The Righteous Mind (2012) explores how moral decisions are made, concluding that moral judgments stem from intuitions, not logic. The author draws on his background in social psychology and 25 years of groundbreaking research to explain how morality both binds us and divides us and how religion and politics create conflicting communities of shared morality.
Is it wrong to eat human flesh or copulate with a dead chicken? Most people would instantly and intuitively feel that both actions were somehow wrong.
These kinds of intuitions or “gut feelings” always drive moral decision making. They can be seen especially clearly in infants who have not yet developed a capacity for reason. In one experiment, 6–10-month old infants were shown a puppet show with two puppets: a nice one and a mean one. After watching the show, most infants preferred the “good” puppet. This demonstrates that, to some extent, morality is prompted by intuitions even when the subject is unable to reason.
Furthermore, research shows that these primitive, intuitive moral judgments are also far more potent to adults than rational reasoning. Once that initial moral judgment has been made, we use reasoning to back up, not reject, the judgment. This tendency has been demonstrated in many studies where people were asked to give a moral judgment on a situation and were then questioned about that opinion.
Take, for example, a study where participants were asked whether it is right or wrong for two siblings to have sex. Most people’s initial response was that it is wrong. But then participants were given several rational arguments in its favor: a prophylactic was used, the act was done in secret and the siblings very much enjoyed the experience, so no one was harmed. And yet, despite these rational arguments, most participants clung to their initial verdict. That initial intuition proved stronger than rational reasoning.
When making moral decisions, intuitions come first and reasoning second.