frontiers in Psychology.

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Journal information: Frontiers in Psychology

Citation: New theory of ethics may transform moral psychology (2019, January 8) retrieved 18 July 2019 from
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Jan 09, 2019
Part 1:As usual, the effort to simplify a complicated condition centres on taking a particular perspective and ignoring all others. The Robin hood condition is a good example. The assumption is that all people think that the Robin Hood condition is good. This is a false assumption. By applying the correct assumption we can not only solve the Robin hood case, but the case of people who do rob, a condition totally ignored, that is, only those with the same moral standard as the author are considered.

Here is a quick dissection of the Robin Hood condition:
* centering on robbery (theft of property): evaluated as amoral;
* centering on the suffering of victims of crime: evaluated as amoral;
* centering on the amoral behaviour (greed, treating the poor badly) of the victims: evaluated as moral;
* centering on the act of the perpetrator: evaluated as amoral;
* centering on the intent of the perpetrator (to return to the poor what has been exploited from them): evaluated as moral.

Jan 09, 2019
Part 2:In other words when we break down the various parts and consider just one and ignore the others and include the background conditions we evaluate the same condition as good or bad. By reversing this dynamic we can evaluate on what a perpetrator is centering on and what they are ignoring eg a person robbing others may feel entitled (as the poor in the Robin Hood scenario) may feel that those with money are bad because they exploit others and they are ignoring conditions that would make the act amoral.

All acts, regardless of how heinous they at first appear to be, can be broken up into the moral and amoral evaluations and these vary only modestly between individuals. If, however, we centre on the act, eg murder, and ask about the morality of that we are assuming that same conditions for every act eg murdering Hitler, murdering virgin next door because the perpetrator was ignored, murdering an individual that is intending to hard your family, murdering and an unborn foetus...

Jan 09, 2019
Part 3: murdering a bunny, murdering a convicted criminal, murdering an ant etc etc are all the same in that question. Changing the name to capital punishment, abortion, killing, hunting etc only muddies the water and begs definitions beyond what is possible in reality eg why is capital punishment where the condemned is later found to be entirely innocent and merely at the wrong place and having a similar appearance to the real perpetrator not murder?

Clearly morality can not be understood when only a particular act is considered and this is, in fact, clearly the wrong way to proceed. Break down the act into intent and we can see that consensus is much closer as long as only one moral issue is considered at a time. The approach used in the book (as described in the article) complicates the issue and resolves nothing.

Feb 14, 2019
Sorry Robert, tribalism determines morality. It explains how seemingly good, honest, decent people can participate in the most horrific crimes in defense of god and country.

"Darwin stated that "the confinement of sympathy to the same tribe" must have been the rule. This was for him one of the chief causes of the low morality of the savages. "Primeval man", he argued, "regarded actions as good or bad solely as they obviously affected the welfare of the tribe, not of the species". Among the living tribal peoples, he added, "the virtues are practised almost exclusively in relation to the men of the same tribe" and the corresponding vices "are not regarded as crimes" if practised on other tribes"" (Darwin, 1871)

-The FACT that given the right circumstances, any one of us would commit pogrom, ethnic cleansing, mass execution, etc means that the tribal dynamic (internal amity + external emnity) is genetic; inseparable from the human condition; the result of group selection.

Feb 14, 2019
The aversion to bunny-killing is the result of several gens of regarding animals as if they little humans. Walt Disney is complicit. You cant kill an animal without remorse if you give it a name, unless of course if its moby dick or mog the cave bear that repeatedly decimates your clan.

But again it's the assignment of tribal identity. Old yeller was tribal kin. Mog epitomizes the enemy.

Feb 14, 2019
Here is a quick dissection of the Robin Hood condition
Robin hood is the perfect example of darwinism tribalism and tribal morality. Anything that supports your tribe and/or weakens your enemies is moral. Anything that weakens your tribe and/or supports your enemies, is immoral.

RH committed crimes to benefit his tribe and weaken the prevailing tribe. In his eyes they were certainly not crimes but instead a source of honor and pride.

Ask any street gang how this works.

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