Short Review. J. Haidt. The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment.

Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review. 108, 814-834

Theses

  • Haidt’s social intuitionist approach offers a descriptive theory of moral judgements, drawing on the findings of neuroscience to posit a greater role for the emotions than, or so Haidt maintains, they have previously been afforded.
  • A series of thought experiments concerning  societal taboos (incest, bestiality etc) finds that they result in what he terms moral dumbfounding – the attractive and ‘intuitively’ appealing idea that in some ethical discussions we reach a point where we run out of reasons, that an action is simply ‘wrong’. Haidt posits that “moral intuition is a kind of cognition, but it is not a kind of reasoning”.
  • For Haidt, the majority of reasoning is post hoc i.e. we have an intuition and then we seek to rationalize it. Haidt draws on the findings of neuroscience (particularly Damasio) to show that the ventro-medial area of the prefrontal cortex effectively houses these moral intuitions.
  • Haidt explains the existence of these intuitions as the result of enculturation experienced during a critical period of mental development. Morality then, for Haidt, is “an evolutionary adaptation for an intensely social species…that is best described as emergent than as learned”.
  • The importance of the dog/tail metaphor is not to be underestimated – for Haidt, we are essentially emotional dogs who only communicate ‘rationally’ via our tails (dogs use their tails to communicate the majority of their emotions) but it is our emotional body which causes the tail to wag.

Commentary

  • Haidt, however, fails to address the issue of non-conformists who reject the enculturated values which stem from their society. As a result, it is hard to see how he can explain the actions of those who reject the enculturated morality yet do something ‘right’.
  • Furthermore, the prefrontal cortex findings have subsequently been questioned by other researchers and Haidt also fails to address the possibility that intuitions may be previously stored rational judgments. In much the same way as language is learned, an initial stage of focused attention or rational ‘learning’ leads to linguistics knowledge passing from short term to long term memory and becoming internalized, so too could rational judgments become intuitions.
  • The examples of moral dumbfounding that he offers could be explained by the fact that they are all societal taboos – prior reasoning has dictated that they are wrong and they have subsequently become encoded.
  • Finally, Haidt seems to confuse reasoning with rationalizing, the latter being what he calls post hoc reasoning.
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