Friday, April 10, 2009

Morality and the herd mentality

David Brooks took an interesting break from writing about politics this week to consider the way in which we make moral judgments. Rather than careful, rational deliberations, he writes, moral judgments
are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain. Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often can’t explain to ourselves why something feels wrong.
These snap moral judgments, he says, have come to be seen as a product of our evolution—over the ages we have evolved to be "successful cooperators" in addition to being inveterate competitors. Ultimately, the cooperative group has often proven more competitive than the fierce individualist. (Take that, Ayn Rand!) Thus, our moral sense grows out of our need to cooperate with one another, and has become a response as much a part of our inner selves as the instincts to breathe, eat, and procreate.

Brooks has been reading Steven Quartz, whose studies of cognition challenge some of the ways that we traditionally look at moral decision-making. If he's right, this cuts two ways. As Brooks sees it, it's a warm and fuzzy bit of evidence that our gut reactions are as likely to be generous and moral as they are to be selfish. That's a comforting thought. On the other hand, it's one of the ways that we get sucked in by irrational appeals. Our moral sense gets offended easily, and a skilled spin doctor can often shape an argument in ways that evoke moral outrage when a calmer, more rational look at the issue might lead us to a different conclusion.

It's one thing to instinctively want to do the right thing. But we can't always trust our instincts about what's right. Sometimes, when all the other members of the herd are about the run off a cliff, it's worth taking a minute to consider whether they've chosen the best direction.