6.5 Entering the Conversa!on: Argument with Research

6.5 Entering the Conversa!on: Argument with Research
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You prepared for this essay by learning about your moral foundation and actively reading, studying, and
responding to Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker’s “The Moral Instinct,” published by the New
York Times in 2008. In a discussion forum we explored his major claim and persuasive appeals. In addition,
you wrote a midterm essay about the effectiveness of Pinker’s persuasive strategies, such as his casual, yet
authoritative (AKA academic) tone; depth and breadth of research; and numerous, illustrative and thoughtprovoking
examples. We can agree that Pinker works hard to explain and illustrate his ideas as well as
those of others. In his essay, Pinker informs, explores and argues—a provocative research paper. Through
exploring the evolution and neurobiological roots of human morality, he comes to the sound conclusion: “Far
from debunking morality, then, the science of the moral sense can advance it, by allowing us to see through
the illusions that evolution and culture have saddled us with and to focus on goals we can share and defend”
(15). Pinker makes the case that unproductive culture wars are the consequence of our misunderstanding of
morality, and that instead of waging moral wars, we should be working to find common ground to improve
One section of Steven Pinker’s “The Moral Instinct” focuses on what he calls the “moralization switch.” He
describes that “moralization is a psychological state that can be turned on and off like a switch and when it is
on, a distinctive mind-set commandeers our thinking” (2), and later that “Much of our recent social history,
including the culture wars between liberals and conservatives, consists of the moralization or amoralization
of particular kinds of behavior” (3). Pinker distinguishes between amoralizing (not good or bad, not caring)
and moralizing (good or bad) through specific examples which represent behaviors. In fact, his example of
smoking is quite effective, as it has been moralized as both good and bad throughout history. Divorce,
illegitimacy [children born out of marriage], being a working mother, marijuana use, and homosexuality are
offered as examples of amoralization (3); while smoking, disposable diapers, poultry farms, Barbie dolls,
human cause of climate change, and human cloning are given as examples of moralization (3).
Certainly, we could add to Pinker’s list of amoralized activities/behaviors (for some, not all, as that is what is
challenging about this paper) with our own examples: tattoos, female and male standards of beauty,
piercing, everyday use of technology, premarital sex, women changing their last name in marriage, gender,
rap, the sexualization of young girls (media, beauty pageants, fashion), and media violence/profanity are just
some of the examples of amoralization for some–remember, this is not true for all, which is why this paper
should be interesting for you.
Our list of moralized (as good or bad) topics attached to behaviors could be much longer: rap, tattoos (yes,
many of these fit in two categories), immigration, feminism, individual and/or corporate welfare, fraternities,
being masculinity, the militarization of police, social movements (such as Black Lives Matter, the New Right,
and ANTIFA), the right to bear arms, institutionalized racism, privilege, Civil War statues, pornography, “Safe
Spaces” in colleges, use of the word “gay” or the n-word, working mothers, graffiti, gaming, factory farming,
the “American Dream,” Vegetarianism and/or Veganism, prescription drugs, fast food, arming teachers,
banning assault rifles, borders, religion, Common Core in K-12 education, artificial intelligence,
homeschooling, editorial cartoons, terrorism, lowering the voting age to 16, the NRA, President Trump,
freedom of speech, paying college athletes, “Mainstream Media,” Fox News, Russian interference in the
U.S. election, affirmative action, selling organs, gerrymandering, the Pledge of Allegiance, polygamy, WalMart,
cell phone use for people under 18, bullying, social media, student loans, Obamacare, even listening
to vinyl records!—the list could go on and on…pretty much every issue (topic over which there is
controversy) is attached to a behavior. You may select from any of these topics or come up with your own,
perhaps one that relates to your major. Now it is time to think deeply, as you will be spending the last two
weeks (a month in a regular semester) on this paper.
Please do not choose the following subjects, not because they are not important, but because I have read
too many essays on them: marijuana, abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, capital punishment, drug
use in sports, and stem cell research.
Now it is time for you to enter the conversation, a culture war, and to apply the skills you have learned in this
course. Instead of evaluating rhetorical appeals, you will be using them to make your own persuasive
For this 500-point, 8-12 page (minimum–may be longer) essay, choose a topic involving a human behavior
that is currently moralized (deemed “good” or “bad”) or amoralized (people seem indifferent, to not care). By
the way, some issues currently are moralized as good, bad AND amoralized–this is why you are entering a
culture war.
One you have selected the issue (aka, the culture war you want to enter), conduct research and write essay
in which you respond to each of the following in whatever order you find most effective:
1. Introduce the topic of your essay in a way that will engage an educated audience. You may, like Pinker,
choose to create a hypothetical situation, or you may begin with an emotional narrative, such as a true
story “ripped from the headlines” or a story you imagine, or you might give a personal anecdote. You
want to grab your reader’s attention and let them know that the argument they are about to read has
real-world consequences. You may want to introduce the different perspectives regarding this argument.
By the way, this is also called establishing “exigency.”
2. Provide context (aka, historical overview) for your topic by presenting research on the history of the
behavior with regards to its moralization and/or amoralization. (A minimum of three sources are
required here.)
3. Construct a major claim in which you agree, disagree, or some combination of both, on the
moralization or amoralization of the behavior, and support your position with persuasive appeals to
reasoning (logos), emotions (pathos), and credibility/character (ethos). Emphasis should be placed on
well-supported appeals to reason. (A minimum of three sources are required here.)
4. Establish the rhetorical situation and build credibility (ethos) with your reader by planting a
“naysayer.” In other words, summarize and respond to (disarm!) at least two counterarguments
(depending on your issue, some of you may need to address more than two). (A minimum of two
sources are required here, and Opposing Viewpoints is a good place to start).
5. Introduce and summarize Steven Pinker’s “The Moral Instinct”(establish his rhetorical situation) and
use at least one of the theories or ideas from his essay to analyze (look at parts) and synthesize (come
to something new based on work with parts) your selected behavior and position. Students seeking an
‘A’ will work closely and critically with Pinker as a lens (https://classroom.synonym.com/write-lens-essay4540.html)
to view their topic, to strengthen and illuminate their argument. For example, you may use one
or two of the moral spheres, which best apply to your issue, to help illustrate why people disagree on the
behavior (the ranking and placement of spheres amongst groups). Other theories and ideas you can
apply include The Moralization Switch, the hallmarks of moralization (universality and punishment),
reciprocal altruism, Jonathan Haidt’s lines of reasoning and rationalizing, cognitive science, genes of
morality, the shudder test, utilitarianism, evolution of moral spheres, alcohol, juggling the spheres,
relativism, biology, religion and other external supports for morality, and doing better by knowing
ourselves. For some of these theories and ideas, especially the ones that are not Pinker’s, you may want
to do additional research. (Pinker is a required source here.)
6. Discuss and give your opinion with regards to the current and future consequencesof the
moralization and/or amoralization of this behavior.
7. Conclude your argument by summarizing your key points, the connections you have made
Argumentative Research Paper (1)
between sources and the significance of these connections, including what has been learned about
the topic and the importance of it. As Pinker did, you may illustrate how your position can help us
perhaps find common ground to improve society–to do better by knowing ourselves (14). You will want
your argument to resonate with your readers, and to, as the editors of They Say I Sayput it, establish “so
what” and “who cares” (92-100).
You have two weeks to construct this essay. You will be sharing your working-major claim/thesis with the
class, evaluating a sample paper written in a previous course, and receiving feedback on your draft from
me. You have significant work to do, but you are more than ready for it.
Academic Integrity
All essays submitted for this assignment will be run through VeriCite Plagiarism Checker. Any form of
plagiarism (as outlined in syllabus) will result in a zero on this assignment and entered into your academic
record, which may result in expulsion from the college. If you are frustrated or confused by the assignment,
please contact me. I am personally invested in your success in this course.
You may incorporate any writing that you have already done in this course (i.e., Pinker summary) into
this paper.
Extensions cannot be given on this essay.
You may not use an essay written for another course.
You may use any of the texts we have read in this class or any of the texts in the back of They Say I
Saywhich categorizes arguments by topics, some of them representing moralized and amoralized
behaviors, such as going to college, racing technology, eating, having an American dream, and
identifying a gender. For example, the American Dream is being moralized as “bad” or “dangerous,” as it
has given false hopes with regards to upper mobilization in this country, that everyone can obtain it if
they work hard.
When quoting sources in Pinker’s essay, MLA requires the following: Philosopher Immanuel Kant spoke
of “the moral law within” (qtd in Pinker 2), which supports my assertion that…”
Do not create a cover page.
You may contact your peers and exchange drafts for peer review; however, no formal peer review of the
entire paper is required.
You may, if you like, include images in your paper. Be sure to mark them and include them in your Works
Cited page. Please do not use images to meet page count.
Total Points: 500.0
Criteria Ratings Pts
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40.0 pts
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80.0 pts
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80.0 pts
1. Topic is introduced and made engaging and relevant (exigency is established)
for an educated audience.
Your purpose should be clear.
2. Context (historical overview) for the topic is clearly and thoroughly provided. A
minimum of three sources utilized.
3. The essay is clearly driven by a well-articulated major claim/thesis and
persuasive appeals to reason and emotion, and with character/credibility, are
successfully employed, with emphasis on well-supported appeals to reason. A
minimum of five sources utilized.
4. The author illustrates understanding of audience and effectively introduces and
disarms one counterargument. A minimum of one source is utilized.
5. Steven Pinker’s “The Moral Instinct” is introduced and summarized, and one of
the theories or ideas in the text is appropriately utilized in analysis to achieve
6. The significance of the current and/or future consequences of the behavior are
powerfully illustrated.
7. The essay is concluded in a thorough and resonate manner.
8. Quotations, paraphrases, and summaries are carefully framed and voice
markers are consistently used to distinguish between the author’s voice and
9. The essay is well organized and transitions are effectively used between ideas
and paragraphs.
10. Mastery of MLA format and style is clearly demonstrated.
11. The essay is a minimum of 8 pages in length (not including Works Cited page)
and free of errors in spelling, punctuation, mechanics, and grammar
Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor of
Psychology at Harvard University and the author of
The Language Instinct and The Stuff of Thought:
Language as a Window Into Human Nature.
The New York Times Magazine
January 13, 2008
The Moral Instinct
by Steven Pinker
Which of the following people would you say is the
most admirable: Mother Teresa, Bill Gates or Norman
Borlaug? And which do you think is the least
admirable? For most people, it’s an easy question.
Mother Teresa, famous for ministering to the poor in
Calcutta, has been beatified by the Vatican, awarded
the Nobel Peace Prize and ranked in an American
poll as the most admired person of the 20th century.
Bill Gates, infamous for giving us the Microsoft
dancing paper clip and the blue screen of death, has
been decapitated in effigy in “I Hate Gates” Web sites
and hit with a pie in the face. As for Norman Borlaug. .
. who the heck is Norman Borlaug?
Yet a deeper look might lead you to rethink your
answers. Borlaug, father of the “Green Revolution”
that used agricultural science to reduce world hunger,
has been credited with saving a billion lives, more
than anyone else in history. Gates, in deciding what to
do with his fortune, crunched the numbers and
determined that he could alleviate the most misery by
fighting everyday scourges in the developing world
like malaria, diarrhea and parasites. Mother Teresa,
for her part, extolled the virtue of suffering and ran her
well-financed missions accordingly: their sick patrons
were offered plenty of prayer but harsh conditions,
few analgesics and dangerously primitive medical
It’s not hard to see why the moral reputations of this
trio should be so out of line with the good they have
done. Mother Teresa was the very embodiment of
saintliness: white-clad, sad-eyed, ascetic and often
photographed with the wretched of the earth. Gates is
a nerd’s nerd and the world’s richest man, as likely to
enter heaven as the proverbial camel squeezing
through the needle’s eye. And Borlaug, now 93, is an
agronomist who has spent his life in labs and
nonprofits, seldom walking onto the media stage, and
hence into our consciousness, at all.
I doubt these examples will persuade anyone to favor
Bill Gates over Mother Teresa for sainthood. But they
show that our heads can be turned by an aura of
sanctity, distracting us from a more objective
reckoning of the actions that make people suffer or
flourish. It seems we may all be vulnerable to moral
illusions the ethical equivalent of the bending lines
that trick the eye on cereal boxes and in psychology
textbooks. Illusions are a favorite tool of perception
scientists for exposing the workings of the five
senses, and of philosophers for shaking people out of
the naïve belief that our minds give us a transparent
window onto the world (since if our eyes can be
fooled by an illusion, why should we trust them at
other times?). Today, a new field is using illusions to
unmask a sixth sense, the moral sense. Moral
intuitions are being drawn out of people in the lab, on
Web sites and in brain scanners, and are being
explained with tools from game theory, neuroscience
and evolutionary biology.
“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing
admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we
reflect on them,” wrote Immanuel Kant, “the starry
heavens above and the moral law within.” These
days, the moral law within is being viewed with
increasing awe, if not always admiration. The human
moral sense turns out to be an organ of considerable
complexity, with quirks that reflect its evolutionary
history and its neurobiological foundations.
These quirks are bound to have implications for the
human predicament. Morality is not just any old topic
in psychology but close to our conception of the
meaning of life. Moral goodness is what gives each of
us the sense that we are worthy human beings. We
seek it in our friends and mates, nurture it in our
children, advance it in our politics and justify it with
our religions. A disrespect for morality is blamed for
everyday sins and history’s worst atrocities. To carry
this weight, the concept of morality would have to be
bigger than any of us and outside all of us.
So dissecting moral intuitions is no small matter. If
morality is a mere trick of the brain, some may fear,
our very grounds for being moral could be eroded. Yet
as we shall see, the science of the moral sense can
instead be seen as a way to strengthen those
grounds, by clarifying what morality is and how it
should steer our actions.
The Moralization Switch
The starting point for appreciating that there is a
distinctive part of our psychology for morality is seeing
how moral judgments differ from other kinds of
opinions we have on how people ought to behave.
Moralization is a psychological state that can be
turned on and off like a switch, and when it is on, a
distinctive mind-set commandeers our thinking. This
is the mind-set that makes us deem actions immoral
(“killing is wrong”), rather than merely disagreeable (“I
hate brussels sprouts”), unfashionable (“bell-bottoms
are out”) or imprudent (“don’t scratch mosquito bites”).
The first hallmark of moralization is that the rules it
invokes are felt to be universal. Prohibitions of rape
and murder, for example, are felt not to be matters of
local custom but to be universally and objectively
warranted. One can easily say, “I don’t like brussels
sprouts, but I don’t care if you eat them,” but no one
would say, “I don’t like killing, but I don’t care if you
murder someone.”
The other hallmark is that people feel that those who
commit immoral acts deserve to be punished. Not
only is it allowable to inflict pain on a person who has
broken a moral rule; it is wrong not to, to “let them get
away with it.” People are thus untroubled in inviting
divine retribution or the power of the state to harm
other people they deem immoral. Bertrand Russell
wrote, “The infliction of cruelty with a good conscience
is a delight to moralists — that is why they invented
We all know what it feels like when the moralization
switch flips inside us — the righteous glow, the
burning dudgeon, the drive to recruit others to the
cause. The psychologist Paul Rozin has studied the
toggle switch by comparing two kinds of people who
engage in the same behavior but with different switch
settings. Health vegetarians avoid meat for practical
reasons, like lowering cholesterol and avoiding toxins.
Moral vegetarians avoid meat for ethical reasons: to
avoid complicity in the suffering of animals. By
investigating their feelings about meat-eating, Rozin
showed that the moral motive sets off a cascade of
opinions. Moral vegetarians are more likely to treat
meat as a contaminant — they refuse, for example, to
eat a bowl of soup into which a drop of beef broth has
fallen. They are more likely to think that other people
ought to be vegetarians, and are more likely to imbue
their dietary habits with other virtues, like believing
that meat avoidance makes people less aggressive
and bestial.
Much of our recent social history, including the culture
wars between liberals and conservatives, consists of
the moralization or amoralization of particular kinds of
behavior. Even when people agree that an outcome is
desirable, they may disagree on whether it should be
treated as a matter of preference and prudence or as
a matter of sin and virtue. Rozin notes, for example,
that smoking has lately been moralized. Until recently,
it was understood that some people didn’t enjoy
smoking or avoided it because it was hazardous to
their health. But with the discovery of the harmful
effects of secondhand smoke, smoking is now treated
as immoral. Smokers are ostracized; images of
people smoking are censored; and entities touched by
smoke are felt to be contaminated (so hotels have not
only nonsmoking rooms but nonsmoking floors). The
desire for retribution has been visited on tobacco
companies, who have been slapped with staggering
“punitive damages.”
At the same time, many behaviors have been
amoralized, switched from moral failings to lifestyle
choices. They include divorce, illegitimacy, being a
working mother, marijuana use and homosexuality.
Many afflictions have been reassigned from payback
for bad choices to unlucky misfortunes. There used to
be people called “bums” and “tramps”; today they are
“homeless.” Drug addiction is a “disease”; syphilis
was rebranded from the price of wanton behavior to a
“sexually transmitted disease” and more recently a
“sexually transmitted infection.”
This wave of amoralization has led the cultural right to
lament that morality itself is under assault, as we see
in the group that anointed itself the Moral Majority. In
fact there seems to be a Law of Conservation of
Moralization, so that as old behaviors are taken out of
the moralized column, new ones are added to it.
Dozens of things that past generations treated as
practical matters are now ethical battlegrounds,
including disposable diapers, I.Q. tests, poultry farms,
Barbie dolls and research on breast cancer. Food
alone has become a minefield, with critics
sermonizing about the size of sodas, the chemistry of
fat, the freedom of chickens, the price of coffee
beans, the species of fish and now the distance the
food has traveled from farm to plate.
Many of these moralizations, like the assault on
smoking, may be understood as practical tactics to
reduce some recently identified harm. But whether an
activity flips our mental switches to the “moral” setting
isn’t just a matter of how much harm it does. We don’t
show contempt to the man who fails to change the
batteries in his smoke alarms or takes his family on a
driving vacation, both of which multiply the risk they
will die in an accident. Driving a gas-guzzling Hummer
is reprehensible, but driving a gas-guzzling old Volvo
is not; eating a Big Mac is unconscionable, but not
imported cheese or crème brûlée. The reason for
these double standards is obvious: people tend to
align their moralization with their own lifestyles.
Reasoning and Rationalizing
It’s not just the content of our moral judgments that is
often questionable, but the way we arrive at them. We
like to think that when we have a conviction, there are
good reasons that drove us to adopt it. That is why an
older approach to moral psychology, led by Jean
Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg, tried to document the
lines of reasoning that guided people to moral
conclusions. But consider these situations, originally
devised by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt:
Julie is traveling in France on summer vacation from
college with her brother Mark. One night they decide
that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making
love. Julie was already taking birth-control pills, but
Mark uses a condom, too, just to be safe. They both
enjoy the sex but decide not to do it again. They keep
the night as a special secret, which makes them feel
closer to each other. What do you think about that —
was it O.K. for them to make love?
A woman is cleaning out her closet and she finds her
old American flag. She doesn’t want the flag anymore,
so she cuts it up into pieces and uses the rags to
clean her bathroom.
A family’s dog is killed by a car in front of their house.
They heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut
up the dog’s body and cook it and eat it for dinner.
Most people immediately declare that these acts are
wrong and then grope to justify why they are wrong.
It’s not so easy. In the case of Julie and Mark, people
raise the possibility of children with birth defects, but
they are reminded that the couple were diligent about
contraception. They suggest that the siblings will be
emotionally hurt, but the story makes it clear that they
weren’t. They submit that the act would offend the
community, but then recall that it was kept a secret.
Eventually many people admit, “I don’t know, I can’t
explain it, I just know it’s wrong.” People don’t
generally engage in moral reasoning, Haidt argues,
but moral rationalization: they begin with the
conclusion, coughed up by an unconscious emotion,
and then work backward to a plausible justification.
The gap between people’s convictions and their
justifications is also on display in the favorite new
sandbox for moral psychologists, a thought
experiment devised by the philosophers Philippa Foot
and Judith Jarvis Thomson called the Trolley
Problem. On your morning walk, you see a trolley car
hurtling down the track, the conductor slumped over
the controls. In the path of the trolley are five men
working on the track, oblivious to the danger. You are
standing at a fork in the track and can pull a lever that
will divert the trolley onto a spur, saving the five men.
Unfortunately, the trolley would then run over a single
worker who is laboring on the spur. Is it permissible to
throw the switch, killing one man to save five? Almost
everyone says “yes.”
Consider now a different scene. You are on a bridge
overlooking the tracks and have spotted the runaway
trolley bearing down on the five workers. Now the only
way to stop the trolley is to throw a heavy object in its
path. And the only heavy object within reach is a fat
man standing next to you. Should you throw the man
off the bridge? Both dilemmas present you with the
option of sacrificing one life to save five, and so, by
the utilitarian standard of what would result in the
greatest good for the greatest number, the two
dilemmas are morally equivalent. But most people
don’t see it that way: though they would pull the
switch in the first dilemma, they would not heave the
fat man in the second. When pressed for a reason,
they can’t come up with anything coherent, though
moral philosophers haven’t had an easy time coming
up with a relevant difference, either.
When psychologists say “most people” they usually
mean “most of the two dozen sophomores who filled
out a questionnaire for beer money.” But in this case it
means most of the 200,000 people from a hundred
countries who shared their intuitions on a Web-based
experiment conducted by the psychologists Fiery
Cushman and Liane Young and the biologist Marc
Hauser. A difference between the acceptability of
switch-pulling and man-heaving, and an inability to
justify the choice, was found in respondents from
Europe, Asia and North and South America; among
men and women, blacks and whites, teenagers and
octogenarians, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists,
Christians, Jews and atheists; people with
elementary-school educations and people with
Joshua Greene, a philosopher and cognitive
neuroscientist, suggests that evolution equipped
people with a revulsion to manhandling an innocent
person. This instinct, he suggests, tends to
overwhelm any utilitarian calculus that would tot up
the lives saved and lost. The impulse against
roughing up a fellow human would explain other
examples in which people abjure killing one to save
many, like euthanizing a hospital patient to harvest his
organs and save five dying patients in need of
transplants, or throwing someone out of a crowded
lifeboat to keep it afloat.
By itself this would be no more than a plausible story,
but Greene teamed up with the cognitive
neuroscientist Jonathan Cohen and several Princeton
colleagues to peer into people’s brains using
functional M.R.I. They sought to find signs of a conflict
between brain areas associated with emotion (the
ones that recoil from harming someone) and areas
dedicated to rational analysis (the ones that calculate
lives lost and saved).
When people pondered the dilemmas that required
killing someone with their bare hands, several
networks in their brains lighted up. One, which
included the medial (inward-facing) parts of the frontal
lobes, has been implicated in emotions about other
people. A second, the dorsolateral (upper and outerfacing)
surface of the frontal lobes, has been
implicated in ongoing mental computation (including
nonmoral reasoning, like deciding whether to get
somewhere by plane or train). And a third region, the
anterior cingulate cortex (an evolutionarily ancient
strip lying at the base of the inner surface of each
cerebral hemisphere), registers a conflict between an
urge coming from one part of the brain and an
advisory coming from another.
But when the people were pondering a hands-off
dilemma, like switching the trolley onto the spur with
the single worker, the brain reacted differently: only
the area involved in rational calculation stood out.
Other studies have shown that neurological patients
who have blunted emotions because of damage to
the frontal lobes become utilitarians: they think it
makes perfect sense to throw the fat man off the
bridge. Together, the findings corroborate Greene’s
theory that our nonutilitarian intuitions come from the
victory of an emotional impulse over a cost-benefit
A Universal Morality?
The findings of trolleyology — complex, instinctive
and worldwide moral intuitions — led Hauser and
John Mikhail (a legal scholar) to revive an analogy
from the philosopher John Rawls between the moral
sense and language. According to Noam Chomsky,
we are born with a “universal grammar” that forces us
to analyze speech in terms of its grammatical
structure, with no conscious awareness of the rules in
play. By analogy, we are born with a universal moral
grammar that forces us to analyze human action in
terms of its moral structure, with just as little
The idea that the moral sense is an innate part of
human nature is not far-fetched. A list of human
universals collected by the anthropologist Donald E.
Brown includes many moral concepts and emotions,
including a distinction between right and wrong;
empathy; fairness; admiration of generosity; rights
and obligations; proscription of murder, rape and
other forms of violence; redress of wrongs; sanctions
for wrongs against the community; shame; and
The stirrings of morality emerge early in childhood.
Toddlers spontaneously offer toys and help to others
and try to comfort people they see in distress. And
according to the psychologists Elliot Turiel and Judith
Smetana, preschoolers have an inkling of the
difference between societal conventions and moral
principles. Four-year-olds say that it is not O.K. to
wear pajamas to school (a convention) and also not
O.K. to hit a little girl for no reason (a moral principle).
But when asked whether these actions would be O.K.
if the teacher allowed them, most of the children said
that wearing pajamas would now be fine but that
hitting a little girl would still not be.
Though no one has identified genes for morality, there
is circumstantial evidence they exist. The character
traits called “conscientiousness” and “agreeableness”
are far more correlated in identical twins separated at
birth (who share their genes but not their
environment) than in adoptive siblings raised together
(who share their environment but not their genes).
People given diagnoses of “antisocial personality
disorder” or “psychopathy” show signs of morality
blindness from the time they are children. They bully
younger children, torture animals, habitually lie and
seem incapable of empathy or remorse, often despite
normal family backgrounds. Some of these children
grow up into the monsters who bilk elderly people out
of their savings, rape a succession of women or shoot
convenience-store clerks lying on the floor during a
Though psychopathy probably comes from a genetic
predisposition, a milder version can be caused by
damage to frontal regions of the brain (including the
areas that inhibit intact people from throwing the
hypothetical fat man off the bridge). The
neuroscientists Hanna and Antonio Damasio and their
colleagues found that some children who sustain
severe injuries to their frontal lobes can grow up into
callous and irresponsible adults, despite normal
intelligence. They lie, steal, ignore punishment,
endanger their own children and can’t think through
even the simplest moral dilemmas, like what two
people should do if they disagreed on which TV
channel to watch or whether a man ought to steal a
drug to save his dying wife.
The moral sense, then, may be rooted in the design of
the normal human brain. Yet for all the awe that may
fill our minds when we reflect on an innate moral law
within, the idea is at best incomplete. Consider this
moral dilemma: A runaway trolley is about to kill a
schoolteacher. You can divert the trolley onto a
sidetrack, but the trolley would trip a switch sending a
signal to a class of 6-year-olds, giving them
permission to name a teddy bear Muhammad. Is it
permissible to pull the lever?
This is no joke. Last month a British woman teaching
in a private school in Sudan allowed her class to
name a teddy bear after the most popular boy in the
class, who bore the name of the founder of Islam. She
was jailed for blasphemy and threatened with a public
flogging, while a mob outside the prison demanded
her death. To the protesters, the woman’s life clearly
had less value than maximizing the dignity of their
religion, and their judgment on whether it is right to
divert the hypothetical trolley would have differed from
ours. Whatever grammar guides people’s moral
judgments can’t be all that universal. Anyone who
stayed awake through Anthropology 101 can offer
many other examples.
Of course, languages vary, too. In Chomsky’s theory,
languages conform to an abstract blueprint, like
having phrases built out of verbs and objects, while
the details vary, like whether the verb or the object
comes first. Could we be wired with an abstract spec
sheet that embraces all the strange ideas that people
in different cultures moralize?
The Varieties of Moral Experience
When anthropologists like Richard Shweder and Alan
Fiske survey moral concerns across the globe, they
find that a few themes keep popping up from amid the
diversity. People everywhere, at least in some
circumstances and with certain other folks in mind,
think it’s bad to harm others and good to help them.
They have a sense of fairness: that one should
reciprocate favors, reward benefactors and punish
cheaters. They value loyalty to a group, sharing and
solidarity among its members and conformity to its
norms. They believe that it is right to defer to
legitimate authorities and to respect people with high
status. And they exalt purity, cleanliness and sanctity
while loathing defilement, contamination and carnality.
The exact number of themes depends on whether
you’re a lumper or a splitter, but Haidt counts five —
harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority
and purity — and suggests that they are the primary
colors of our moral sense. Not only do they keep
reappearing in cross-cultural surveys, but each one
tugs on the moral intuitions of people in our own
culture. Haidt asks us to consider how much money
someone would have to pay us to do hypothetical
acts like the following:
Stick a pin into your palm.
Stick a pin into the palm of a child you don’t know.
Accept a wide-screen TV from a friend who received it
at no charge because of a computer error.
Accept a wide-screen TV from a friend who received it
from a thief who had stolen it from a wealthy family.
Say something bad about your nation (which you
don’t believe) on a talk-radio show in your nation.
Say something bad about your nation (which you
don’t believe) on a talk-radio show in a foreign nation.
Slap a friend in the face, with his permission, as part
of a comedy skit.
Slap your minister in the face, with his permission, as
part of a comedy skit. (Authority.)
Attend a performance-art piece in which the actors act
like idiots for 30 minutes, including flubbing simple
problems and falling down on stage.
Attend a performance-art piece in which the actors act
like animals for 30 minutes, including crawling around
naked and urinating on stage. (Purity.)
In each pair, the second action feels far more
repugnant. Most of the moral illusions we have visited
come from an unwarranted intrusion of one of the
moral spheres into our judgments. A violation of
community led people to frown on using an old flag to
clean a bathroom. Violations of purity repelled the
people who judged the morality of consensual incest
and prevented the moral vegetarians and nonsmokers
from tolerating the slightest trace of a vile
contaminant. At the other end of the scale, displays of
extreme purity lead people to venerate religious
leaders who dress in white and affect an aura of
chastity and asceticism.
The Genealogy of Morals
The five spheres are good candidates for a periodic
table of the moral sense not only because they are
ubiquitous but also because they appear to have
deep evolutionary roots. The impulse to avoid harm,
which gives trolley ponderers the willies when they
consider throwing a man off a bridge, can also be
found in rhesus monkeys, who go hungry rather than
pull a chain that delivers food to them and a shock to
another monkey. Respect for authority is clearly
related to the pecking orders of dominance and
appeasement that are widespread in the animal
kingdom. The purity-defilement contrast taps the
emotion of disgust that is triggered by potential
disease vectors like bodily effluvia, decaying flesh and
unconventional forms of meat, and by risky sexual
practices like incest.
The other two moralized spheres match up with the
classic examples of how altruism can evolve that
were worked out by sociobiologists in the 1960s and
1970s and made famous by Richard Dawkins in his
book “The Selfish Gene.” Fairness is very close to
what scientists call reciprocal altruism, where a
willingness to be nice to others can evolve as long as
the favor helps the recipient more than it costs the
giver and the recipient returns the favor when fortunes
reverse. The analysis makes it sound as if reciprocal
altruism comes out of a robotlike calculation, but in
fact Robert Trivers, the biologist who devised the
theory, argued that it is implemented in the brain as a
suite of moral emotions. Sympathy prompts a person
to offer the first favor, particularly to someone in need
for whom it would go the furthest. Anger protects a
person against cheaters who accept a favor without
reciprocating, by impelling him to punish the ingrate or
sever the relationship. Gratitude impels a beneficiary
to reward those who helped him in the past. Guilt
prompts a cheater in danger of being found out to
repair the relationship by redressing the misdeed and
advertising that he will behave better in the future
(consistent with Mencken’s definition of conscience as
“the inner voice which warns us that someone might
be looking”). Many experiments on who helps whom,
who likes whom, who punishes whom and who feels
guilty about what have confirmed these predictions.
Community, the very different emotion that prompts
people to share and sacrifice without an expectation
of payback, may be rooted in nepotistic altruism, the
empathy and solidarity we feel toward our relatives
(and which evolved because any gene that pushed an
organism to aid a relative would have helped copies
of itself sitting inside that relative). In humans, of
course, communal feelings can be lavished on
nonrelatives as well. Sometimes it pays people (in an
evolutionary sense) to love their companions because
their interests are yoked, like spouses with common
children, in-laws with common relatives, friends with
common tastes or allies with common enemies. And
sometimes it doesn’t pay them at all, but their kinshipdetectors
have been tricked into treating their
groupmates as if they were relatives by tactics like
kinship metaphors (blood brothers, fraternities, the
fatherland), origin myths, communal meals and other
bonding rituals.
Juggling the Spheres
All this brings us to a theory of how the moral sense
can be universal and variable at the same time. The
five moral spheres are universal, a legacy of
evolution. But how they are ranked in importance, and
which is brought in to moralize which area of social
life — sex, government, commerce, religion, diet and
so on — depends on the culture. Many of the
flabbergasting practices in faraway places become
more intelligible when you recognize that the same
moralizing impulse that Western elites channel toward
violations of harm and fairness (our moral
obsessions) is channeled elsewhere to violations in
the other spheres. Think of the Japanese fear of
nonconformity (community), the holy ablutions and
dietary restrictions of Hindus and Orthodox Jews
(purity), the outrage at insulting the Prophet among
Muslims (authority). In the West, we believe that in
business and government, fairness should trump
community and try to root out nepotism and cronyism.
In other parts of the world this is incomprehensible —
what heartless creep would favor a perfect stranger
over his own brother?
The ranking and placement of moral spheres also
divides the cultures of liberals and conservatives in
the United States. Many bones of contention, like
homosexuality, atheism and one-parent families from
the right, or racial imbalances, sweatshops and
executive pay from the left, reflect different weightings
of the spheres. In a large Web survey, Haidt found
that liberals put a lopsided moral weight on harm and
fairness while playing down group loyalty, authority
and purity. Conservatives instead place a moderately
high weight on all five. It’s not surprising that each
side thinks it is driven by lofty ethical values and that
the other side is base and unprincipled.
Reassigning an activity to a different sphere, or taking
it out of the moral spheres altogether, isn’t easy.
People think that a behavior belongs in its sphere as
a matter of sacred necessity and that the very act of
questioning an assignment is a moral outrage. The
psychologist Philip Tetlock has shown that the
mentality of taboo — a conviction that some thoughts
are sinful to think — is not just a superstition of
Polynesians but a mind-set that can easily be
triggered in college-educated Americans. Just ask
them to think about applying the sphere of reciprocity
to relationships customarily governed by community
or authority. When Tetlock asked subjects for their
opinions on whether adoption agencies should place
children with the couples willing to pay the most,
whether people should have the right to sell their
organs and whether they should be able to buy their
way out of jury duty, the subjects not only disagreed
but felt personally insulted and were outraged that
anyone would raise the question.
The institutions of modernity often question and
experiment with the way activities are assigned to
moral spheres. Market economies tend to put
everything up for sale. Science amoralizes the world
by seeking to understand phenomena rather than
pass judgment on them. Secular philosophy is in the
business of scrutinizing all beliefs, including those
entrenched by authority and tradition. It’s not
surprising that these institutions are often seen to be
morally corrosive.
Is Nothing Sacred?
And “morally corrosive” is exactly the term that some
critics would apply to the new science of the moral
sense. The attempt to dissect our moral intuitions can
look like an attempt to debunk them. Evolutionary
psychologists seem to want to unmask our noblest
motives as ultimately self-interested — to show that
our love for children, compassion for the unfortunate
and sense of justice are just tactics in a Darwinian
struggle to perpetuate our genes. The explanation of
how different cultures appeal to different spheres
could lead to a spineless relativism, in which we
would never have grounds to criticize the practice of
another culture, no matter how barbaric, because “we
have our kind of morality and they have theirs.” And
the whole enterprise seems to be dragging us to an
amoral nihilism, in which morality itself would be
demoted from a transcendent principle to a figment of
our neural circuitry.
In reality, none of these fears are warranted, and it’s
important to see why not. The first misunderstanding
involves the logic of evolutionary explanations.
Evolutionary biologists sometimes anthropomorphize
DNA for the same reason that science teachers find it
useful to have their students imagine the world from
the viewpoint of a molecule or a beam of light. One
shortcut to understanding the theory of selection
without working through the math is to imagine that
the genes are little agents that try to make copies of
Unfortunately, the meme of the selfish gene escaped
from popular biology books and mutated into the idea
that organisms (including people) are ruthlessly selfserving.
And this doesn’t follow. Genes are not a
reservoir of our dark unconscious wishes. “Selfish”
genes are perfectly compatible with selfless
organisms, because a gene’s metaphorical goal of
selfishly replicating itself can be implemented by
wiring up the brain of the organism to do unselfish
things, like being nice to relatives or doing good
deeds for needy strangers. When a mother stays up
all night comforting a sick child, the genes that
endowed her with that tenderness were “selfish” in a
metaphorical sense, but by no stretch of the
imagination is she being selfish.
Nor does reciprocal altruism — the evolutionary
rationale behind fairness — imply that people do good
deeds in the cynical expectation of repayment down
the line. We all know of unrequited good deeds, like
tipping a waitress in a city you will never visit again
and falling on a grenade to save platoonmates. These
bursts of goodness are not as anomalous to a
biologist as they might appear.
In his classic 1971 article, Trivers, the biologist,
showed how natural selection could push in the
direction of true selflessness. The emergence of titfor-tat
reciprocity, which lets organisms trade favors
without being cheated, is just a first step. A favor-giver
not only has to avoid blatant cheaters (those who
would accept a favor but not return it) but also prefer
generous reciprocators (those who return the biggest
favor they can afford) over stingy ones (those who
return the smallest favor they can get away with).
Since it’s good to be chosen as a recipient of favors, a
competition arises to be the most generous partner
around. More accurately, a competition arises to
appear to be the most generous partner around, since
the favor-giver can’t literally read minds or see into
the future. A reputation for fairness and generosity
becomes an asset.
Now this just sets up a competition for potential
beneficiaries to inflate their reputations without
making the sacrifices to back them up. But it also
pressures the favor-giver to develop ever-moresensitive
radar to distinguish the genuinely generous
partners from the hypocrites. This arms race will
eventually reach a logical conclusion. The most
effective way to seem generous and fair, under harsh
scrutiny, is to be generous and fair. In the long run,
then, reputation can be secured only by commitment.
At least some agents evolve to be genuinely highminded
and self-sacrificing — they are moral not
because of what it brings them but because that’s the
kind of people they are.
Of course, a theory that predicted that everyone
always sacrificed themselves for another’s good
would be as preposterous as a theory that predicted
that no one ever did. Alongside the niches for saints
there are niches for more grudging reciprocators, who
attract fewer and poorer partners but don’t make the
sacrifices necessary for a sterling reputation. And
both may coexist with outright cheaters, who exploit
the unwary in one-shot encounters. An ecosystem of
niches, each with a distinct strategy, can evolve when
the payoff of each strategy depends on how many
players are playing the other strategies. The human
social environment does have its share of generous,
grudging and crooked characters, and the genetic
variation in personality seems to bear the fingerprints
of this evolutionary process.
Is Morality a Figment?
So a biological understanding of the moral sense
does not entail that people are calculating maximizers
of their genes or self-interest. But where does it leave
the concept of morality itself?
Here is the worry. The scientific outlook has taught us
that some parts of our subjective experience are
products of our biological makeup and have no
objective counterpart in the world. The qualitative
difference between red and green, the tastiness of
fruit and foulness of carrion, the scariness of heights
and prettiness of flowers are design features of our
common nervous system, and if our species had
evolved in a different ecosystem or if we were missing
a few genes, our reactions could go the other way.
Now, if the distinction between right and wrong is also
a product of brain wiring, why should we believe it is
any more real than the distinction between red and
green? And if it is just a collective hallucination, how
could we argue that evils like genocide and slavery
are wrong for everyone, rather than just distasteful to
Putting God in charge of morality is one way to solve
the problem, of course, but Plato made short work of
it 2,400 years ago. Does God have a good reason for
designating certain acts as moral and others as
immoral? If not — if his dictates are divine whims —
why should we take them seriously? Suppose that
God commanded us to torture a child. Would that
make it all right, or would some other standard give us
reasons to resist? And if, on the other hand, God was
forced by moral reasons to issue some dictates and
not others — if a command to torture a child was
never an option — then why not appeal to those
reasons directly?
This throws us back to wondering where those
reasons could come from, if they are more than just
figments of our brains. They certainly aren’t in the
physical world like wavelength or mass. The only
other option is that moral truths exist in some abstract
Platonic realm, there for us to discover, perhaps in the
same way that mathematical truths (according to most
mathematicians) are there for us to discover. On this
analogy, we are born with a rudimentary concept of
number, but as soon as we build on it with formal
mathematical reasoning, the nature of mathematical
reality forces us to discover some truths and not
others. (No one who understands the concept of two,
the concept of four and the concept of addition can
come to any conclusion but that 2 + 2 = 4.) Perhaps
we are born with a rudimentary moral sense, and as
soon as we build on it with moral reasoning, the
nature of moral reality forces us to some conclusions
but not others.
Moral realism, as this idea is called, is too rich for
many philosophers’ blood. Yet a diluted version of the
idea — if not a list of cosmically inscribed ThouShalts,
then at least a few If-Thens — is not crazy.
Two features of reality point any rational, selfpreserving
social agent in a moral direction. And they
could provide a benchmark for determining when the
judgments of our moral sense are aligned with
morality itself.
One is the prevalence of nonzero-sum games. In
many arenas of life, two parties are objectively better
off if they both act in a nonselfish way than if each of
them acts selfishly. You and I are both better off if we
share our surpluses, rescue each other’s children in
danger and refrain from shooting at each other,
compared with hoarding our surpluses while they rot,
letting the other’s child drown while we file our nails or
feuding like the Hatfields and McCoys. Granted, I
might be a bit better off if I acted selfishly at your
expense and you played the sucker, but the same is
true for you with me, so if each of us tried for these
advantages, we’d both end up worse off. Any neutral
observer, and you and I if we could talk it over
rationally, would have to conclude that the state we
should aim for is the one in which we both are
unselfish. These spreadsheet projections are not
quirks of brain wiring, nor are they dictated by a
supernatural power; they are in the nature of things.
The other external support for morality is a feature of
rationality itself: that it cannot depend on the
egocentric vantage point of the reasoner. If I appeal to
you to do anything that affects me — to get off my
foot, or tell me the time or not run me over with your
car — then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my
interests over yours (say, retaining my right to run you
over with my car) if I want you to take me seriously.
Unless I am Galactic Overlord, I have to state my
case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind.
I can’t act as if my interests are special just because
I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can persuade
you that the spot I am standing on is a special place
in the universe just because I happen to be standing
on it.
Not coincidentally, the core of this idea — the
interchangeability of perspectives — keeps
reappearing in history’s best-thought-through moral
philosophies, including the Golden Rule (itself
discovered many times); Spinoza’s Viewpoint of
Eternity; the Social Contract of Hobbes, Rousseau
and Locke; Kant’s Categorical Imperative; and
Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance. It also underlies Peter
Singer’s theory of the Expanding Circle — the
optimistic proposal that our moral sense, though
shaped by evolution to overvalue self, kin and clan,
can propel us on a path of moral progress, as our
reasoning forces us to generalize it to larger and
larger circles of sentient beings.
Doing Better by Knowing Ourselves
Morality, then, is still something larger than our
inherited moral sense, and the new science of the
moral sense does not make moral reasoning and
conviction obsolete. At the same time, its implications
for our moral universe are profound.
At the very least, the science tells us that even when
our adversaries’ agenda is most baffling, they may not
be amoral psychopaths but in the throes of a moral
mind-set that appears to them to be every bit as
mandatory and universal as ours does to us. Of
course, some adversaries really are psychopaths, and
others are so poisoned by a punitive moralization that
they are beyond the pale of reason. (The actor Will
Smith had many historians on his side when he
recently speculated to the press that Hitler thought he
was acting morally.) But in any conflict in which a
meeting of the minds is not completely hopeless, a
recognition that the other guy is acting from moral
rather than venal reasons can be a first patch of
common ground. One side can acknowledge the
other’s concern for community or stability or fairness
or dignity, even while arguing that some other value
should trump it in that instance. With affirmative
action, for example, the opponents can be seen as
arguing from a sense of fairness, not racism, and the
defenders can be seen as acting from a concern with
community, not bureaucratic power. Liberals can ratify
conservatives’ concern with families while noting that
gay marriage is perfectly consistent with that concern.
The science of the moral sense also alerts us to ways
in which our psychological makeup can get in the way
of our arriving at the most defensible moral
conclusions. The moral sense, we are learning, is as
vulnerable to illusions as the other senses. It is apt to
confuse morality per se with purity, status and
conformity. It tends to reframe practical problems as
moral crusades and thus see their solution in punitive
aggression. It imposes taboos that make certain ideas
indiscussible. And it has the nasty habit of always
putting the self on the side of the angels.
Though wise people have long reflected on how we
can be blinded by our own sanctimony, our public
discourse still fails to discount it appropriately. In the
worst cases, the thoughtlessness of our brute
intuitions can be celebrated as a virtue. In his
influential essay “The Wisdom of Repugnance,” Leon
Kass, former chair of the President’s Council on
Bioethics, argued that we should disregard reason
when it comes to cloning and other biomedical
technologies and go with our gut: “We are repelled by
the prospect of cloning human beings . . . because we
intuit and feel, immediately and without argument, the
violation of things that we rightfully hold dear. . . . In
this age in which everything is held to be permissible
so long as it is freely done . . . repugnance may be
the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central
core of our humanity. Shallow are the souls that have
forgotten how to shudder.”
There are, of course, good reasons to regulate human
cloning, but the shudder test is not one of them.
People have shuddered at all kinds of morally
irrelevant violations of purity in their culture: touching
an untouchable, drinking from the same water
fountain as a Negro, allowing Jewish blood to mix with
Aryan blood, tolerating sodomy between consenting
men. And if our ancestors’ repugnance had carried
the day, we never would have had autopsies,
vaccinations, blood transfusions, artificial
insemination, organ transplants and in vitro
fertilization, all of which were denounced as immoral
when they were new.
There are many other issues for which we are too
quick to hit the moralization button and look for villains
rather than bug fixes. What should we do when a
hospital patient is killed by a nurse who administers
the wrong drug in a patient’s intravenous line? Should
we make it easier to sue the hospital for damages? Or
should we redesign the IV fittings so that it’s
physically impossible to connect the wrong bottle to
the line?
And nowhere is moralization more of a hazard than in
our greatest global challenge. The threat of humaninduced
climate change has become the occasion for
a moralistic revival meeting. In many discussions, the
cause of climate change is overindulgence (too many
S.U.V.’s) and defilement (sullying the atmosphere),
and the solution is temperance (conservation) and
expiation (buying carbon offset coupons). Yet the
experts agree that these numbers don’t add up: even
if every last American became conscientious about
his or her carbon emissions, the effects on climate
change would be trifling, if for no other reason than
that two billion Indians and Chinese are unlikely to
copy our born-again abstemiousness. Though
voluntary conservation may be one wedge in an
effective carbon-reduction pie, the other wedges will
have to be morally boring, like a carbon tax and new
energy technologies, or even taboo, like nuclear
power and deliberate manipulation of the ocean and
atmosphere. Our habit of moralizing problems,
merging them with intuitions of purity and
contamination, and resting content when we feel the
right feelings, can get in the way of doing the right
Far from debunking morality, then, the science of the
moral sense can advance it, by allowing us to see
through the illusions that evolution and culture have
saddled us with and to focus on goals we can share
and defend. As Anton Chekhov wrote, “Man will
become better when you show him what he is like.”
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