Monday, March 28, 2011

Emotions, moral intuitions, moral education and character

One of the great hazards of maintaining a blog and attendant blogroll, is that sometimes you miss something in your blogroll ya' should have seen. Then you have one of your handful of regulars chastise you for not a-noticin' the blam durn thing. Never mind that the blog-roll is enormous and I'm going to miss stuff due to its size. That's no matter. And, I have to put up with it because this guy feeds me good stuff I can always rely on for posts. But you know, sometimes it takes a good deal of work to read and react. (Rasafrasin' Rick Rasterly!)


Case in point. This wiki-source informed me that Small Wars Journal a great resource on the blogroll recently had an article concerning ethics education in the Army by Michael C. Sevcik an instructor at the School for Command Preparation, US Army Command & General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth. So, following directions, I take a look.

The article makes use of Jonathan Haidt's work. He is proprietor of this fascinating and ongoing piece of moral psychological research, that I’ve linked to before. As well he is the guy responsible for this amusing must watch talk on the social science world's 'epistemic closure' or lack of self awareness vis-a-vis its predominant political leanings. I've been a noticin' this feller for some time, he's a maverick.

Not only that but the article has a good liberal dash of references to western philosophy thrown in (love the section title "Aristotle, Kant, John Stuart Mill and rest of the bums" hilarious) to give it some spice. Ari (aka “The Philosopher”, AKA “the The Ohio State of philosophers,” at least according to Aquinas) makes an appearance as does Kant (the Rorschach ink-blot of Enlightenment philosophers) and J.S. Mill (unhappy Utilitarian and friend of the libertarians)

So, darn it, guess I’d better write something about this. Here goes:

What’s the paper’s thesis. It relies on the psychological work of Haidt (and others to numerous to mention), and is stated thusly by Col. Sevcik:

The Army’s approach to morality and ethics, like many in behavioral psychology, wrongly assumes that changing our Soldier’s ability to reason morally and ethically is a credible approach building moral character and integrity. Why – the short answer “emotion.” This article reveals insights into emotion, why emotion subtly controls the ability to make moral and ethical judgments and finally sheds light on why our Army’s institutional and unit training approach to morality, ethics and values has had such miserable success.


The main points in the article:

1. Emotions or intuitions are the primary source of our moral evaluations. [Consider this term “evaluation” to be the genus. Conscious reasoning generates judgments (a species of the just mentioned genus) and has little or no influence on moral intuitions or emotions.]

2. For this reason, any training or education undertaken with the hope of improving the ethical behavior of human beings should concentrate on the emotions, and/or intuitions.

3. Sevcik argues that this is a project more in line with the virtue ethics tradition handed down from The Philosopher, his mentor Plato, and his mentor, the always pestering Socrates, via the Stoics (and some other folks). In short, we should concentrate on formation of character.

4. This project will put less emphasis on reasoning and argumentation. In fact, the failure that Sevcik perceives in Army ethics training/education is directly attributable to unbalanced emphasis, too heavy a reliance upon conscious ethical argumentation and deliberation concerning or revolving around case studies. He calls this the ‘quandaries approach’ and finds it seriously lacking.

The basic idea seems to be that a discussion based approach, presenting ‘quandaries’ or dilemmas for examination via ethical conceptual apparatus, doesn’t have much of an impact on the emotional and intuitional apparatus of individuals, and should therefore be de-emphasized in ethics education/training. So, what can be said about these points? Several things I think. Taking the four points one at a time:

1. One wonders how cleanly we can cleave emotions from intuitions, especially if you believe they are very tightly connected. That may not be all that important. What is clear though, about moral intuitions as well as at least some emotions, is that they have at their core evaluations, that is, something like assessments of the impact of acts, persons, or personality traits upon things of value. Consider a simple case:

Sean Connery sees Frank Nitty kill an innocent paper vendor on the street corner because the man did not pay Nitty his ‘protection fee.’ What is the initial reaction? (Connery has no fear for himself, so don’t even bring that up.) His first reaction is anger. He is indignant. Why? He has perceived the killing of a man, the loss of something of value; that person.

Many emotions are like that. They have this ‘evaluative’ component at the core. Grief is essentially pain at loss of valued persons. Joy is brought about when something of value has been attained by someone of value (self or significant others). Now, it is more obvious that moral judgments, and moral reasoning are evaluative, in the more straightforward and literal sense of that term. What is more, they more often than not, have to do with the very same set of objects and concerns that our emotions and intuitions have reference to. Referring to the second of Haidt’s diagrams that appears in the article (the “social intuitionist model”), we see this graphically represented:



Using the case of Connery again: He sees the killing (the ‘eliciting situation’). This generates the nearly instantaneous emotion/intuition, and an equally quick evaluation [I’m here departing from the terminology of the chart, since it confuses species (judgment) with genus (evaluation)]. Only after this evaluation occurs does conscious reasoning set in, represented by the second arrow. This will generate a conscious and verbalized ‘backing’ for the evaluation. If we want, we can call this argument, and the verbalized evaluation it now supports an act of judgment.

According to Sevcik, conscious reasoning is like a lawyer for hire, in that it essentially rationalizes post hoc, the deliverances of the non-conscious moral evaluations that come before them. This hearkens back to Hume’s notion of reason being a servant to “the passions.”

Notice some things here: If we look at the social intuitionist model again, we see that it includes another person, labeled “B”. This reflects the results of Haidt’s research (and others) that our social setting (peers, authority figures, friends, colleagues, associates, bosses, family, party, faction, religious sect, club & etc.) has tremendous influence on our moral evaluations. (Not shown here is the related fact that this sort of influence is also exercised over our ability to act in accord with moral evaluations or judgments. Social influences can either diminish or enhance this ‘moral action’ phase). (See the Zimbardo or Milgrim experiments for examples for cases of diminishment).

The model shows that there can be influence across individuals, and relatively strong influence, to boot. Black arrows in the diagram denote strong influence. Key here to the thesis of the paper (and I think somewhat in conflict with it) is the fact that arrow 3, which represents ‘reasoned persuasion’ from person to person, is black. Note too that the arrow begins at the oval marked “A’s Reasoning” and ends at “B’s Intuition.” So, it would appear, contrary to the stated thesis, that at least with regard to inter-subjective reality, reasoning can have a strong influence on emotions and intuitions, the bedrock motivator and source of moral evaluations.

Once again, psychological research would seem to confirm this. Consider a combination of arrow #3 style “reasoned persuasion” and arrow #4 style “social persuasion” (which we can presume is not so much argumentative persuasion as exercise of influence by other means, for instance, by virtue of being an authority figure in a chain of command, or in an educational institution, or being an overall cool dude whose opinions matter to others). That can have a powerful influence on the “B”s of the world.

To consider our Frank Nitty case again: Now we see Sean Connery and the Chris Farley “remember when…” interviewer guy character are on that street corner. Both see the shooting. Assume Farley doesn’t initially have a strong reaction, but Connery does. Not only that, he employs some high falutin’ arguments to impress upon Foley the gravity of the crime they have witnessed. Chances are Foley will be strongly influenced, and changed by this. Why? Because he is very primed to be ‘imprinted’ by Connery. (Cool dude explanation.) More generally speaking we are all primed in this way, because we are in a deep way, social animals (just like The Philosopher says).

So, it would seem extended discussions of quandaries, dilemmas, or cases, could very well have profound influence on emotional first responses, and moral intuitions, if they are carried out well, and by influential people. This should really come as no great surprise. Often, works of fiction can elicit very strong reactions, and elicit changes in moral outlook. There is no a-priori reason to assume that a good case study cannot do something similar. In fact, we can imagine highly effective cinematic case studies, as emotionally powerful as the best dramatic films, but involving the active participation of audience members, the films being tailored by educators to effect powerful changes in outlook, or sensitivity to the moral import of the situations portrayed.

Now, things are different, according to the Haidt graphic, when it comes to the influence reasoned persuasion has on A’s own moral intuitions and emotions. They are weakly influenced, by his own internal dialogue yet, still influenced. We see dotted lines, not solid lines. One might contest this. but at least the diagram does not leave it a logical impossibility.

Be that as it may, the fact that emotions, moral intuitions, and conscious moral judgments are all evaluative, and usually concern themselves with the same universe of objects or concerns, it would seem to be the case that emotions can influence conscious moral judgment, AND conscious moral judgment can influence emotions and intuitions. In terms of Haidt’s model, this is to be expected, especially in the inter-subjective realm.

This leads to a response in regard to the secondof Sevcik’s points: 2. In order to have an effect on moral character, traditional modes of education should not dispense with reasoned persuasion, or case studies. Rather, such case studies will allow people of influence to place students in the shoes of folks that have dealt with trying situations, and allow them to become aware of the influences these folks had to contend with, and the reasons there were for taking the various options open to them. If we were to largely forswear such means, then you have to ask what other modes of character formation should be used.

At this point in the paper Sevcik references Aristotle and the Stoics but the recommendations are thin. What non-rational means do these schools of thought suggest?

Aristotle talks a lot about habituation. So too do the Stoics. They do focus on perseverance in the face of pressure as habituating virtue. Courage is a primary virtue for both Aristotle and Epictetus. They most assuredly want to inculcate courage. How do they suggest we go about this?

Well, even though they talk about habituation, they are not talking about something like simple conditioning. The project of habituation according to these men, is not carried out sans reasoned argumentation.

Aristotle would have us habituate to what he calls ‘the mean.’ In discussing the virtues he delineates the mean by reference to careful and rational reflection on appropriate emotional and practical reactions to situations. He wants us to act as someone who has had the luxury of rational reflection on his options would act. We have this nice quote from The Philosopher in regard to anger:

Anybody can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.


We are to ask and answer the corresponding questions, for all the virtues, and for all social situations, and the attendant emotional reactions we are likely to have in them. We are to ask these questions with regard to our possible actions in such situations. By asking these questions, and deliberating upon them, (as Aristotle most assuredly did with his students), we can figure out where the mean lies, where virtue lies, AND we can prime ourselves to better handle the hurly-burly of the world.

We can also use the result of these sorts of conversations to set up non-rational means of persuasion for kids, and those unable to use their reason. But, key to all this, SOMEONE or rather, more than one, has to be thinking very deliberately about these things to get the ball rolling. So, (using the terminology in the graphic), ‘reasoned persuasion’ is very much a part of the formation of character, according to Ari (the The Ohio State of Philosophy), and cannot be dispensed with. What about the Stoics?

The Stoics employ a good amount of argumentation to convince us of the truth of their world view. In fact, we see, in his Discourses, Epictetus making repeated use of what are in effect case studies, in order to get his students to see things aright, respond aright with regard to their emotions and evaluations. He places them in situations, if only hypothetically, to prepare them for being in those situations, (or situations very like them), once they have left his tutelage. (Even Aristotle does like things.)

Epictetus applies principles, argues for them, based on psychological and metaphysical premises. So use of reason, and case studies of a sort are very much a part of his arsenal.

It is in fact hard to ascertain just what character formation worthy of human beings would consist of without admitting that it must at some level acknowledge that argumentation, and case studies be a part of the process.

I surmise that Sevcik would not disagree, but would contend that far too much emphasis is being placed upon classroom discussion of relatively sterile case studies. I suspect he is right in this, and there seem to be two possible responses:

First: The case studies need to become as engaging as Aristotle saw contemporary tragedies to be; emotionally compelling and cathartic. To the extent that they meet this standard they make great impression, while also getting us to think critically about the ethical impact of our actions or situations. It would greatly facilitate engagement if they were also interactive, and choices impacted the course of the case studies. [Well produced interactive movies are a way to do this. Imagine, if you will, a film like Schindler’s list, but interactive, yourself in the role of Schindler. The impact would be large. Something like this is not out of the question in literature as well. Once again, imagine a reading of a quality novel (something like Kite Runner, True Grit perhaps) with carefully crafted scenarios within which the reader must choose, affecting the consequent train of events, this all being a part of an ethics course.]

Literature and movies can do a great deal to mimic the full subjective quality of experiences that case studies are usually unable to mimic due to the usual brevity and paucity of detail with which they are presented. But, that is not so much a fault of the case study method per se as it is the case study writers. This is fixable.

Second: Ethics educators/trainers need to mix in a greater proportion of taking the paternal hand off the bicycle seat when dealing with their charges. Aristotle and Epictetus would concur. We learn most effectively by doing. We form actual character traits by doing, by reacting to real situations, with real risks and real rewards. That means those in authority will have to take risks. Now, having said this, it is still advisable to have the classroom element. You don’t want to throw swimmers in the deep end without any preparation. That is foolish.

This all really answers Sevcik’s points # 3 and 4. Character formation need not be considered as being something apart from careful deliberative case study.

In short, Sevcik's is a very interesting article, making use of some very interesting psychological investigations, and it is thought provoking as this far too long post demonstrates.

Now maybe my Wiki-source will leave me alone for a day or two.