The Significance of Blind Spots in Moral Reasoning
In a book published earlier this year, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, NYU Professor Jonathan Haidt proposes that humans as a group share many fundamental ethical intuitions with one another, to an extent not fully captured by the existing political and religious landscape. Specifically, Haidt suggests, among other things, that many moral disagreements reflect differences in cognitive processes that occur after we have had our initial gut reactions to moral dilemmas, and that the initial reactions themselves do not differ as much between distinct groups of people.
Significant moral clashes surround the current divide between the two men running for President of the United States—clashes over abortion, same-sex marriage, guns, the environment, government spending on the indigent, affirmative action, and the list goes on. Haidt’s book thus has great potential relevance for helping us understand, and perhaps address, the impasse that divides so-called “red state” and “blue state” Americans. Becoming more conscious of the reasoning process through which we arrive at ethical conclusions about the issues of the day could help people reach across the aisle more effectively.
In this column, I will critically examine Haidt’s discussion of two hypothetical stories with which he begins his book, stories meant to trigger our (and his research subjects’) moral intuitions, and to shed light on the nature of existing moral divisions. I will focus on a blind spot that compromises the utility of at least one and possibly both of the two stories that Haidt tells. I will then focus on the analysis that Haidt supplies, offering a critique of that analysis that I hope will encourage all of us to aim for greater conscious awareness in our own moral decisionmaking. Unstated assumptions—whether in the writings of a moral psychologist or in the choices we make in the real world—impede our ability to act in an informed and coherent way that reflects our own values about right and wrong.
A Dog, a Chicken, and the Liberal/Conservative Divide
Haidt begins the first chapter of The Righteous Mind by introducing readers to two hypothetical scenarios, saying, at the start of the first narrative, “I’m going to tell you a brief story. Pause after you read it and decide whether the people in the story did anything morally wrong.” He continues:
“A family’s dog was killed by a car in front of their house. They had heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog’s body and cooked it and ate it for dinner. Nobody saw them do this….”
Haidt follows the first story with a second and, he suggests, “more challenging” story:
“A man goes to the supermarket once a week and buys a chicken. But before cooking the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he cooks it and eats it.”
After each scenario, Haidt offers an analysis of how his research subjects (and readers of his book) are likely to think about the two scenarios. Of the first (dog-eating-family) scenario, he says,
“If you are like most of the well-educated people in my studies, you felt an initial flash of disgust, but you hesitated before saying the family had done anything morally wrong. After all, the dog was dead already, so they didn’t hurt it, right? And it was their dog, so they had a right to do what they wanted with the carcass, no? If I pushed you to make a judgment, odds are you’d give me a nuanced answer, something like ‘Well, I think it’s disgusting, and I think they should have just buried the dog, but I wouldn’t say it was morally wrong.’”
For the second (sex-with-chicken-carcass) story, he elaborates,
“Once again, no harm, nobody else knows, and, like the dog-eating family, it involves a kind of recycling that is—as some of my research subjects pointed out—an efficient use of natural resources. But now the disgust is so much stronger, and the action just seems so … degrading. Does that make it wrong? If you’re an educated and politically liberal Westerner, you’ll probably give another nuanced answer, one that acknowledges the man’s right to do what he wants, as long as he doesn’t hurt anyone.
“But if you are not a liberal or libertarian Westerner, you probably think it’s wrong—morally wrong—for someone to have sex with a chicken carcass and then eat it. For you, as for most people on the planet, morality is broad. Some actions are wrong even though they don’t hurt anyone.”
In other parts of the book, Haidt further explores differences between people who may all begin with moral disgust in response to various hypothetical stories, but only some of whom will ultimately refrain from passing moral judgment on the actions that triggered that disgust.
Haidt’s Analysis of People’s Reactions to the Two Scenarios
Haidt assumes, in both of the two scenarios offered, that a strong commitment to the narrow, liberal/libertarian view of morality—one that limits the scope of immorality to the infliction of harm—would require us to refrain from condemning the actions of the hypothetical characters in the stories. To condemn these actions is, according to Haidt, to apply a broad view of morality in which harmless conduct can nonetheless be “wrong” or immoral. Later in the book, Haidt supplies other hypothetical scenarios to further illustrate this idea, including a scenario in which two adult siblings have sexual intercourse with each other, using contraception, tell no one about the act, and never do it again. Though this particular act of incest would trigger disgust in most of us, liberals are hard-pressed to explain how the behavior described could be “immoral,” given that it harms no one. Haidt makes an important contribution in publicizing and engaging his readers in examining this conflict (between gut-level moral impulses and reasoned moral conclusions) that liberals and libertarians face, and that traditionalists have been able to avoid.
Returning to the two scenarios at the start of his book, the dog-eating family and the chicken-carcass-copulating man, Haidt takes for granted that however unappetizing their actions, the behavior of the family and the individual in the scenarios is actually harmless. The problem, however, is that the actions in question may not, in fact, be as harmless as Haidt supposes. One could, in other words, be a committed liberal or libertarian and still believe, consistent with that commitment, that the second—and perhaps even the first—of the two scenarios contains immoral, wrongful, and harmful conduct.
Haidt’s Blind Spot
To explain why I regard the two scenarios as flawed, I will offer two hypothetical examples that involve human, rather than nonhuman, animals as the objects of the activities at issue. Aside from changing this feature of each scenario, I shall try to remain as faithful as possible—with some embellishment for the sake of clarity—to the original narratives.
Consider the case of a family, in which there is a mother, a father, an eleven-year-old son, and a four-year-old foster child. The parents were hoping to adopt the foster child, because no other adults have shown any interest in having anything to do with her, and all three other family members have grown to care about the child in the three years during which she has shared their home.
One afternoon, the foster child unexpectedly runs out into traffic just as a truck comes barreling down the street. The truck runs over the child and instantly kills her, leaving the family grieving the loss. As the family thinks about its predicament, however, the father remembers reading that barbecued human flesh is delicious, and he tells this to his wife and son. The family decides to cook the flesh of the now-dead foster child and eat it. Assume that no one else witnesses the family’s conduct and that it violates no law.
Now consider a second example. A man has come to make his home in a village where the people practice cannibalism, and where the market in human flesh is both legal and thriving. The man enjoys eating human flesh, and goes to the market to get more every week. One day, he visits the local store to buy the fresh corpse of a young human being, planning to cook and eat it. Upon arriving home, however, the man finds himself sexually attracted to the corpse and decides to have intercourse with it before cooking and eating it.
As in the dog and chicken scenarios, the question is whether the people in these examples do something wrong in acting on their impulses, respectively, to eat the body of the foster child, and to have sex with the body of the human whose flesh was purchased for consumption.
I think it is safe to say that virtually all readers will have an immediate response of deep disgust to both of these two scenarios, and would feel inclined to judge the behavior described in them as wrongful, at least as a pre-reflective matter. Would liberals, libertarians, and conservatives differ in their reactions? I doubt it.
But is it nonetheless clear that a liberal or libertarian could not ultimately condemn the behavior in either of the two scenarios without abandoning the harm principle (the notion that to be immoral, an act must cause harm) and without treating her moral impulses as an unreflective guide to right and wrong?
Or could a liberal or libertarian genuinely reach a reflective equilibrium, as John Rawls described the outcome of a process of using moral impulses as a starting point (but not an endpoint) for deliberation over right and wrong, that still condemns the child-eating family, or the human-carcass-copulating cannibal?
The First of My Hypotheticals: Eating the Child
In the first case, it is clear—as it is in the case of the dog-eating family—that the family does not hurt the child in question. The child is incapable of being harmed, because she has already died. Her death, moreover, was not the fault of the family, and therefore, we cannot fairly consider its consumption of her flesh the enjoyment of ill-gotten gains (the way we might, for example, if the family had killed her through negligence or otherwise culpable conduct and then eaten her remains).
Yet, I would suggest that our disgust reaction to the family’s eating its foster child could be more than simply disgust at the prospect of cannibalism. It also may be reflect our judgment that if the family had truly loved this child and held her in high esteem, then—barring conditions of starvation—the family would not consider consuming her flesh, no matter what the father had heard about the deliciousness of human meat. This fact, to be sure, may be culturally-contingent. There have been cultures in our history that consumed the flesh of their dead, without thereby indicating any disrespect. This is not, however, true of modern cultures. Eating someone’s corpse would now seem to show contempt and indifference toward the one who was killed.
Given that consuming someone’s flesh appears inconsistent with feelings of respect and affection, the family members’ willingness to consume the foster child’s body appears to manifest a reprehensible attitude toward someone they supposedly loved when she was alive. By behaving in this way, moreover, the family teaches the reprehensible attitude to the son (who remains alive). By using the child’s corpse as a food source, then, the family members thereby nurture a destructive impulse in themselves, by giving in to a desire to act disrespectfully toward the dead child. It would be similarly problematic for a modern family to take turns urinating on a deceased child’s corpse, or to ask a taxidermist to convert the corpse into a scarecrow to place on their lawn.
The second hypothetical example I develop provides an even easier case for a negative moral judgment. Unlike in the first example, the man in the second (the human-corpse-copulating-and-consuming man) is not innocent in the death of the humans whose flesh he consumes. His weekly act of purchasing human flesh contributes to demand for this commodity, and it is demand that motivates sellers of the commodity to continue to supply more of it in the future (by slaughtering more humans). This is how a market operates—if there is no demand for human flesh, no one will bother killing people to supply a flesh market. Thus, by acting as a consumer in this market, the man who purchases the corpse bears moral responsibility for complicity in the killings that are necessary to serve his demand for fresh corpses.
Note, in this regard, that one of the reasons Haidt cites for the supposed harmlessness of eating the family dog (in his first scenario) is the fact that “[a]fter all, the dog was dead already, so they didn’t hurt it, right?”
Had the family participated in killing the dog, this would no longer be true, and the moral calculus would change. Like the man who frequents the human-flesh market in his village every week in my second example, the man who goes to the store and buys a dead chicken for his consumption every week in Haidt’s second example likewise bears moral responsibility for contributing to the demand that motivates the slaughter of chickens. It is, accordingly, far from obvious that purchasing and eating the chicken’s corpse is harmless behavior, even apart from the choice to have sexual intercourse with the chicken’s corpse prior to eating it.
To state the point differently, the morally relevant action in the second animal scenario (and in the second human scenario as well) is the act of supporting violence against animals or humans, respectively, by purchasing their slaughtered flesh for consumption. Once we assume, though, as Haidt plainly assumes, that contributing in this way to the slaughter of animals is harmless, then any judgment about the decision to have sex with the corpse becomes a morally impoverished one. It would be akin to asking whether—if we assume that serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer did nothing wrong by murdering his victims—it was nonetheless wrong for him to eat their flesh. The answer may still be yes (for reasons I discuss in connection with the consumption of the foster child, above), but the starting assumption masks and obscures the far more significant moral problem of the murder itself. In this respect, it is like asking, “Apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”
Explaining the Blind Spot That Led to Haidt’s Two Scenarios
It is easy, of course, to see how Haidt managed to miss the moral significance of going to the market to buy a slaughtered chicken corpse. This sort of action is a routine and accepted practice that many of us (perhaps including Haidt himself) never have occasion to question. As a result, Haidt silently presumes the morality of harming animals for food, even as he, at the very same time, tries to probe the contours of our moral intuitions on the subject of doing harmless but disgusting things to animals.
Lessons to Take Away From Professor Haidt’s—and Many Others’—Blind Spot
What can we learn from Professor Haidt’s blind spot? For one thing, we can see in it the blind spot that most of us share, one that allows us to hold in our minds simultaneously (a) the view that it is morally wrong to inflict suffering and death on animals without an extremely compelling reason for doing so, and (b) the view that consuming animal products—products that all result from the infliction of suffering and slaughter on animals—is a “harmless” act. It is from this “moral schizophrenia”—a term coined by my friend and former colleague, Professor Gary Francione—that flawed hypothetical scenarios like the chicken one arise.
If our immediate reaction to the consumption of animal products is “That’s harmless,” then this could mean that further reflection is warranted, much in the way that liberals and libertarians would insist on further moral reflection in other cases in which their immediate reaction is one of disgust, but reflection shows there to be no harm involved. Differences between those who condone, and those who condemn, the consumption of animal products, then, may demonstrate different “next steps” following an unreflective “I am used to that, so it is okay” reaction that people typically have, rather than reflecting a true divide in moral views.
Subjects in Haidt’s experiments are likely used to eating slaughtered chickens, and unused to eating slaughtered dogs, and that fact undoubtedly plays a significant role in explaining why chicken-eating seems uncontroversially harmless, as well as moral, to Haidt when he describes the second scenario (thus calling for the addition of bestiality and necrophilia to the equation).
Another thing we can learn from the scenarios that Haidt put forward, and from the alternative scenarios I have described here, regarding humans, is the need for all of us—even and especially those of us whose academic work revolves around a particular expertise—to look behind our moral and factual assumptions, and to see whether perhaps there is more to the story than meets the eye. We too have blind spots that can hamper our ability to reflect fully on the moral choices that we and others face every day of our lives.