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The Taste for Being Moral

Vatican Museums/Scala/Art Resource
Raphael: The Judgment of Solomon, circa 1518–1519


Human beings want to understand themselves, and in our time such understanding is pursued on a wide front by the biological, psychological, and social sciences. One of the questions presented by these forms of self-understanding is how to connect them with the actual lives all of us continue to lead, using the faculties and engaging in the activities and relations that are described by scientific theories.

An important example is the universal human phenomenon of morality. Even if we come to accept descriptive theories of the different forms of morality based on evolutionary biology, neuroscience, or developmental and social psychology, each of us also holds specific moral views, makes moral judgments, and governs his conduct and political choices partly on the basis of those attitudes. How do we combine the external descriptive view of ourselves provided by empirical science with the active internal engagement of real life?

This problem is posed and to some extent addressed by Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, and part of the interest of the book lies in its failure to provide a fully coherent response. Haidt is a social psychologist, and he sets out his descriptive theory of the origins and nature of morality and of moral disagreement. But the book’s overall point is partly normative, not just descriptive. Haidt makes definite recommendations of a clearly moral nature, and he seeks to support them with the help of his descriptive findings about morality. These two aspects of the project do not fit easily together.

Haidt’s empirical theory, which he calls “moral foundations theory,” is an example of evolutionary psychology. It is the hypothesis that a set of innate “modules” of moral response were fixed in humans by natural selection, and that these responses, further shaped by cultural evolution in various more specific forms and combinations, underlie the widely divergent moralities that we observe not only across the globe but within pluralistic cultures like that of the United States. Specifically, Haidt argues that group selection—selection for genetic traits whose presence benefited social groups of early humans in competition with other groups, rather than individual selection for traits that enhanced the reproductive success of individuals in competition with other individuals—is responsible for the main moral dispositions. The existence of group selection is a highly contentious issue in evolutionary biology. Haidt defends it in this case on the ground that moral norms can include cheap enforcement mechanisms, such as forms of group pressure, that cancel the genetic advantage for any individual of trying to benefit from the group’s success while not following the norms—free riding, in other words.

Haidt distinguishes six basic types of moral response, which he likens to distinct taste receptors, so that different moralities are like different cuisines in the use they make of these responses. Each type manifests itself through intuitive emotional reactions, positive and negative, to a specific value or its violation, so he gives them double-barreled names: care/harm, liberty/oppression, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Haidt believes that all these responses developed in their basic innate form because they suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperation possible among people who are not close relatives. Individual natural selection can explain psychological traits that benefit the individual and his close kin; but group selection, he argues, is needed to explain those traits that benefit individuals only by sustaining norms that preserve the cohesion of the group.

I will say more about these categories in a moment, but Haidt’s general point is that functioning moralities must draw on these intuitive emotional responses to control behavior, and that reason plays a relatively minor role in morality—often merely as a source of rationalizations for what our gut feelings tell us is right or wrong. The main argument of the book is that the secular liberal moralities found in some sectors of advanced Western societies assign too much importance to reason, and rely on only a subset of the basic responses he describes, whereas conservative moralities, in those societies or elsewhere, get their strength from invoking all of the moral categories equally. This explains what seems to liberals to be the irrational success of conservatism in American culture and politics. Haidt insists that it is wrong for liberals to regard the conservative outlook with contempt, and that they need to broaden the basis of their own moral appeal if they want to increase their influence.

Haidt describes his own research, based on interviews and questionnaires in the US and abroad, about the distribution of different combinations of moral attitudes; he also offers evolutionary speculation, anthropological data, and evidence from brain research and studies of animal behavior. I will not attempt to discuss all this material. The contemporary phenomenon he describes is familiar to any socially conscious resident of the United States, even if the description is not fully accurate. Three of his categories—loyalty, authority, and sanctity (to shorten their double-barreled names)—are very important to conservatives but unimportant or even repellent to most liberals. Loyalty to a group excludes and devalues those outside it; authority suppresses the autonomy of the individual; sanctity (e.g., as a bar to stem cell research, euthanasia, pornography, and flag desecration) postulates values that do not depend on human interests. These norms clash with the concern for individual interests and aspiration to universality that are at the heart of liberalism.

According to Haidt, liberals appeal primarily to the care module, together with a version of liberty that makes it a bar to the oppression of the weak by the powerful. They have a lesser concern for fairness, interpreted by Haidt as a requirement of reward proportional to social contribution—not equality. In other words they ignore half of the possible emotional supports of morality, whereas conservatives care about all six of the basic values. Though liberals often fail to acknowledge it, conservatives don’t care only about sexual morality, religion, and patriotism; but liberals, says Haidt, care only about poverty, civil rights, and civil liberties.

He credits Émile Durkheim with having understood that collective religious and patriotic emotions not only bind people together but give their lives meaning, and enable them to avoid the anomie—rootlessness and lack of norms—that results from an excessive preoccupation with individualistic aims. By contrast, he rejects John Stuart Mill’s identification of morality with the universal advancement of individual interests and the prevention of harm done by one person to another.


Haidt’s evolutionary approach requires that an effectively motivated morality be grounded in dispositions that have been favored by natural selection. Universal, rather than group-centered, dispositions are not plausible candidates for such selection. This leads him to acknowledge only limited forms of the values of care and fairness. Care, he believes, is based on the need for human groups to protect the young during their lengthy period of helplessness; it cannot be naturally generalized to concern for the welfare of all humans, let alone all sentient beings. Fairness he identifies with the principle that participants in a cooperative enterprise should be rewarded in proportion to their contribution, and cheaters and free riders should be punished. He denies that there is any moral interest in equality per se—only an aversion to excessive domination, a particular type of imposed inequality that goes beyond the legitimate hierarchy approved by the functional value of authority.

One of the things missing from this picture is a conception of fairness, important for American liberalism and the European left, that condemns as unfair those hereditary class inequalities that give some people much harder lives than others merely because of the accidents of birth. This is not an interest in equality per se, but an objection to certain social causes of inequality—and not just those causes like racial segregation that are infringements of liberty. There may not be a credible evolutionary explanation for this sense of unfairness, but it is real all the same, and it has motivated the left for some time. Yet such a response is probably too dependent on reasoning and requirements of moral consistency for Haidt to take seriously—just like the extension of concerns to provide care and avoid harm beyond one’s own community:

It would be nice to believe that we humans were designed to love everyone unconditionally. Nice, but rather unlikely from an evolutionary perspective. Parochial love—love within groups—amplified by similarity, a sense of shared fate, and the suppression of free riders, may be the most we can accomplish.

He urges liberals to respect the varying parochial moralities and religions that they are accustomed to deride as backward or intolerant, and to acknowledge their genuine moral character. However, Haidt insists that he is not a relativist. He has moral views of his own, and presumably this means that he believes that they are true, or at least more likely to be true than the alternatives. But what does it mean, in the light of Haidt’s evolutionary perspective, to believe such a thing, and what grounds might he have for believing it?

What he says is that his descriptive theory of the six types of moral response and their group-preserving function works well “as an adjunct” to normative theories, “particularly those that have often had difficulty seeing groups and social facts.” He himself favors what he calls a “Durkheimian utilitarianism,” which

would be open to the possibility that the binding foundations—Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity—have a crucial role to play in a good society…. When we talk about making laws and implementing public policies in Western democracies that contain some degree of ethnic and moral diversity, then I think there is no compelling alternative to utilitarianism. I think Jeremy Bentham was right that laws and public policies should aim, as a first approximation, to produce the greatest total good. I just want Bentham to read Durkheim…before he tells any of us, or our legislators, how to go about maximizing that total good.

There are two problems about the relation of this view to the six-modules theory. First, utilitarianism itself doesn’t have a plausible foundation in any of them. The closest candidate is care/harm, but the utilitarian principle, which counts everyone’s interests equally and requires that a society aim to maximize the total good, rather than merely protecting the helpless and suppressing intrasocietal aggression, is a huge expansion of the scope of care. It is the kind of principle that could only be based on reasoning of some kind, rather than instinct—even if it is applied only within the bounds of a single society.

Secondly, Haidt’s Durkheimian utilitarianism reduces the values of loyalty, authority, and sanctity to a purely instrumental role. Religion, patriotism, and sexual taboos, for example, have no validity or value in themselves, according to this view; they are merely useful in creating bonds that allow collective achievement of the greatest total good, which utilitarians identify with the satisfaction of individual interests. But can such values and practices as loyalty and authority serve this function if they are seen as purely instrumental? Can they even exist? The purely instrumental, utilitarian endorsement of these “binding” moral attitudes seems essentially that of an outsider, someone who does not share them in their authentic form.

When it comes to discovering factual truth, Haidt is a great believer in reason, especially if it is exercised in the collective practice of mutual criticism characteristic of science. Reason is what allows us to go beyond instinct, intuition, and perception, as well as superstition and myth. But when it comes to normative truth Haidt is distrustful of reason, though he does not rule it out of bounds altogether. His conception of its place in moral thought is obscure (though at one point he suggests that a legislature might function as a site of collective reasoning about public policy). I have no idea what he thinks is going on in his argument for a Durkheimian form of utilitarianism. Is he expressing intuitions that he believes are present in him as the result of biological and cultural evolution? Or is he making a normative claim that takes those intuitions as data but rests on some further moral foundation? Or both?

We cannot ignore innate human instincts and cultural conditioning, but anyone who wants to think seriously about morality must be prepared to evaluate such motives from an independent point of view that is achieved by transcending them. For example, if one wishes to evaluate the various norms of sanctity and pollution, authority and hierarchy that still uphold the subordination of women to men in many societies, it is necessary first to ask whether the interests of men and women should be counted equally in assessing any such norms. If the answer is yes, that is essentially to deny that those norms carry their own intrinsic validity: if they devalue the interests of women, they should be rejected even if they are strongly resistant to being dislodged.

Reflection and argument of this kind have played a significant role in moral reform, but Haidt’s picture of different moralities as composed, like different cuisines, from different blends of the six moral modules, suitably adapted to social circumstances, leaves little room for the pursuit of moral understanding and progress through rational reflection and the search for consistency. Yet this kind of thought is part of moral life, including Haidt’s, and any theory of moral psychology should try to understand it. Social cohesion may be a necessary function of an acceptable morality, but it is not the only one.


One of the main culprits of Haidt’s book, for insisting that morality must be based on reason, not on feelings, is Immanuel Kant. Kant’s influence has been very great, and Haidt believes it has sidetracked philosophers and others from the true path of understanding indicated by his predecessor David Hume, who maintained that reason was always subordinate to feeling or “sentiment” in the control of action, and therefore in morality. But it should be said that Hume’s influence has been equally great, and that contemporary ethical theory continues to be dominated by the disagreement between these two giants.

Michael Rosen’s stimulating and informative Dignity: Its History and Meaning is about a moral idea that is important in Kant’s writings and influence, though Rosen also investigates the history of the concept of dignity before Kant and its place in other systems of thought, such as Catholic moral theology and German constitutional law. Rosen is not a social psychologist but a political theorist, and his investigations are historical, institutional, and textual rather than biological and psychological. Unlike Haidt, he does not propose a general theory of morality. Yet he is trying to understand a particular moral norm that in his reading functions rather like one of Haidt’s moral modules.

Article I of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Article I of the Grundgesetz (Basic Law) of the Federal Republic of Germany reads:

Human dignity is inviolable. To respect it and protect it is the duty of all state power. The German people therefore acknowledge inviolable and inalienable human rights as the basis of every community, of peace and of justice in the world.

The prominence of dignity (Würde) in the German text reflects not only the influence of Kant but the need to exorcise the radically antiuniversal morality of Nazism. Both texts associate dignity with rights, a point Rosen will question.

In the aristocratic past, dignity was associated with high social status. Dignity demanded respect, but it was thought to be possessed not by all human beings, but only by an elevated few. Rosen points out that the reversal of this status hierarchy, so that “the last shall be first,” is an important aspect of Christian social thought. But the conversion of dignity from an exclusive to a universal elevated human status was given its secular form by Kant, whose conception of the moral community is described by John Rawls as “the aristocracy of all.”1

Kant famously held that the only thing that is good in itself and without qualification is a good will—a will that obeys universal laws of morality that it gives to itself. It is in virtue of their capacity for morality—as both the authors and the subjects of the moral law—that humans are ends in themselves and must always be treated as such. As Kant wrote:

Morality is the condition under which alone a rational being can be an end in itself, since only through this is it possible to be a lawgiving member in the kingdom of ends. Hence morality, and humanity insofar as it is capable of morality, is that which alone has dignity.2

We give ourselves the moral law by applying the categorical imperative, whose first formulation (the formula of universal law) is: “Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” But Rosen is primarily concerned with the interpretation of the second formulation (the formula of humanity): “So act that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.”

What is it to treat humanity as an end in itself, and thus to respect the dignity of all human beings? Most interpreters of Kant take both the formula of universal law and the formula of humanity as injunctions to put yourself in other people’s shoes. You are to ask not just “What shall I do?” but “What should anyone in my position do?” and the answer comes from subjecting your conduct to standards acceptable from everyone’s point of view at once, or the points of view of all those affected—suitably idealized and combined.

Setting aside the difficult question whether such a method can yield definite moral requirements, and if so, what they are, this interpretation identifies the core of Kantian morality with some form of equal consideration for all persons, as a limit on the pursuit of one’s own interests—not by maximizing aggregate welfare as utilitarianism requires, but by mandating certain forms of decent treatment of each person individually. But Rosen believes that this way of understanding Kant does not do justice to what he calls the extraordinary “austerity and radicalism” of the theory. Rosen believes that its driving force is not concern for others, but something quite different.


Admirers of Kant have always had difficulty with some of his views that seem impossible to account for according to the humanistic conception I have described. One is his notorious insistence that it is not permissible to tell a lie even to save someone from being murdered. Another is the strict prohibition against suicide, even to escape unbearable suffering. Kant holds that this would violate the requirement to treat one’s humanity as an end, and not merely as a means. But why wouldn’t a person who ends his life to shorten the suffering of a terminal illness be treating himself not merely as a means—by ending his life—but also as an end—to shorten his suffering? If suicide for such a reason is a failure to treat oneself as an end, then Kant must be talking about a very different kind of value, one that cannot be understood as the satisfaction of human interests.

Rosen believes that a value of precisely this kind is expressed in the idea of dignity, and in the final section of the book he explains his understanding of this value, and confirms its independence of human interests, by finding it manifest in yet another example (not taken from Kant), the requirement that the bodies of the dead be treated with respect, indeed with dignity. Some such requirement seems to be recognized by all cultures, and to have strong emotional support. It is not for reasons of public health that we would be appalled if someone ground up a dead relative for dog food. (We are clearly in Haidt’s domain of sanctity/degradation.) Rosen believes this has nothing to do with the interests of the deceased or anyone else. It is just a requirement that we not do certain things to a person’s body after they have died. It is a pure duty, corresponding to no one’s right, and it doesn’t benefit anyone.

Rosen holds that Kant’s doctrine of dignity and of moral beings as ends in themselves is fundamentally a morality of duty—duty in essence to ourselves, to conduct ourselves in certain ways. Even if some of those ways concern the treatment of others, the point is not their benefit, but our conduct. This is an exaggeration, but Rosen makes a persuasive case that it is at least part of the truth. Our duty to treat morality and humanity’s moral nature as an end in itself “consists not in trying to bring that timelessly valuable thing into existence or defending it from destruction (which is both impossible and unnecessary) but in acting in ways that are appropriate toward it.” The distinction between a value that gives us reason to produce more of what has it, like the value of human happiness, and a value that gives us reason to treat what already has it with respect, like the value of human dignity, is an important one. The first might be called benefit-value, the second status-value.

Yet I believe Rosen finds too big a gulf between the two; both are important in Kant’s theory. Rosen rejects the Kantian attempt to base human rights on human dignity, saying rights are better explained by the benefit-value of the human interests that rights protect. But there is an element of pure status—a value that demands respect rather than increase—in the idea of basic rights. That is why a right may not be violated in order to minimize overall violations of rights: one may not murder one innocent person even to save five others from being murdered. On the other hand, Rosen’s “pure duty” reading ignores the fact that Kant’s moral theory explicitly requires us to advance the interests of others as part of the requirement to treat them as ends in themselves: “For the ends of any person, who is an end in himself, must as far as possible also be my end, if that conception of an end in itself is to have its full effect on me.”

Rosen describes the role played by the concept of dignity in contemporary legal argument, often with questionable results. He discusses the French case of Manuel Wackenheim, a dwarf who was prohibited from hiring himself out for dwarf-throwing contests on the ground that this was a violation of his dignity—a judgment upheld by the French Conseil d’É tat, the European Commission on Human Rights, and the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations. Rosen observes correctly that these judgments were based on a confusion between dignity as a moral status and dignity as “dignified” bearing:

Doesn’t being treated with dignity mean that we should have the right to make our own choices about whether to behave with dignity or not? Does the state’s duty to protect “the dignity of the human person” entail that it has the right to prohibit people from choosing to behave in an undignified way?

Rosen is here appealing to a general principle of individual autonomy—something very different from respect for the bodies of the dead. Other violations of dignity may need to be explained by reference to fairness, privacy, the avoidance of humiliation, or bodily integrity. Without such interpretation the concept of dignity as requiring “appropriate” or “respectful” treatment is too vague to determine any definite standards. Rosen’s attempt to redeem it as an independent basis for judgment is finally unconvincing. Here as elsewhere in moral thought, intuition may be an indispensable starting point, but justified confidence about right and wrong requires more.

  1. 1

    John Rawls, Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy, edited by Barbara Herman (Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 211. 

  2. 2

    Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Ak. 4:435. 

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