What Makes Us Moral

If the entire human species were a single individual, that person would long ago have been declared mad. The insanity would not lie in the anger and darkness of the human mind, though it can be a black and raging place indeed. And it certainly wouldn’t lie in the transcendent goodness of that mind one so sublime, we fold it into a larger “soul.” The madness would lie instead in the fact that both of those qualities, the savage and the splendid, can exist in one creature, one person, often in one instant.

We’re a species that is capable of almost dumbfounding kindness. We nurse one another, romance one another, weep for one another. Ever since science taught us how, we willingly tear the very organs from our bodies and give them to one another. And at the same time, we slaughter one another. The past 15 years of human history are the temporal equivalent of those subatomic particles that are created in accelerators and vanish in a trillionth of a second, but in that fleeting instant, we’ve visited untold horrors on ourselves in Mogadishu, Rwanda, Chechnya, Darfur, Beslan, Baghdad, Pakistan, London, Madrid, Lebanon, Israel, New York City, Abu Ghraib, Oklahoma City, an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania all of the crimes committed by the highest, wisest, most principled species the planet has produced. That we’re also the lowest, cruelest, most blood-drenched species is our shame and our paradox.

The deeper that science drills into the substrata of behavior, the harder it becomes to preserve the vanity that we are unique among Earth’s creatures. We’re the only species with language, we told ourselves until gorillas and chimps mastered sign language. We’re the only one that uses tools then but that’s if you don’t count otters smashing mollusks with rocks or apes stripping leaves from twigs and using them to fish for termites.

What does, or ought to, separate us then is our highly developed sense of morality, a primal understanding of good and bad, of right and wrong, of what it means to suffer not only our own pain something anything with a rudimentary nervous system can do but also the pain of others. That quality is the distilled essence of what it means to be human. Why it’s an essence that so often spoils, no one can say.

Morality may be a hard concept to grasp, but we acquire it fast. A preschooler will learn that it’s not all right to eat in the classroom, because the teacher says it’s not. If the rule is lifted and eating is approved, the child will happily comply. But if the same teacher says it’s also O.K. to push another student off a chair, the child hesitates. “He’ll respond, ‘No, the teacher shouldn’t say that,'” says psychologist Michael Schulman, co-author of Bringing Up a Moral Child. In both cases, somebody taught the child a rule, but the rule against pushing has a stickiness about it, one that resists coming unstuck even if someone in authority countenances it. That’s the difference between a matter of morality and one of mere social convention, and Schulman and others believe kids feel it innately.

Of course, the fact is, that child will sometimes hit and won’t feel particularly bad about it either unless he’s caught. The same is true for people who steal or despots who slaughter. “Moral judgment is pretty consistent from person to person,” says Marc Hauser, professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of Moral Minds. “Moral behavior, however, is scattered all over the chart.” The rules we know, even the ones we intuitively feel, are by no means the rules we always follow.

Where do those intuitions come from? And why are we so inconsistent about following where they lead us? Scientists can’t yet answer those questions, but that hasn’t stopped them from looking. Brain scans are providing clues. Animal studies are providing more. Investigations of tribal behavior are providing still more. None of this research may make us behave better, not right away at least. But all of it can help us understand ourselves a small step up from savagery perhaps, but an important one.

The Moral Ape

The deepest foundation on which morality is built is the phenomenon of empathy, the understanding that what hurts me would feel the same way to you. And human ego notwithstanding, it’s a quality other species share.

The deepest foundation on which morality is built is the phenomenon of empathy, the understanding that what hurts me would feel the same way to you. And human ego notwithstanding, it’s a quality other species share.It’s not surprising that animals far less complex than we are would display a trait that’s as generous of spirit as empathy, particularly if you decide there’s no spirit involved in it at all. Behaviorists often reduce what we call empathy to a mercantile business known as reciprocal altruism. A favor done today food offered, shelter given brings a return favor tomorrow. If a colony of animals practices that give-and-take well, the group thrives.

But even in animals, there’s something richer going on. One of the first and most poignant observations of empathy in nonhumans was made by Russian primatologist Nadia Kohts, who studied nonhuman cognition in the first half of the 20th century and raised a young chimpanzee in her home. When the chimp would make his way to the roof of the house, ordinary strategies for bringing him down calling, scolding, offers of food would rarely work. But if Kohts sat down and pretended to cry, the chimp would go to her immediately. “He runs around me as if looking for the offender,” she wrote. “He tenderly takes my chin in his palm … as if trying to understand what is happening.”

You hardly have to go back to the early part of the past century to find such accounts. Even cynics went soft at the story of Binta Jua, the gorilla who in 1996 rescued a 3-year-old boy who had tumbled into her zoo enclosure, rocking him gently in her arms and carrying him to a door where trainers could enter and collect him. “The capacity of empathy is multilayered,” says primatologist Frans de Waal of Emory University, author of Our Inner Ape. “We share a core with lots of animals.”

While it’s impossible to directly measure empathy in animals, in humans it’s another matter. Hauser cites a study in which spouses or unmarried couples underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as they were subjected to mild pain. They were warned before each time the painful stimulus was administered, and their brains lit up in a characteristic way signaling mild dread. They were then told that they were not going to feel the discomfort but that their partner was. Even when they couldn’t see their partner, the brains of the subjects lit up precisely as if they were about to experience the pain themselves. “This is very much an ‘I feel your pain’ experience,” says Hauser.

The brain works harder when the threat gets more complicated. A favorite scenario that morality researchers study is the trolley dilemma. You’re standing near a track as an out-of-control train hurtles toward five unsuspecting people. There’s a switch nearby that would let you divert the train onto a siding. Would you do it? Of course. You save five lives at no cost. Suppose a single unsuspecting man was on the siding? Now the mortality score is 5 to 1. Could you kill him to save the others? What if the innocent man was on a bridge over the trolley and you had to push him onto the track to stop the train?

Pose these dilemmas to people while they’re in an fMRI, and the brain scans get messy. Using a switch to divert the train toward one person instead of five increases activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex the place where cool, utilitarian choices are made. Complicate things with the idea of pushing the innocent victim, and the medial frontal cortex an area associated with emotion lights up. As these two regions do battle, we may make irrational decisions. In a recent survey, 85% of subjects who were asked about the trolley scenarios said they would not push the innocent man onto the tracks even though they knew they had just sent five people to their hypothetical death. “What’s going on in our heads?” asks Joshua Greene, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University. “Why do we say it’s O.K. to trade one life for five in one case and not others?”

How We Stay Good

Merely being equipped with moral programming does not mean we practice moral behavior. Something still has to boot up that software and configure it properly, and that something is the community. Hauser believes that all of us carry what he calls a sense of moral grammar the ethical equivalent of the basic grasp of speech that most linguists believe is with us from birth. But just as syntax is nothing until words are built upon it, so too is a sense of right and wrong useless until someone teaches you how to apply it.

Merely being equipped with moral programming does not mean we practice moral behavior. Something still has to boot up that software and configure it properly, and that something is the community. Hauser believes that all of us carry what he calls a sense of moral grammar the ethical equivalent of the basic grasp of speech that most linguists believe is with us from birth. But just as syntax is nothing until words are built upon it, so too is a sense of right and wrong useless until someone teaches you how to apply it.It’s the people around us who do that teaching often quite well. Once again, however, humans aren’t the ones who dreamed up such a mentoring system. At the Arnhem Zoo in the Netherlands, de Waal was struck by how vigorously apes enforced group norms one evening when the zookeepers were calling their chimpanzees in for dinner. The keepers’ rule at Arnhem was that no chimps would eat until the entire community was present, but two adolescents grew willful, staying outside the building. The hours it took to coax them inside caused the mood in the hungry colony to turn surly. That night the keepers put the delinquents to bed in a separate area a sort of protective custody to shield them from reprisals. But the next day the adolescents were on their own, and the troop made its feelings plain, administering a sound beating. The chastened chimps were the first to come in that evening. Animals have what de Waal calls “oughts” rules that the group must follow and the community enforces them.


Human communities impose their own oughts, but they can vary radically from culture to culture. Take the phenomenon of Good Samaritan laws that require passersby to assist someone in peril. Our species has a very conflicted sense of when we ought to help someone else and when we ought not, and the general rule is, Help those close to home and ignore those far away. That’s in part because the plight of a person you can see will always feel more real than the problems of someone whose suffering is merely described to you. But part of it is also rooted in you from a time when the welfare of your tribe was essential for your survival but the welfare of an opposing tribe was not and might even be a threat.

In the 21st century, we retain a powerful remnant of that primal dichotomy, which is what impels us to step in and help a mugging victim or, in the astonishing case of Wesley Autrey, New York City’s so-called Subway Samaritan, jump onto the tracks in front of an oncoming train to rescue a sick stranger but allows us to decline to send a small contribution to help the people of Darfur. “The idea that you can save the life of a stranger on the other side of the world by making a modest material sacrifice is not the kind of situation our social brains are prepared for,” says Greene.

Throughout most of the world, you’re still not required to aid a stranger, but in France and elsewhere, laws now make it a crime for passersby not to provide at least the up-close-and-personal aid we’re good at giving. In most of the U.S., we make a distinction between an action and an omission to act. Says Hauser: “In France they’ve done away with that difference.”

But you don’t need a state to create a moral code. The group does it too. One of the most powerful tools for enforcing group morals is the practice of shunning. If membership in a tribe is the way you ensure yourself food, family and protection from predators, being blackballed can be a terrifying thing. Religious believers as diverse as Roman Catholics, Mennonites and Jehovah’s Witnesses have practiced their own forms of shunning though the banishments may go by names like excommunication or disfellowshipping. Clubs, social groups and fraternities expel undesirable members, and the U.S. military retains the threat of discharge as a disciplinary tool, even grading the punishment as “other than honorable” or “dishonorable,” darkening the mark a former service person must carry for life.

Sometimes shunning emerges spontaneously when a society of millions recoils at a single member’s acts. O.J. Simpson’s 1995 acquittal may have outraged people, but it did make the morality tale surrounding him much richer, as the culture as a whole turned its back on him, denying him work, expelling him from his country club, refusing him service in a restaurant. In November his erstwhile publisher, who was fired in the wake of her and Simpson’s disastrous attempt to publish a book about the killings, sued her ex-employer, alleging that she had been “shunned” and “humiliated.” That, her former bosses might well respond, was precisely the point.

“Human beings were small, defenseless and vulnerable to predators,” says Barbara J. King, biological anthropologist at the College of William and Mary and author of Evolving God. “Avoiding banishment would be important to us.”

Why We Turn Bad

With so many redundant moral systems to keep us in line, why do we so often fall out of ranks? Sometimes we can’t help it, as when we’re suffering from clinical insanity and behavior slips the grip of reason. Criminal courts are stingy about finding such exculpatory madness, requiring a disability so severe, the defendant didn’t even know the crime was wrong. That’s a very high bar that prevents all but a few from proving the necessary moral numbness.

With so many redundant moral systems to keep us in line, why do we so often fall out of ranks? Sometimes we can’t help it, as when we’re suffering from clinical insanity and behavior slips the grip of reason. Criminal courts are stingy about finding such exculpatory madness, requiring a disability so severe, the defendant didn’t even know the crime was wrong. That’s a very high bar that prevents all but a few from proving the necessary moral numbness.Things are different in the case of the cool and deliberate serial killer, who knows the criminality of his deeds yet continues to commit them. For neuroscientists, the iciness of the acts calls to mind the case of Phineas Gage, the Vermont railway worker who in 1848 was injured when an explosion caused a tamping iron to be driven through his prefrontal cortex. Improbably, he survived, but he exhibited stark behavioral changes becoming detached and irreverent, though never criminal. Ever since, scientists have looked for the roots of serial murder in the brain’s physical state.


A study published last year in the journal NeuroImage may have helped provide some answers. Researchers working through the National Institute of Mental Health scanned the brains of 20 healthy volunteers, watching their reactions as they were presented with various legal and illegal scenarios. The brain activity that most closely tracked the hypothetical crimes rising and falling with the severity of the scenarios occurred in the amygdala, a deep structure that helps us make the connection between bad acts and punishments. As in the trolley studies, there was also activity in the frontal cortex. The fact that the subjects themselves had no sociopathic tendencies limits the value of the findings. But knowing how the brain functions when things work well is one good way of knowing where to look when things break down.

Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of us never run off the moral rails in remotely as awful a way as serial killers do, but we do come untracked in smaller ways. We face our biggest challenges not when we’re called on to behave ourselves within our family, community or workplace but when we have to apply the same moral care to people outside our tribe.

The notion of the “other” is a tough one for Homo sapiens. Sociobiology has been criticized as one of the most reductive of sciences, ascribing the behavior of all living things humans included as nothing more than an effort to get as many genes as possible into the next generation. The idea makes sense, and all creatures can be forgiven for favoring their troop over others. But such bias turns dark fast.

Schulman, the psychologist and author, works with delinquent adolescents at a residential treatment center in Yonkers, New York, and was struck one day by the outrage that swept through the place when the residents learned that three of the boys had mugged an elderly woman. “I wouldn’t mug an old lady. That could be my grandmother,” one said. Schulman asked whom it would be O.K. to mug. The boy answered, “A Chinese delivery guy.” Explains Schulman: “The old lady is someone they could empathize with. The Chinese delivery guy is alien, literally and figuratively, to them.”

This kind of brutal line between insiders and outsiders is evident everywhere mobsters, say, who kill promiscuously yet go on rhapsodically about “family.” But it has its most terrible expression in wars, in which the dehumanization of the outsider is essential for wholesale slaughter to occur. Volumes have been written about what goes on in the collective mind of a place like Nazi Germany or the collapsing Yugoslavia. While killers like Adolf Hitler or Slobodan Milosevic can never be put on the couch, it’s possible to understand the xenophobic strings they play in their people.

“Yugoslavia is the great modern example of manipulating tribal sentiments to create mass murder,” says Jonathan Haidt, associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. “You saw it in Rwanda and Nazi Germany too. In most cases of genocide, you have a moral entrepreneur who exploits tribalism for evil purposes.”

That, of course, does not take the stain of responsibility off the people who follow those leaders a case that war-crimes prosecutors famously argued at the Nuremberg trials and a point courageous people have made throughout history as they sheltered Jews during World War II or refuse to murder their Sunni neighbor even if a militia leader tells them to.

For grossly imperfect creatures like us, morality may be the steepest of all developmental mountains. Our opposable thumbs and big brains gave us the tools to dominate the planet, but wisdom comes more slowly than physical hardware. We surely have a lot of killing and savagery ahead of us before we fully civilize ourselves. The hope a realistic one, perhaps is that the struggles still to come are fewer than those left behind.

What Makes Us Moral, By Jerry Kluger, published in Time Magazine, 2007

Money, Markets and Politics

I was caught up in the financial market turmoil some year ago – well since before the ‘credit crunch’ bankrupted Northern Rock as an independent financial institution. With the demise of Lehman Brothers, the takeover of HBOS by Lloyds TSB, and AIG on the brink, I thought I’d give the matter some thought. As a rationalist, these events have spurred me to find out whether it is the possession and exercise of such immense wealth and instruments of financial leverage that drive the world, or whether it is anything more.   If it is just money that drives politics and world order, then we really are in trouble- not least because there are seismic changes in the characteristics of those who hold the levers of ‘money’. Most of our politicians are complicit in such changes and guilty of yielding to those with such intruments irrespective of ideology or moral fibre. It is almost impossible to be elected to many high offices unless one has such wealthy benefactors and bankers.

Let me start off with a paper that I was reading recently from Ethical Politics by Anitra Nelson that I think hit the ‘nail on the head’ in so many ways. For me, it compounds my view that absolute values have no place in a modern liberal democracy:

“The root of all evil” is the title Alan Macfarlane gives to a brief discussion of the social effect of money in a collection of articles on The Anthropology of Evil (Parkin, ed., 1985). Here Macfarlane briefly explores the basis of the idea that money is evil. He points to the obvious connection between money and evil demonstrated in the greed, consumerism and profiteering characteristic of capitalism. “Yet money, and all it symbolizes, is the root of all evil in a deeper sense than this,” writes Macfarlane. And he (71-2) elaborates:

“Viewed from outside the system, money can be seen to do something even more insidious. It subtly eliminates the very concept of evil. Or, rather, it makes it impossible to discriminate between good and evil…’Money’, which is a short-hand way of saying capitalistic relations, market values, trade and exchange, ushers in a world of moral confusion. This effect of money has been most obvious where a capitalistic, monetary economy has clashed with another, opposed, system. Thus it is anthropologists, who have…noted how money disrupts the moral as well as the economic world. As Burridge, for example, writes of the effect of money in Melanesia: money complicates the moral order, turning what was formerly black and white into greyness. Money, he argues, ‘…invites a complex differentiation and multiplication of the parts and qualities of man’ (Burridge 1969:45). More broadly, it is money, markets and market capitalism that eliminate absolute moralities. Not only is every moral system throughout the world equally valid, as Pascual noted, but, within every system, whatever is, is right.

I present this quote because I believe it raises an issue that is at the heart of the problem of Ethical Politics… In particular I worry about the political implications of accepting the labour theory of value. This is where I return to the Macfarlane quote, to Ethical Politics and money. The labour theory of value suggests that monetary exchange is rational in terms of socially necessary labour time. That implies an exchange of labour and the products necessary to sustain that labour giving the capitalist system rationality that I don’t believe it embodies. A bun fight theory of exchange might appear to be no theory at all, but war is war. Why is market exchange necessarily any more rational than gift exchange, love or war? Its quasi-mathematical appearance, made possible by the use of money, is a primary deception.

If the labour theory of value was correct monetary exchange might remain a useful technique to use in the transitional stage to socialism. Marx regards dispensing with the state and money as essential. But, in the same way as taking over the state was a new stage in the proletarian revolution, some have argued that monetary exchange can be adapted to socialist ends, at least temporarily. The communist experiments of the twentieth century in Russia and Cuba grappled with the difficulties of monetary exchange but never overcame them (Nelson, 2001). Especially in his early works Marx castigated the utopian socialist for their confidence in the manipulation of money to eliminate exploitation. Even though he designed his theories as a critique of their, as he saw it, muddleheaded proposals for reform, the labour theory of value has given solace to reformers following their tradition. In fact money seems to be a veil for social war; money is a weapon (Cleaver, 1979).

Ethical politics

… I have access to certain natural resources. I have some knowledge of the potential and limitations of local human and non human resources. I have mouths to feed, generations to nurture, civilisations to reproduce culturally, socially and materially. I don’t need money to evaluate these human and non human resources. I don’t need money to distribute these human and non human resources. I do not need money to (re)produce these human and non human resources. I do need commonly agreed upon social principles and processes to assess the utility of these human and non human resources, to organise the reproduction of them and to distribute them. Our job, the job of ethical politicians today, is to design non monetary forms of appropriation and distribution of material and non material resources. I believe that this will constitute the basis of a truly postmodern society featuring ecologically sustainable behaviour (ESB) and social justice. A society without myths associated with modern society regarding money. The ethical politics of a post economic universe must feature substantive grassroots democracy and ESB. There will be no pretence at neutrality but rather a conscious and conscientious effort to create a balance within and between the fulfillment of the various needs and wants of all the contenders for existence. We want a world where people deal with people and non human nature directly and collectively and care.


Bellofiore, Riccardo, “Marx after Schumpeter”, Capital and Class, # 24, Winter 1985: 60-74.
Bellofiore, Riccardo, (Ed.), Marxian Economics, a Reappraisal, Volumes I and II, London/New York, Macmillan Press/St Martin’s Press, 1998.
Cleaver, Harry, Reading Capital Politically, Brighton (Sussex), The Harvester Press, 1979.
Macfarlane, Alan, “The root of all evil”. In Parkin, David (ed.) The Anthropology of Evil, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1985: 57-76.
Nelson, Anitra, Marx’s Concept of Money: the God of Commodities, Routledge, London, 1999.
Nelson, Anitra, “The poverty of money: Marxian insights for ecological economists”, Ecological Economics, March 2001: 499-511.

Morality & Neuroscience

An Ravelingien reports on the conference ‘Double standards. Towards an integration of evolutionary and neurological perspectives on human morality.’ (Ghent University, 21-22 Oct. 2006)

In Love in the Ruins, Walker Percy tells the story of Tom More, the inventor of the extraordinary ‘ontological lapsometer’1. The lapsometer is a diagnostic tool, a ‘stethoscope of the human soul’.  Just as a stethoscope or an EEG can trace certain physical dysfunctions, the lapsometer can measure the frailties of the human mind. The device can measure ‘how deep the soul has fallen’ and allows for early diagnoses of potential suicides, paranoia, depression, or other mood disorders. Bioethicist Carl Elliott refers to this novel to illustrate a well-known debate within psychiatry2. According to Elliott, the image of the physician that uses the lapsometer to unravel the mysteries of the soul is a comically desperate attempt to objectify experiences that cannot accommodate such scientific analysis. His objection carries back to the conflict between a sociological perspective – that would stress the subjective experiences related to the cultural and social context of human psychology – and a biological perspective – that would rather determine the physiological causes of mental and mood dysfunction. It is very likely that debate about the subjective and indefinite nature of some experiences will climax when empirical science is applied to trace and explain the biology of our moral sentiments and convictions. For most of us, I presume, nothing would appear to be more inextricably a part of our personal experience and merit than our moral competence. The conference ‘Double Standards’ questioned this intuition and demonstrated that the concept of ‘morality’ is becoming more and more tangible.

Jan Verplaetse and Johan Braeckman, the organizers of the conference, gathered 13 reputable experts and more than 150 participants to ponder one of the oldest and most fundamental philosophical questions: how did morality come into existence? For this, they drew upon two different scientific approaches: evolutionary psychology and neuroscience. In theory, these disciplines are complementary.  Neuroscientists assume that morality is generated by specific neural mechanisms and structures, which they hope to find by way of sophisticated brain imaging techniques. Evolutionary scientists, by contrast, want to figure out what the adaptive value of morality is for it to have evolved. According tot hem, morality is – just as all aspects of our human nature – a product of evolution through selection. Moral and social behavior must have had a selective advantage, from which the relevant cognitive and emotional functions developed. Through an interdisciplinary approach, the alleged functions can direct the neuroscientist in searching for the neurological structures that underlie them. Or, the other way around, the imaging of certain neural circuits should help to discover whether and to what extent our moral intuitions are indeed embedded in our ‘nature.’ During the conference, this double perspective gave rise to several interesting hypotheses.

It appears that neuroscientists have already achieved remarkably uniform results regarding the crucial brain areas that are involved in fulfilling moral tasks. Jorge Moll was the first to use functional MRI-studies to show that three major areas are engaged in moral decision making: the frontal lobes, temporal lobe and limbic-paralimbic areas. Other speakers at the conference confirmed this overlapping pattern of neural activity, regardless of differences in the ways in which moral stimuli were presented, and regardless of the specific content of the moral tasks (whether the tasks consisted of complex dilemma’s, simple scenario’s with an emotional undertone, or references to violence and bodily harm). Since these findings, several researchers have started looking for the biological basis of more specific moral intuitions. Jean Decety, for instance, has found the neural correlates that play a role in the cognitive modulation of empathy. fMRI-studies are also being used to compare ‘normal’ individuals with people who show deviant (and in particular criminal/immoral) behavior and to thereby derive new explanations of such a-typical behavior. As such, James Blair suggested that individuals with psychopathy have problems with learned emotional responses to negative stimuli.  According to him, the common neural circuit activated in moral decision making is in a more general sense involved in a rudimentary form of stimulus reinforcement learning. At least one form of morality is developed by such reinforcement learning: what Blair calls care-based morality. Contrary to psychopathic individuals, even very young children realize that there is an important difference between for instance the care-based norm ‘do not hit another child’ and the convention-based norm ‘do not talk during class’. In absence of a clear rule, ‘normal’ individuals will be more easily inclined to transgress social conventions than care-based norms. The reason for this, he proposed, is that transgression of care-based norms confronts us with the suffering of our victim(s). The observation of others in pain, sadness, anger, … immediately evokes a negative response, an aversion, in the self, from which we learn to avoid situations with similar stimuli. Blair offered brain images of psychopathic individuals that showed evidence of reduced brain activity in those parts of the brain that are involved in stimulus reinforcement (the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the amygdala). Adrian Raine gave an entirely different perspective on ‘immoral behavior,’ in suggesting that certain deviances in the prefrontal cortex point to a predisposition towards antisocial behavior. According to Raine, immoral behavior need not be a dysfunction of normal neural circuits; evolution may just as well have shaped the brain to have a predisposition for immoral rather than moral behavior. Antisocial behavior may have a selective advantage: it can be a very effective means of taking others’ resources. As such, the expression of sham emotions (such as faked shame or remorse) can be interpreted as a strategy to mislead others in thinking that they have corrected their behavior. Raine finds support for his hypothesis in indications of a strong genetic basis for antisocial behavior. He also offered brain imaging results that show an 11% reduction in prefrontal grey matter in antisocial individuals and reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex of affective murderers.

Will we one day be able to evaluate ‘how deep someone’s morality has fallen’? Will there be a ‘stethoscope of morality,’ that can measure the weaknesses of our moral judgments and behaviors? If so, will we able to cure immoral behavior? Or, conversely, will we be able to augment the brain processes that are involved in our moral competence? Perhaps most importantly, what do we do with the notion of moral responsibility when there is evidence of predispositions towards antisocial behavior?  Although there is still a long way to go in understanding the neurobiology of human morality, this conference was an important step in introducing some moral dilemma’s that may confront us as the field of research progresses. More information on www.themoralbrain.be

1. Percy W (1971), Love in the Ruins, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York.

2. Elliott C (1999), Bioethics, Culture and Identity. A Philosophical Disease, Routledge, London.


An Ravelingien Ph.D. is a fellow of the IEET, and an assistant researcher in bioethics at the Department of Philosophy, Ghent University.

Morality & Neuroscience

An Ravelingien reports on the conference ‘Double standards. Towards an integration of evolutionary and neurological perspectives on human morality.’ (Ghent University, 21-22 Oct. 2006)

In Love in the Ruins, Walker Percy tells the story of Tom More, the inventor of the extraordinary ‘ontological lapsometer’1. The lapsometer is a diagnostic tool, a ‘stethoscope of the human soul’.  Just as a stethoscope or an EEG can trace certain physical dysfunctions, the lapsometer can measure the frailties of the human mind. The device can measure ‘how deep the soul has fallen’ and allows for early diagnoses of potential suicides, paranoia, depression, or other mood disorders. Bioethicist Carl Elliott refers to this novel to illustrate a well-known debate within psychiatry2. According to Elliott, the image of the physician that uses the lapsometer to unravel the mysteries of the soul is a comically desperate attempt to objectify experiences that cannot accommodate such scientific analysis. His objection carries back to the conflict between a sociological perspective – that would stress the subjective experiences related to the cultural and social context of human psychology – and a biological perspective – that would rather determine the physiological causes of mental and mood dysfunction. It is very likely that debate about the subjective and indefinite nature of some experiences will climax when empirical science is applied to trace and explain the biology of our moral sentiments and convictions. For most of us, I presume, nothing would appear to be more inextricably a part of our personal experience and merit than our moral competence. The conference ‘Double Standards’ questioned this intuition and demonstrated that the concept of ‘morality’ is becoming more and more tangible.

Jan Verplaetse and Johan Braeckman, the organizers of the conference, gathered 13 reputable experts and more than 150 participants to ponder one of the oldest and most fundamental philosophical questions: how did morality come into existence? For this, they drew upon two different scientific approaches: evolutionary psychology and neuroscience. In theory, these disciplines are complementary.  Neuroscientists assume that morality is generated by specific neural mechanisms and structures, which they hope to find by way of sophisticated brain imaging techniques. Evolutionary scientists, by contrast, want to figure out what the adaptive value of morality is for it to have evolved. According tot hem, morality is – just as all aspects of our human nature – a product of evolution through selection. Moral and social behavior must have had a selective advantage, from which the relevant cognitive and emotional functions developed. Through an interdisciplinary approach, the alleged functions can direct the neuroscientist in searching for the neurological structures that underlie them. Or, the other way around, the imaging of certain neural circuits should help to discover whether and to what extent our moral intuitions are indeed embedded in our ‘nature.’ During the conference, this double perspective gave rise to several interesting hypotheses.

It appears that neuroscientists have already achieved remarkably uniform results regarding the crucial brain areas that are involved in fulfilling moral tasks. Jorge Moll was the first to use functional MRI-studies to show that three major areas are engaged in moral decision making: the frontal lobes, temporal lobe and limbic-paralimbic areas. Other speakers at the conference confirmed this overlapping pattern of neural activity, regardless of differences in the ways in which moral stimuli were presented, and regardless of the specific content of the moral tasks (whether the tasks consisted of complex dilemma’s, simple scenario’s with an emotional undertone, or references to violence and bodily harm). Since these findings, several researchers have started looking for the biological basis of more specific moral intuitions. Jean Decety, for instance, has found the neural correlates that play a role in the cognitive modulation of empathy. fMRI-studies are also being used to compare ‘normal’ individuals with people who show deviant (and in particular criminal/immoral) behavior and to thereby derive new explanations of such a-typical behavior. As such, James Blair suggested that individuals with psychopathy have problems with learned emotional responses to negative stimuli.  According to him, the common neural circuit activated in moral decision making is in a more general sense involved in a rudimentary form of stimulus reinforcement learning. At least one form of morality is developed by such reinforcement learning: what Blair calls care-based morality. Contrary to psychopathic individuals, even very young children realize that there is an important difference between for instance the care-based norm ‘do not hit another child’ and the convention-based norm ‘do not talk during class’. In absence of a clear rule, ‘normal’ individuals will be more easily inclined to transgress social conventions than care-based norms. The reason for this, he proposed, is that transgression of care-based norms confronts us with the suffering of our victim(s). The observation of others in pain, sadness, anger, … immediately evokes a negative response, an aversion, in the self, from which we learn to avoid situations with similar stimuli. Blair offered brain images of psychopathic individuals that showed evidence of reduced brain activity in those parts of the brain that are involved in stimulus reinforcement (the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the amygdala). Adrian Raine gave an entirely different perspective on ‘immoral behavior,’ in suggesting that certain deviances in the prefrontal cortex point to a predisposition towards antisocial behavior. According to Raine, immoral behavior need not be a dysfunction of normal neural circuits; evolution may just as well have shaped the brain to have a predisposition for immoral rather than moral behavior. Antisocial behavior may have a selective advantage: it can be a very effective means of taking others’ resources. As such, the expression of sham emotions (such as faked shame or remorse) can be interpreted as a strategy to mislead others in thinking that they have corrected their behavior. Raine finds support for his hypothesis in indications of a strong genetic basis for antisocial behavior. He also offered brain imaging results that show an 11% reduction in prefrontal grey matter in antisocial individuals and reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex of affective murderers.

Will we one day be able to evaluate ‘how deep someone’s morality has fallen’? Will there be a ‘stethoscope of morality,’ that can measure the weaknesses of our moral judgments and behaviors? If so, will we able to cure immoral behavior? Or, conversely, will we be able to augment the brain processes that are involved in our moral competence? Perhaps most importantly, what do we do with the notion of moral responsibility when there is evidence of predispositions towards antisocial behavior?  Although there is still a long way to go in understanding the neurobiology of human morality, this conference was an important step in introducing some moral dilemma’s that may confront us as the field of research progresses. More information on www.themoralbrain.be

1. Percy W (1971), Love in the Ruins, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York.

2. Elliott C (1999), Bioethics, Culture and Identity. A Philosophical Disease, Routledge, London.


An Ravelingien Ph.D. is a fellow of the IEET, and an assistant researcher in bioethics at the Department of Philosophy, Ghent University.

Charisma, Crowds, Psychology

I came across the following article related to some anthropological work that Charles Lindholm has been involved in, and reading it I found it quite useful (with some reservations) in understanding some eastern cultures – especially those of the Indian Subcontinent.  It is a long article that will require a a number of sittings to read and comprehend. If you don’t have the time, atleast try to understand the conclusions.

What does it mean to be ‘in one’s right mind’? Ordinary discourse and the technical languages of the social sciences assume that being in one’s right mind essentially means that one has the ability to calculate how to attain valued ends while avoiding injury and opprobrium (See Note 1). The calculating rationality which utilizes appropriate means to achieve desired ends is thought to be known and recognized both by rational subjects themselves and by equally rational observers; irrationality, then, is an incapacity to calculate, and is revealed in a lack of congruence between acts and goals.

Anthropologists, as professional iconoclasts, have often attempted to demonstrate that assumptions about ‘normal’ consciousness vary according to cultural context; what is madness here is sanity there, and vice versa. This approach is especially characteristic of interpretive anthropologists who wish to avoid imposing preconceived Western notions of rationality on what Clifford Geertz calls ‘local knowledge’.

However, although the range of goals and methods for achieving them has been greatly expanded by an awareness of cultural context, the interpretive approach does not really offer any significant challenge to the model of rationality outlined above, but rather remains grounded in standard utilitarian assumptions of rational individual actors calculating means to achieve valued ends. In this paper, I argue that a truly radical challenge to the notion of rationality already exists within the canon of Western social thought in the works of Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, as well as in the now forgotten writings of crowd psychologists Gustave Le Bon and Gabriel Tarde.

In the next few pages, I will outline these oppositional and radically non-calculative aspects of social theory, contrast them with the work of some influential modern scholars, and, by means of a discussion of typical recruitment mechanisms found in some ‘New Age’ movements, suggest a few ways these classic perspectives might help us to rethink our notions of person, agent, and sanity.

Max Weber and the Irrational

It is appropriate to begin with Max Weber, who is the predominant figure in the pantheon of modern American sociology and anthropology. For Weber and his orthodox followers sociology and anthropology were defined as the effort to reveal sympathetically yet systematically the significance of social action through exposing the cultural values and norms that motivate persons. This is the famous method of verstehen, or, in Geertzian terms, ‘taking the native’s point of view’, and is the foundation of interpretive anthropology. From this perspective, the interpreter reaches ‘understanding’ by realizing the meanings the local actor attaches to his or her actions in pursuit of culturally valued goals. In other words, Weberian and Geertzian actors are reasonable, although their reasons may not be immediately transparent to an uninitiated observer due to cultural and historical differences in value-systems and in the modes of rationality developed as a consequence of these differences.

We can see then that Weberian sociology and its modern interpretive descendants are approaches to social science that fit in well with the model of ‘standard’ consciousness I outlined above: human beings are assumed to be rational agents acting consciously and intelligently to maximize their valued goals; their thought is recognizable as reasonable by the thinker as well as by the culturally knowledgeable observer; furthermore, rationality is highly valued within its particular cultural setting, since only rational action can lead to attainment of culturally desirable ends. The contribution of interpretive social science, in the Weberian and Geertzian sense, is thus to reveal the rationality of apparent irrationality through supplying “the interpretive understanding of social action and thereby… a causal explanation of its course and consequences” (Weber 1978: 4).

For Weber, this approach, in which the point of view of the other is taken in order to display the underlying intent and purpose of social action for that other is the sole mode of inquiry proper to the social sciences. According to Weber, such a limitation of the possibilities of sociology is necessary because sociologists (and, by extension, anthropologists) are products and purveyors of rational analytic thought and can only practise their craft in this mode. Even more crucial, however, is Weber’s fundamental contention that any action orientation in which the actors’ motives and goals are not self-consciously determined is outside the realm of meaning, therefore unintelligible, and as such must be excluded from the central interpretive task of social theory.

But although Weber specifically excludes all irrational, unconscious, and purely reactive activity from the realm of theory and accordingly devotes himself to explicating the types of rationality that ‘make sense’ of other cultures and historical epochs, he himself was well aware that a great deal of human life – indeed, most of human life – is not experienced by self-conscious agents acting for achieving valued goals within coherent ‘webs of meaning’. Weber therefore breaks action orientations down into four ideal types. Two of these types – value rationality and instrumental rationality – are different forms of calculating consciousness based upon the rationality of the actor (See Note 3), and in most of his major writing Weber elaborates their distinctions and evolution. The other two types of action orientation, however, are deemed by Weber to be without any purpose or meaning whatsoever, and thereby to stand outside the range of social theory. These types are tradition and charisma (See Note 4).

Tradition is defined by Weber as “on the other side” of the borderline between meaningful and irrational action (Weber 1978: 25), since for him tradition ideally implies an automatic and unthinking repetition by the actor enmeshed within the confines of a mindless swarm; it is a state of torpor, lethargy and inertia, predictable and mechanical, reproducing itself in utter indifference and submerging the creative individualities of all persons caught within its coils (See Note 5). Here, Weber gives us a picture of mundane life governed by routine; a world of the passive crowd in which rational self-consciousness and goal-orientation has no part to play.

Yet, although tradition is sociologically unanalyzable in principle, Weber nonetheless notes that action motivated by habit and thoughtless conformity is hardly unusual. Instead, he writes that “in the great majority of cases actual action goes on in a state of inarticulate half-consciousness or actual unconsciousness of its subjective meaning” (Weber 1978: 21) and that the “bulk of all everyday action” is motivated by “an almost automatic reaction to habitual stimuli” (Weber 1978: 25). Weber freely acknowledges such “merely reactive imitation may well have a degree of sociological importance at least equal to that of the type which can be called social action in the strict sense” (Weber 1978: 24).

Of even greater importance is charisma, which stands in absolute contrast to tradition. In its simplest form, charisma is defined by Weber as “a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is considered extraordinary and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities” (Weber 1978: 242). Individuals possessing charisma are portrayed by Weber as above all else emotional and vitalizing, in complete opposition both to the ennervating authority of the patriarch and the rational efficiency of the technician-bureaucrat. Instead, whatever the charismatic leader says is right not because it makes sense, or because it coincides with what has always been done, but because the leader says it. Orders can therefore be completely whimsical, self-contradictory and even lead to death or destruction for the follower, demonstrating the disciple’s inner emotional compulsion to obey without regard for coherence or consequence.

The extraordinary figures who inspire such unreasoning devotion are imagined by Weber to be, in their typical form, berserk warriors, pirates and demagogues. They reveal their capacities through a highly intensified and emotionally labile state of consciousness that excites and awes the onlookers, and jolts them from the everyday (See Note 6). The primary type, from which the others spring, is the epileptoid magician-shaman who can incorporate the Gods and display divine powers primarily through convulsions, trembling and intense effusions of excitement (Weber 1972: 327, 1978: 401) (See Note 7). Through his capacity for epileptoid states, the shaman served both as an exemplar of ecstasy and as the leader in the rituals of communal intoxication and orgy Weber took as the original sacred experience (Weber 1978: 401, 539).

Why should such manifestations of apparent abnormality appeal to an audience? It is not intuitively obvious that a display of epileptoid behavior would be attractive to anyone; in our society quite the contrary is the case. But Weber postulated that extreme emotional states, such as those generated in seizures and other forms of emotionally heightened altered states of consciousness, had a contagious effect, spreading through the audience and infecting its members with corresponding sensations of enhanced emotionality and vitality; these expansive sensation are felt to be emanating from the stimulating individual, who is then attributed with superhuman powers. The charismatic appeal therefore lies precisely in the capacity of a person to display heightened emotionality and in the reciprocal capacity of the audience to imitation and corresponding sensations of altered awareness.

Thus for Weber, what is essential and compulsive in the charismatic relation is not its meaning, though explanatory meaning systems will certainly be generated after the fact (See Note 9). Rather, it is the participatory communion engendered by the epileptoid performance of the charismatic which experientially and immediately releases the onlookers from their mundane sufferings. “For the devout the sacred value, first and above all, has been a psychological state in the here and now. Primarily this state consists in the emotional attitude per se;” an attitude in which the following could momentarily escape from themselves by dissolving in “the objectless acosmism of love” (Weber 1972: 278, 330 emphasis in original). For Weber, such prophets provided the creative force in history; only through their inspiration could enough energy and commitment be generated to overturn an old social order. They are the heroes and saints who, he feared, could no longer be born in the rationalized world of modern society (See Note 11).

To recapitulate, we have then in Weber two forms of altered or dissociated states of consciousness that, from his point of view, are not amenable to sociological analysis since they stand outside rational goal-orientation, yet are nonetheless of crucial importance in history and culture. In fact, the question of what these states are altered or dissociated from becomes a difficult question to answer, since Weber sees the predominance of the rational ‘standard’ consciousness to be a relatively recent development. Perhaps, instead, it is more appropriate to say that rationality itself, especially in its modern instrumental version, is an altered state, vis-a-vis its powerful predecessors of tradition and charisma.

The Rationalization of Irrationality

But these opposites also continually transform one into the other in a continuous dialectic, and they move as well through history toward their own supercession by more rational modes of thought. Charisma occurs, Weber says, when tradition has lost its hold and people no longer feel compelled to repeat the old patterns, obey the old orders. Charismatic revolutions themselves are destined to be short-lived, and necessarily have a new tradition nascent within them; ritualization and bureacratization inevitably appear as the prophet’s original vitalizing revelation is repeated and institutionalized by his self-interested followers, who wish to cloak themselves with the sacred transformative quality originally imputed to the personal aura of the leader himself. This type of charisma supports the new traditions born of the original prophesy; but now the crown, the throne, the robe, instead of being the accoutrements of the ecstatic prophet, may legitimize a moribund time server. Charisma in this instance becomes co-terminus with tradition, justifying and validating the habitual obedience of the masses (See Note 12). From this perspective, tradition too changes in character, losing its irrational somnambulistic component to become a coherent framework within which free agents actively and rationally pursue the given values and goals elaborated by the prophet and his minions. In other words, both charisma and tradition become rationalized as they transform from their ideal-typical state.

Weber’s conceptualization of this process has had great influence upon his American followers. But where Weber placed the primary forms of charisma and tradition outside the boundaries of social thought, while still giving them credit as the precursors of rationality, his successors have tried to make them disappear completely by incorporating them within their systematic meaning-centered theories. Thus the influential sociologist Edward Shils claims that an innate human quest for a coherent and meaningful way of understanding the world is the sacred heart of every viable social formation. Therefore, it follows that “the charismatic propensity is a function of the need for order” (Shils 1965:203) and that charisma is felt automatically whenever one draws near the entities and institutions thought to embody and emanate that order. Tradition can then be understood as located precisely within the same order-giving central structures in which charisma inheres; structures that, far from being irrational, provide a sacred and coherent model for living a meaningful life. Shil’s paradigm is explicitly followed by Clifford Geertz, who argues for “the inherent sacredness of sovereign power” (1983: 123), and proceeds to analyze the manner in which this supposed sovereign, meaning-giving central power is manifested in various cultural frameworks.

These neo-Weberian perspectives have erased the image of charisma as an irrational emotional convulsion. Instead, all persons in all societies at all times are attempting, with greater or lesser success, to promote and to attain a culturally given sacred central symbolic system of accepted significance, as revealed in concrete institutional forms. The only human problem is not being able to achieve proximity to this holy order. From within this framework, the frenzy of the shaman is transformed into a reasonable search for coherence and significance, and tradition and charisma become equivalent to rationality (See Note 13).

Obviously, this version of society is far from the social and historical concept of irrational action that Weber knew, revealed, and set aside as ineffable and thus outside of sociological discourse. Weber certainly could not have accepted the reduction of charisma and tradition to ‘sacred order’. For him, the primary form of tradition remained imitative and senseless, and the primary form of charisma remained convulsive, revolutionary, and outside of ‘meaning’ entirely. The best that sociology could do, from his perspective, was to recognize the capacity of these irrational impulses to influence a rational course of action, and thereby to “assess the causal significance of irrational factors in accounting for the deviations from this type” (Weber 1978: 6) (See Note 14).

Durkheim and Group Consciousness

Let me turn now to Emile Durkheim, the other great ancestor of contemporary social thought, whose work offers what I believe to be a more theoretically compelling understanding of the irrational than does Weber. However, Durkheim’s concern with grasping irrational states of being is now more or less forgotten or else the object of misunderstanding and derision (See Note 15). Instead, he is known today primarily as he was interpreted by Talcott Parsons, ie., as a systematic thinker strongly associated with functionalism and with his pioneering use of statistical data to isolate variables for the purposes of demonstrating causal chains in social organizations. Here his great contributions are his dissection of the division of labor and its consequences, and his correlation of suicide rates with alienating social conditions. His other great project, one which strongly influenced later structuralism, was his effort to demonstrate that categories of thought are themselves social products, and thereby to ground Kantian metaphysical imperatives in a structured social reality.

But these are only a part of Durkheim’s sociology. In contrast to the Weberian concern with conscious agents struggling to achieve culturally mediated goals and values, Durkheim founded his sociology on the notion that ordinary consciousness is characterized more by rationalization than by rationality. For him, the reasons people claim to have for what they are doing and the meanings they attribute to their actions are post facto attempts to explain socially generated compulsions which they actually neither understand nor control.

Thus Durkheim, unlike Weber, draws a radical distinction between the goals and character of the group and the goals and characters of the individuals within the group, arguing that “social psychology has its own laws that are not those of individual psychology” (1966: 312). Furthermore, “the interests of the whole are not necessarily the interests of the part” (Durkheim 1973: 163); indeed, they may be, and often are, completely at odds. But the group imposes its own will upon the hearts and minds of its members and compels them to act in ways that run against their own subjective interests; these actions are later rationalized to ‘make sense’, and the rationalizations then become the value systems of a particular human society.

Durkheim therefore presents us with the extraordinary proposal that sociology cannot take as its subject the individual person who is manipulating within culture to maximize his or her own ends. Rather, he proposes a continuous conflictual ebb and flow between singularity and community, self and group (See Note 16). As he writes, “our inner life has something like a double center of gravity. On the one hand is our individuality – and, more particularly, our body in which it is based; on the other it is everything in us that expresses something other than ourselves…. (These) mutually contradict and deny each other” (1973: 152) (See Note 17).

Durkheim, like Weber, envisions the individual to be rationally calculating and maximizing. But far from assuming this form of consciousness to be the nexus of society or of sociology, Durkheim repudiates egoistic calculation as immoral, solipsistic, depraved, animalistic, and of no sociological interest. Instead, he argues that human beings rise above animality and pure appetite precisely at the point where the ‘normal’ mind of the self-aggrandizing egoistic actor is immersed and subdued within the transformative grip of the social (See Note 18).

Durkheim’s vision of the selfish actor dissolved within the crucible of society appears to parallel to Weber’s image of tradition as a state of deindividuated trance. But there is a very significant difference between the two, which derives from Durkheim’s understanding of the experience of group consciousness. Where for Weber the state of unthinking immersion in the group is associated with torpor and lethargy, Durkheim argues instead that people submerge themselves in the collective precisely because participation offers an immediate felt sense of transcendence to its members. It is a sensation of ecstasy, not boredom, that experientially validates self-loss in the community.

Influenced by studies of Mesmerism (See Note 19) and the same notions of emotional excitability that Weber also utilized, Durkheim thought that an extraordinary altered state of consciousness among individuals in a group, which he called ‘collective effervescence’ would occur spontaneously “whenever people are put into closer and more active relations with one another” (Durkheim 1965: 240-1). This experience is one of depersonalization, and of a transcendent sense of participation in something larger and more powerful than themselves (See Note 20). Durkheim, ordinarily a placid writer, paints a potent picture of this state, as the personal ego momentarily disintegrates under the influence of the fevered crowd. “The passions released are of such an impetuosity that they can be restrained by nothing…. Everything is just as though he really were transported into a special world, entirely different from the old one where he ordinarily lives, and into an environment filled with exceptionally intense forces that take hold of him and metamorphose him” (Durkheim 1965: 246, 249).

Durkheim imagines that within the excited mass, sensations of emotional intensification are released in impulsive outbursts that contagiously spread to those around. From this point of view, charisma exists only in the group; the charismatic leader who is Weber’s hero is here a passive symbol serving, in Elias Canetti’s words, as a ‘crowd crystal’ around whom the collective can solidify and resonate (Canetti 1978) (See Note 21). The result of this solidification is immediate imitation, magnified through the lens of the leader and synchronized within the group as a whole. In a feedback loop, this echoing and magnifying serves to further heighten emotion, leading to greater challenges to the ego and more potent feelings of exaltation. After this ecstatic experience “men really are more confident because they feel themselves stronger: and they really are stronger, because forces which were languishing are now reawakened in the consciousness”(Durkheim 1965: 387).

The physical experience of self-loss and intoxication in the crowd’s collective effervescence is, for Durkheim, the “very type of sacred thing” (Durkheim 1965: 140) and is the ultimate and permanent source of social cohesion; all else is secondary. Thus he writes that what is necessary for social life “is that men are assembled, that sentiments are felt in common and expressed in common acts; but the particular nature of these sentiments and acts is something relatively secondary and contingent” (1965: 431-2).

Tradition, from this perspective, is not seen as a torpid counter to the excitement of charisma, as in the Weberian model. Instead, a viable tradition is understood as suffused with the ecstatic experience of regular collective participation. Thus Durkheim conflates charisma and tradition in a manner completely the reverse of Shils and Geertz. For Durkheim, any attribution of meaning to the felt reality of collective effervescence is strictly a posteriori; an attempt by individuals try to explain and rationalize what is actually a primal, prelogical, experiential state of transcendent self-loss that provides the felt moral basis for all social configurations, and combats the solipsistic self-interest that would tear society apart.

Crowd Psychology

Durkheim’s positive moral view of group consciousness and Weber’s favorable portrait of charismatic relations were completely overturned in the early 20th century by the crowd psychologists Gustave Le Bon and Gabriel Tarde. These two French theorists, though now largely forgotten by academics, were tremendously influential in their time, and were the founders of the present-day practices of political polling and media consultation as well as the esoteric study of group psychology. For them the collective experience no longer had any redemptive features, and became instead a frightful combination of chaos, credulity and passion as persons within the crowd automatically regress to more primitive, child-like states of being while under the influence of their irrational, emotionally-compelling leader (See Note 22).

In this formulation, the ‘standard’ state of rational consciousness, which Le Bon and Tarde both quite explicitly took to be the consciousness of a masculine, calculating, utilitarian free agent, was fragile indeed. Indeed, though lauding rationality as the highest form of thought, the crowd psychologists, like Weber, were suspicious of the extent to which rational consciousness actually prevailed. Tarde, for example, believed that people, though imagining themselves to be free agents acting for understood goals, are in truth “unconscious puppets whose strings were pulled by their ancestors or political leaders or prophets” (1903:77). From this perspective, men and women, insofar as they are members of a group, are “in a special state, which much resembles the state of fascination in which the hypnotized individual finds himself in the hands of the hypnotiser”(Le Bon 1952: 31).

In this vision, even the most rational individual ran great risk of being quickly and irresistibly reduced to the lowest common denominator when immersed in a crowd, and consequently of acting in a savage, childish, ‘feminine’ and, in short, irrational manner that would never be condoned by ordinary standards of behavior. Rational consciousness, then, is portrayed and appreciated by these thinkers as a feeble refuge from the torrents of passion and destruction that seethe within the collective; a torrent that drowns all who are drawn into its vortex (See Note 23). The Durkheimian view of the power of the collective is here completely accepted, but this power is allowed only a negative moral content, while the good is found solely in the flimsy boat of rationality.

For the crowd psychologists, as for Durkheim, the mechanisms that stimulate the crowd are simple. Once a mass is gathered, any strong action excites immediate imitation and magnification in a cycle of intensification that eventually dies down, much like the ripples that appear after a stone is thrown into a pool. Only through such stimulation can human beings attain “the illusion of will” (Tarde 1903:77) (See Note 24). So, where Durkheim believed the primal group would coalesce spontaneously without the necessity of any external excitement, crowd psychology argued that someone had to throw the stone and provide the “dream of command” that stimulates the crowd to unite in pursuit of “a dream of action”(Tarde 1903: 77).

In postulating the need for a leader to galvanize the group, Le Bon and Tarde brought together Durkheimian and Weberian imagery. But where Weber had given the charismatic a positive value as the founder of new religions and the healer of the dispirited, Le Bon and Tarde see him in negative guise as a powerful and willful figure; a mesmerist who is capable of expressing in his person the electrifying excitement and volition that awakens the sleeping crowd, providing the masses with an irresistible command that solidifies and motivates them under his thrall (See Note 25). The inner character of this leader remained an enigma; far from a rational calculator, he is “recruited from the ranks of those morbidly nervous, excitable, half-deranged persons who are bordering on madness” (Le Bon 1952: 132). In particular, he had to be “obsessed” by an idea that “has taken possession of him”, in a way exactly parallel to the possession of the shaman by a god or gods (Le Bon 1952: 118). The crowd psychologists argue that it is precisely the leader’s obsessive self-absorption that appeals to the crowd, since only through feeling himself pulled and formed by forces beyond his control does the leader gain the power to act and thereby break the cycle of imitation and passivity that has held the collective in a somnambulistic stupor (See Note 26).

In the paradigm offered by crowd psychology, such persons elicit not only obedience, but also the love and adulation of the followers. By standing apart, completely focused on an inner vision which compels and energizes them, they embody and exemplify the “dream of command” that electrifies the following. So we have the paradox of a leader who, far from wishing to further the ends of his followers, instead “in perfect egotism offered himself to (their) adoration” (Tarde 1903: 203). The crowd psychologists thus come to the pessimistic conclusion that the group’s devotion has “never been bestowed on easy-going masters, but on the tyrants who vigorously oppressed them” in order to serve their own driven obsessions (Le Bon 1952: 54).

Crowd psychology therefore unites Durkheim and Weber by placing an ecstatic and convulsive charismatic at the center of a receptive group. The state of torpor that Weber saw in tradition is here understood as the somnambulistic trance that precedes charismatic involvement in a state of collective effervescence. The moral quality of crowd participation and charismatic excitement is now also reversed. Where Durkheim portrayed the vitality of society arising from communal experiences of unity, and where Weber hoped for the arrival of a transformative new prophet who could break open the iron cage of instrumental rationality, crowd psychology gives us frightening imagery of both groups and leaders; imagery that points not toward the church and the prophet, but toward Nazism and Hitler. As Le Bon prophetically writes, as a consequence of the erosion of traditional bonds of kinship, ethnicity and religion that kept the regression to mass consciousness at bay, “the age we are about to enter will in truth be the ERA OF CROWDS” (1952:14).

The Denial of Charisma

In so demonizing the altered states of charisma and group participation, crowd psychology prefigures the modern attitude, though unlike modern writers, the crowd psychologists retained a fearful appreciation of the potency of group consciousness. But this appreciation has been repressed by the efforts by Shils, Geertz and others of the interpretive school who aim to transform the charismatic appeal of the leader and the convulsive reaction of the group into a rational quest for meaning, order and coherence. In a parallel manner, ‘resource mobilization’ theorists of mass movements have argued that activist groups are made up of purposive and reasonable individual free agents voluntarily gathered together for the sake of commonly held goals of social justice. And, similarly, social constructivist theories of emotion portray emotion as ‘cognitive,’ and therefore consider emotions primarily as ’embodied appraisals’.

I want to be clear here that I do not dispute the salience of a search for meaning, coherence, and justice as causes for commitment to any movement; and certainly emotions are cognized (to be afraid of a cut electrical wire one must know that it is dangerous). But the feeling person, overwhelmed by nameless anxiety, immersed in the vortex of a mob, or irresistibly drawn to a charismatic figure like a moth to a flame, is hardly a rational calculator. The image of free agents making reasonable appraisals of risks, enacting values, construing meaningful systems and pursuing desired outcomes within a coherent cultural context is a vision of humanity that may be appropriate for understanding a great proportion of action and thought; but clearly the apotheosis of rationalization and voluntarism found in these contemporary theories ignores precisely the aspects of social behavior that Weber, Durkheim and the crowd psychologists sought to bring to the fore; i.e., the power of irrational group experience to stimulate men and women into actions that can only be called meaningful, orderly, and goal-oriented if these terms are emptied of all content.

Why has this denial of the irrational psychology of groups and leaders occurred? In part, the assertion of human reasonableness under even the most extraordinary circumstances can be considered an intellectual reaction to the implications of the horrible spectre of Nazism that the crowd psychologists so uncannily prophesied (See Note 27). But it is also clear that the denial of collective deindividuating altered states of consciousness corresponds with our present social formation, which mirrors and ratifies the rationalization processes of the society at large and finds its most powerful philosophical expression in the romantic existentialist apotheosis of the self (See Note 28). Because this model holds sway, a positive moral evaluation of collective charismatic states will be very difficult to achieve, as will the experience of charisma itself.

Charisma Today: est and Scientology

I can illustrate my point (See Note 29) by sketching the trajectory of two apparently pragmatic and “world affirming” (See Note 30) charismatic groups: est, founded and led by Werner Erhard and Scientology, founded and led by the late L. Ron Hubbard (See Note 31). In their stated purposes, these two groups appear highly instrumental, charging a substantial fee to help people to achieve better adjustment at work, new friends, greater happiness, a more satisfying love life. They have a strong continuity with the ‘healthy-minded’ ‘once-born’ religions that William James (1982) found so characteristic of American culture; religions which typically affirm the goodness of all creation and preach accommodation with the world as it is, attracting middle-class, white collar adherents anxious to better themselves. The est Forum, for instance, stresses that its program is suited to “the already successful… the already healthy…the already committed…the already accomplished…the already knowledgeable” (Forum pamphlet 1986). The purpose of joining is to learn a practice allowing one to manipulate “the levers and controls of personal effectiveness, creativity, vitality and satisfaction” (Forum pamphlet 1986); and testimonials from converts make claims not to higher wisdom, but rather that the discipline “has helped me to handle life better…. I get on better with people…. I can apply myself to work and study more easily than before” (Foster 1971: 119). Successful graduates are “people who know how to make life work” (Erhard quoted in Brewer 1975: 36).

In the pragmatic, cheerful ‘once born’ ethos, the desire for personal enlightenment is reconciled with practical action, doing well in the office becomes a pathway to self-fulfillment, and accepting hierarchy is understood not only as a useful strategy in business, but also as a spiritual exercise, since “you get power by giving power to a source of power” (Erhard quoted in Tipton 1982: 215). Armed with new perceptions, the trainees can acquiesce to whatever situation they find themselves in, confident that “being with it makes it disappear” (an est trainer, quoted in Tipton 1982: 209); that whatever one is doing is what one wants to do, and that the world is good and just.

“Everyone of us is a god in his own universe, and the creator of the very reality around ourselves” (an est trainer, quoted in Singh 1987: 10). As Ellwood remarks, from this perspective “an individual only gets into traps and circumstances he intends to get into…. the limitations he has must have been invented by himself” (1973: 175).
In keeping with the practical, work-oriented manifest content of this ideology, most participants have little involvement in any particular spiritual technology, judging efficacy, like any good consumer, solely by perceived results. They are, in Bird’s (1979) terminology, apprentices rather than devotees or disciples; persons merely looking for helpful knowledge in a complicated mystic marketplace.

Yet, despite their overtly instrumental character, utilitarian orientation, and constantly shifting peripheral membership, these groups paradoxically appear to have a strong tendency to develop highly committed charismatized inner cores of intensely loyal devotees gathered around a leader taken to be a demigod. As Roy Wallis puts it, “social reality outside the movement may come to seem a pale and worthless reflection of the social reality of the movement…. (as) the self and personal identity… become subordinated to the will and personality of the leader” (Wallis 1984: 122-24).

In Scientology, for instance, there was a “transformation from a loose, almost anarchic group of enthusiasts of a lay psychotherapy, Dianetics, to a tightly controlled and rigorously disciplined following for a quasi-religious movement, Scientology” (Wallis 1977:5). L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of this group, began as a science fiction writer and entrepreneur, but ended by claiming to be a Messiah “wearing the boots of responsibility for this universe” (Hubbard quoted in Ellwood 1973: 172). His disciples concurred, seeing him as a charismatic superman who could escape space and time, and whose insight into the world would lead to universal salvation.

For the inner cadre of Scientologists the ‘meaning’ of membership did not hinge on a coherent doctrine, since Hubbard “modified the doctrine frequently without precipitating significant opposition” (Wallis 1977: 153). As a result, “even the most doctrinally learned Scientologists may be unsure what palpable qualities a clear (an enlightened person) is supposed to manifest, other than confidence and loyalty to the cult” (Bainbridge and Stark 1980: 133). Participation rested instead on absolute faith in Hubbard himself and on one’s total unreserved commitment to the organization. As a former convert writes, “the extent of one’s faith was the measure of one’s future gains…. Everything depended on one’s own certainty at the moment” (Kaufman 1972: 25, 179). Any questioning showed one was not moving toward ‘clear’, whereas meditation on Hubbard’s often self-contradictory words was considered to be transformative in itself.

In the fully formed Scientology corporation a multi-million dollar enterprise was headed by a small, secretive, highly disciplined and fully committed central cadre, the Sea Org, marked by their esoteric practices, special language, and distinctive uniforms of white, with black boots and belt. Totally dedicated to Hubbard, they formed an inner circle of virtuosi living in seclusion aboard Hubbard’s yacht, proclaiming their devotion by signing ‘billion year contracts’ of spiritual service to their eternal leader.

As the group made claims to have the key, not simply to enhanced awareness, but to all the world’s problems, it also became more rigid and totalitarian; fear of ‘suppressives’ (Scientology language for opponents) heightened, leading to expensive lawsuits and countersuits; meanwhile Hubbard himself withdrew deeper into paranoia, eventually isolating himself so that only three people were actually permitted to see him, and it became a matter of controversy whether he was alive or dead (See Note 32).

Est has followed a similar trajectory. Beginning as the revelation of a former encyclopedia salesman and ex-Scientology convert, est brought together the techniques of Scientology, Buddhist meditation, existential philosophy and group therapy to form a potent self-help organization which soon began to exhibit a charismatic character. Werner Erhard, the founder, was idolized by his committed followers as a “fully realized human being” who “lives in risk and possibility… we catch up with him, then he moves ten steps ahead” (a convert quoted in Singh 1987: 89). An inner circle of devotees controlling the vast est empire were absolutely loyal to Erhard, whom they conceived to be a savior. This inner circle was tightly knit, strictly regulated, and required to have only “those purposes, desires, objectives, and intentions that Werner agreed for you to have” (the president of est, quoted in Martin 1980: 112). Not coincidentally, they began to resemble Erhard closely, down to mannerisms and dress.

The accommodative est message of “perfection as a state in which things are the way the are, and not the way they are not” (Erhard quoted in Martin 1980: 114) was taken by the inner circle to be a message that would transform the world through transforming consciousness, and est began to reorient itself into a more overtly religious salvationist direction, with Erhard as the prophet of the coming millennium. But the pressure of being a charismatic figure began to tell on Erhard, who showed signs of psychological disintegration, brutalizing members of his family and the inner core while simultaneously demanding greater and more violent tests of loyalty from those closest to him. The ensuing tension led, in recent years, to defections and litigation within the core, and to public attacks on Erhard by some of his closest relatives and associates (See Note 33).

The parallel descents of these groups into paranoia and authoritarianism are instructive, and illustrate the difficulties even the most accommodative charismatic movements and leaders have in adapting to modern social conditions. They also illustrate recurrent patterns of group processes that are not reducible to a quest for meaning or coherence or any other rational end, but that can better be conceptualized within a framework of charisma, collective effervescence, and the psychology of crowds. The same framework can help us to understand the methods of recruitment that drew people deeply into these organizations (See Note 34).

Essentially, recruitment to est and Scientology, in common with recruitment to many other modern cults, relies on techniques that reveal to the prospective clients the degree to which their personal identities are contingent and socially constructed. The stated end is to permit the convert to escape from obligations of should and ought (referred to as ‘garbage’) in order to find the authentic, eternal and vital selves that lie beneath social and familial conditioning.
The notion of a primal unsocialized vital center is taken absolutely literally by Scientology. In its doctrine, human beings are actually concrete emanations of timeless energy forces called Thetans, who manifested themselves in the material world for amusement, but who have been so absorbed in their games that they have forgotten their true transcendent identities. To remedy this unhappy condition, one must ‘clear’ material residues and memories away from Thetan consciousness and allow the Thetan to “relinquish his self-imposed limitations” (Hubbard quoted in Wallis 1977: 104).

The fantastic science fiction ideology would hardly be convincing to many potential converts without its experiential ratification through a long process of training in which the new member’s sense of identity and social context is consistently undermined via a bewildering, repetitious and emotionally charged sequence of ‘deprogramming’ exercises (‘auditing’) which utilize a fallacious instrument (the ‘e-meter’) that students believe registers fluctuations in their emotional responses (see Whitehead 1987 for a detailed account).

In the training, the student, under the eye of an experienced ‘auditor’, may be asked repeatedly to relive and repeat painful or intense experiences of the past. The auditor asks questions such as “tell me something you would be willing to have that person (indicated by the trainer) not know about you”, over and over again. No explanations are given, and the trainee is also constantly obliged to redefine the most common words and phrases he or she uses in response, and is required as well to master the complex Scientology jargon. The ‘runs’ of repeated questions and answers can go for many hours, confusing and exhausting the trainee. The ostensible aim of this ritual is to distance the trainee from emotional reactions to ‘garbage’ so he or she can become ‘at cause’ by getting a ‘clear’ reading on the e-meter. In consequence of this process, the trainee will hypothetically become free to experience unencumbered ecstatic Thetan awareness.

The training process occurs in an atmosphere of high anxiety, as the trainee struggles to control the random fluctuations of the e-meter while simultaneously feelings of disorientation, remorse, hatred, love, jealousy and so on are elicited by the repetitious, probing, highly personal questions and complex demands of the auditor, a powerful authority figure believed to have achieved a more evolved superhuman consciousness. Each auditing session concludes with cathartic group gatherings in which the participants ‘share wins’ and “were warmly welcomed into the group, greeted and applauded” (Wallis 1977: 173). This sequence proved to be remarkably effective in gaining great loyalty from many Scientology ‘preclears’, who would themselves move up the elaborate ladder toward ‘clear’ status and become ‘auditors’ of other initiates (See Note 35).

Est never utilized such a literal image of liberation as Scientology’s Thetan, but very similar techniques were in operation in the recruitment and training process. For est, as in Scientology, history and family are considered to be destructively enmeshing, and the point of training is to be released “from the cultural trance, the systematic self-delusion, to which most of us surrender our aliveness” (Marsh 1975: 38). The process is conceived as awakening to one’s timeless and vital transpersonal essence, thus becoming “truly able and perfect” (an est trainer, quoted in Tipton 1982: 177). As in Scientology, trainees cannot break through into this perfect realm by reason; reason is regarded as a defense against the intrinsic and immediate truth of intuitive feeling states. “If you experience it, it’s the truth. The same thing believed is a lie” (Erhard, quoted in Tipton 1982: 192).

As in Scientology, instruction is geared to break down the students’ reasoning power and ‘conditioning’ through emotionally charged training sessions designed to demonstrate that their beliefs and personalities are programmed by their past, their culture, and their associations. In the classical est seminar, 250 persons or so spend two weekends totalling 60 to 70 emotionally intense (and expensive) hours of lectures, meditation and confrontation. The trainer typically abuses and infantilizes the group, calling them ‘assholes’ whose lives are ‘shit’, and prohibiting them from using the toilet. The students are further bombarded by paradoxes undercutting logic (See Note 36), asked to relive traumatic emotional experiences of the past, incited to act out deep fears, or perhaps insulted and abused by the leader in front of the audience for arrogance or selfishness. Role playing, switching genders, taking on other identities, all are part of the repertoire. The effectiveness of these efforts to decenter the self in the context of the group is evident in one participant’s description: “It seems now that almost the entire roomful of people are crying, moaning, groaning, sobbing, screaming, shouting, writhing. ‘Stop it! Stop it!’ ‘No! No! No!’ ‘I didn’t do it! I didn’t do it!’ ‘Please….’ ‘Help!’ ‘Daddy, daddy, daddy….’ The groans, the crying, the shouts reinforce each other; the emotions pour out of the trainees” (quoted in Martin 1980: 123).

These methods are quite typical, and involve what Harriet Whitehead (1987) has called ‘renunciation,’ that is, a dedifferentiation of cognitive structures coupled with a withdrawal of affect from its previous points of attachment. In this process, the susceptible subject is pressed to become ‘deautomatized’ (Deikman 1969), hyperaware of the role of conditioning and the plasticity of the self, while simultaneously stimulated to emotionally charged abreactions which are mirrored and magnified by the group and the leader, who represents the sacred group founder. These deconditioning’ exercises are obviously not aimed at promoting adaption to ‘ordinary misery’ (Freud’s claim for psychotherapy), but rather to the revelation of a deeper, transcendent inner self no longer bound by the chains of culture or context, nor by the stimulus-response mechanisms of the mind. Instead, “you take responsibility…. in effect you have freely chosen to do everything that you have ever done and to be precisely what you are. In that instant you become exactly what you always wanted to be” (Brewer 1975).

For participants (See Note 37), this inner self is not a matter of conjecture or theory. It is really experienced in the effervescence of the collective – just as Durkheim hypothesized. The combination of an undermining of personal identity, systematic devaluation and confusion of ordinary thought, the stimulation of heightened abreactive emotions detached from original causes within the context of the mirroring group and under the protection of a god-like leader act together to provide expansive sensations of catharsis for those who are carried away by the techniques of collective ecstasy.

The individual participating in this experience is likely to attribute his or her feelings of expansion to the doctrine and the leader. The ‘perfect self’ that is then revealed when personal identity is stripped away is, more often than not, a self modeled after the charismatic group exemplar. A new identity then replaces that which has been abandoned as inauthentic – an identity legitimated by the intensity of the emotion generated in the altered state of consciousness of the ecstatic group context – but one which, in consequence, can only exist within this extraordinary situation (See Note 38). In other words, despite appearances of pragmatism, the world-affirming group is likely to develop into a node of collective effervescence that stands in opposition to the larger rationalized social organization, which is experienced as ‘dead’ and alienating. The next step is to try to make the world replicate the group; this is the road toward Messianism and paranoia.


Two points are especially worth reiterating here. The first is the repeated use of techniques aimed at demonstrating that the recruit is not an autonomous individual, but rather is ‘programmed’ and ‘conditioned’ by history, culture, and family. This revelation, engendered in a highly charged group context under the authority of an apparently powerful authority figure, is crucial in stimulating the emotional abreaction that helps lead the subject into collective participation. It is, it seems to me, an anthropological fact of considerable importance that persons in this culture can be transformed by discovering that their lives are not totally autonomous and that their identities are not completely self-manufactured. The efficacy of this technique is, quite evidently, closely related to the prevalent American capitalist social organization and its accompanying ideology of possessive individualism and purposive agency.

A connected point is that members of a configuration with such an ideological and social structure are highly susceptible to a covert hunger for the collective experience offered by charismatic immersion. As I have argued elsewhere (1990), when the feeling self is stripped of identity markers and significant emotional ties with others, and simultaneously affirmed as the sole source of action and preference, then the intensity and certainty of charismatic revelation will be extremely attractive, since participation in a charismatic group offers precisely the emotional gratification, self-loss and affirmation of a transcendent identity that the predominant social model of reality precludes.

However, because such movements are in conflict with the ruling order of thought, they must take on extreme forms. Charisma becomes not a moment, but eternal; the god is no longer manifested occasionally in an otherwise ordinary mortal, but the vehicle has to be holy all the time. So, paradoxically, a culture founded on the ‘standard’ consciousness of rationality and individual agency renders even more fervid and impetuous the expression of the altered state of awareness Weber called ‘charisma’.

To summarize, in this essay I have argued that ‘meaning-centered’ interpretive analysis is in fact located within a tradition that assumes as its basic premise the rationality of maximizing individual actors. This perspective is not adequate for understanding forms of social action that are outside the realm of rationality – a point recognized by Weber himself in his discussion of tradition and charisma.

Here I have sketched very lightly, with plenty of room for contradiction and dispute, some alternative views on irrationality, using the works of Weber, Durkheim, Le Bon and Tarde to argue that processes of charismatic involvement, collective effervescence, and crowd psychology may help us grasp the basic pattern of such apparently irrational action and to place it a framework of theoretical knowledge. Far too rapidly, I’ve applied this framework to the actual trajectories of two new religions, showing how their evolution and their mode of recruitment fit within it.

The final question is perhaps whether this mode of approach is applicable only for understanding cultic groups at the periphery of social life, or whether it might have some relevance for more mainstream medical practitioners and psychiatrists. I contend the latter is the case. For example, if we believe, with Durkheim, that human society is built upon an emotional experience of selflessness within the transcendent group, what then happens when the increasing dominance of the competitive economy and the worship of the individual make such experiences less and less likely to occur, or even to be imagined? One result might be the charisma hunger mentioned above, and the escalating excesses of charismatic groups. But the more prevalent result may be the appalling number of complaints about depression, deadness and detachment among psychiatric patients in the US, coupled with fevered efforts to stimulate some sense of vitality through various forms of addiction and thrill seeking. These may be the prices paid for the absence of any felt sense of connection to the social world.



  1. I am not claiming that Westerners only have positive evaluations of instrumental rationality; ‘sincere’ emotion is also highly valued. However, sincere feelings do not come from the mind, but from the heart.
  2. The ‘ideal type’ is a formal conceptual model to be used as a lens for viewing variations in real social configurations in order to make comparisons. This implies that ‘rational’ social formations are in actual fact never fully rational, but always have ‘traditional’ and ‘charismatic’ elements within them, even though these elements may be suppressed or denied. And, of course, the reverse is also the case. For more on Weber’s methodology, see Weber 1949.
  3. Instrumental rationality – the rationality typical of modernity and capitalism – is characterized by the most efficient use of means to reach an end. Value rationality – the rationality of premodern societies – envisions means as ends, with efficiency taking second place to proper modes of behavior. The complexities and ambiguities of this distinction are many, and the boundaries of the categories are by no means clear, but what is relevant here is simply that both types of social action, whatever their differences and similarities, involve conscious choices and acts aimed at maximizing valued goals.
  4. In a sense, charisma is the non-rational parallel to value-rationality, since charisma is the attachment of the self to another through affect, just as value-rationality involves an affective faith in a value. Tradition, which is cold and routinized, is, in this respect, analogous to the equally cold technical efficiency of instrumental rationality.
  5. Interestingly, Weber foresaw just such a hive-like future for rational man. Utmost rational efficiency will lead, he feared, to a rigid and immobile bureaucratic and technocratic social system.
  6. See Weber 1978: 242, 400-3, 535-6, 554, 1112, 1115. 1972: 279, 287 for the relationship between charismatic revelation and ecstatic states of excitement.
  7. The conjunction between epilepsy and charisma seems odd given our modern medical conception of grand-mal and petit-mal epileptic seizures as electrical storms in the brain that eliminate consciousness while causing gross motor convulsions. But Weber’s model (one common to his era) broadly imagined epileptic – or, more properly, epileptoid – seizures as closely akin to hypnotic states and to hysterical fits (see Thornton 1976, Massey and McHenry 1986 for more on this connection). Our modern counterpart might be the category of dissociation. However, it is also worth noting that Winkelman (1986), among others, has argued for a parallel between shamanic dissociation, temporal lobe epilepsy, and other forms of what Sacks (1985) has called mental superabundances, or disorders of excess, in which sensations of energy and vitality become morbid, and illness presents itself as euphoria. An example is Dostoyevsky, who writes, “You all, healthy people, can’t imagine the happiness which we epileptics feel during the second before our fit… I don’t know if this felicity lasts for seconds, hours or months, but believe me, I would not exchange it for all the joys that life may bring!” (quoted in Sacks 1985: 137). We might also recall that cross-cultural studies of shamanism do in fact show strong incidence of overtly epileptoid manifestations such as trembling and convulsions, especially in the early stages of shamanic initiation. Evidently there may be both a predisposition and an element of imitation and training at work in achieving shamanic trance, and the trance itself may have a considerable overlap with some mild forms of disturbance of the temporal lobe.
  8. “Ecstasy was also produced by the provocation of hysterical or epileptoid seizures among those with predispositions toward such paroxysms, which in turn produced orgiastic states in others” (Weber 1978: 535).
  9. Characteristically, Weber’s own intellectual concern is with typologizing and contextualizing the novel ethical meaning systems provoked by the prophet’s revelations. He notes that the prophet himself may believe the new meaning system is his major contribution. But Weber clearly states that for the masses, and especially for the impoverished, the prophet remains a charismatic with transcendent powers; the commitment of these followers is not to ideas, but to the prophet’s person and his promise of immediate experiential salvation (Weber 1978: 467, 487).
  10. Levi-Strauss (1967) takes a similar position, but with a very different analytical point.
  11. “Under the technical and social conditions of rational culture, an imitation of the life of Buddha, Jesus, or Francis seems condemned to failure for purely external reasons” (Weber 1972:357).
  12. See Greenfeld (1985) for a good statement of the distinction between primary and secondary charisma; though she too assumes as the essential driving force an orientation for building meaning.
  13. As Harriet Whitehead writes, “cultural anthropology has chosen the conservative route of merely noting that religious practices seem to have some intensifying or disordering effect upon experience, and retreating back into the realm of culturally organized meaning manipulation” (1987: 105). In Weberian terms, this ‘retreat’ has an ‘elective affinity’ for intellectuals, because it is founded on an assertion of the absolute value and importance of the scholarly professional faith in the primacy of reason and the possibility of approaching meaning through interpretation.
  14. Weber profoundly regretted his own incapacity to experience the compulsion of charisma, he lamented the decline of the ecstatic, and he longed for the advent of “entirely new prophets” who would bring, through their very presence, an escape from “the iron cage” of rational action without transcendent content that he envisioned as the inevitable and unhappy future of humanity (Weber 1958:181-2).
  15. See, for example, Meeker, who portrays Durkheim as believing “science would eventually prove fully adequate as a replacement for religion” (1990: 62), and who castigates him for his supposed dismissal of “human dreams and wishes” in favor of the apotheosis of an abstract emblem. Meeker here ignores Durkheim’s emphasis on passion and desire in the construction of the elementary forms of religious life.
  16. “We do not admit that there is a precise point at which the individual comes to an end and the social realm commences…. we pass without interval from one order of facts to the other” (Durkheim 1966: 313).
  17. In taking this perspective, Durkheim prefigures Freud, but with an entirely reversed moral viewpoint. And, of course, the influence of Rousseau and the Comptean vision of a revolutionary sociology are very strong indeed in Durkheim’s apotheosis of society.
  18. Durkheim argues in an important footnote that the realm of the economy, where the maximizing rational individual holds sway, is the only arena of social life that is in essence completely opposed to the sacred. The dominance of the economy in modern culture is therefore destructive of the moral bonds of society (1965: 466). Note how different his project is from Weber’s, who aimed to show the ways in which various prophecies favor or oppose the rise of capitalism.
  19. As Moscovici writes, the hypnotic state was envisioned in late 19th century French culture as “that strange drug which… releases the individual from his solitude and carries him off to a world of collective intoxication” (1985: 92). As already noted, hypnotism and epilepsy were thought to be similar in nature. The idea and experience of hypnotism and allied dissociated states was a romantic counter to Utilitarian individualism, and had a strong influence on social and psychological thought, as well as literature and the arts, in the late 19th and early 20th century.
    20 The similarity to Weber’s ‘objectless acosmism of love’ is evident.
  20. For this reason, Durkheim can make the seemingly paradoxical claim that “despotism is nothing more than inverted communism” (1984: 144).
  21. This image continues to prevail in medical theories of ‘mass hysteria’. See Bartholomew (in press) for a compendium of examples. Bartholomew’s paper is also an example of the interpretive attempt to validate all apparently irrational action by demonstrating its meaningfulness and intent within a cultural context.
  22. The tropes of the ‘feminine’, ‘savage’, ‘childish’ crowd are painfully clear indicators of the anxiety felt by these men over a possible loss of control and over the weakness of their masculine, civilized, adult personnas. An interesting, if obvious, analysis could be made of these metaphors, which relate to the changing political climate of France and heightened fear of lower class rebellion. What I wish to stress here, however, is the structure of the argument.
  23. Awareness makes no difference to this existential condition. “If the photographic plate became conscious at a given moment of what was happening to it, would the nature of the phenomenon be essentially changed” (Tarde).
  24. As Tarde writes, “volition, together with emotion and conviction, is the most contagious of psychological states. An energetic and authoritative man wields an irresistible power over feeble natures. He gives them the direction which they lack. Obedience to him is not a duty, but a need….. Whatever the master willed, they will; whatever the apostle believes or has believed, they believe” (1903: 198).
  25. Although the the leader’s appeal is irrational, it has certain pattern, and Le Bon gained much of his fame as a modern Machiavelli, telling rulers how to hold the reins of power in the new Age of the Crowd through the use of emotionally charged theatricality, large gestures, dramatic illusions and the rhetoric of myth. According to Le Bon, the modern leader’s technique must be “to exaggerate, to affirm, to resort to repetitions, and never attempt to prove anything by reasoning” (Le Bon 1952: 51). Le Bon’s instructions have been taken seriously by many demagogues, including Hitler, who cited him extensively in Mein Kampf.
  26. Those who believe that Nazi devotees and leaders were motivated by either value or instrumental rationality should consider work by Robert Waite (1977) and Ian Kershaw (1987), as well as Joachim Fest’s biography of Hitler (1974), and the numerous biographies of dedicated Nazis. For more on this, see Lindholm 1990: 93-116.
  27. The intellectual debt of much contemporary anthropological theory to existential and phenomenological thought cannot be adequately pursued here, but particularly noteworthy is an emphasis on ‘authenticity’ and a refusal to make comparisons – both derived from premises of the priority of a unique inner self-consciousness struggling to free itself from what Heidegger (1962) called the tyranny of ‘the they.’ The Western character of these premises is, I hope, evident.
  28. see Lindholm (1990) for a theoretical framework, and for analysis of more extreme cases of modern charisma: Nazism, the Manson Family, and Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple.
  29. The term is used by Roy Wallis to distinguish these positive movements from apocalyptic and millennial ‘world rejecting’ movements such as Jonestown (Wallis 1984).
  30. The material is taken from sources which rely both on the testimony of converts and of those who have ‘deconverted’. On the question of the moral stance of the informant, and its influence on the data, see the Appendix in Wallis (1984). Here, I have used material which is corroborated by sources both within and without the movements.
  31. Hubbard was officially reported dead in 1986, but he had not been seen in public for many years, and may have died sometime previously (see Lamont 1986 for an account). The difficulty of maintaining a charismatic organization after the death of the leader is probably one cause of the reluctance to admit his death.
  32. Erhard has subsequently resigned some of his positions of authority in the organization.
  33. These methods have been substantially altered as each organization moves through the cycle of charismatic routinization and then again attempts to restimulate fervor among the disciples. The examples used here date from the most expansive and charismatic phase of this process.
  34. See Bainbridge and Stark (1980), who argue that the lack of any real content in ‘clear’ status and the constantly shifting Scientology doctrine actually enhanced Scientology’s hold over its converts.
  35. Erhard, a postmodernist before his time, has commented that “there are only two things in the world, semantics and nothing” (quoted in Martin 1980: 114).
  36. I should note that of course not all participants prove to be equally susceptible to the lure of the group. Innumerable differences in personal and cultural background and circumstances will make a difference in the degree to which any individual will be likely to participate. But under the right conditions, it is also very possible that even the most resistant individual might be caught up in the compelling dynamic of a charismatic collective.
  37. Bainbridge (1978) has called this process “social implosion,” that is, the development of a tight knot of persons, interacting solely with one another, bound by powerful feelings of loyalty and of separateness from the rest of society.

Charisma, Crowd Psychology and Altered States of Consciousness, Charles Lindholm, University Professors Program and Dept. of Anthropology, Boston University

Law Enforcement, Ethics, Intellectual Integrity

The paper deals with the importance of police ethics and integrity in contemporary policing. It first describes the field of applied ethics in general. It explains the basis for the structure of professional moral obligations, briefly depicts the core imperatives of applied ethics and describes the process of moral reasoning. It then defines police ethics, discusses the reasons for its relative underdevelopment, and delineates its future development in three interrelated directions:  (a) applying the principles of applied ethics to police profession; (b) establishing standards of ethical conduct in policing; and (c) defining the means and content of education and training in police ethics.  Next, it discusses the organisational environment that is conductive to police ethics and elaborates on the concept of integrity. The paper concludes that police ethics and integrity are of critical importance in the professionalisation of policing and the best antidotes to police corruption, brutality, neglect of human rights, and other forms of police deviance.


For all professionals in the field of police and security studies, it has become obvious that we are witnessing a paradigm shift. While we cannot expect this shift to result in a uniform approach to policing everywhere in the world, we can assume that all the various approaches will be based on the same set of assumptions of modern policing, namely the community involvement, a proactive approach that emphasizes prevention, professionalism, innovation, and problem-solving, and an integrated view of criminal justice (Pagon, 1998).  In this process, policing is getting closer to professionalisation , a change long advocated by police scholars. As several authors (e.g., Hahn, 1998; Vicchio, 1997; Murphy, 1996; Fry & Berkes, 1983) point out, aspirations by the police to become professionalized either create or at least re-emphasize several requirements, such as wide latitude of discretion, higher educational requirements, higher standards of professional conduct, and self-regulation.  At the same time, however, we have witnessed countless accounts of police brutality and abuse of authority, some of them making the headlines, and others taking place outside the public eye. In some countries, police corruption has already reached epidemic proportions. It is obvious that corruption, brutality, and other forms of police deviance go against the above-mentioned efforts for police professionalisation and community involvement.

The community cannot trust nor attribute a professional status to deviant police officers. No wonder then, that modern police organisations all over the world are fighting police deviance, trying to achieve proper conduct of their members. However, according to Sykes (1993), a brief history of these efforts to enhance police accountability reveals that they relied on rules and punishment. “Although each of these reform efforts had an impact, the sum total fell short of providing assurances that they were adequate and serious incidents continued… In short, the various rule-based systems of accountability seem insufficient if officers hold different values or there is a subculture which nurture values different from the ideals of democratic policing” (p.2). The author believes the answer lies in approaches based on ethics, where accountability rests more on individual responsibility than it does on external controls and threatened punishment.

It has become obvious that only the properly educated and trained police officers are able to respond adequately to moral and ethical dilemmas of their profession. Only a police officer who is able to solve these dilemmas appropriately can perform his duties professionally and to the benefit of the community. In doing so, he cannot rely solely on his intuition and experience.  Not only he has to be well acquainted with the principles of police ethics and trained in moral reasoning and ethical decision-making, he also needs clear standards of ethical conduct in his profession.

In this article, I will try to show that a proper development of police ethics and integrity is one of the most important steps toward professionalisation of policing, and one of the most powerful antidotes to police deviance and neglect of human rights by the police. To introduce the field of police ethics, however, I first have to describe the field of applied ethics in general.


Police ethics is a branch of applied normative, ethics. The most well known branches of applied ethics are medical and business ethics. The link between ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ is what makes applied ethics different from philosophical ethics. Applied ethics is the field that holds ethical theory accountable to practice and professional practice accountable to theory.  Therefore, the philosophers should not dictate to professionals the norms that are supposed to govern their professional practice, without a very thorough knowledge of that practice. On the other hand, the professionals have to understand that their experience and intuition are insufficient for defensible judgment, and that all their constraints do not exempt their decisions from ethical scrutiny (Newton, Internet).

Newton (Internet) believes that if ethics is about human beings, we should be able to determine the structure of our moral obligations from three basic, simple, readily observable facts about human beings:

·         People are embodied. They exist in time and space and are subject to physical laws. They have needs that must be satisfied if they are to survive. They must control the physical environment to satisfy those needs.  Failure to do so leads to pain and suffering. The implication for ethics is that the relief of that suffering and the satisfaction of those needs should be out first concern, giving rise to duties of compassion, non-maleficence, and beneficence.

·         People are social. Whatever problems they have with their physical environment, they have to solve them in groups, which creates a new set of problems. They must cope with a social environment as well as the physical one. The social environment produces two further needs: for a social structure to coordinate social efforts, and for means of communication. The implication for ethics is that we must take account of each other in all our actions. We have obligations to the group in general and to other members of the group of particular.

·         People are rational. People are able to consider abstract concepts, use language, and think in terms of categories, classes and rules. Because people are rational, they can make rational choices, they are autonomous moral agents. They can also realize that they could have done it differently, so they can feel guilty and remorse and assume responsibility for their choices. Rationality’s implication for ethics is that we have a duty to respect this freedom of choice.

From these facts about human nature, the author derives three fundamental premises or imperatives of applied ethics (Newton, Internet): 

·         Beneficence. This imperative, central to any profession, holds that the professionals must take care of, or look out for the interest of, the client.  Beneficence has several sub-imperatives conjoined in it: first, to do no harm, second, to prevent harm or protect from harm, and third, to serve the interests or happiness of the client.

·         Respect for persons. The command to respect the autonomy and dignity of the individuals with whom we deal, to attend to their reasons and honour their self-regarding choices, is the command underlying all of our interpersonal dealings. In professional relationships, however, it also limits the boundaries of professional beneficence. The professional’s expertise may tell him that the client’s best interests will be served by certain services that the professional is able to provide; it may even tell him that the client needs, on pain of loss of life or liberty, certain of his services.  But if the client chooses not to avail himself of them, and only his own interests are concerned, the professional may not impose those services on the client.

·         Justice. This imperative demands that the professional look past both art and client, and take responsibility for the effect of professional practice in the society as a whole. In every profession or practice, we can find examples of injustice. For example, in medicine, the rich get immediate and adequate care and the poor get late and inadequate care. The demand of justice upon the professionals is that they work within their professional associations, and in their individual practices, to blunt the effects of injustice in their fields. The professional who ignores this demand fails to fulfil all the duties of professional status.

Because these imperatives are logically independent, they can be (and often are) in conflict. Yet, as Newton says, we may not abolish one or another; we cannot even prioritize them, which leads her to conclude that applied ethics is not the science of easy answers. As professionals are struggling to solve moral and ethical dilemmas, the engage in the process of moral reasoning. There are different forms of moral reasoning (Newton, Internet): the first is consequentialist (or utilitarian or teleological) reasoning, in which ends are identified as good (i.e. values) and means are selected that will lead to those ends; the second is non-consequentialist (or deontological) reasoning, in which rules are accepted as good and acts are judged right or otherwise according to their conformity to those rules; finally. The third is virtue-based (or ontological) reasoning, in which the type of person one is (i.e., his character), and the type of moral community one belongs to, determines the obligations to act.

The described core of applied ethics does not specify, for each profession, how the imperatives should reflect in the professional practice, and what are the values and virtues of that particular profession. These should differ depending on the function of the profession in the community. That is why we need branches of applied ethics, tailored to individual professions. So, let us take a look at police ethics.


Police ethics applies the above-described principles to the field of policing.  Compared to medical or business ethics, police ethics is relatively underdeveloped. There are several reasons for this, the major ones being the paramilitary philosophy of policing and misunderstanding of the need for police ethics (Paragon, 2000).
First, within the paramilitary philosophy of policing, police officers are assigned the role of executors of orders from their supervisors. They are not supposed to question those orders, so there is not much need for moral deliberations. The basic virtue of police officers within this framework is obedience. Police leadership, on the other hand, is either not accountable to anyone (since they are setting their own goals and can always tailor the statistics to fit their needs) or they are accountable only to the party in power, with which they are in a symbiotic relationship. It is not surprising that police ethics does not thrive in such a context.

Second, some practitioners are mislead by a belief that as far as police officers perform their work strictly by the law, they need no police ethics. Proponents of this view also deny police officers the right of discretion. Unfortunately, when one is faced with a moral or ethical dilemma, the laws prove themselves to b of little use. As Newton (Internet) puts it, “our first job…in all fields of practice, is to distinguish, in every context, between the demands of law and the demands of ethics – between the danger the danger of being sued, prosecuted, jailed or defrocked, and the much subtler, but more pervasive danger of being systematically and cruelly wrong. One of our first lessons was that we must think beyond the law and teach nervous professionals to do the same.”

With the rise of the new philosophy of policing (i.e. community policing and problem-oriented policing) and with the acceptance of police discretion as a necessary part of police work, the importance of police ethics is gaining acceptance. Nowadays it is hard to find a curriculum at a police academy or a program in police studies at a university that does not include a subject of police ethics. At the same time, the number of police agencies with a department, task force, or a committee on police ethics is rapidly increasing.  The majority of police agencies also have adopted a code of police ethics, in a more or less articulated form.
But, as I have already mentioned, police ethics is still at the beginning of its development. A lot of courses on ‘police ethics’ are mainly dealing with philosophical ethics, while the word ‘police’ in the name simply means that police officers or studies of police studies are the target group of the course.  Therefore, I will outline the direction of the future development of police ethics.

Following the postulates of applied ethics, the described development should be achieved by the joint efforts of police scholars (i.e., theoretians) and police practitioners. This development should take place in three interrelated directions (Pagon, 2000): (a) applying the principles of applied ethics to police profession; (b) establishing standards of ethical conduct in policing; and (c) defining the means and content of education and training in police ethics. This development, of course, has to parallel other efforts for implementing contemporary philosophy and forms of policing and for professionalisation of police work, including the increased educational requirements for the police.  Let us now take a brief look at the proposed directions for the development of police ethics.

a)        Applying the principles of applied ethics to police profession

The above-described principles of applied ethics have to be tailored to the needs of police profession, based on the nature of police work and the function of the police in society. There are three main tasks to be achieved in this context.

First, the basic imperatives (i.e., beneficence, respect for persons, justice) have to be ‘translated’ to police language and specified. What does beneficence mean in dealing with people who committed crimes or misdemeanours? What does it mean in dealing with victims and other persons who suffered a loss? Who is ‘the client’ of police work? Individuals? The community? The state? What exactly does respect for persons mean in carrying out the police duties? How does the imperative of justice reflect in applying police discretion? Also, the most common conflicts among basic imperatives in policing have to be identified, so we could discuss them and prepare some guidelines.

Second, the core values of policing need to be specified. Policing, as any other rational activity, is directed toward achievement of a certain state or goals.  These desired states and goals represent values. Not only every society has a somewhat different system of values, they may also differ for each individual.  Police ethics has to specify and rank the impost important values of policing, which will then guide the police officers’ teleological moral reasoning. Such ranking would not imply that other values are not important; it would just add clarity in ethical decision-making in policing. For example, let us say that a police officer, using teleological reasoning, determines that one particular course of action would lead to increased wealth of a certain individual, while the different course of action would lead to increased equality of the people involved. Although both the wealth and equality are values, a hierarchy of values would enable the police officer to opt for equality. While the choice is obvious in this example, how about a choice between freedom and safety?  Respect for human rights and health?

Third, police ethics need to specify the core virtues of policing. While there are commonly accepted virtues such as temperance, courage, prudence, justice, charity, kindness, patience, forgiveness, modesty, etc. we have to – just like in every other profession – decide which are the virtues most important for police officers, based on the function of the police in society. In doing so, we have to accommodate the above-described changes in philosophy of policing, which caused some ‘traditional’ police virtues (such as obedience, uncritical loyalty, authoritativeness) to become obsolete. In police literature, we can find some descriptions of police virtues, which can serve as a good starting point.  Vicchio (1997) believes that if the goals of police organisation are to be met, the following virtues must be required of police officers: prudence, trust, effacement of self-interest, courage, intellectual honesty, justice and being cognizant of other alternatives that might be taken. Delattre (1996) describes the importance of the following virtues for police officers: honesty, trustworthiness, justice, fairness, compassion, temperance, courage, wisdom and integrity.

b) Establishing standards of ethical conduct in policing

Expectations regarding ethical conduct have the greatest impact upon actual behaviour if they are not simply assumed, but clearly and unambiguously communicated. Based on the imperatives, values, and virtues of policy profession, police ethics has to establish clear and unambiguous standards of ethical conduct in policing. A code of police ethics is very important within this context. It contains a set of clear, specific statements, expressing in unambiguous terms the moral principles and the kind of conduct that police profession demands of its members. The code has to be a product of interaction between police ethicists and practitioners, based on agreed-upon definitions of police imperatives, values and virtues. While the research shows that the mere existence of the code of ethics positively influences employees’ ethical behaviour (Ruch & Crawford, 1991), the police management has to devote a lot of attention to the implementation of this code.

c) Defining the means and content of education and training in police ethics

Defining the means and content of education and training in police ethics is also a task that has to be accomplished by a joint effort of police ethicists and practitioners. We have to keep in mind that listening to one lecture on police ethics or skimming through some literature on the topic will not make police officers moral nor their behaviour ethical. A lot of time and effort need to be put into education and training in police ethics, before police officers – when faced with a moral problem, ethical or moral dilemma – will automatically consider all the alternatives available to them; will not make decisions based on prejudice or impulsively; will submit their decisions to reason and change them, if such a change seems reasonable; and will give equal consideration to the rights, interests, and choices of all parties to the situation in question.  Furthermore, as Delattre(1996) points out, even the mastery of the process of moral reasoning and decision-making does not, by itself, guarantee ethical conduct, nor do all of the situations require moral reasoning and deliberation.  An individual has to have good character (i.e., appropriate virtues) to be motivated for ethical behaviour. This realization makes two additional requirements for police ethics training. First, in addition to teaching moral reasoning and decision-making, training has to emphasize and develop virtues characteristic of police profession. Second, the task of ethical training should also be the development of moral habits, so the police officers would behave ethically out of habit in all those situations, which do not present a moral problem, ethical or moral dilemma, so they do not require moral deliberation and reasoning.

So, the task of police ethics education is to teach the principles of applied ethics in general and police ethics in particular. It has to cover the imperatives, values and virtues of policing, the process of moral reasoning and decision-making, moral problems, and in policing, the code of police ethics, and the process of code implementation. Vital topics are also strategies for managing ethical behaviour in police organisation and ethics training and education.

The tasks of police ethics training are: (a) enable the students to recognize moral problems and moral or ethical dilemmas; (b)train the students for the process of moral reasoning and decision-making; © emphasize and develop the virtues necessary for police profession, hence developing the students’ moral character; (d) develop moral habits of the students.  The development of police ethics, including education and training, will not achieve its purpose, unless all organisational processes, especially the behaviour of police managers and the top management of the organisation, support and encourage ethical conduct of all the members.


If police officers experience inconsistent behaviour from their supervisors, preferential treatment of some officers and/or citizens, solidarity with, and cover-ups for, the officers who violate standards of their profession, they will sooner or later become cynical regarding the value and appropriateness of ethical conduct in their organisation. One cannot expect a cynical police officer to be motivated to adhere to the rules of ethical behaviour (Pagon, 1993).

The research showed the importance of moral climate in organisation for the behaviour of individual members. Experiments revealed, in schools and prisons, that changing organisational processes, such as policies and procedures, could create a positive moral atmosphere that then contributed to improvements in individual moral development and moral judgment, as well as to reduction in cheating, stealing and similar anti-social acts (Kohlberg, 1984). Investigations of organisational effects on moral conduct in business firms appear to support these observations. Firms demonstrating exemplary business practice attest to the value of creating a positive moral atmosphere for encouraging ethical behaviour and maintaining the firm’s reputation. Conversely, the organisational environment can also promote unethical and criminal conduct in business firms (Cohen, 1995). Researchers have also demonstrated that organisational factors, such as reward systems, norms and culture, and codes of conduct can significantly decrease the prevalence of unethical behaviour in organisational contexts (Brass, Butterfield, & Skaggs, 1998).

Cohen (1995) defines moral climate as shared perceptions of prevailing organisational norms for addressing issues with a moral component. These issues include (a) identifying moral problems, (b) choosing criteria for resolving moral conflicts, and © evaluating the moral correctness of outcomes that ensue from organisational decisions. Since climate is a function of how employees collectively perceive and interpret these and other elements of the work setting, climate can be thought of as an intervening variable. As such it provides the necessary perceptual link between organisational processes and employee behaviour. According to the author, there are five dimensions that interact to determine the moral climate in the organisation: goal emphasis (prevailing norms for selecting organisation goals), means emphasis (prevailing norms for determining how organisational goals should be attained), reward orientation (prevailing norms regarding how performance is rewarded), task support (prevailing norms regarding how resources are located to perform specific tasks). And socio-emotional support (prevailing norms regarding the type of relationships expected in the firm).

It becomes obvious that police supervisors and top management are responsible creating a positive moral climate within the police. The literature on corporate strategy, organisational transformation, business ethics and corporate social contract provides support for a claim that moral climate in the organisation emerges mainly from the way in which key organisational processes transmit managerial expectations about moral behaviour – the way employees should handle issues such as responsibility, equity, or serving the interests of stakeholders (Cohen, 1995). Therefore, police managers’ expectations about moral behaviour of their subordinates will significantly influence moral climate of a particular police organisation or agency.

In the context of discussing ethical behaviour in police organisation, we should also stress the importance of social relationships within the organisation.  Organisational actors are embedded within a network of relationships. These ongoing social relationships provide the constraints and opportunities that in combination with characteristics of individuals, issues, and organisations, may help explain ethical or unethical behaviour in organisations (Brass, Butterfield & Skaggs, 1998).

Social network researchers bring to our attention several factors that might influence ethical or unethical behaviour of organisational members, such as strength of relationships (in terms of frequency, reciprocity, emotional intensity, and intimacy); negative relationships; multiplicity of relationships; asymmetric relationships; status inequality; structure of relationships; structural holes; centrality; density; cliques social contagion; and conspiracies.  The constraints and opportunities provided by relationships may be most predictive of unethical behaviour when personal characteristics, issues, and organisational factors present moderate or weak constraints or unethical behaviour (Brass, Butterfield, & Skaggs, 1998).
Another important issue that influences ethical behaviour is trust among organisational members. McAllister (1955) distinguishes two main dimensions of trust:

(a)      cognition-based trust, which relies on appraisals of others’ professional competence and reliability;

(b) affect or emotion-based trust, which is present when people feel save to share their private feelings and personal difficulties, knowing that the other party would respond constructively and caringly. 

Emotion-based trust has been found to be more essential to effective coordination efforts in organisations. This emotion-based trust incorporates the virtue of benevolence, which refers to an altruistic concern for the welfare of others and is devoid of egocentric motives (Mayer, Davis, & Schoorman, (1995).  In police settings, we could extend this notion of trust to include trust between the police and the community.
It is important to note that all of the above-described factors interact with each other in predicting ethical or unethical behaviours. Let us take trust as an example. In an organisation with strong moral climate, composed of individuals of good character, and with dense social networks, it is safe to assume that high level of trust will promote ethical behaviour. In such organisations, people who trust others (both cognitively and emotionally) and feel trusted by them will be reluctant to violate this trust by engaging in unethical behaviour. On the other hand, if the moral climate is low, social networks are loose, with a lot of structural holes and many cliques, it is very likely that high level of trust within a deviant clique will promote unethical behaviour. In this case, people who trust other clique members and feel trusted by them will be reluctant to violate this trust by giving up their own unethical behaviour or even by reporting on other members’ unethical behaviour.

Therefore, to set a climate conductive to ethical behaviour in police organisation, police managers have to consider all of the above factors. To summarize, they have to foster character development and moral habits of police officers by educating and training them in police ethics; establish high moral climate through appropriate use of goals, means, rewards, and support, facilitate development of strong and dense social networks, extending into the community; prevent cliques and conspiracies; and establish both cognitivebased and affect-based trust among all organisational members and between the police and the public.

In doing so, the managers will not only facilitate ethical behaviour of their officers; they will also prevent or at least lessen the strength of the infamous police subculture, so typical of paramilitary policing. In trying to achieve the above goals, police managers will soon discover that, first, setting their own example is of the utmost importance, and second, that ethics does not only apply to police officers’ dealings with the community, but also to their own dealings with their subordinates. Police officers’ human rights are as important as those of the other citizens.

I agree with Sykes (1993) that the quality of policing in a democratic society relies on the quality of the people doing the work. This is why I believe that in policing we should strive to achieve a virtue of integrity of all police officers and supervisors, including top management.


Leadership theorists and researchers have found that integrity is a central trait of effective business leaders, while interpersonal and group relationship theorists have identified integrity as a central determinant of trust in organisations (Becker, 1998). Delattre (1996) and Vecchio (1997) agree that integrity is also central to the mission of policing. To Delattre, integrity is not only the highest achievement there can be in a human life, but also the most difficult. So what exactly is integrity?

Delattre (1996) defines as “the settled disposition, the resolve and determination, the established habit of doing right where there is no one to make you do it but yourself” (p.325). He believes that integrity is “irreplaceable as the foundation of good friendship, good marriages, good parenthood, good sportsmanship, good citizenship, and good public service” (ibid).

Vecchio (1997) defines a person of integrity as somebody who has reasonably coherent and relatively stable set of core moral values and virtues, to which he is freely and genuinely committed, and which reflect in his act and speech. So, the person’s words and actions should be of one piece.  Becker (1998) subscribes to the objectivist view of integrity, namely that integrity is loyalty, in action, to rational principles (general truths) and values.  “That is, integrity is the principle of being principled, practicing what one preaches regardless of emotional or social pressure, and not allowing any irrational consideration to overwhelm one’s rational convictions” (p.158).  Integrity in policing, then, means that a police officer genuinely accepts values and moral standards of policing and possesses the virtues of his profession, and that he consistently acts, out of his own will, in accordance with those values, standards, and virtues, even in the face of external pressures.

Of course, not all police officers have integrity. Benjamin (1990) describes five psychological types lacking in integrity. The first is the moral chameleon, a person who is anxious to accommodate others, while not being resistant to social pressure, thus willing to quickly abandon or modify previously avowed principles. The second is the moral opportunist, whose values are also ever changing, based on his own short-term self-interest. The third type is the moral hypocrite, a person who has one set of virtues for public consumption and another set for actual use as a moral code. The fourth is the morally weakwilled who has a reasonably coherent set of core virtues, but he usually lacks the courage to act on them. The final type is the moral self-deceiver, a person who thinks of himself as acting on a set of core principles, while, in fact, he does not.
Of course, “it is not a breach of integrity, but a moral obligation, to change one’s views if one finds that some idea he holds is wrong. It is a breach of integrity to know that one is right and then proceed (usually with the help of some rationalization) to defy the right in practice. (Peikoff, 1991): cited in Becker, 1998).

Why do some people lack integrity? Why is it so hard to achieve it? Based on a review of objectivist literature, Backer (1998) offers the three most common reasons. First, not everyone is rational. Integrity requires the discipline of purpose and a long-range course of action, selecting corresponding goals and pursuing them fervently, carefully choosing the means to one’s ends, and making full use of one’s knowledge. Second, a person may lack integrity because of desires that are inconsistent with moral values. If a person, when under temptation, fails to call upon his rational mind, acting upon a whim of the moment instead, he will indeed lack integrity. The same is true when an irrational fear drives behaviour. Similarly, an individual’s integrity will be called into question if he does not put rational principles into practice simply out of inertia. Third, probably the most common reason a person may lack integrity is that he succumbs to social pressure. Social pressure may come from numerous sources (e.g., co-workers, bosses, or clients) and take many forms (e.g., physical intimidation or verbal and nonverbal disapproval). A person with high integrity will not allow popularity to take priority over rational convictions.


From the above discussion, it should be obvious that integrity can only be achieved if a person strives to achieve it. Appropriate education and training in police ethics, good moral climate in police organisation, appropriate social networks (both within the organisation and within the community), trust and support, can all both motivate police officers to strive for integrity and help them achieve it. I believe that, once achieved, integrity of police officers is one of the most important steps toward professionalisation of policing, and one of the most powerful antidotes to police corruption, brutality, neglect of human rights, and other forms of police deviance.

Police ethics provides a compass to both police officers and police managers, by specifying the core imperatives, values, and virtues of policing, by delineating the process of moral reasoning and decision-making, by setting the standards of ethical conduct, and by defining the means and the content of police ethics education and training. Police scholars and practitioners have to cooperate in developing police ethics. This is not an easy task for either of them. Developing and implementing police ethics invokes changes in police organisation. Police organisations and police officers, as we know, are very resistant to change. Those police scholars and practitioners entrusted with developing police ethics must, therefore, themselves be persons of high integrity. We should not forget the Newton’s (Internet) caution of flattery. The flatterer is a person who tells people what they want to hear, instead of what they should hear. Flattery, in Newton’s words, “is the major corruption available to the ethicist…the only defence against flattery is personal integrity.” In developing and implementing police ethics, a lot of people will have to be told the things they most definitely do not want to hear.

Milan Pagon, Professor and Dean, College of Police and Security Studies, University of Maribor, Slovenia

Narrative, Evidence, Morality

The Role of Narrative as a Form of Evidence in Modern Academic Debate

International Debate Education Association Conference, Central European University, Budapest, Hungary, October 2000Jason Taylor and Jason Jarvis, Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, USA

The construction of this essay has been an enlightening experience for the both of us. As we sat down to discuss the details of the paper and formulate our arguments we went through a stimulating series of discussions. We set out to organize a coherent argument for the use of narrative as an alternative source of evidence. We explored a number of possibilities for the direction of the paper. Midway through this process it apparent that the way we were going about defending narratives was constructed in a manner that was completely disassociated from narrative styles of discourse. We realized that we were caught in a paradox. We were, in essence, invoking a highly specialized and technical rationality in order to defend a mode of discourse that seeks to question the practice in which we were presently engaged. We were invoking narrative in a very non-narrative style. “Why don’t we just tell stories for our conference presentation?” one of us suggested. Though we entertained the idea for some time, we eventually came to the conclusion that simply “telling stories” on an international conference panel would not meet the standards of academic rigor that the community expects. Nor would it give us appropriate justification to request funds from our department to attend said international conference. Consequently, we set out to reach a compromise that acknowledged the technical and academic skills that allowed us to be part of this panel, and in that acknowledgement, provide a justification for the use of narrative in an academic and debate context. What follows is a result of that compromise.

Initially, we will explore conceptions of evidence as they are presented within two recently developed traditions of rhetorical theory. Specifically, we address Walter Fisher’s construction of the narrative paradigm and Thomas Goodnight’s elaboration of public, personal and technical spheres of argument. After examining the basic tenets of each person’s theory, we examine how narrative can function within the realm of modern debate and discourse to reconnect both speakers and listeners to ways of knowing that an exclusively technical form of argument excludes and inhibits. Narrative rationality offers a unique tool which can serve to balance the overarching focus that American academic debate and public policy debates have placed on exclusive and technical modes of discourse. These claims will be made through an examination of the importance of narrative in the context of debates about the environment, with a specific emphasis on the bush meat crisis facing Africa.FisherFisher’s primary contribution to our understanding of evidence stems from his articulation of the narrative paradigm. Fisher considers the means by which people evaluate arguments made within the public sphere (Fisher, “Narration as a” 11-15). He is particularly concerned with the increasingly technical nature of moral issues that are evaluated within the public sphere. Fisher asserts that given the traditional view of rationality, publics must be trained in the standards of a rhetorical community in order to evaluate the complex arguments and evidence that they generate (“Narration as a” 4). Unfortunately, most of the public lacks this technical training. Similarly, no individual can begin to reach the levels of proficiency in all of the fields that would be required to evaluate the breadth of issues that are addressed in the public realm. Consequently, Fisher suggests that alternative conceptions of rationality are necessary in order to explain the public’s capacity to understand complex technical evidence that is presented to them. Fisher’s narrative paradigm offers that alternative. Fisher offers a theory of communication that considers humans as homo narrans; people understand the world through the telling and assessment of stories (Fisher, “In the beginning” 75). In this sense, Fisher argues that all evidence can be evaluated by means of a narrative rationality. In his theory, Fisher establishes two conceptions of rationality, the rational world paradigm and the narrative paradigm. The rational world paradigm assumes that humans are rational beings that make decisions based on the assessment of structured arguments. People’s capacity to understand arguments is based on their augmentative skill, knowledge of the subject matter, and proficiency at operating within the appropriate normative structures that shape the argument (Fisher, “Narration as a” 4). Fisher suggests that the public sphere has become dominated by the presence of “experts” who have distorted the meaning of public moral argument for the layperson (“Narration as a” 11-15). The consequence of this distortion is the mitigation of the general public’s capacity to effectively comprehend and contribute to public moral argument. The primary problem with adopting a rational world-view of rationality is that it lacks explanatory power in elucidating peoples’ navigation of public moral argument. Many moral issues that are evaluated within the public sphere are laden with technical terms that most lay persons would not understand given the tenets of the rational world paradigm. Issues of global warming for example, are heavily dependent on complex understandings of gaseous chemistry and physics. Despite these complexities, people are able to come to understandings of important issues. Fisher asserts that the people’s ability to understand public moral argument can be explained more adequately by the narrative paradigm. Conceiving of human beings as storytellers, Fisher contends that people make sense of technical forms of evidence through the use of narrative rationality (Fisher, Human Communication as Narration 349-350). The two primary components of narrative rationality are narrative probability and narrative fidelity. Fisher elaborates:




Narrative probability refers to formal features of a story conceived as a discrete sequence of thought and/or action in life or literature;… i.e., it concerns the question of whether or not a story coheres or “hangs together,” whether or not the story is free of contradictions. Narrative fidelity concerns the “truth qualities” of the story, the degree to which it accords with the logic of good reasons: the soundness of its reasoning and the value of its values. (“An elaboration” 349-350)  




Ultimately, people are able to comprehend the evidence utilized in complex and technical moral arguments much in the same way they understand stories, by evaluating internal consistencies of the story’s progression and by assessing whether or not the values of the story in question are consistent with their own values. Rather than experts, Fisher suggests that knowledgeable individuals play the role of counselor in the evaluation of public moral argument. These counselors should make contributions that help guide the public and lead them toward well informed decisions rather than displaying an unquestionable “truth” before the public (Fisher, “Narration as a” 13).   

One of Fisher’s principal critics is Robert Rowland. Rowland suggests that Fisher is over-ambitious in claiming that narrative should be considered a paradigm (264-275). Two elements of Rowland’s critique that are particularly relevant to this discussion are considered hereafter. First, Rowland maintains that Fisher’s construction of narrative rationality ultimately resorts to the same standards of rationality inherent in the rational world paradigm. Rowland explains:




…narrative fidelity and probability do not avoid the problems with evaluating public moral argument that led Fisher to develop the narrative paradigm in the first place. In fact, these standards lead directly to traditional tests for argument and evidence. Narrative probability can be seen as the equivalent to consistency, and narrative fidelity can be treated as the equivalent of informal logic tests of evidence and reasoning. (270)   




Additionally, Rowland argues that the existence of privileged standards of evaluation is necessary in the evaluation of public moral argument, lest we regress into an inescapable state of moral relativism.   

Finally, Rowland sees the presence of experts in the evaluation of public moral arguments as necessary and rejects Fisher’s suggestion that knowledgeable individuals should serve as counselors. He asserts that the distinction between expert and counselor is not all that dramatic in the first place and that by having knowledgeable people fill this role, Fisher does not avoid the problem that he attempted to solve. There is no check to ensure that counselors would not still abuse their status. Similarly, there is no reason that a “traditional rationality… has to be elitist” (Rowland 272).

GoodnightGoodnight’s contributions to our understanding of evidence lie in his distinction between the public, personal and technical spheres of argument (“The personal” 214-227). Goodnight’s primary contention is that each of these respective realms is governed by a different set of evaluative standards and thus is distinct from each of the others. These standards determine the kinds of evidence that are appropriate within certain communities and the standards that are utilized to evaluate the utility of that evidence. Goodnight posits:

Members of “societies” and “historical cultures” participate in a vast, and not altogether coherent superstructures which invite them to channel doubts through prevailing discourse practices. In the democratic tradition, we can categorize these channels as the personal, the technical and the public spheres. “Sphere” denotes branches of activity–the grounds upon which arguments are built and the authorities to which arguers appeal. (“The personal” 216)  




The personal sphere, according to Goodnight is prototyped by the conversation. In this sphere, two, or a small number of individuals engage in conversation that is cast in some private setting. The participants determine the meanings associated with that conversation and standards for evaluating the veracity of claims made within the realm are transient and unstructured. Unlike the personal sphere, the technical sphere, is characterized by highly structured standards of evaluation. The exemplars of this sphere of argument are the trial and the experiment. Standards are applied in a consistent manner allowing for the consistent and efficient evaluation of argument. The final sphere of argument advanced by Goodnight is that of the public sphere. The public sphere exists and is necessary “…to address those topics that can be resolved neither through personal conversation nor state of the art procedure” (Goodnight, “Public Discourse” 429). The public sphere provides a forum for the resolution of controversy and for public deliberation. Goodnight is careful to assert that the boundaries between these spheres are not rigid and at times argument can exist within multiple spheres simultaneously, however, he does suggest that the boundaries are actively maintained by formal structures that encourage the independence of each of the spheres. Privacy laws, for example, discourage the government from meddling in private affairs, thus encouraging the independence of the spheres (“Public Discourse” 428-429).  

Similar to Fisher, Goodnight sees the intermingling of spheres as problematic. Despite the fact that formalized structures exist that discourage trans-spherical influence, Goodnight argues that the public sphere “…is being steadily eroded by the elevation of personal and technical grounding of argument” (“The personal” 223). The overemphasis of the personal and technical grounding of argument within the public sphere has led to a general decline in Western culture’s ability to engage in public deliberation. Examples of this deterioration can be seen in recent elections, which according to Goodnight have been more about the presentation of a personality than the critical assessment of substantive argument. Similarly, technical concerns have infiltrated the public sphere in the assessment of many controversial conditions such as the environment. Without training in technical standards for evaluation of these arguments, or the access to the language to interpret them, the general citizenry has been effectively eliminated from public debate.

Goodnight’s assessment of the public sphere has been met with some resistance. Willard questions the manner in which Goodnight separates the technical from the public sphere. He suggests that this separation is achieved by the claim that “the public sphere is rhetorical while the technical sphere is not” (47). If the technical sphere is assumed to be a non-rhetorical sphere, it dramatically distorts our understanding of the ways in which policy decisions are influenced because it assumes that technical issues do not require public deliberation. This is certainly untrue.

Willard asserts it is important to recognize the influence of technical arguments on policy formation. At times questions only addressable by the technical sphere are incredibly relevant to our existence:




[Goodnight] underestimates the degree to which public uncertainties turn upon discipline based questions. Is this bridge sound? Does low level radiation cause cancer? How can the ozone depletion be reduced? Should Challenger be launched? Our need for such facts is one reason why we have disciplines; and the degree to which questions of fact intermingle with considerations of collective interest is… the core problematic of public debate. (Willard 49)  




Because of our frequent (and sometimes necessary) dependence on the technical within the public sphere, Willard suggests that the distinction between the public sphere not be made at such a fundamental level. Ultimately, Goodnight retains most of the explanatory power of his theory by simply stating that the public sphere and the technical spheres are different in important ways. Framing the debate in this manner, it is possible to gain a better understanding of the interconnectedness of the technical and the public spheres.   

The CritiqueWhile Fisher and Goodnight’s constructions have certainly proved to be useful in understanding contemporary rhetorical behavior, we believe that an analysis of these theories yields several interesting implications. Most notably is the unidirectionality of influence between specialized, technical ways of knowing (the technical sphere) and common, narrative ways of knowing (the personal and public spheres). Both authors cite as the impetus for their theoretical constructions, the saturation of the public sphere with highly specialized and technical forms of argument. They see this influence as problematic and offer their theoretical constructs as a means to help rectify the situation. While we agree that the domination of specialized forms of discourse in the public sphere is problematic, we also contend that the inability of non-specialized, narrative discourses to influence technical spheres of argument is equally as problematic.As previously outlined, Fisher is concerned with explaining the public’s ability to comprehend arguments when they lack the specialized training of experts. He suggests that within the narrative paradigm, knowledgeable individuals should play the role of counselor, helping to guide the public to informed decisions. This construction, however, suggests a one way relationship between the counselor and the untrained. The counselor (expert) imparts knowledge to the layperson. As such this relationship excludes the possibility of mutual influence. It does not provide the opportunity for the layperson to impart knowledge to the counselor. Additionally, Fisher suggests that the Narrative paradigm is not meant to replace the rational world paradigm, it is intended to subsume it. Technical communities are simply viewed by the public as another form of a story and evaluated by the standards of narrative fidelity and probability. As such, Fisher seems to concede that certain rhetorical communities will continue to operate, invoking standards that exclude narrative ways of knowing from their epistemological foundations. Within these communities technical discourse retains its privileged status and excludes the possibility of outside influence. Thus Fisher’s construction may help explain the public’s ability to understand technical discourses in which they are not trained, but it does not make technical discourse communities accountable for the world outside of them.

Similarly, Goodnight’s construction of personal, public and technical spheres of argument implicates the inability of non-technical forms of evidence to be influential within technical spheres. While Goodnight does recognize the public’s ability to influence the technical sphere at times, he sees this relationship as an issue of resource allocation not epistemology (“The personal” 221-222). Additionally, Goodnight’s exclusive focus on the tainting of the public sphere by the technical and personal spheres and the exclusion of any reciprocal influences illustrates the need to consider the potential of these relationships.

The claims of Goodnight and Fisher are particularly important for scholars of argument and society at large. We contend that the problems we identify below with exclusive technical communities can be seen in other groups such as science and academia, but we have chosen to focus on modern American policy debate. Therefore we will identify some of these problems and then look at debates about the environment as emblematic of the problems created by the rejection of narrative as a legitimate form of knowledge.

Initially, two things should be noted. First, our goal is not to trash American policy debate as a whole. We echo the sentiments of one debater who said: “No other setting can encourage the development of as many different political skills in the form of research, communication and critical thinking, but that is no excuse to become complacent. Everything can get better” (Smith and Grove A-3). Our goal is to demonstrate that failure to include narratives as a legitimate form of evidence is dangerous because it implicitly limits the social significance and educational value of our activity. Second, unlike Hollihan, Baaske, and Riley we do not advocate narrative as a paradigm for debate. Our position attempts to augment the conception of narrative advocated by McDonald and Jarman who suggest that narrative should be considered as another form of evidence (6). Personal accounts, poetry, song, and oral traditions that rely on storytelling offer the prospect of understanding issues in diverse ways. Indeed, we intend to demonstrate that some issues cannot be grasped unless presented in a format other than traditional technical discourse.

Unfortunately, much of modern American policy debate mirrors many of the problems identified by Fisher and Goodnight with the rational world paradigm and the exclusivity of the technical sphere of discourse. While some teams have attempted to change this condition, high school and intercollegiate policy debate in America remains a highly exclusive, technical activity that relies on student and faculty experts who participate in a rapid regurgitation of technical information. Debate is private in the sense that it involves a small number of people engaging in a series of two hour conversations about policy issues and it is highly technical in the language, customs and information that is used in the activity. The general public has little or no understanding of our activity and would be unable to relate to the average policy debate round. Hollihan, Baaske and Riley explain this phenomenon:




Highly trained and technically skilled advocates make arguments that can be understood only by highly trained and technically skilled impartial debate judges. Debate educators claim that they are committed to training students for life in a democracy, actual practices in debate, however, produce an elitist ideology which presumes that the man or woman off the street is too uninformed, uninterested, unintelligent, or biased to play an important policymaking role. (185)  




It seems to us that this trend in debate is highly problematic, if not dangerous for a number of reasons. Initially, policy debate is directly responsible for shaping the modes of thought that future policy makers and citizens are willing to engage. A strictly technical mode of discourse, which marginalizes narrative, creates future technocratic elites who cannot come to terms with the potential values and ways of knowing the world which narrative forms of presentation offer us (Hollihan, Baaske and Riley 186). This is detrimental to society since these policymakers have a direct influence on the content of information in the public sphere. The information that a policymaker or citizen chooses to present to Congress or the news media or when making a speech is directly responsible for the direction of public discourse.   

Second, our decisions about the future of American policy debate are important for both our own community and the future of the policy debate community worldwide. This conference is indicative of the fact that our community is not isolated from the rest of the world. American debaters travel yearly on tours of Europe, Japan, and other countries. Foreign coaches come to the United States and study our format in an effort to introduce it to their country. Gyeong-Ho Hur spent four weeks in Vermont this summer studying policy debate with the explicit goal of starting a program at Kyung Hee University in Korea. American style, English language policy debate is being exported and it is incumbent upon our community to acknowledge both our strengths and our shortcomings in an effort to maximize its relevance to communities worldwide.

Third, an exclusive reliance on technical forms of knowledge is dangerous as it serves to desensitize community members to the social reality of the information that is being read. American policy debater Jairus Grove of the University of Texas noted that typical debaters seem “more concerned with the risk of political debate than the effect the presented policies had upon those without the ‘political capital’ to heard or considered important” (Smith and Grove A-1). Jairus and his partner actively sought to incorporate poems, songs, and narrative in an effort to “focus on new political possibilities” (Smith and Grove A-1).

While it is ironic that we can find joy in the tragedy of others around the world as we do research and prepare our arguments, a failure to recognize this irony is tragic and horrifying. In short, does the technical process of debate maximize our educational potential? Does the rejection of narrative as a legitimate form of knowledge and evidence inhibit the ability of our community to truly know the issues and subsequently to translate that knowledge into a complete understanding and relationship to the gravity of the problems that we research? In order to demonstrate our claim that the policy debate community must embrace narrative as a form of evidence we will examine the African bush meat crisis and the importance of narrative in changing our values about non-human nature.

The Bushmeat CrisisWhile there are many environmental problems that we could use to illustrate our claims, this year’s collegiate debate topic provided us with an example that captures the essence of the value of narrative in communicating information in unique and powerful ways. More specifically, we choose to focus on the bush meat crisis in Africa. While the problems that face Africa are many and varied, the bush meat issue is valuable because it exists at the intersection of many issues that challenge the future of the African continent. Bush meat is intimately related to economic development, survival of indigenous cultures and traditions, biodiversity and ecological sustainability, and the AIDS epidemic that has swept across both Africa and the world. Each of these issues will be addressed in turn.Bush meat has traditionally been associated with subsistence hunting practices of African societies. Indigenous hunters would roam the jungles and forests of Africa and hunt animals from the “bush” to eat as food. Any game obtained from the wild in Africa would constitute bush meat. However, the advent of intensive logging has led to the commercialization of the bush meat trade. The result has been that areas of forest that were previously inaccessible have become available to commercial hunters who are now providing meat to the growing populations of cities throughout Africa. In Cameroon, “half a ton of bush meat, mostly of chimps, is transported to Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon every day” (Wasswa). Indigenous forest dwellers have been replaced by illegal for profit hunters who are literally emptying African forests of their wildlife (Africa News, “Chimpanzees”). Even worse the demand for bush meat has increased internationally, and bush meat has been seen on menus throughout Europe and the United States (Africa News, “Gorilla”).

Sadly, primates are uniquely threatened by this practice. As much as 20% of the illegal bush meat trade is primates (Rose, “The African”). The hunting of primates has driven them to the brink of extinction in Africa, eclipsing deforestation as the primary threat to the existence of primates (Africa News, “Chimpanzees”). Even worse, scientists in West Africa announced that the first primate extinction of the century has officially taken place. Miss Waldron’s red colobus monkey was declared extinct in September (CNN). Additionally, six species of primates have been added to the list of endangered species by the World Conservation Union, due mainly to the illegal bush meat trade (CNN). These announcements underscore the incredible importance of rapid action on the bush meat issue.

There are both intrinsic and instrumental reasons to protect primates and stop the spread of the commercial bush meat trade. Joseph Verrengia notes that the bush meat trade is particularly pernicious because it threatens the viability of chimpanzee cultures. Chimpanzees have been seen to exhibit characteristics that had previously only been associated with human societies and cultures. Primates use tools, have grooming and mating customs, and use plants for specific medicinal purposes (Verrengia). In similar situations the international community has intervened when cultures and communities were threatened with annihilation. The fact that these cultures happen to be “animal” cultures hardly seems to justify inaction.

Additionally, wildlife expert Ian Redmond noted in 1998 that primates are often a linchpin of local ecosystems:




Primates are often keystone species in their habitat, and their disappearance can lead to significant changes in the remaining ecosystem. Plants which depend on them for seed dispersal, for example, will decline, as will any animal species which feed or otherwise depend on those species of plant.   




Undoubtedly, the subsistence hunting communities that rely on bush animals as a source of food would suffer as well, if for profit hunting continues. While they are equally guilty of eating bush meat, it is vitally important to recognize that the threats to primates are not from subsistence cultivation which has operated for centuries on a seasonal basis, allowing animal populations to reproduce.  

Finally, if the previous intrinsic justifications for curtailing the bush meat trade were not compelling then consider the fact that most of the world’s leading scientists have concluded that bush meat is the most likely origin of the current AIDS epidemic. Failure to curtail the bush meat trade may well result in new strains of HIV being unleashed upon the planet (Rose “Human Health”). This is because primates can transmit Simian Immunodeficiency Virus to humans, and bush meat is generally cleaned and processed out in the wild, creating ample opportunities for the transfer of the disease via blood and mucous to humans where it becomes HIV (Rose, “Human Health”).

While it is true that the above facts are startling and unnerving, the question remains what the best way to understand this issue is. Traditional debate practices would have us recite the facts and statistics at high rates of speed in an attempt to overwhelm both the judge and the opposition with the size of the impacts and the gravity of the situation. This approach has technical value and utility within technical communities, but it also has severe limitations. Our personal understanding has been most dramatically shaped by the narrative accounts that we have come across during our research. It is now time to provide a sample of those accounts and then examine the reasons why such narratives are critically important in shaping attitudes and changing beliefs about the non-human world and human practices which threaten to destroy the delicate balance of world ecosystems.

The Bush Meat StoryGary Richardson, of the World Society for the Protection of Animals recounts the following story from his trip to Africa in 1995: 



As the lorry finally pulled into the marketplace, a crowd of several hundred people surged forward to begin bargaining for the goods. Around fifty animals were tied to its sides, all recently shot and on sale as “bush meat”. I could see the carcasses of antelope, guenon monkeys, porcupines, cane rats and several other local forest species.  

Then amongst the throng I noticed the headless torso of a “silverback” lowland gorilla. The sight of this once majestic creature, laying dismembered by the roadside, filled me with revulsion. Its death seemed so pointless and futile. But to the traders and shoppers, who walked casually by, it was just another piece of meat.

From a sack, the owner of the carcass suddenly withdrew the gorilla’s huge black hand, which had been severed at the wrist. Its fingers were still flexible as passers-by fondled and inspected the meat. It looked so human, I found it impossible to believe that anyone could actually consider eating it.

The same day we visited another village where we were told there was a baby gorilla which had been captured alive. We arrived at the site at around midday and were shown the tiny body of the gorilla which lay in an old suitcase. It had died only a few hours earlier. The owner had tried to feed it with bananas, despite it being only a few weeks old.

The hunter told me he had shot the female a couple of weeks ago, hacked her up and put her dismembered body parts in a large sack. He then picked up the tiny baby and stuffed it into the same sack on top of its butchered mother. He sold the meat at a nearby logging camp then brought the baby home for his children to play with.

It’s hard to imagine a more gruesome fate for these highly sensitive and sociable animals. The great apes are mankind’s closest relatives, yet throughout Africa the slaughter of these magnificent species has been continuing unabated.




Additionally, the following comments appeared on the Africa News Press Release in an article entitled “Gorillas may be extinct in 50 years”. (Note that this and other pictures are included after the Works Cited page as an appendix):   




Nothing encapsulates this projection better than Mr. Karl Amman’s World Society for the Protection of Animals award-winning shot of a gorilla’s head severed from the carcass lying on a shallow tin bowl awaiting the cooking pot.  

One of the dead animal’s eyeballs is pooping out, haphazardly, more like that of a badly wounded mono-eyed freak, peering sorrowfully from inside the bowl. The mouth is half-shut and a bloodied tongue, visible.

Placed besides the bushy head is a bunch of big, ripe bananas to presumably go with the macabre delicacy once it is stewed. The sight is gruesome, the atmosphere, grim. All part of a graphic illustration of the brutal slaughter of primates for the bush meat trade.




Implications: The Imperative of Narrative   

There are certain issues that demand narratives. McDonald and Jarman note that “narratives do provide knowldege. A story has the power to convey information and humanize a situation which might be unavailable in other formats. For instance, issues of racism and discrimination seem aptly suited to discussions via narrative” (6). While they confine their comments to a purely human context, I believe that their claims can be expanded to suggest that there are simply some issues that cannot be fully understood until you experience them: environmental problems are exactly such an issue.

Michael Bruner and Max Oelschlaeger note that two-thirds of Americans consider themselves to be environmentalists, yet paradoxically the “noose of the ecocrisis continues to tighten around their necks” (384). Why does such a paradox exist? We suggest that this is due to the dominance of the technical sphere in modern public discourse in relation to the environment. Gary Richardson’s story and one’s like it, frequently fall on deaf ears because they are overwhelmed by the narratives of science, exploitation and instrumentalism that dominate Western culture (Grove-White and Michael 44).

The dominant narratives of Western society explicitly discount the claims of environmentalists as hysterical or little more than hyperbole (Killingsworth and Palmer 3). Unfortunately, the mainstream rejection of environmental discourse has only served to provoke environmentalists more, creating a feedback loop that Killingsworth and Palmer explain succinctly:




If the fervor of environmentalism seems irrational, that is because in the view of the environmentalists, an ostensibly rational public discourse has neglected the signs of trouble for so long that only a cry of pain can break the public habit of inattention. (3)  




While there is a long tradition of nature writing within Western culture, the value of stories is largely discounted by the dominant paradigm. Artists, poets, and storytellers are largely viewed to have little to say on issues that seem to require a technical solution. The participation of such members of society seems to be “absurd” (Raglon and Scholtmeijer 27). Ultimately, “the fault lies not with artists, poets, dancers, and storytellers, but with a society that places little value on the type of insight about nature that arts can provide” (Raglon and Scholtmeijer 27).   

Raglon and Scholtmeijer locate the real problem between humans and non-humans as a problem in the way that we understand the non-human world. They suggest that arguments alone will not create the philosophical and reflexive changes that are critical to altering our destruction of the non-human world. “It is only by telling new stories about the natural world, that we will eventually be able to find those ‘slippages’ necessary to radically reimagine ‘nature’”(22).

The implication of such claims for modern policy debate practices is somewhat tremendous. Every year debaters compile hundreds of thousands of pages of evidence, often about environmental problems. Ironically, we contribute directly to the environmental crisis through our tremendous resource usage and yet our impact on the environmental crisis in the real world is debatable at best. Moreover, we generally do not accept a form of evidence that many environmentalists and environmental philosophers identify as essential to changing the way all people (ourselves included) view the non-human world and our relationship to it. Raglon and Scholtmeijer indicate that:




To act differently in the world, in other words, requires that we see the world in a different way. Our point is that it is only through our stories that different meanings can be investigated. What remains problematical is the fact that few believe that stories are a legitimate source of knowledge about nature. (37)  




As the examples of the bush meat crisis above demonstrate, technical ways of knowing have their limits. Statistics and facts can enlighten an individual and shock a person intellectually, however they may not provide enough intimate contact with the subject matter to actually cause an individual to take action or fully relate to the subject. Imaginative efforts and practices are particularly valuable because “imagination has its own kind of intelligence, but one that is of its nature manifest in imagery and storytelling that draws the listener/reader into participatory contact with paradoxical forms of knowing” (Ebenreck 11). Richardson’s story is powerful because it elicits an immediate and undeniable feeling of revulsion at the prospect of child being carried around on top of its mother’s own carcass. The story serves as a catalyst to concretize the abstract stream of facts, which may stimulate us intellectually but which do not move us as emotionally as the story does. The story serves the purpose of augmenting the facts of the situation and personalizing them in a persuasive way.   

The acceptance of narratives such as Richardson’s or other more non-traditional narratives such as poems or songs is critical to expanding our intellectual and discursive horizons as an intellectual and emotional community. The dominant cultural discourse that rejects non-objective work as a legitimate form of evidence is a fundamental part of the larger environmental problem. Academia is a unique example of these issues as C. A. Bowers explains:




Although public school and university education, in both their curricular content and their patterns of teaching, are cultural processes, we have not really understood the special educational issues raised by the culture-language-thought connection. One of the reason for is connected with the specific cultural pattern of thinking now being brought into question by the ecological crisis. Thus, a deeper understanding of culture, as well as the specific cultural patterns now being recognized as problematic, may also help guide us toward a more ecologically responsive approach to public school and university education. (21)   




As an academic community we have an obligation to investigate the linguistic practices that create and perpetuate environmental problems. Despite the efforts of some members in our community, we perpetuate the problem identified by Bowers in academia by excluding opportunities to revision our relationship with nature. The linguistic choices that we make, and the perceptions that these choices create are intimately tied in with the policies that are ultimately deemed to be appropriate solutions to the problems we discuss (Chawla 254-255). If narrative is excluded as a form of evidence, we train a community of technocrats who sees ecological problems from an instrumental perspective relating to resource usage and over or under development. Therefore, we do a pedagogical disservice to our community and to society at large, as we create a set of trained objective scholars, who enter the world to deal with problems that may require solutions based in alternative forms of communication and knowledge.  

If we believe that our community is to have any impact on society at large then it seems imperative that we at least open our forum to forms of evidence that provide the “slippages” necessary to change our perspective about pressing social issues. As persons involved in highly technical, specialized discourse communities, we must recognize the potential for lived, embodied experience and the narratives that describe that experience to influence the technical communities of which we are a part. With respect to environmental issues, this means that an exclusion of narrative as a form of evidence to at least be used in conjunction with scholarly research dooms us to recreate the very problems that legitimize the pillage of the non-human world in the first place. In practice, the communities that we inhabit must question the rigidity of the means by which we evaluate evidence and remain open to alternative ways of knowing. This is imperative as we begin to engage the growing worldwide debate community and the valuable contribution that the American forensics community can make to debate on a global level.


Works Cited



Africa News. “Chimpanzees, Gorillas may be extinct in 50 years.” 15 May 2000.

Online. Lexis-Nexis. 24 Aug. 2000.—. “Gorilla Population Threatened by Illegal Meat Trade.” 17 April 2000.Online. Lexis-Nexis. 25 Aug. 2000.Bowers, C. A. Education, Cultural Myths, and the Ecological Crisis. Albany, NY:

State University of New York Press, 1993.

Bruner, Michael and Max Oelschlaeger. “Rhetoric, Environmentalism, andEnvironmental Ethics.” Environmental Ethics 16 (1994): 377-396.Chawla, Saroj. “Linguistic and Philosophical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.”Environmental Ethics 13 (1991): 253-262.CNN. “Conservation group adds 200 animals to endangered list.” 28 Sept.




2000. Online. Cable News Network Homepage. 28 Sept. 2000. Available: www.cnn.com.  




Ebenreck, Sarah. “Opening Pandora’s Box: Imagination’s Role in Environmental  

Ethics.” Environmental Ethics 18 (1996): 3-18.

Fisher, W. R. “Clarifying the narrative paradigm.” Communication Monographs 56

(1989): 55-58.

—. Human communication as narration: Toward a philosophy of reason, value

and action. Columbia, S. C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.

—. “The narrative paradigm: An elaboration.” Communication Monographs 52

(1985): 347-367.

—. “The narrative paradigm: In the beginning.” Journal of Communication 35

(1985b): 74-89.

—. “Narration as a human communication paradigm: The case of public moral

argument.” Communication Monographs 51 (1984): 1-22.

Goodnight, G.T. “The personal, technical, and public spheres of argument.”

Journal of the American Forensics Association 18 (1982): 214-227.

—. “Public discourse.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 4 (1987): 428-431.

—. “Toward a theory of argumentation.” Argumentation and Advocacy 26 (1989): 60-69.

Goodnight, G. T. and Hingstman, D. B. “Studies in the public sphere.” Quarterly

Journal of Speech 83 (1997): 351-399.


Grove-White, Robin and Mike Michael. “Talking about Taliking about Nature:



Nurturing Ecological Consciousness.” Environmental Ethics 15 (1993): 33-47.  



Hollihan, Thomas and Kevin T. Baaske and Patricia Riley. “Debaters as  

Storytellers: The Narrative Perspective in Academic Debate.” Journal of

the American Forensics Association 23 (1987): 184-193.

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie and Jacqueline S. Palmer. “The Discourse of


‘Environmentalist Hysteria’.” The Quarterly Journal of Speech 81 (1995): 1-19.   


McDonald, Kelly and Jeffrey W. Jarman. “Getting the Story Right: The Role of  

Narrative in Academic Debate.” Rostrum 72 (1998): 5-20.Raglon, Rebecca and Marian Scholtmeijer. “Shifting Ground: Metanarratives,  


Epistemology, and the Stories of Nature.” Environmental Ethics 18 (1996): 19-38.  




Redmond, Ian. Online. 25 Aug. 2000. Available: www.psgb.org/Meetings/Spring1998.html.  

Richardson, Gary. “The Slaughter of the Apes.” 1995. Online. 24 Oct. 2000.Available: www.kilimanjaro.com/wspa/wspa.htm.Rose, Anthony. “Human Health Could Depend on Saving Apes.” 1999. Online. 25 Aug. 2000. Available: www.biosynergy.org.—. “The African Great Ape Bush Meat Crisis.” Pan Africa News. Winter 1996.Online. 24 Aug. 2000. Available: www.biosynergy.org/bushmeat.Rowland, R. C. “On limiting the narrative paradigm: Three case studies.”Communication Monographs 56 (1989): 39-54.—. “Narrative: Mode of discourse or paradigm?” Communication Monographs 54(1987): 264-275.

Smith, Ross and Jairus Grove. “A Dialogue about Evolving Approaches toDebate.” Debater’s Research Guide (2000): (A-1)-(A-3).

Verrengia, Joseph. “Chimp Culture Recognized.” Associated Press. 16 June.




Online. 24 Aug. 2000. Available: abcnews.go.com/sections/science/DailyNews/chimpanzees990616.htm  




Wasswa, Henry. “Chimp Protection Urged in Africa.” Associated Press. 6 May  

    1. Online. 25 Aug. 2000. Available: www.virunga.org/jbin/story/1994.

Willard, C. A. “The creation of publics: Notes on Goodnight’s historical relativity.”

Argumentation and Advocacy 26 (1989): 45-59.

Social Theories

According to Bessant and Watts (1999: 20): “A key sign of the magnitude of the changes in that first Great Transformation [industrial revolution] is found in the ways people continued talking about the experience of loss, ‘the world we have lost’. Phrases like ‘the death of God’, ‘demise of the family, and the ‘loss of community’ reflect the long-standing feelings of bereavement and loss that accompanied the modernising experience.” We, today, are undergoing a change of a similar magnitude when one takes account of commoditisation of information, and to some extent, knowledge. To understand what happened in the past, I thought the following would be a good introductory article.


Social Continuity and Change, and Social Theory

by Christine Preston (Nagle College)
for Society and Culture Inservice, 12th August 2000


I will begin by defining social and cultural continuity and change. The term ‘social change’ is a term used within sociology and applies to modifications in social relationships or culture (the term ‘cultural change’ is the term used within anthropology). Since society and culture are interdependent, ‘sociocultural change’ is a more accepted term. The study of sociocultural change is the systematic study of variation in social and cultural ‘systems’. There are inherent methodological problems of identification and measurement of change, and rarely does one cause produce one effect. All societies are involved in a process of social change, however, this change may be so incremental that the members of the society are hardly aware of it. People living in very traditional societies would be in this category. Societies are characterised by change: the rate of change, the processes of change, and the directions of change.

The actions of individuals, organisations and social movements have an impact on society and may become the catalyst for social change. The actions of individuals, however, occur within the context of culture, institutions and power structures inherited from the past, and usually, for these individuals to effect dramatic social change, the society itself is tripe’ for change.

Broad social trends, for example, shifts in population, urbanisation, industrialisation and bureaucratisation, can lead to significant social change. In the past, this has been associated with modernisation, the process whereby a society moves from traditional, less developed modes of production (like small-scale agriculture) to technologically advanced industrial modes of production. Trends like population growth and urbanisation have a significant impact on other aspects of society, like social structure, institutions and culture. Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century social theorists focused fairly extensively on modernisation, but they tended to present on oversimplified “grand narrative” which resulted from heavily ideological interpretations of the contrast between tradition and modernisation. They also attempted to externalise absolutes, “social laws” as they saw them, and they argued that these social laws were operative in structurally similar societies.

Social continuity cannot simply be defined as the absence of social change, that is, things remaining the same, because social change is a continual process in all societies. Nothing “remains the same”. However, within societies there are structures which are inherently resistant to change, and in this sense, we can talk about them as being social continuities. Individuals within societies need social continuities to a lesser or greater extent, depending on significant factors like age, gender, education, access to power, wealth, vested interest, etc. Even “rock-solid” institutions like the family, the law, and religions are subject to change, even though they represent social continuity. There has always been ‘family’ and it is still the foundational institution for society and the primary agent of socialisation, however the composition of ‘family’ has changed in recent years, leading to different kinds of families and different socialisation experiences for their members. The same ideas can be applied to law and religion.

Social and cultural continuities can be likened to individuals’ habits – comfortable patterns of behaviour that give individuals a sense of security and personal control – a haven or a respite in a sea of social and cultural change. There is a high correlation between the rate of social and cultural change and resistance to that change. In times when members of a society feel that change is ‘out of control’, it is likely that the desire for continuity becomes more extreme, resulting in backward-looking idealisations of the past.

While social change is itself a continuity, certain periods of human history have created “great transformations” (Polanyi 1973). The Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution created one such Great Transformation. Polanyi saw it as beginning in the 17th and 18th centuries and continuing today, characterised by:

• the rise of a capitalist, global economy and growth in production and wealth
• a ‘scientific revolution’ – new ways of thinking about causation, moving from religious to secular
• a new concept of time
population growth, immigration and urbanisation
a political move to ‘nation’, which involved governments expanding their control to social, economic and cultural life, followed by the extension of that control to other, less advanced” countries (colonialism/imperialism) either through military
conquest or trade conquest and today, perhaps, characterised by conquest
through communication (eg. the Americanisation or westernisation of culture).
According to Bessant and Watts (1999: 20):

“A key sign of the magnitude of the changes in that first Great Transformation is found in the ways people continued talking about the experience of loss, ‘the world we have lost’. Phrases like ‘the death of God’, ‘demise of the family, and the ‘loss of community’ reflect the long-standing feelings of bereavement and loss that accompanied the modernising experience.

Polanyi would argue that similar feelings of loss and bereavement are expressed, in similar terms, today in our post-modern society where rapid, often dramatic change has become almost the norm.

Although many individuals, for example, Marx, Toennies, Comte and Spencer developed different versions of what Comte called ‘sociology’, the ‘science of society’, it wasn’t until the late 1 9th century that sociology was established as an academic discipline. Social theories came out of this ‘new’ discipline, as attempts to explain, or account for, social change. Social theories were, and still are today, products of their times and are characterised to a greater or lesser extent by the prevailing views and ideologies of their eras. When studying social theories, and using one or more of them in an attempt to explain social and cultural change, it is important to recognise this fact about them and to be conscious, if not critical, of the biases, values and assumptions inherent in them.
Sociological theory can be roughly divided into periods during which different schools of theoretical thought tended to be dominant:

• from the late Nineteenth/early Twentieth Century until the 1 92Os, while Sociology was establishing itself as an academic discipline in Its own right (there was, at the same time, a development of Anthropology) ‘Social Darwinism’, early evolutionary theory, which was functionalist in its perspective, was a dominant school of thought
• the 1940s -1960s was the era of ‘Structural Functionalism’ (Parsons, Spencer,
Durkheim and Comte)
• by the mid-1 960s (1 960s – 1 980s), Marxism, Weberian sociology, Feminism and
Symbolic Interactionism were dominant
• most recently, Post-Modernism (also called Post-Structuralism) has tended to dominate sociological thinking.
This division isn’t absolute in that different schools of sociological thought agreed with,
disagreed with, borrowed and rejected aspects of each other’s premises. Even within the
different schools of thought, there is acceptance and rejection of other proponents’ ideas.

An Overview of Some Social Theories

Early Evolutionary Theory This theory of social change was based on the assumption that all societies develop from simple, ‘small-scale’ beginnings into more complex industrial and post-industrial societies. This development process was thought to be unilinear, that is, there was one line of development from simple to complex. It also assumed that the changes inherent in this development were all ‘progress’. This theory emerged around the time Charles Darwin was publishing his theories on the origin of species; that biological species evolved from the simple to the complex and that there was ‘survival of the fittest’. Evolutionary theorists applied these ideas to societies – a concept which fitted very comfortably with this colonial era when Britain and other colonising countries were heavily involved in bringing their “superior” advanced form of society to more “primitive” societies, in exchange for their raw materials, trade goods, etc. Ethnocentrism was rife during this period and early Evolutionary theorists reflected the prevailing ideology, legitimising, through their theoretical explanation of social change, the political and economic ambitions of the colonial powers. Early evolutionary theory described change, rather than explained it and ignored the many patterns of development which were occurring – which were, in reality, as diverse as the countries themselves.

While Early Evolutionary Theory became discredited once anthropological data was published describing the diversity of change in modernising societies, Modern Evolutionary Theory still exists. This more updated version sees sociocultural evolution as the tendency for social structures to become more complex over time. It also acknowledges that this process in multilinear and that change occurs in different ways and at different rates. Modem Evolutionary Theory concedes that change is not always necessarily progress, and that it will not inevitably produce greater happiness for all the people concerned. Unlike Early Evolutionary Theory, Modern Evolutionary Theory does attempt to explain change, arguing that the main source of change is a shift in subsistence/production, each change resulting in greater productivity, which in turn leads to greater economic surplus and thus more distributable wealth. This leads to improved living standards, population growth, cultural diversity and further development.

Functionalist Theory (often called Structural Functionalism)

Functionalist theory assumes, on the whole, that as societies develop, they become increasingly more complex and interdependent. Functionalist theory emphasizes social order rather than social change. Talcott Parsons viewed society as consisting of interdependent parts which work together to maintain the equilibrium of the whole, rather like the human body with its interdependent organs working for the health of the entire organism. Key concepts of this theory are those of differentiation and integration. Differentiation occurs as society becomes more complex but the new institutions must be integrated with each other into the whole. In other words, change occurs (differentiation of institutions, for example, to take over functions of previously non-differentiated institutions) but structures within society change or emerge to compensate. The new structures are integrated to ensure the smooth functioning of society. Social order requires that members of society work towards achieving order and stability within the society and Functionalist Theory asserts that this is the most desirable social state for people. The assumptions are:

• all members accept their roles
o all members accept the moral values of their society
• ‘social order’ is achieved through complex processes of socialisation, education and sanctions
• history is seen as a series of phases through which societies progress. Each phase is characterized by an increase in rationality
• ‘social facts’ can be studied as ‘objective facts’ or ‘social laws’

Limitations of this theory are that it really only attempts to explain institutional change. During the decades of the 1940s and 1950s, which were relatively placid, the functionalist view of society as a balanced system that integrated small but necessary changes was quite consistent with the times. However this social theory quickly lost credibility because it proved inadequate to explain the rapid upheaval and social unrest of the late 50s and 60s. Like Early Evolutionary theory, it assumes that change is progress, although there are disagreements between Functionalist theorists.

Conflict Theory – Marxism (Marx and Engels)

Marxism also saw itself as offering a ‘scientific account’ of change but, in opposition to Functionalism, this focused on the premise that radical change was inevitable in society. Marxism argued that the potential for change was built into the basic structures of society, the relationships between social classes, which Marx saw as being intrinsic to the social relations of production. According to Marx, eventually society reaches a point where its own organization creates a barrier to further economic growth and at that point, crisis precipitates a revolutionary transformation of the society, for example, from feudalism to capitalism, or from capitalism to socialism. Marxists believed that social order was maintained through socialisation, education and ideology. Thus control is maintained to suit the vested interests of powerful groups and as the interests of these groups change, so does society. Change is therefore ongoing until crisis point is reached and transformation occurs. While Marx focused on class conflict specifically, modem conflict theorists have broadened their explanation of change to social conflict generally. While Conflict Theory is useful in explaining significant events in history and ongoing changing patterns of race and gender relations, it struggles to adequately explain the dramatic impact of technological development on society or the changes to family organisation.

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic Interactionism developed as an alternative to Functicnalism, emphasising that social interaction is symbolic in nature and that social reality is constructed by the people
participating in it, rather than by ‘external laws’ (Herbert Blumer; Peter Berger). This concept follows the Weberian premise that ‘social reality’ is different from ‘natural reality’ because it is symbolic and socially constructed. Because Structural Interactionism sees social reality as neither objective nor external (as the natural world is) they reject the idea that social reality is objective and needs to be studied as such. Symbolic Interactionists argue that people give meaning to events and objects and that those people agree about these meanings. It becomes irrelevant what is ‘really’ happening, because the participants are engaged in interpretive processes and it is these that shape their perceptions of the world. (Participant Observation is a favourite research method of Symbolic Interactionists.)

Post-Modernist Social Theory (also called Post-Structuralism)

Post-Modernism argues that both social reality and knowledge is socially constructed. Post-Modernism rejects ‘general’ or overarching explanations of change, which rely on the premise of a single total social system or assumptions about class or gender power. PostModernists see power as dispersed and localised, rather than hierarchical and directed from the top down. For Post-Modernists, there are many ‘knowledges’ and ‘ways of knowing’, multiple sets of moral rules and ethics, which people in society tap into at their local level. Authority structures may attempt to assert their knowledge and way of doing things) but they do this, not from any intellectual or moral authority, but through political strategies of coercion (ridicule, exclusion), leading to the use of their definition of ‘normal’ to define what is ‘abnormal’. At the micro-level, the out-group is defined by definition of the in-group. Micropower is located within institutions, which use language and practices to control people. Post-Modernists view society, therefore, not as a total system but as an aggregation of fragments. They see post-modern society as the next phase after modern, post-industrial society, so in this sense Post-Modernists are viewing social change in terms of stages that societies go through. In terms of social theory, they confine their analysis to post-industrial societies and rarely attempt to analyse the whole of society, preferring to focus on its component parts, such as institutions like the family, prisons, hospitals etc.

Recent social theorists, for example, Anthony Giddens (1990), see a crucial distinction between pre-modern and modern societies based on our dependence on increasingly complex and extended social relationships. These rely on ‘expert systems’ with which we have no face-to-face relationship. In the past, people relied on, or were dependent on, the people with whom they had the closest relationships, for example, spouses, family etc. In modern society, we are increasingly becoming independent within traditional relationships (for example, women pursuing a career path concurrently with their husbands) while becoming increasingly dependent on people with whom we have no relationship (for example, when we catch a plane, we are dependent on the ‘expertise’ of pilots, ground crews, traffic controllers etc.)

[Other Social Theories]

Other recent social theory especially the discussion coming out of America, focuses on forms of collective behaviour as a force for change. While this discussion isn’t necessarily formalised as social theory, it is perhaps worthwhile to look at the role of social movements in the change process. For this purpose, “social movement” is defined as a large number of people who come together as part of an organised effort to bring about, or resist, social change. Institutionalised forms of political action are usually important to these groups in the achievement of their goals. There are several types of these movements, ranging from Reformist or Revolutionary groups, through to Reactionary movements (resisting change rather than working towards change). Study of social movements has ranged from micro-level studies, which examine the motives and aspirations of individuals within these movements, to organisational-level studies. Resource Mobilisation Theory argues that a social movement cannot be sustained simply by discontent with existing structures. The social movement must manipulate discontent and efficiently manage it through the aggregation and distribution of resources (money and labour). For a social movement to succeed, there must be an adequate resource base. This can come from participants directly or ‘sponsors’- people or groups outside the social movement who may be sympathetic to the ’cause’ (conscience supporters), share common goals with the social group, or have a vested interest in the social movement’s success. The social movement must have organisers who can garner this resource support and organise the participants and their activities, utilising existing social infrastructure to achieve the goals of the movement. Resource Mobilisation Theory emphasises the interaction between resource availability, the goal preferences of the movement and the entrepreneurial activities of the organisers in mobilising participants and supporters.

A central fact of recent social theory is the movement away from overarching, ‘grand’ theory towards the partial, the fragmented. It has been, and still is, problematic to try and construct theories which attempt to explain everything – the relationship between social change and all aspects of society. The ‘grand theories’ of the past arose out of the ideologies of their periods – it may be said in the future that ‘fragmentation’ theories like Post-Modernism have come out of what is increasingly becoming the ‘me’ era. Social theories aren’t instruments or tools by which people can examine societies and cultures; they are themselves ‘culture’, the products of the life experiences and locations and cultural milieu of their proponents. They rely on perspectives, they are open-ended; they are metaphors for societies (Beilharz: 1992). Nevertheless, social theory is important because it attempts to address the human condition in change. Theories generalise, but this does not mean that they should totalise or systematise. Social theory offers a way of operating in the world, helping us clarify norms and values, political and economic understanding and the relationships of these things.



Beilharz, P. (ed.): Social Theory Guide to Central Thinkers Allen & Unwin, NSW, 1892
Bessant, J. ~ Watts, R.: Sociology Australia Allen & Unwin, NSW 1999
Giddens, A: The Consequences of Modernity Polity Press, Cambridge, 1 990
Polanyi, K.: The Great Transformation Octagon Books, New York, 1973

Moral Psychology

Social Intuitionists Answer Six Questions About Moral Psychology

Jonathan Haidt, University of Virginia (USA) & Fredrik Bjorklund, Lund University (Sweden)

February 5, 2006, Draft 3.1

Contact information: Jonathan Haidt, Haidt@virginia.edu; Fredrik Bjorklund, Fredrik.Bjorklund@psychology.lu.se

            Here are two of the biggest questions in moral psychology:

    • Question1: Where do moral beliefs and motivations come from?
    • Question 2: How does moral judgment work? All other questions are easy, or at least easier, once you have clear answers to these two questions.

            Here are our answers:

    1. Moral beliefs and motivations comes from a small set of intuitions that evolution has prepared the human brain to develop; these intuitions then enable and constrain the social construction of virtues and values, and
    2. moral judgment is a product of quick and automatic intuitions that then give rise to slow, conscious moral reasoning.

Our approach is therefore some kind of intuitionism. But there is more: moral reasoning done by an individual is usually devoted to finding reasons to support the individual’s intuitions, but moral reasons passed between people have a causal force. Moral discussion is a kind of distributed reasoning, and moral claims and justifications have important effects on individuals and societies. We believe that moral judgment is best understood as a social process, not as a private act of cognition. We therefore call our model the “Social Intuitionist Model.” Please don’t forget the social part of the model, or you will think that we think that morality is just blind instinct, no smarter than lust. You will accuse us of denying any causal role for moral reasoning or for culture, and you will feel that our theory is a threat to human dignity, to the possibility of moral change, or to the notion that philosophers have any useful role to play in our moral lives (see the debate between Saltzstein & Kasachkoff, 2004, versus Haidt, 2004). Unfortunately, if our theory is correct, once you get angry at us, we will no longer be able to persuade you with the many good reasons we are planning on giving you below. So please, don’t forget the social part.             In the pages that follow we will try to answer six questions. We begin with the big two, for which our answer is the social intuitionist model. We follow up with:

    • Question 3: What is the evidence for the social intuitionist model? We then address three questions that we believe become answerable in a coherent and consistent way via the social intuitionist model.
    • Question 4: What exactly are the moral intuitions?
    • Question 5: How does morality develop?
    • And Question 6: Why do people vary in their morality? Next we get cautious and consider some limitations of the model and some unanswered questions.

 And finally we throw caution to the wind and state what we think are some philosophical implications of this descriptive model, one of which is that neither normative ethics nor metaethics can be done behind a firewall. There can be little valid ethical inquiry that is not anchored in the facts of a particular species, so moral philosophers had best get a good grasp of the empirical facts of moral psychology.

Question 1: Where Do Moral Beliefs and Motivations Come From?

            When a magician shows us an empty hat and then pulls a rabbit out of it, we all know there is a trick. Somehow or other, the rabbit had to be put into the hat. Infants and toddlers certainly seem like empty hats as far as morality is concerned, and then, somehow, by the time they are teenagers, they have morality. How is this trick accomplished? There are three main families of answers: empiricist, rationalist, and moral sense theories.             Most theories, lay and academic, have taken an empiricist approach. As with the magician’s rabbit, it just seems obvious that morality must have come from outside in. People in many cultures have assumed that God is the magician, revealing moral laws to people by way of prophets and divinely-appointed kings. People are supposed to learn the laws and then follow them. The idea that morality is internalized is made most concrete in the Old Testament, in which Adam and Eve literally ingest morality when they bite into the forbidden fruit. When God finds out they have eaten of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” he says “behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil”(Genesis, 3:22).

            In the 20th century most people who didn’t buy the God theory bought a related empiricist, blank-slate, or “empty-hat” model: morality comes from society (which Durkheim said was God anyway), via the media and parents. For the behaviorists, morality was any set of responses that society happened to reward (Skinner, 1971). For Freud (1976/1900) , morality comes from the father when a boy resolves his oedipal complex by internalizing the father’s superego. Some modern parents fear that morality comes from the barrage of images and stories their children see on TV. However, true blank-slate theories began to die when Garcia and Koelling (1966) demonstrated that equipotentiality – the equal ability of any response to get hooked up to any stimulus – was simply not true. It is now universally accepted in psychology that some things are easy to learn (e.g., fearing snakes), while others (fearing flowers, or hating fairness) are difficult or impossible. Nobody in psychology today admits to believing in the blank slate, although as Pinker (2002) has shown, in practice many psychologists stay as close to the blank slate as they can, often closer than the evidence allows.

            The main alternative to empiricism has long been rationalism – the idea that reason plays a dominant role in our attempt to gain knowledge. Rationalists such as Descartes usually allow for the existence of innate ideas (such as the idea of God or perfection) and for the importance of sense perceptions, but they concentrate their attention on the processes of reasoning and inference by which people can extend their knowledge with certainty outwards from perceptions and innate ideas. Rationalist approaches to morality usually posit relatively little specific content – perhaps a few a priori concepts such as non-contradiction, or harm, or ought. The emphasis instead is on the act of construction, on the way that a child builds up her own moral understanding, and her ability to justify her judgments, as her developing mind with its all-purpose information processor becomes more and more powerful. Piaget, for example, allowed that children feel sympathy when they see others suffer. He then worked out the way the child gradually comes to understand and respect rules that help children get along, share, and thereby reduce suffering. “All morality consists in a system of rules, and the essence of all morality is to be sought for in the respect which the individual acquires for these rules” (Piaget, 1965/1932, p.13).

            Lawrence Kohlberg (1969, 1971) built on the foundation Piaget had laid to create the best-known theory of moral development. In Kohlberg’s theory, young children are egocentric and concrete; they think that right and wrong is determined by what gets rewarded and punished. But as their cognitive abilities mature around the ages of 6-8 and they become able to “de-center,” to look at situations through the eyes of others, they come to appreciate the value of rules and laws. As their abstract reasoning abilities mature around puberty, they become able to think about the reasons for having laws, and about how to respond to laws that are unjust. Cognitive development, however, is just a pre-requisite for moral development; it does not create moral progress automatically. For moral progress to occur, children need plenty of “role-taking opportunities,” such as working out disputes during playground games, or taking part in student government. Kohlberg’s approach to moral development was inspiring to many people in the 1960s and 1970s for it presented a picture of an active child, creating morality for herself, not just serving as a passive receptacle for social conditioning. Elliot Turiel (1983) continued this work, showing how children figure out that different kinds of rules and practices have different statuses. Moral rules, which are about harm, rights, and justice, have a different foundation and are much less revisable than social-conventional rules, which in turn are different from personal rules. As adults throw rule after rule at children, the children sort the rules into different cognitive bins (domains of social knowledge), and then figure out for themselves how and when to use – or reject – the different kinds of rules.

            To give you a sense of a rationalist approach we report the transcript of a remarkable interview that one of us (JH) overheard about the origin of moral rules. The interview was conducted in the bathroom of a McDonald’s restaurant in northern Indiana. The person interviewed – the subject – was a Caucasian male roughly 30 years old. The interviewer was a Caucasian male approximately four years old. The interview began at adjacent urinals:

Interviewer: Dad, what would happen if I pooped in here [the urinal]?

Subject: It would be yucky. Go ahead and flush. Come on, let’s go wash our hands.

[The pair then moved over to the sinks]

Int: Dad, what would happen if I pooped in the sink?

Sub: The people who work here would get mad at you.

 Int: What would happen if I pooped in the sink at home?

Sub: I’d get mad at you.

Int: What would happen if YOU pooped in the sink at home?

Sub: Mom would get mad at me.

Int: Well, what would happen if we ALL pooped in the sink at home?

Sub: [pause…] I guess we’d all get in trouble.

Int: [laughing] Yeah, we’d all get in trouble!

Sub: Come on, let’s dry our hands. We have to go.

If we analyze this transcript from a Kohlbergian perspective, the subject appears to score at the lowest stage: things seem to be wrong because they are punished. But note the skill and persistence of the interviewer, who probes for a deeper answer by changing the transgression to remove a punishing agent. Yet even when everyone cooperates in the rule violation so that nobody can play the role of punisher, the subject still clings to a notion of cosmic or immanent justice in which, somehow, the whole family would “get in trouble.”

            Of course, we didn’t really present this transcript to illustrate the depth and subtlety of Kohlberg’s approach. (For such an overview, see Lapsley, 1996; Kurtines & Gewirtz, 1995). We presented it to show a possible limitation, in that Kohlberg and Turiel paid relatively little attention to the emotions. In each of his statements, the father is trying to socialize his curious son by pointing to moral emotions. He tries to get his son to feel that pooping in urinals and sinks is wrong. Disgust and anger (and the other moral emotions) are watchdogs of the moral world (Haidt, 2003; Rozin, Lowery, Imada, & Haidt, 1999), and we believe they play a very important role in moral development. This brings us to the third family of approaches: moral sense theories.

            When God began to recede from scientific explanations in the 16th century, some philosophers began to wonder if God was really needed to explain morality either. In the 17th and 18th centuries, English and Scottish philosophers such as the third Earl of Shaftesbury, Frances Hutcheson, and Adam Smith surveyed human nature and declared that people are innately sociable, and that they are both benevolent and selfish. However it was David Hume who worked out the details and implications of this approach most fully:

There has been a controversy started of late … concerning the general foundation of Morals; whether they be derived from Reason, or from Sentiment; whether we attain the knowledge of them by a chain of argument and induction, or by an immediate feeling and finer internal sense; whether, like all sound judgments of truth and falsehood, they should be the same to every rational intelligent being; or whether, like the perception of beauty and deformity, they be founded entirely on the particular fabric and constitution of the human species. (Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals,  1960/1777, p.2)

We added the italics above to show which side Hume was on. This passage is extraordinary for two reasons. First, it is a succinct answer to Question 1: Where do moral beliefs and motivations come from? They come from sentiments which give us an immediate feeling of right or wrong, and which are built into the fabric of human nature. Hume’s answer to Question 1 is our answer too, and much of the rest of our essay is an elaboration of this statement, using evidence and theories that Hume did not have available to him. But this statement is also extraordinary as a statement about the controversy “started of late.” Hume’s statement is just as true in 2005 as it was in 1776. There really is a controversy started of late (in the 1980s), a controversy between rationalist approaches (based on Piaget and Kohlberg) and moral sense or intuitionist theories (e.g., Kagan, 1984; Frank, 1988; Haidt, 2001; Shweder & Haidt, 1993; J. Q. Wilson, 1993). We will not try to be fair and unbiased guides to this debate (indeed, our theory says you should not believe us if we tried to be). Instead, we will make the case for a moral sense approach to morality, based on a small set of innately prepared, affectively valenced moral intuitions. We will contrast this approach to a rationalist approach, and we will refer the reader to other views when we discuss limitations of our approach. The contrast is not as stark as it seems: the Social Intuitionist Model includes reasoning at several points, and rationalist approaches often assume some innate moral knowledge, but there is a big difference in emphasis. Rationalists say the real action is in reasoning; intuitionists say it’s in quick intuitions, gut feelings and moral emotions.

Question 2: How Does Moral Judgment Work?

             Brains evaluate and react. They are clumps of neural tissue that integrate information from the external and internal environments to answer one fundamental question: approach or avoid? Even one-celled organisms must answer this question, but one of the big selective advantages of growing a brain was that it could answer the question better, and then initiate a more finely tailored response.

            The fundamental importance of the good-bad or approach-avoid dimension is one of the few strings that runs the entire length of modern psychology. It was present at the birth, when Wilhelm Wundt (1907, as quoted by Zajonc 1980) formulated the doctrine of “affective primacy,” which stated that the affective elements of experience (like-dislike, good-bad) reach consciousness so quickly and automatically that we can be aware of liking something before we know what it is. The behaviorists made approach and avoidance the operational definitions of reward and punishment, respectively. Osgood (1962) found that evaluation (good-bad) was the most basic dimension of all judgments. Zajonc (1980) argued that the human mind is composed of an ancient, automatic, and very fast affective system, and a phylogenetically newer, slower, and motivationally weaker cognitive system. Modern social cognition research is largely about the disconnect between automatic processes, which are fast and effortless, and controlled processes, which are slow, conscious, and heavily dependent on verbal thinking (Bargh & Ferguson, 2000; Chaiken & Trope, 1999; Wegner & Bargh, 1998).

            The conclusion at the end of this string is that the human mind is always evaluating, always judging everything it sees and hears along a “good-bad” dimension (see Kahneman,1999). It doesn’t matter whether we are looking at men’s faces, lists of appetizers, or Turkish words; the brain has a kind of gauge (sometimes called a “like-ometer”) that is constantly moving back and forth, and these movements, these quick judgments, influence whatever comes next. The most dramatic demonstration of the like-ometer in action is the recent finding that people are slightly more likely than chance to marry others whose first name shares its initial letter with their own; they are more likely to move to cities and states that resemble their names (Phil moves to Philadelphia; Louise to Louisiana); and they are more likely to choose careers that resemble their names (Dennis finds dentistry more appealing; Lawrence is drawn to law. Pelham, Mirenberg, & Jones, 2002). Quick flashes of pleasure, caused by similarity to the self, make some options “just feel right.”

            This perspective on the inescapably affective mind is the foundation of the social intuitionist model (SIM), presented in Figure 1 (from Haidt, 2001).The model is composed of 6 links, or psychological processes, which describe the relationships among an initial intuition of good versus bad, a conscious moral judgment, and conscious moral reasoning. The first four links are the core of the model, intended to capture the great majority of judgments for most people. Links 5 and 6 are hypothesized to occur rarely, but should be of great interest to philosophers because they are used to solve dilemmas, and because philosophers probably use these links far more than most people (Kuhn, 1991). The existence of each link as a psychological process is well supported by research, presented below. However, whether everyday moral judgment is best captured by this particular arrangement of processes is still controversial (Greene, this volume; Pizarro & Bloom, 2003), so the SIM should be considered a hypothesis for now, rather than an established fact. The model, and a brief description of the 6 links are as follows:


Link 1: The Intuitive Judgment Link

            The SIM is founded on the idea that moral judgment is a ubiquitous product of the ever-evaluating mind. Like aesthetic judgments, moral judgments are made quickly, effortlessly, and intuitively. We see an act of violence, or hear about an act of gratitude, and we experience an instant flash of evaluation, which may be as hard to explain as the affective response to a face or a painting. That’s the intuition. Moral intuition is defined as: the sudden appearance in consciousness, or at the fringe of consciousness, of an evaluative feeling (like-dislike, good-bad) about the character or actions of a person, without any conscious awareness of having gone through steps of search, weighing evidence, or inferring a conclusion (modified[1] from Haidt, 2001, p.818). This is the “finer internal sense” that Hume talked about. In most cases this flash of feeling will lead directly to the conscious condemnation (or praise) of the person in question, often including verbal thoughts such as “what a bastard” or “wow, I can’t believe she’s doing this for me!” This conscious experience of praise or blame, including a belief in the rightness or wrongness of the act, is the moral judgment. Link 1 is the tight connection between flashes of intuition and conscious moral judgments. However this progression is not inevitable: often a person has a flash of negative feeling, for example toward stigmatized groups (easily demonstrated through implicit measurement techniques such as the Implicit Association Test, Greenwald, McGhee, & Schwartz, 1998), yet because of one’s other values, one resists or blocks the normal tendency to progress from intuition to consciously endorsed judgment.

            These flashes of intuition are not dumb; as with the superb mental software that runs visual perception, they often hide a great deal of sophisticated processing occurring behind the scenes. Daniel Kahneman, one of the leading researchers of decision making, puts it this way:

We become aware only of a single solution — this is a fundamental rule in perceptual processing. All other solutions that might have been considered by the system — and sometimes we know that alternative solutions have been considered and rejected — we do not become aware of. So consciousness is at the level of a choice that has already been made. (Kahneman, 2004, p.26)

            Even if moral judgments are made intuitively, however, we often feel a need to justify them with reasons, much more so than we do for our aesthetic judgments. What is the relationship between the reasons we give and the judgments we reach?

Link 2: The Post-Hoc Reasoning Link

            Studies of reasoning describe multiple steps, such as searching for relevant evidence, weighing evidence, coordinating evidence with theories, and reaching a decision (Kuhn, 1989; Nisbett & Ross, 1980). Some of these steps may be performed unconsciously, and any of the steps may be subject to biases and errors, but a key part of the definition of reasoning is that it has steps, at least two of which are performed consciously. Galotti (1989, p.333), in her definition of everyday reasoning, specifically excludes “any one-step mental processes” such as sudden flashes of insight, gut reactions, and other forms of “momentary intuitive response.” Building on Galotti (1989), moral reasoning can be defined as: conscious mental activity that consists of transforming given information about people in order to reach a moral judgment (Haidt, 2001, p.818). To say that moral reasoning is a conscious process means that the process is intentional, effortful, controllable, and that the reasoner is aware that it is going on (Bargh, 1994).

            The SIM says that moral reasoning is an effortful process (as opposed to an automatic process), usually engaged in after a moral judgment is made, in which a person searches for arguments that will support an already-made judgment. This claim is consistent with Hume’s famous claim that reason is “the slave of the passions, and can pretend to no other office than to serve and obey them” (Hume, 1969/1739, p.462). Nisbett and Wilson (1977) demonstrated such post-hoc reasoning for causal explanations. When people are tricked into doing a variety of things, they readily make up stories to explain their actions, stories that can often be shown to be false. People often know more than they can tell, but when asked to introspect on their own mental processes people are quite happy to tell more than they can know, expertly crafting plausible-sounding explanations from a pool of cultural theories about why people generally do things (see Wilson [2002] on the limits of introspection).

             The most dramatic cases of post-hoc confabulation come from Gazzaniga’s studies of split-brain patients (described in Gazzaniga, 1985). When a patient performs an action caused by a stimulus presented to the right cerebral hemisphere (for example, getting up and walking away), the left hemisphere, which controls language, does not say “Hey, I wonder why I’m doing this!” Rather, it makes up a reason, such as “I’m going to get a coke.” Gazzaniga refers to the brain areas that provide a running post-hoc commentary on our behavior as the “interpreter module.” He says that our conscious verbal reasoning is in no way the command center of our actions; it is rather more like a press secretary, whose job is to offer convincing explanations for whatever the person happens to do. Subsequent research by Kuhn (1991), Kunda (1990), and Perkins, Farady, and Bushey (1991) found that everyday reasoning is heavily marred by the biased search only for reasons that support one’s already-favored hypothesis. People are extremely good at finding reasons for whatever they have done, are doing, or want to do in the future. In fact, this human tendency to search only for reasons and evidence on one side of a question is so strong and consistent in the research literature that it might be considered the chief obstacle to good thinking.


Link 3: The Reasoned Persuasion Link

            The glaring one-sidedness of everyday human reasoning is hard to understand if you think that the goal of reasoning is to reach correct conclusions, or to create accurate representations of the social world. However, many thinkers, particularly in evolutionary psychology, have argued that the driving force in the evolution of language was not the value of having an internal truth-discovering tool; it was the value of having a tool to help a person track the reputations of others, and to manipulate those others by enhancing one’s own reputation (Dunbar, 1996). People are able to re-use this tool for new purposes, including scientific or philosophical inquiry, but the fundamentally social origins of speech and internal verbal thought affect our other uses of language.

            Links 3 and 4 are the social part of the social intuitionist model. People love to talk about moral questions and violations, and one of the main topics of gossip is the moral and personal failings of other people (Dunbar, 1996; Hom and Haidt, in prep.). In gossip people work out shared understandings of right and wrong, they strengthen relationships, and they engage in subtle or not-so-subtle acts of social influence to bolster the reputations of themselves and their friends (Hom & Haidt, in prep.; Wright 1994). Allan Gibbard (1990) is perhaps the philosopher who is most sensitive to the social nature of moral discourse. Gibbard took an evolutionary approach to this universal human activity and asked about the functions of moral talk. He concluded that people are designed to respond to what he called “normative governance,” or a general tendency to orient their actions with respect to shared norms of behavior worked out within a community. But Gibbard did not assume that people blindly follow whatever norms they find; rather, he worked out the ways in which people show a combination of firmness in sticking to the norms that they favor, plus persuadability in being responsive to good arguments produced by other people. People strive to reach consensus on normative issues within their “parish,” that is, within the community they participate in. People who can do so can reap the benefits of coordination and cooperation. Moral discourse therefore serves an adaptive biological function, increasing the fitness of those who do it well.

            Some evolutionary thinkers have taken this adaptive view to darker extremes. In an eerie survey of moral psychology, Robert Wright (1994, p.280) wrote:

The proposition here is that the human brain is a machine for winning arguments, a machine for convincing others that its owner is in the right — and thus a machine for convincing its owner of the same thing. The brain is like a good lawyer: given any set of interests to defend, it sets about convincing the world of their moral and logical worth, regardless of whether they in fact have any of either. Like a lawyer, the human brain wants victory, not truth.

This may offend you. You may feel the need to defend your brain’s honor. But the claim here is not that human beings can never think rationally, or that we are never open to new ideas. Lawyers can be very reasonable when they are off duty, and human minds can be too. The problem comes when we find ourselves firmly on one side of a question, either because we had an intuitive or emotional reaction to it, or because we have interests at stake. It is in those situations, which include most acts of moral judgment, that conscious verbal moral reasoning does what it may have been designed to do: argue for one side.

            It is important to note that “reasoned persuasion” does not necessarily mean persuasion via logical reasons. The reasons that people give to each other are best seen as attempts to trigger the right intuitions in others. For example, here is a quotation from an activist arguing against the practice, common in many cultures, of altering the genitalia of both boys and girls either at birth, or during initiation rites at puberty: “This is a clear case of child abuse. It’s a form of reverse racism not to protect these girls from barbarous practices that rob them for a lifetime of their God-given right to an intact body” (Burstyn, 1995). These two sentences contain 7 arguments against altering female genitalia, each indicated in italics. But note that each argument is really an attempt to frame the issue so as to push an emotional button, triggering seven different flashes of intuition in the listener. Rhetoric is the art of pushing the ever-evaluating mind over to the side the speaker wants it to be on, and affective flashes do most of the pushing.

Link 4: The Social Persuasion Link

            There are, however, means of persuasion that don’t involve giving reasons of any kind. The most dramatic studies in social psychology are the classic studies showing just how easily the power of the situation can make people do and say extraordinary things. Some of these studies show obedience without persuasion (e.g., Milgram’s [1963] “shock” experiments); some show conformity without persuasion (e.g., Asch’s [1956] line-length experiments). But many show persuasion. Particularly when there is ambiguity about what is happening, people look to others to help them interpret what is going on, and what they should think about what is going on. Sherif (1935) asked people to guess at how far a point of light was moving, back and forth. On this purely perceptual task, people were strongly influenced by their partner’s ratings. Latane and Darley (1970) put people into ambiguous situations where action was probably – but not definitely – called for, and the presence of another person who was unresponsive influenced people’s interpretations of and responses to potential emergencies. In study after classic study, people adjust their beliefs to fit with the beliefs of others, not just because they assume others have useful information, but largely for the simple reason that they interact with these others, or even merely expect to interact (Darley & Berscheid, 1967). Recent findings on the “chameleon effect” show that people will automatically and unconsciously mimic the postures, mannerisms, and facial expressions of their interaction partners, and that such mimicry leads the other person to like the mimicker more (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999).

            Human beings are almost unique among mammals in being “ultrasocial” – that is, living in very large and highly cooperative groups of thousands of individuals, as bees and ants do (Richerson & Boyd, 1998). The only other ultrasocial mammals are the naked mole rats of East Africa, but they, like the bees and the ants, accomplish their ultrasociality by all being siblings and reaping the benefits of kin altruism. Only human beings cooperate widely and intensely with non-kin, and we do it in part through a set of social psychological adaptations that make us extremely sensitive to and influenceable by what other people think and feel. We have an intense need to belong and to fit in (Baumeister & Leary, 1995), and our moral judgments are strongly shaped by what others in our “parish” believe, even when they don’t give us any reasons for their beliefs. Link 4, the social persuasion link, captures this automatic unconscious influence process.

            These four links form the core of the social intuitionist model. The core of the model gives moral reasoning a causal role in moral judgment, but only when reasoning runs through other people. If moral reasoning is “transforming information to reach a moral judgment,” and if this process proceeds in steps such as searching for evidence and then weighing the evidence, then a pair of people discussing a moral issue meets the definition of reasoning. Reasoning, even good reasoning, can emerge from a dyad even when each member of the dyad is thinking intuitively and reasoning post-hoc. As long as people are at least a little bit responsive to the reasons provided by their partners, there is the possibility that the pair will reach new and better conclusions than either could have on her own. People are very bad at questioning their own initial assumptions and judgments, but in moral discourse other people do this for us. To repeat: moral judgment should be studied as a social process, and in a social context moral reasoning matters.

            Can a person ever engage in open-minded, non-post-hoc moral reasoning in private? Yes. The loop described by the first 4 links in the SIM is intended to capture the great majority of moral judgments made by the great majority of people. But many people can point to times in their lives when they changed their minds on a moral issue just from mulling the matter over by themselves, or to dilemmas that were so well balanced that they had to reason things out. Two additional links are included to account for these cases, hypothesized to occur somewhat rarely outside of highly specialized subcultures such as that of philosophy, which provides years of training in unnatural modes of human thought.

Link 5: The Reasoned Judgment Link

            People may at times reason their way to a judgment by sheer force of logic, overriding their initial intuition. In such cases reasoning truly is causal, and cannot be said to be the “slave of the passions.” However such reasoning is hypothesized to be rare, occurring primarily in cases in which the initial intuition is weak and processing capacity is high. In cases where the reasoned judgment conflicts with a strong intuitive judgment a person will have a “dual attitude” (Wilson, Lindsey, & Schooler, 2000) in which the reasoned judgment may be expressed verbally, yet the intuitive judgment continues to exist under the surface, discoverable by implicit measures such as the implicit association test (Greenwald, McGhee, & Schwartz, 1998) .

            Philosophers have long tried to derive coherent and consistent moral systems by reasoning out from first principles. However when these reasoned moral systems violate people’s other moral intuitions the systems are usually rejected or resisted. For example, Peter Singer’s (1979) approach to bioethical questions is consistent and humane in striving to minimize the suffering of sentient beings, but it leads to the logical conclusion that the life of a healthy chimpanzee deserves greater protection than that of an acephalic human infant who will never have consciousness. Singer’s work is a paragon of reasoned judgment, but because his conclusions conflict with many people’s inaccessible and unrevisable moral intuitions about the sanctity of human life, Singer is sometimes attacked by political activists and compared, absurdly, to the Nazis. (See also Derek Parfit’s [1984] “repugnant conclusion” that we should populate the world much more fully, and Kant’s (1785/1959) conclusion that one should not tell a lie to save the life of an innocent person.)

Link 6: The Private Reflection Link

            In the course of thinking about a situation a person may spontaneously activate a new intuition that contradicts the initial intuitive judgment. The most widely discussed method of triggering new intuitions is role taking (Selman, 1971). Simply by putting yourself into the shoes of another person you may instantly feel pain, sympathy, or other vicarious emotional responses. This is one of the principle pathways of moral reflection according to Piaget, Kohlberg, and other cognitive developmentalists. A person comes to see an issue or dilemma from more than one side and thereby experiences multiple competing intuitions. The final judgment may be determined either by going with the strongest intuition, or by using reasoning to weigh pros and cons or to apply a rule or principle (e.g., one might think “honesty is the best policy.”). This pathway amounts to having an inner dialogue with oneself (Tappan, 1997), obviating the need for a discourse partner. Is this really reasoning? As long as part of the process occurs in steps, in consciousness, it meets the definition given above for moral reasoning. However all cases of moral reasoning probably involve a great deal of intuitive processing. William James described the interplay of reason and intuition in private deliberations as follows:

Reason, per se, can inhibit no impulses; the only thing that can neutralize an impulse is an impulse the other way. Reason may, however, make an inference which will excite the imagination so as to set loose the impulse the other way; and thus, though the animal richest in reason might also be the animal richest in instinctive impulses, too, he would never seem the fatal automaton which a merely instinctive animal would be. (quoted in Ridley, 2004, p. 39)

James suggests that what feels to us like reasoning is really a way of helping intuition (impulse, instinct) to do its job well: we consider various issues and entailments of a decision and, in the process, allow ourselves to feel our way to the best answer using a combination of conscious and unconscious, affective and “rational” processes. This view fits the findings of Damasio (1994) that reasoning, when stripped of affective input, becomes inept. Reasoning requires affective channeling mechanisms. The private reflection link describes this process, in which conflicts get worked out in a person’s mind without the benefit of social interaction. It is a kind of reasoning (it involves at least two steps), yet it is not the kind of reasoning described by Kohlberg and the rationalists.

            Private reflection is necessary whenever intuitions conflict, or in those rare cases where a person has no intuition at all (such as on some public policy issues where one simply does not know enough to have an opinion). Conflicting intuitions may be fairly common, particularly in moral judgment problems that are designed specifically to be dilemmas. Greene (this volume), for example, discusses the “crying baby” problem, in which if you do not smother your child, the child’s cries will alert the enemy soldiers searching the house, which will lead in turn to the deaths of you, your child, and the other townspeople hiding in the basement. Gut feelings say “no, don’t kill the child,” yet as soon as one leans toward making the “no” response, one must deal with the consequence that the choice leads to death for many people, including the baby. Greene’s fMRI data show that, in these difficult cases in particular, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is active, indicating “cooler” reasoning processes at work. But does a slow “yes” response indicate the victory of the sort of reasoning a philosopher would respect over dumb emotional processes? We think such cases are rather the paradigm of the sort of affective reasoning that James and Damasio described: there is indeed a conflict between potential responses, and additional areas of the brain become active to help resolve this conflict, but ultimately the person decides based on a feeling of rightness, rather than a deduction of some kind.

            If you would like to feel these affective channeling mechanisms in action, just look at slavery in the American South from a slaveholder’s point of view; look at Auschwitz from Hitler’s point of view; or look at the 9/11 attacks from Bin Laden’s point of view. There are at least a few supportive reasons on the “other” side in each case, but it will probably cause you pain to examine those reasons and weigh the pros and cons. It is as though our moral deliberations are structured by the sorts of invisible fences that keep suburban dogs from straying over property lines, giving them an electric shock each time they get too near a border. If you are able to rise to this challenge, if you are able to honestly examine the moral arguments in favor of slavery and genocide (along with the much stronger arguments against them), then you are likely to be either a psychopath or a philosopher. Philosophers are one of the only groups that have been found spontaneously to look for reasons on both sides of a question (Kuhn, 1991); they excel at examining ideas “dispassionately.”

Question 3: Why Should You Believe Us?
            Our most general claim is that the action in morality is in the intuitions, not in reasoning. Our more specific claim is that the SIM captures the interaction between intuition, judgment, and reasoning. What is the evidence for these claims? In this section we briefly summarize the findings from relevant empirical studies.

Moral Judgment Interviews
            In the 1980s a debate arose between Elliot Turiel (1983), who said that the moral domain is universally limited to issues of harm, rights, and justice, and Richard Shweder (Shweder, Mahapatra, and Miller, 1987), who said that the moral domain is variable across cultures. Shweder et al. (1987) showed that in Orissa, India, the moral domain includes many issues related to food, clothing, sex roles, and other practices Turiel would label as social conventions. However Turiel, Killen, & Helwig (1987) argued that most of Shweder’s research vignettes contained harm, once you understand how Indians construed the violations.

            Haidt, Koller, and Dias (1993) set out to resolve this debate by using a class of stories that had not previously been used: harmless taboo violations. They created a set of stories that would cause an immediate affective reaction in people, but that upon reflection would be seen to be harmless and unrelated to issues of rights or justice. For example a family eats its pet dog after the dog was killed by a car; a woman cuts up an old flag to create rags with which to clean her toilet; a man uses a chicken carcass for masturbation, and afterwards he cooks and eats the carcass. These stories were presented to 12 groups of subjects (360 people in all) during interviews modeled after Turiel (1983). Half of the subjects were adults, half were children (ages 10-12; they did not receive the chicken story); half were of high social class, half of low; and they were residents of 3 cities: Recife, Brazil, Porto Alegre, Brazil, and Philadelphia, USA. The basic finding was that the high social class adult groups, which were composed of college students, conformed well to Turiel’s predictions. They treated harmless taboo violations as strange and perhaps disgusting, but not morally wrong. They said, for example, that such behaviors would not be wrong in another culture where they was widely practiced. The other groups, however, showed the broader moral domain that Shweder had described. They overwhelmingly said that these actions were wrong and universally wrong, even as they explicitly stated that nobody was harmed. They treated these acts as moral violations, and they justified their condemnation not by pointing to victims, but by pointing to disgust or disrespect, or else by pointing simply to norms and rules (“you just don’t have sex with a chicken!”) College students largely limited themselves to a mode of ethical discourse that Shweder et al. (1997) later called the “ethics of automony” (judgments relating to issues of harm, rights, and justice), while the other groups showed a much broader moral domain including the “ethics of community” (issues of respect, duty, hierarchy, and group obligation) and to a lesser extent the “ethics of divinity” (issues of purity, sanctity, and recognition of divinity in each person).

            While conducting these interviews, however, Haidt noticed an interesting phenomenon: most subjects gave their initial evaluations almost instantly, but then some struggled to find a supporting reason. For example, a subject might say, hesitantly, “it’s wrong to eat your dog because…. you might get sick.” When the interviewer pointed out that the dog meat was fully cooked and so posed no more risk of illness than any other meat, subjects rarely changed their minds. Rather, they searched harder for additional reasons, sometimes laughing and confessing that they could not explain themselves. Haidt & Hersh (2001) noticed the same thing in a replication study that asked political liberals and conservatives to judge a series of harmless sexual behaviors, including various forms of masturbation, homosexuality, and consensual incest. Haidt and Hersh called this state of puzzled inability to justify a moral conviction “moral dumbfounding.”

            We (Haidt, Bjorklund, & Murphy, 2005) brought moral dumbfounding into the lab to examine it more closely. In study 1 we gave subjects 5 tasks: Kohlberg’s Heinz dilemma (should Heinz steal a drug to save his wife’s life?), which is known to elicit moral reasoning; two harmless taboo violations (consensual adult sibling incest, and harmless cannibalism of an unclaimed corpse in a pathology lab), and two behavioral tasks that were designed to elicit strong gut feelings: a request to sip a glass of apple juice into which a sterilized dead cockroach had just been dipped, and a request to sign a piece of paper that purported to sell the subject’s soul to the experimenter for $2 (the form explicitly said that it was not a binding contract, and the subject was told she could rip up the form immediately after signing it). The experimenter presented each task and then played devil’s advocate, arguing against anything the subject said. The key question was whether subjects would behave like (idealized) scientists, looking for the truth and using reasoning to reach their judgments, or whether they would behave like lawyers, committed from the start to one side and then searching only for evidence to support that side, as the SIM suggests.

            Results showed that on the Heinz dilemma people did seem to use some reasoning, and they were somewhat responsive to the counterarguments given by the experimenter. (Remember the social side of the SIM: people are responsive to reasoning from another person when they do not have a strong countervailing intuition). But responses to the two harmless taboo violations were more similar to responses on the two behavioral tasks: very quick judgment was followed by a search for supporting reasons only; when these reasons were stripped away by the experimenter, few subjects changed their minds, even though many confessed that they could not explain the reasons for their decisions. In study 2 we repeated the basic design while exposing half of the subjects to a cognitive load – an attention task that took up some of their conscious mental workspace – and found that this load increased the level of moral dumbfounding without changing subjects’ judgments or their level of persuadability .

Manipulating Intuitions
            In other studies we have directly manipulated the strength of moral intuitions without changing the facts being judged, to test the prediction that Link 1 (intuitive judgment) directly causes, or at least influences, moral judgments. Wheatley and Haidt (2005) hypnotized one group of subjects to feel a flash of disgust whenever they read the word “take”; another group was hypnotized to feel disgust at the word “often.” Subjects then read 6 moral judgment stories, each of which included either the word “take” or the word “often.” Only highly hypnotizable subjects who were amnesic for the post-hypnotic suggestion were used. In two studies, the flash of disgust that subjects felt while reading 3 of their 6 stories made their moral judgments more severe. In study 2, a seventh story was included in which there was no violation whatsoever, to test the limits of the phenomenon: “”Dan is a student council representative at his school. This semester he is in charge of scheduling discussions about academic issues. He [tries to take] topics that appeal to both professors and students in order to stimulate discussion.” We predicted that with no violation of any kind, subjects would be forced to override their feelings of disgust, and most did. But one third of all subjects who encountered their disgust word in the story still rated Dan’s actions as somewhat morally wrong, and several made up post-hoc confabulations reminiscent of Gazzaniga’s findings. One subject justified his condemnation of Dan by writing “it just seems like he’s up to something.” Another wrote that Dan seemed like a “popularity seeking snob.” These cases provide vivid examples of reason playing its role as slave to the passions.

            In another experiment, Bjorklund and Haidt (in preparation) asked subjects to make moral judgments of norm violation scenarios that involved disgusting features. In order to manipulate the strength of the intuitive judgment made in Link 1, one group of subjects got a version of the scenarios where the disgusting features were vividly described, and another group got a version where they were not vividly described. Subjects who got scenarios with vividly described disgust made stronger moral judgments, even though the disgusting features were morally irrelevant.

            Another way of inducing irrelevant disgust is to alter the environment in which people make moral judgments. Schnall, Haidt, and Clore (2005) asked subjects to make moral judgments while seated either at a clean and neat desk, or at a dirty desk with fast food wrappers and dirty tissues strewn about. The dirty desk was assumed to induce low-level feelings of disgust and avoidance motivations. Results showed that the dirty desk did make moral judgments more severe, but only for those subjects who had scored in the upper half of a scale measuring “private body consciousness,” which means the general tendency to be aware of bodily states and feelings such as hunger and discomfort. For people who habitually listen to their bodies, extraneous feelings of disgust did affect moral judgment.

Neuroscientific Evidence
            A great deal of neuroscience research supports the idea that flashes of affect are essential for moral judgment (see Greene & Haidt, 2002, for a review). Damasio’s (1994) work on “acquired sociopathy” shows that damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area that integrates affective responses with higher cognition, renders a person morally incompetent, particularly if the damage occurs in childhood (Anderson et al., 1999), suggesting that emotions are necessary for moral learning. When emotion is removed from decision making people do not become hyperlogical and hyperethical; they become unable to feel the rightness and wrongness of simple decisions and judgments. Joshua Greene and his colleagues at Princeton have studied the brains of healthy people making moral judgments while in an fMRI scanner (Greene et al., 2001). They found that the distinctions people make between various classes of moral dilemmas are predicted by whether or not certain brain areas involved in emotional responding are more active. When considering dilemmas with direct physical harm (e.g., pushing one man off of a footbridge to stop a trolley from killing five men), most people have a quick flash of activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and then say that it is not permissible to do this. They make deontological judgments, which they justify with references to rights, or to moral absolutes. When they think about cases where the harm is less direct but the outcome is the same (e.g., throwing a switch to shift the train from killing five to killing one) they have no such flash, and most people choose the utilitarian response.

            Greene (this volume) makes the provocative argument that deontological judgments are really just gut feelings dressed up with fancy sounding justifications. He suggests that such judgments conform closely to the mechanisms described by the SIM. However in cases where people override their gut feelings and choose the utilitarian response, Greene believes that the SIM may fail to capture the causal role of moral reasoning. Greene bases this suggestion on evidence of  “cognitive conflict” in moral judgment (Greene et al., 2004).  For example, people take longer to respond to difficult personal moral dilemmas, such as the crying baby story (described above), than to other types of stories, and when people do choose the utilitarian response to difficult dilemmas they show a late surge of activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (suggesting “cognitive” activity), as well as increased activity in the anterior cingulated cortex (indicating a response conflict).

            We see no contradiction between Greene’s results and the SIM. While some critics erroneously reduce the SIM to the claim that moral reasoning doesn’t happen or doesn’t matter (see Saltzstein and Kasachkoff, 2004), we point out that the SIM says that reasoning happens between people quite often (link 3), and within individuals occasionally (links 5 and 6). Furthermore, the SIM is not about “cognition” and “emotion”; it is about two kinds of cognition: fast intuition (which is sometimes but not always a part of an emotional response) and slow reasoning. Intuitions often conflict, or lead to obviously undesirable outcomes (such as the death of everyone if the crying baby is not smothered) and when they do, the conflict must get resolved somehow. This resolution requires time and the involvement of brain areas that handle response conflict (such as the anterior cingulated cortex). The private reflection link of the SIM is intended to handle exactly these sorts of cases in which a person considers responses beyond the initial intuitive response. According to the definition of reasoning given in the SIM, private reflection is a kind of reasoning – it involves at least two steps carried out in consciousness. However this reasoning is not, we believe, the sort of logical and dispassionate reasoning that philosophers would respect; it is more like the kind of weighing of alternatives in which feelings play a crucial role (as described by James and Damasio, above). Hauser’s finding (this volume) that people usually cannot give a good justification for their responses to certain kinds of trolley problems is consistent with our claim that the process of resolving moral dilemmas and the process of formulating justifications to give to other people are separate processes, even when both can be considered kinds of reasoning.



Question 4: What Exactly Are The Intuitions?

            If we want to rebuild moral psychology on an intuitionist foundation, we had better have a lot more to say about what intuitions are, and about why people have the particular intuitions they have. We look to evolution to answer these questions. One could perfectly well be an empiricist intuitionist – one might believe that children simply develop whatever intuitions or reactions for which they are reinforced; or one might believe that children have a general tendency to take on whatever values they see in their parents, their peers, or the media. Of course social influence is important, and the social links of the SIM are intended to capture such processes. However we see two strong arguments against a fully empiricist approach in which intuitions are entirely learned. The first, pointed out by Tooby, Cosmides, & Barrett (in press), is that children routinely resist parental efforts to get them to care about, value, or desire things. It is just not very easy to shape children, unless one is going with the flow of what they already like. It takes little or no work to get 8 year old children to prefer candy to broccoli, to prefer being liked by their peers to being approved of by adults, or to prefer hitting back to loving their enemies. Socializing the reverse preferences would be difficult or impossible. The resistance of children to arbitrary or unusual socialization has been the downfall of many utopian efforts. Even if a leader can select a group of unusual adults able to believe in universal love while opposing all forms of hatred and jealousy, nobody has ever been able to raise the next generation of children to take on such unnatural beliefs.

            The second argument is that despite the obvious cultural variability of norms and practices, there is a small set of moral intuitions that is easily found in all societies, and even across species. An analogy to cuisine might be useful: human cuisines are cultural products, and each is unique – a set of main ingredients and plant-based flavorings that mark food as familiar and safe (Rozin, 1982). But cuisines are built on top of an evolved sensory system including just five kinds of taste receptors on the tongue, plus a more complex olfactory system. The five kinds of taste buds have obvious adaptive benefits: sweetness indicates fruit and safety; bitterness indicates toxins and danger; glutamate indicates meat. The structure of the human tongue, nose, and brain place constraints on cuisines while leaving plenty of room for creativity. One could even say that the constraints make creativity possible, including the ability to evaluate one meal as better than another.

            Might there be a small set of moral intuitions underlying the enormous diversity of moral “cuisines?” Just such an analogy was made by the Chinese philosopher Mencius 2400 years ago:

There is a common taste for flavor in our mouths, a common sense for sound in our ears, and a common sense of beauty in our eyes. Can it be that in our minds alone we are not alike? What is it that we have in common in our minds? It is the sense of principle and righteousness. The sage is the first to possess what is common in our minds. Therefore moral principles please our minds as beef and mutton and pork please our mouths. (Mencius, quoted in Chan, 1963, p. 56).

Elsewhere Mencius specifies that the roots, or common principles of human morality are to be found in moral feelings such as commiseration, shame, respect, and reverence (Chan, 1963, p. 54).

            Haidt and Joseph (2004) set out to list these common principles a bit more systematically, reviewing five works that were rich in detail about moral systems. Two of the works were written to capture what is universal about human cultures: Donald Brown’s (1991) catalogue “Human Universals,” and Alan Fiske’s (1992) grand integrative theory of the four models of social relations. Two of the works were designed primarily to explain differences across cultures in morality: Schwartz and Bilskey’s (1990) widely used theory of 15 values, and Richard Shweder’s theory of the “big 3″ moral ethics – autonomy, community, and divinity (Shweder et al., 1997). The fifth work was Frans de Waal’s (1996) survey of the roots or precursors of morality in other animals, primarily chimpanzees, Good Natured. We (Haidt & Joseph) simply listed all the cases where some aspect of the social world was said to trigger approval or disapproval; that is, we tried to list all the things that human beings and chimpanzees seem to value or react to in the behavior of others. We then tried to group the elements that were similar into a smaller number of categories, and finally we counted up the number of works (out of 5) that each element appeared in. The winners, showing up clearly in all five works, were harm (a sensitivity to or dislike of signs of pain and suffering in others), reciprocity (a set of emotional responses related to playing tit-for-tat, such as negative responses to those who fail to repay favors), and hierarchy (a set of concerns about navigating status hierarchies, for example anger towards those who fail to display proper signs of deference and respect). We believe these three issues are excellent candidates for being the “taste buds” of the moral domain. In fact, Mencius specifically included emotions related harm (commiseration) and hierarchy (shame, respect, and reverence) as human universals.

            We tried to see how much moral work these three sets of intuitions could do, and found that we could explain most but not nearly all of the moral virtues and concerns that are common in the world’s cultures. There were two additional sets of concerns that were widespread, but that had only been mentioned in three or four of the five works: concerns about purity (related to the emotion of disgust, necessary for explaining why so many moral rules relate to food, sex, menstruation, and the handling of corpses), and concerns about boundaries between ingroup and outgroup[2]. Liberal moral theorists may dismiss these concerns as matters of social convention (for purity practices) or as matters of prejudice and exclusion (for ingroup concerns), but we believe that many or most cultures see matters of purity, chastity, in-group loyalty, and patriotism as legitimate parts of their moral domain.

            We (Haidt, Joseph, and Bjorklund) believe these five sets of intuitions should be seen as the foundations of intuitive ethics. For each one, a clear evolutionary story can be told, and has already been told many times. We hope nobody will find it controversial to suppose that evolution has built in to humans (and to some extent chimpanzees, bonobos, and other social mammals) an emotional sensitivity to issues related to harm/suffering, reciprocity/fairness, hierarchy/social-order, and ingroup/outgroup. The only set of intuitions with no clear precursor in other animals is purity/pollution. But concerns with purity and pollution require the emotion of disgust and its cognitive component of contamination sensitivity, which only human beings older than the age of 7 have fully mastered (Rozin, Fallon, & Augustoni-Ziskind, 1985). We think it is quite sensible to suppose that most of the foundations of human morality are many millions of years old, but that some aspects of human morality have no precursors in other animals.

            Now that we have identified five promising areas or clusters of intuition, how exactly are they encoded in the human mind? There are a great many ways to think about innateness. At the mildest extreme is a general notion of “preparedness,” the claim that animals are prepared (by evolution) to learn some associations more easily than others (Seligman, 1971). For example, rats can more easily learn to associate nausea with a new taste than with a new visual stimulus (Garcia & Koelling, 1966), and monkeys (and humans) can very quickly acquire a fear of snakes from watching another monkey (or human) reacting with fear to a snake, but it is very hard to acquire a fear of flowers by such social learning (Mineka & Cook, 1988). The existence of preparedness as a product of evolution is uncontroversial in psychology. Everyone accepts at least that much writing on the slate at birth. So the mildest version of our theory is that the human mind has been shaped by evolution so that children can very easily be taught or made to care about harm, reciprocity, hierarchy, ingroups, and purity, however they have no innate moral knowledge – just a preparedness to acquire certain kinds of moral knowledge, and a resistance to acquiring other kinds (e.g., that all people should be loved and valued equally).

            At the other extreme is the idea of the massively module mind, championed by evolutionary psychologists such as Pinker (1997) and Cosmides and Tooby (1994). On this view the mind is like a Swiss army knife with many tools, each one an adaptation to “the long-enduring structure of the world.” If every generation of human beings faced the threat of disease from bacteria and parasites that spread by physical touch, minds that had a contamination-sensitivity module built in (i.e., feel disgust towards feces and rotting meat, and also towards anything that touches feces or rotting meat) were more likely to run bodies that went on to leave surviving offspring than minds that had to learn everything from scratch using only domain-general learning processes. As Pinker (2002, p. 192) writes, with characteristic flair: “The sweetness of fruit, the scariness of heights, and the vileness of carrion are fancies of a nervous system that evolved to react to those objects in adaptive ways.”

            Modularity is controversial in cognitive science. Most psychologists accept Fodor’s (1983) claim that many aspects of perceptual and linguistic processing are the output of modules, which are informationally encapsulated special purpose processing mechanisms. Informational encapsulation means that the module works on its own proprietary inputs. Knowledge contained elsewhere in the mind will not affect the output of the module. For example, knowing that two lines are the same length in the Muller-Lyer illusion does not alter the percept that one line is longer. However Fodor himself rejects the idea that much of higher cognition can be understood as the output of modules. On the other hand, Dan Sperber (1994) has pointed out that modules for higher cognition do not need to be as tightly modularized as Fodor’s perceptual modules. All we need to say is that higher cognitive processes are modularized “to some interesting degree,” that is, higher cognition is not one big domain-general cognitive workspace. There can be many bits of mental processing that are to some degree module-like. For example, quick, strong, and automatic rejection of anything that seems like incest suggests the output of an anti-incest module, or modular intuition. (See the work of Debra Lieberman, this volume). Even when the experimenter explains that the brother and sister used two forms of birth control, and that the sister was adopted into the family at age 14, many people still say they have a gut feeling that it is wrong for the siblings to have consensual sex. The output of the module is not fully revisable by other knowledge, even though some people overrule their intuition and say, uneasily, that consensual adult sibling incest is OK.

            We do not know what point on the continuum from simple preparedness to hard and discrete modularity is right, so we tentatively adopt Sperber’s intermediate position that there are a great many bits of mental processing that are modular “to some interesting degree.” (We see no reason to privilege the blank slate side of the continuum as the default or “conservative” side.) Each of our five foundations can be thought of as a module, or set of functionally related modules. We particularly like Sperber’s point that “because cognitive modules are each the result of a different phylogenetic history, there is no reason to expect them all to be built on the same general pattern and elegantly interconnected” (Sperber, 1994, p. 46). We are card-carrying anti-parsimonists. We believe that psychological theories should have the optimum amount of complexity, not the minimum that a theorist can get away with. The history of moral psychology is full of failed attempts to derive all of morality from a single source (e.g., non-contradiction, harm, empathy, or internalization). We think it makes more sense to look at morality as a set of multiple concerns about social life, each one with its own evolutionary history and psychological mechanism. There is not likely to be one unified moral module, or moral organ. (But see Hauser et al., this volume, for the claim that there is.)

Question 5: How Does Morality Develop?

            Once you see morality as grounded in a set of innate moral modules (Sperber modules, not Fodor modules), the next step is to explain how children develop the morality that is particular to their culture, and to themselves. The first of two main tools we need for an intuitionist theory of development is assisted externalization (see Fiske, 1991). The basic idea is that morality, like sexuality or language, is better described as emerging from the child (externalized) on a particular developmental schedule, rather than being placed into the child from outside (internalized) on society’s schedule. However, as with linguistic and sexual development, morality requires guidance and examples from the local culture to externalize and configure itself properly, and children actively seek out role models to guide their development. Each of the five moral modules matures at a different point in development – for example, two-year-olds are sensitive to suffering in people and animals (Zahn-Waxler & Radke-Yarrow, 1982), but they show few concerns for fairness and equal division of resources until some time after the third birthday (Haidt et al., in preparation a), and they do not have a full understanding of purity and contagion until around the age of 7 or 8 (Rozin, Fallon, & Augustoni-Ziskind, 1986). When their minds are ready, children will begin showing concerns about and emotional reactions to various patterns in their social world (e.g., suffering, injustice, moral contamination). These reactions will likely be crude and inappropriate at first, until they learn the application rules for their culture (e.g., share evenly with siblings, but not parents), and until they develop the wisdom and expertise to know how to resolve conflicts among intuitions.

            Take, for example, the game of cooties (Haidt et al., in preparation). All over the United States children play a game from roughly ages 8-10 in which some children are said to have “cooties”, which are a kind of invisible social germ. Cooties reflects three principle concerns: sex segregation (boys think girls have cooties, and vice versa), social popularity (children who are unattractive and of low social status are much more likely to have cooties) and hygiene (children who are physically dirty are more likely to have cooties). Cooties are spread by physical contact, and they are eliminated by receiving a symbolic “cooties shot,” making it clear that cooties relies heavily on children’s intuitions about purity, germs, and disease. Cooties is not supported by society at large or by the media – in fact, adults actively oppose cooties, because the game is often cruel and exclusionary. One might still say that cooties is simply learned from other children and passed on as part of peer culture, the way that Piaget (1965/1932) showed that the game of marbles is passed on. And this is certainly correct. But one must still ask: why do some games persist for decades or centuries while other games (for example, educational games made up by adults) do not get transmitted at all? Cooties, for example, is found in some form in many widely separated cultures (Hirschfeld, 2002; Opie & Opie, 1969).

            The game of cooties is so persistent, stable, and ubiquitous, we believe, because it is a product of the maturation of the purity module. When children acquire the cognitive ability of contamination sensitivity around the age of 7, they begin applying it to their social world. Suddenly, children who are disliked, and the opposite sex in general, come to be felt to be contaminating – their very touch will infect a person with their dislikeable essence. Children’s culture is creative, and children mix in other elements of their experience, such as getting vaccines to prevent disease. But the critical point here is that the cooties game would not exist or get transmitted if not for the purity module; the game is both enabled and constrained by the structure of children’s minds and emotions. The game is a product of assisted externalization as each cohort of children teaches the game to the next, but only when their minds are ready to hold it (see Sperber & Hirschfeld, 2004, on the cognitive foundations of cultural transmission).

            The second crucial tool for an intuitionist theory of moral development is a notion of virtues as constrained social constructions. Virtues are attributes of a person that are to some degree learned or acquired. Philosophers since Aristotle have stressed the importance of habit and practice for the development of virtues, and parents, schools, and religious organizations devote a great deal of effort to the cultivation of virtues in young people. The philosopher Paul Churchland offers an approach to virtue tailored for modern cognitive science. He sees virtues as skills a child develops that help her navigate the complex social world. Virtues are “skills of social perception, social reflection, imagination, and reasoning, and social navigation and manipulation that normal social learning produces” (Churchland, 1998, p.88). Moral character is then “the individual profile of [a person’s] perceptual, reflective, and behavioral skills in the social domain” (Churchland, 1998, p.89).

            Virtues, as sets of culturally ideal skills, clearly vary around the world and across cultures. Even within a single culture, the virtues most highly valued can change over the course of a single generation, as happened in the some parts of the Western world with the so-called “generation gap” of the 1960s. Yet virtues, like gods and ghosts, do not vary wildly or randomly (Boyer, 2001). Lists of focal virtues from around the world usually show a great deal of overlap (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Virtue theorists such as Churchland are often silent on the issue of constraint, suggesting implicitly that whatever virtues a society preaches and reinforces will be the ones that children develop. Yet such a suggestion is an endorsement of equipotentiality, which has been thoroughly discredited in psychology. There is no reason to suppose that every virtue is equally learnable. Virtue theories can be greatly improved – not vitiated – by adding in a theory of constraint. The constraints we suggest are the five moral modules.

            Some virtues seem to grow neatly and simply out of a single module. For example, as long as people have intuitions about harm and suffering, anyone who acts to relieve harm and suffering will trigger feelings of approval. The virtue of kindness is a social construction that a great many cultures have created to recognize, talk about, and reward people who act to relieve suffering. What it means to be kind will vary to some degree across cultures, but there will be a family resemblance among the exemplars. A similar story can be told for virtues such as fairness (for the reciprocity module), self-sacrifice (in-group), respect (hierarchy), and cleanliness (purity). But other virtues are much more complex. Honor, for example, draws heavily upon the hierarchy module in most traditional cultures (honor is about the proper handling of the responsibilities of high rank), combined with elements of reciprocity (an honorable man pays his debts and avenges insults) and purity (honor is pure, and cannot tolerate any stain). But honor is often quite different for women (drawing more heavily on the virtue of chastity, based in the purity module; see Abu-Lughod, 1986 ), and particular notions of honor vary in dramatic yet predictable ways along with the social and economic structure of any given society (e.g., herding versus agricultural cultures, Nisbett & Cohen, 1996). (For more on modules and virtues, see Haidt & Joseph, 2004.)

            Moral development can now be understood as a process in which the externalization of five (or more) innate moral modules meets up with a particular set of socially constructed virtues. There is almost always a close match, because no culture can construct virtues that do not have a reasonable fit with the modules. (To do so is to guarantee that the next generation will alter things, as they do when converting a pidgin language to a creole). Adults assist the externalization of morality by socializing for virtue, but they often overestimate their causal influence because they do not recognize the degree to which they are going with the flow of the child’s natural moral proclivities. Adults may also overestimate their influence because children from middle childhood through adolescence are looking more to their peers for moral attunement than to their parents (Harris, 1995). The social parts of the Social Intuitionist Model call attention to the ways that moral judgments made by children, especially high status children, will spread through peer networks and assist in the externalization of intuitions and the construction of virtues.

            The five modules greatly underspecify the particular form of the virtues and the constellation of virtues that will be most valued. As with cuisine, human moralities are highly variable, but only within the constraints of the evolved mind. One of the most interesting cultural differences is the current “culture war” between liberals and conservatives in the United States and in some other Western cultures. The culture war can be easily analyzed as a split over the legitimacy of the last three modules (Haidt & Graham, 2005). All cultures have virtues and concerns related to harm/suffering and reciprocity/fairness. However cultures are quite variable in the degree to which they construct virtues on top of the ingroup, hierarchy, and purity modules. American liberals in particular seem quite uncomfortable with the outputs of these modules, because they often lead to jingoistic patriotism (ingroup), legitimization of inequality (hierarchy), and rules or practices that treat certain ethnic groups as contagious (purity, as in the segregation laws of the American South). Liberals value tolerance and diversity, and generally want moral regulation limited to rules that protect individuals, particularly the poor and vulnerable, and that safeguard justice, fairness, and equal rights. Conservatives, on the other hand, want a thicker moral world in which many aspects of behavior, including interpersonal relations, sexual relations, and life-or-death decisions are subject to rules that go beyond direct harm and legal rights. Liberals are horrified by what they see as a repressive, hierarchical theocracy that conservatives want to impose on them. Conservatives are horrified by what they see as the “anything goes” moral chaos that liberals have created, which many see as a violation of the will of God, and as a threat to their efforts to instill virtues in their children (Haidt, 2005, ch. 9).

Question 6: Why Do People Vary In Morality?

            If virtues are learned skills of social perception, reflection, and behavior, then the main question for an intuitionist approach to moral personality is to explain why people vary in their virtues. The beginning of the story must surely be innate temperament. The “first law of behavioral genetics” states that “all human behavioral traits are heritable” (Turkheimer, 2000). On just about everything ever measured, from liking for jazz and spicy food to religiosity and political attitudes, monozygotic twins are more similar than are dizygotic twins, and monozygotic twins reared apart are usually almost as similar as those reared together (Bouchard, 2004). Personality traits related to the modules, such as disgust sensitivity (Haidt, McCauley, & Rozin, 1994), or social dominance orientation (which measures liking for hierarchy versus equality; Pratto et al. 1994) are unlikely to be magically free of heritability. The “Big five” trait that is most closely related to politics – openness to experience, on which liberals are high – is also the most highly heritable of the five traits (McCrae, 1996). Almost all personality traits show a frequency distribution that approximates a bell curve, and some people are simply born with brains that are prone to experience stronger intuitions from individual moral modules (Link 1 in Figure 1).

            Learning, practice, and the assistance of adults, peers, and the media then produce a “tuning up” as each child develops the skill set that is her unique pattern of virtues. This tuning up process may lead to further strengthening or weakening of particular modules. Alternatively, individual development might be better described as a broadening or narrowing of the domain of application of a particular module. A moralist is a person who applies moral intuitions and rules much more widely than do other members of his culture, such that moral judgments are produced by seemingly irrelevant cues.

            A major source of individual differences may be that all children are not equally “tuneable.” Some children are more responsive to reward and punishment than others (Kochanska, 1997). Some people tend to use preexisting internal mechanisms for quick interpretation of new information, others have more conservative thresholds and gather more information before coming to a judgment (Lewicki et al., 1997). Children who are less responsive to reward and who do more thinking for themselves can be modeled as being relatively less influenced by the social persuasion link (Link 4 in Figure 1). They may be slower to develop morally, or they may be more independent and less conventional in their final set of virtues. Individual differences in traits related to reasoning ability, such as IQ or need for cognition (Cacioppo & Petty, 1982), would likely make some people better at finding post-hoc arguments for their intuitions (link 2), and at persuading other people via reasoned argument (link 4). Such high-cognition people might also be more responsive themselves to reasoned argument, and also better able to engage in reasoning that contradicts their own initial intuitions (links 5 and 6).

            A big question in moral personality is the question of behavior: Why do some people act ethically and others less so? Much of modern social psychology is a warning that the causes of behavior should not be sought primarily in the dispositions (or virtues) of individuals (Ross & Nisbett, 1991). John Doris (2002) has even argued that the underappreciated power of situations is a fatal blow for virtue theories. However we believe such concerns are greatly overstated. The only conception of virtue ruled out by modern social psychology is one in which virtues are global tendencies to act in certain ways (e.g., courageous, kind, chaste) regardless of context. That is the position that Walter Mischel (1968) effectively demolished, showing instead that people are consistent across time within specific settings. Our conception of virtue as a set of skills needed to navigate the social world explicitly includes a sensitivity to context as part of the skill. One reason it takes so long to develop virtues is that they are not simple rules for global behavior. They are finely tuned automatic (intuitive) reactions to complex social situations. They are a kind of expertise.

            However even with that said, it is still striking that people so often fail to act in accordance with virtues that they believe they have. The SIM can easily explain such failures. Recall the Robert Wright quote that the brain is “a machine for winning arguments.” People are extraordinarily good at finding reasons to do the things they want to do, for non-moral reasons, and then mounting a public relations campaign to justify their actions in moral terms. Kurzban and Aktipis (in press) recently surveyed the literature on self-presentation to argue that the modularity of the human mind allows people to tolerate massive inconsistencies between their private beliefs, public statements, and overt behaviors. Hypocrisy is an inevitable outcome of human mental architecture, as is the blindness to one’s own hypocrisy.

Unresolved Questions

            The social intuitionist model is a new theory, though it has very old roots. It seems to handle many aspects of morality quite easily, however it has not yet been proven to be the correct or most powerful theory of morality. Many questions remain; much new evidence is needed before a final verdict can be rendered in the debate between empiricist, rationalist, and moral sense theories. Here we list some of those questions.

1) What is the ecological distribution of types of moral judgment? The SIM claims that people  make the great majority of their moral judgments using quick intuitive responses, but that sometimes, not often, people reject their initial intuition after a process of “private reflection” (or, even more rarely, directly reasoned judgment). Rationalist theorists claim that true private moral reasoning is common (Pizarro & Bloom, 2003). An experience sampling or diary study of moral judgment in daily life would be helpful in settling the issue. If moral reasoning in search of truth (with conscious examination of at least one reason on both sides, even when the person has an interest in the outcome) were found to happen in most people on a daily basis, the SIM would need to be altered. If, on the other hand, moral judgments occur several or dozens of times a day for most people, with “cognitive conflicts” or overridden intuitions occurring in less than, say, 5% of all judgments, then the SIM would be correct in saying that private moral reasoning is possible but rare.

2) What are the causes of moral persuasion and change? The SIM posits two links – the reasoned persuasion link and the social persuasion link. These links are similar to the central and peripheral processes of Petty and Caccioppo’s (1986) elaboration-likelihood model of persuasion, so a great deal of extant research can be applied directly to the moral domain. However there are reasons to think that persuasion may work differently for moral issues. Skitka (2002) has shown that when people have a “moral mandate” – when they think they are defending an important moral issue – they behave differently, and are more willing to justify improper behavior, than when they have no moral mandate. Further research is needed on moral persuasion.

3) Are all intuitions externalized? We believe the most important ones are, but it is possible that some intuitions are just moral principles that were once learned consciously and now have become automatic. There is no innate knowledge of shoe-tying, but after a few thousand times the act becomes automatic and even somewhat hidden from conscious introspection. Might some moral principles be the same? We do not believe that the intuitions we have talked about can be explained in this way – after all, were you ever explicitly told not to have sex with your siblings? But perhaps some can. Is it possible to create a moral intuition from scratch which does not rely on any of the five intuitive foundations, and then get people to really care about it? (An example might be the judgment we have seen in some academic circles that groups, teams, or clubs that happen to be ethnically homogeneous are bad, while ethnic diversity is, in and of itself, good.)

4) Is there a sensitive period for learning moral virtues? Haidt (2001) suggested that the period when the frontal cortex is myelinating, from roughly ages 7 through 15 or so, might be a sensitive period when a culture’s morality is most easily learned. At present there is only one study available on this question (Minoura, 1992).

5) Can people improve their moral reasoning? And if they did, would it matter? It is undoubtedly true that children can be taught to think better about any domain in which they are given new tools and months of practice using those tools. But programs that teach thinking usually find little or no transfer outside of the classroom (Nickerson, 1994). And even if transfer were found for some thinking skills, the SIM predicts that such improvements would wither away when faced with self-interest and strong gut feelings. (It might even be the case that improved reasoning skills improves people’s ability to justify whatever they want to do.) A good test of rationalist models versus the SIM would be to design a character education program in which one group receives training in moral reasoning, the other receives emotional experiences that tune up moral sensitivity and intuition, with guidance from a teacher or older student. Which program would have a greater impact on subsequent behavior?

Philosophical Implications

            The social intuitionist model draws heavily on the work of philosophers (Hume, Gibbard, Aristotle), and we think it can give back to philosophy as well. There is an increasing recognition among philosophers that there is no firewall between philosophy and psychology, and that philosophical work is often improved when it is based on psychologically realistic assumptions (Flanagan, 1991). The social intuitionist model is intended to be a statement of the most important facts about moral psychology. Here we list six implications that this model may have for moral philosophy.

1) Moral truths are anthropocentric truths. On the story we have told, all cultures create virtues constrained by the five moral modules. Moral facts are evaluated with respect to the virtues based in these underlying intuitions. When people make moral claims they are pointing to moral facts outside of themselves – they intend to say that an act is in fact wrong, not just that they disapprove of it. If there is a non-trivial sense in which acts are in fact wrong, then subjectivist theories are wrong too. On our account, moral facts exist, but not as objective facts which would be true for any rational creature anywhere in the universe. Moral facts are facts only with respect to a community of human beings that have created them, a community of creatures that share a “particular fabric and constitution,“ as Hume said. We believe that moral truths are what David Wiggins (1987) calls “anthropocentric truths,” for they are true only with respect to the kinds of creatures that human beings happen to be. Judgments about morality have the same status as judgments about humor, beauty, and good writing. Some people really are funnier, more beautiful, and more talented than others, and we expect to find some agreement within our culture, or at least our parish, on such judgments. We expect less agreement (but still more than chance) with people in other cultures, who have a slightly different fabric and constitution. We would expect intelligent creatures from another planet to show little agreement with us on questions of humor, beauty, good writing, or morality. (However, to the extent that their evolutionary history was similar to our own, including processes of kin selection and reciprocal altruism, we would expect to find at least some similarity on some moral values and intuitions.)

2) The naturalistic imperative: All ought statements must be grounded, eventually, in an is statement. If moral facts are anthropocentric facts then it follows that normative ethics can not be done in a vacuum, applicable to any rational creature anywhere in the universe. All ethical statements should be marked with an asterisk, and the asterisk refers down to a statement of the speaker’s implicit understanding of human nature as it is developed within his culture. Of course, the kind of is-to-ought statements that Hume and Moore warned against are still problematic (e.g., “men are bigger than women so men ought to rule women”). But there is another class of is-to-ought statements that works, e.g., “Sheila is the mother of a four year old boy, so Sheila ought*[3] to keep her guns out of his reach.” This conclusion does not follow logically from its premise, but it is instantly understood (and probably endorsed) by any human being who is in full possession of the anthropocentric moral facts of our culture. If Greene (this volume) is correct in his analysis of the psychological origins of deontological statements, then even meta-ethical work must be marked with an asterisk, referring down to a particular understanding of human nature and moral psychology. When not properly grounded, entire schools of meta-ethics can be invalidated by empirical discoveries, as Greene may have done.

3) Monistic theories are likely to be wrong. If there are many independent sources of moral value (i.e., the five modules), then moral theories that value only one source and set to zero all others are likely to produce psychologically unrealistic systems that most people will reject. Traditional utilitarianism, for example, does an admirable job of maximizing moral goods derived from the suffering module. But it often runs afoul of moral goods derived from the reciprocity module (e.g., rights), to say nothing of its violations of the ingroup module (why treat outsiders equal to insiders?) the hierarchy module (it respects no tradition or authority that demands anti-utilitarian practices), and the purity module (spiritual pollution is discounted as superstition). A Kantian or Rawlsian approach might do an admirable job of developing intuitions about fairness and justice, but each would violate many other virtues and ignore many other moral goods. An adequate normative ethical theory should be pluralistic, even if that introduces endless difficulties in reconciling conflicting sources of value. (Remember, we are antiparsimonists. We do not believe there is any particular honor in creating a one-principle moral system.) Of course, a broad enough consequentialism can acknowledge the plurality of sources of value within a particular culture, and then set about maximizing the total. Our approach may be useful to such consequentialists, who generally seem to focus on goods derived from the first two modules only (that is, the “liberal” modules of harm and reciprocity).

4) Relativistic and skeptical theories go too far. Meta-ethical moral relativists say that “there are no objectively sound procedures for justifying one moral code or one set of moral judgments as against another”(Neilsen, 1967). If relativism is taken as a claim that no one code can be proven superior to all others then it is correct, for given the variation in human minds and cultures there can be no one moral code that is right for all people, places, and times. A good moral theory should therefore be pluralistic in a second sense in stating that there are multiple valid moral systems (Shweder & Haidt, 1993; Shweder et al., 1997). Relativists and skeptics often go further, however, and say that no one code can be judged superior to any other code, but we think this is wrong. If moral truths are anthropocentric truths, then moral systems can be judged on the degree to which they violate important moral truths held by members of that society. For example, the moral system of Southern White slave holders radically violated the values and wants of a large proportion of the people involved. The system was imposed by force, against the victims’ will. In contrast, many Muslim societies place women in roles that outrage some egalitarian Westerners, but that the great majority within the culture – including the majority of women – endorse. A well-formed moral system is one that is endorsed by the great majority of its members, even those who appear, from the outside, to be its victims. An additional test would be to see how robust the endorsement is. If Muslim women quickly reject their society when they learn of alternatives, the system is not well-formed. If they pity women in America or think that American ways are immoral, then their system is robust against the presentation of alternatives.

5) The methods of philosophical inquiry may be tainted. If the SIM is right and moral reasoning is usually post-hoc rationalization, then moral philosophers who think they are reasoning their way impartially to conclusions may often be incorrect. Even if philosophers are better than most people at reasoning, a moment’s reflection by practicing philosophers should bring to mind many cases where another philosopher was clearly motivated to reach a conclusion, and was just being clever in making up reasons to support her already-made-up mind. A further moment of reflection should point out the hypocrisy in assuming that it is only other philosophers who do this, not oneself. The practice of moral philosophy may be improved by an explicit acknowledgment of the difficulties and biases involved in moral reasoning. As Greene (this volume) has shown, flashes of emotion followed by post-hoc reasoning about rights may be the unrecognized basis of  deontological approaches to moral philosophy.


            When the social intuitionist model was first published (Haidt, 2001), some people thought the model had threatening implications for human dignity. They thought the model implied that people are dumb and morality is fixed by genes, so there is no possibility of moral progress. The model does state that moral reasoning is less trustworthy than many people think, so reasoning is not a firm enough foundation upon which to ground a theory – normative or descriptive – of human morality. But the alternative to reason is not chaos, it is intuition. Intuitive and automatic processes are much smarter than many people realize (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999; Gladwell, 2005). Intuitions guide the development of culture-specific virtues. A fully enculturated person is a virtuous person. A virtuous person really cares about things that happen in the world, even when they do not affect her directly, and she will sometimes take action, even when it does not seem rational to do so, to make the world a better place. We believe that social intuitionism offers a portrait of human morality that is just as flattering as that offered by rationalism, yet much more true to life.


We thank Cate, Birtley, Josh Greene, Ben Shear, and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong for helpful comments on earlier drafts.


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[1] Haidt (2001) had defined moral intuition as “the sudden appearance in consciousness of a moral judgment”, thereby conflating the intuition, the judgment, and Link 1 into a single psychological event, obviating any need for the link. We thank Walter Sinnott-Armstrong for pointing out this error and its solution.
[2] Haidt and Joseph (2004) talked about only the first four moral modules, referring to the ingroup module only in a footnote stating that there were likely to be many more than four moral modules. In a subsequent publication (Haidt & Joseph, in press) we realized that ingroup concerns were not just a branch of hierarchy concerns, and had  to be considered equivalent to the first four.
[3] *It is an anthropocentric fact that motherhood requires loving and caring for one’s children. There could be intelligent species for whom this is not true.