Archive for the ‘moral intuition’ Category


Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

Government policy makers who force austerity on our country have not learned the economic lessons of history. Much of our sustained economic misery following the great recession of 2008 is not the result of uncontrolled or unexplained forces. Instead it is better explained as self inflicted pain directly resulting from failure both to appreciate lessons learned from past crises and to understand the well documented positive role of government stimulus in helping to restore a strong economy.1

As Paul Krugman points out, a properly stimulated economy allows people to pay down their debts and provides a more firm financial footing to facilitate increased consumer spending. Joseph Stiglitz stresses that government investments in projects like road construction have a high economic return to society. The current Congressional obsession with the deficit and emphasis on budget cutting is guaranteed to sustain self-inflicted austerity.2 Failure to sufficiently stimulate the public sector has resulted in spending cuts across the country that have put thousands of teachers and other public sector workers out of jobs. Much austerity and pain could have been avoided had Congress passed President Obama’s stimulus jobs act of 2011.3

Where did this ill advised emphasis on austerity come from? Partly it can be explained by the influence of the newly elected Tea Party members in the House of Representatives. Another factor is the no new taxes ideology of the “shrink the government” movement led by Grover Norquist. The most ironic influence, perhaps, is seeing “socialist” Europe as a model for undertaking austerity at the time of beginning recovery from recession. As early as 2010 Rep. Kenny Marchant, Texas Republican, said “Europe is already setting an example for the US” and Karl Rove, Republican strategist and former advisor to President George W. Bush,quoted the leader of the European Central Bank as saying “The idea that austerity measures could trigger stagnation is incorrect”. In 2011, Rep. Joe Wilson, South Carolina Republican said “The president should learn a lesson from the ‘German miracle’”. Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, top Republican on the Senate Budget committee said “we need a budget with a bold vision—like those unveiled in Britain and in [the US in the state of] New Jersey”.4

So, what are the results of this imposed austerity in Europe and N.J.? In Europe the overall economy is predicted to shrink this year and have negligible growth next year. Germany expects less than 1% growth this year and Britain’s economy is already contracting. In NJ, since Gov Christie took office in 2010 the state’s unemployment rate rose from 35th to 48th in the nation and it ranked 47th in economic growth this year.  Even the anemic predicted 2% growth rate in the US was cited by the International Monetary Fund, as the only “bright spot” in the West’s economic outlook. So much for the idea that austerity could trigger stagnation. 4 What is more alarming for the US is that, if Gov Romney becomes president and is known to support the Paul Ryan austere and draconian budget for 2013, 5 we could go the way of Europe and NJ.

IPPA strongly believes that further self-inflicted austerity at this time is ill-advised, based on current events and economic history. As well, austerity as being practiced in the US is morally unjustified, because by negatively influencing our economic growth,  the most vulnerable members of our society endure the greatest effect.


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Monday, October 8th, 2012

“Recognizing Conscience in Abortion Provision” is the title of a recent article in The NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL of MEDICINE, by Lisa Harris, M.D., Ph.D. ,  of the University of Michigan Hospitals, Department of Ob-Gyn, and Planned Parenthood of Mid- and South Michigan.1 The author shows that both sides of the abortion debate appeal to a  moral standard to justify the personal and legal positions to which they adhere. If we know what these standards are, we can decide if we want to oppose or support legal legislation that is based on such reasoning. The Republican Party’s 2012 position is, “Faithful to the ‘self-evident’ truths enshrined in the Declaration of Independence we assert the sanctity of human life and assert that the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life…”

IPPA encourages people to refer not only to moral standards or moral beliefs by referring to which they support their positions, but also to go on and to identify the contents of those beliefs. We have been disappointed that in the past many pundits and public figures have justified their positions by appealing to moral mandates and “ethics” without giving them any content. During the 2008 U.S. Presidential campaigns, Hillary Clinton said that “There is a moral imperative to ensure quality affordable health care is available to all Americans.  President Obama’s first economic advisor, Lawrence Summers, said the same thing. The columnist Thomas Friedman said, “We need to re-establish the core balance between our markets, ethics, and regulations.” And the economist and columnist Paul Krugman said that helping the needy through health benefits “is the morally right thing to do; it’s also a far more effective form of economic stimulus than cutting the capital gains tax.” But none of these figures went  on to say what the relevant moral principles are.

To refer at least to the basic parts of one’s beliefs is to strengthen a position; it does the same for an opponent when she does it. It allows the reader or listener to look at a person’s guiding principles, for consistency, relevant co-existing values cited or just implicit, and coherence of the guidelines with human experience.  Do the guidelines appeal to fundamentals daily shared by many humans, or do they require beliefs exclusive to one group of people? Are the guidelines workable in the sense that they do not put unreasonable demands on a person’s basic motives (two of which are, to preserve her own life and to avoid long term suffering)? (more…)


Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

From 1954-57 I was a young officer in the U.S. Navy. I loved the Navy and learned a lot that has served me well throughout my life. Even today I experience visceral awe at the sight of a naval ship—a somewhat sacred icon for me. But I learned something else in the Navy: total faith in the Chain-of-Command, from our President and admirals, right down to me, in all matters of national defense policy. That faith was shattered when, beginning around 1968- 1969 I gradually learned (from journalists and some academics), that Presidents and generals lie (in this case about the Vietnam War). I changed my mind about which moral authorities to trust, and changed my political perspective for the rest of my life. More on this experience later. Let’s get on with how IPPA may help with changing your mind.

First, let us get the history out of the way. What is this “mind”? In the West, until the late 1960s, even in psychological circles, the mind was usually divided into three parts: knowing, feeling, and acting (including motives). To change your mind meant reasoning something through and reaching a different conclusion from your previous one. In 1968 the standard Handbook in Social Psychology1 said, “The question arises of how closely the cognitive, affective, and conative components are related. If all three give approximately the same results, one should perhaps apply Ocam’s razor to reduce conceptual baggage.” [p. 56] The use of MRI and other technology in later decades showed that the aspects of the brain where the activities of these components take place are indeed interconnected. Where there is knowing, there is usually emotion, something the early Chinese Confucian texts also affirmed. So changing the mind involves a lot of emotional activity, which influences the knowing or cognitive parts of the brain. This is especially true when it comes to thinking or judging moral or political matters.

In recent years, the terminology has evolved. Following Daniel Kahneman,2  some people now divide the mind into effortless intuitions (including gut emotional responses), and effortful reasoning. In humans, the pupils of the eyes dilate when people exert mental effort. It takes effort to keep in one’s memory a couple of different ideas needing action. Where there are beliefs and considered choices, there is effort. In contrast, our effortless gut reactions owe much to their evolution in emergencies, as ways of quick survival for humans. They are without effort, not under voluntary control.

Jonathan Haidt goes a step further in The Righteous Mind (Pantheon: 2012). He tries to demonstrate that people cannot change their minds, or “moral foundations,” where those terms refer to effortless moral intuitions. It refers to them, because he says that those intuitions rule reason. Beliefs are simply post-hoc justifications or positions to which the gut intuitions have already led us. So now, the content of “mind” is primarily the ruling sentiments/social emotions/ intuitions, and secondarily, cognition. According to Haidt, one could divide people into two political stances based on the relative strength of certain intuitions: Liberals emote positively about Care, Liberty, and Fairness. Conservatives react primarily about Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity. To repeat, most people cannot change their minds in their moral and political judgments, and their reasoning obeys these intuitions.

Is Haidt right? He has plenty of evidence that it is very difficult to use reasoning to try to change the specific moral intuitions that are dominant in anyone. So, I do not think IPPA’s target should be the very conservative right wing. The “change” we can hope for will not come by that group turning into progressives. The target should be the inactive liberals, and IPPA’s strategies should seek to persuade and push its target audience to decide to do something concrete—like vote, talk to neighbors about the issues, write letters, and donate time or money.  We should select tools for persuasion that appeal to emotionally laden values, including the the ones not cited by Haidt, that I identify below.:. Along with my experience at town meetings in the early 2000’s, Jonathan Haidt has led me to be pretty sure that this approach would be most effective.

Let us consider Haidt’s list of moral intuitions: Care/harm, Fairness as proportionality/cheating, Liberty/oppression, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/ subversion, Sanctity/degradation:

In contrast to his list, I believe there are intuitions shared by many people on both the left and right that he does not even mention. Their presence is important because they may open the door to modifying the sense of disunity between the political left and some who are passive, or even on the moderate right. I was shocked to find that those intuitions that pop first into my mind when I judge something as right or wrong were not also in a prominent place in Haidt’s list. He gives a descriptive account of values/virtues that he and others discovered through experiments. I do not say that his list is inaccurate, just that it is odd not to mention any of the four following intuitions. (more…)


Saturday, April 18th, 2009

“As we look around the world, we are constantly evaluating what we see. Seeing and evaluating are not two separate processes. They are linked and basically simultaneous.” (David Brooks in NYT, April 7, 2009). In doing the evaluating, we rely on moral intuitions that are heavily emotion-based.

For a brief but timely look at the science behind these remarks, you can take a look at David Brooks’ article. In important places his ideas converge with those in some of IPPA’s previous blogs, or, for more details, see Donald Munro’s book, Ethics in Action: Workable Guidelines for Private and Public Choices.

But Brooks’ piece is incomplete, and this is where IPPA’s basic positions fill the gaps. Brooks says that moral judgments are “rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain.” He is right about the involvement of the emotional parts of the brain, but not about limiting moral judgments only to “rapid” gut reactions. Given this stance, he provides no way for the person doing the evaluation to deal with conflicts among her intuitions or between basic intuitive values. This missing piece is flagged in the very title of the article, “The End of Philosophy.”  But people also do need to consider something like either philosophical or theological thought. They would do so in order to identify a standard to which they can refer to make a choice between competing intuitions and judgments. IPPA can help readers find a standard, as well as relevant values
IPPA takes them beyond what they can expect to find in the words of politicians and pundits, who occasionally invoke the word “moral” without any reference to what it is. For example, Paul Krugman cited Franklin Roosevelt’s second inaugural address, “We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics.” And Krugman went on to say, “And right now happens to be one of those times when the converse is also true, and good morals are good economics.” (NYT 11/07/08)

Because the politicians and pundits often don’t give us any content for the term “moral,” readers may want to turn to IPPA for suggestions about that content. After all, in its core statements, IPPA announced, “Policies rooted in our shared human principles serve us better than policies based only on a purely economic model that says material success alone is the best measure of human happiness and well-being…We favor using moral guidance to inform the standard economic model.” IPPA is about content, to use in making moral evaluations. Please see the August 25th IPPA 2008 blog entry, IPPA Introduction and Statement of Intent. Additional IPPA reference material is found under the listing pages in the menu on the right hand side of the home page. Listed there is more information about IPPA and a printable version of IPPA’s core principles.

When there is a conflict of emotionally competing moral choices in your own mind, to what sources would you yourself appeal, in addition to specific information about each alternative choice to help you in justifying the choice you select?

Are the IPPA sources offered helpful?  Could you share with IPPA any additional
sources that you may have found useful?