Secular Right | Reality & Reason



Moral thought, rational or reflexive?

Rod Dreher, Does moral action require rational thought?:

What do you think? My answer is, “Mostly, no.” I believe virtue is mostly a matter of habit. This is not to say that reason has nothing to do with morality; obviously there are many dilemmas that require serious moral deliberation before one acts, so there is absolutely a place for reason. My point is that in most cases that confront us, we don’t have to think before we act morally; we behave morally (or immorally) because we have gotten into the habit of thinking and acting in ways that lead us to a particular moral response to a challenge.

Presented this way, I mostly agree with Dreher. Rather, it seems that rational justifications are created after one makes a moral judgement. But this quote from The New York Times gets at the issue more subtly:

On one boat, it seems, the men thought only of themselves; on the other, they were more likely to help women and children. This occurred for one key reason, researchers said: time. The Lusitania sank in about 18 minutes, while the Titanic took nearly three hours. Women and children fared much better on the Titanic.

“When you have to react very, very fast, human instincts are much faster than internalized social norms,” said Benno Torgler, an economics professor at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, and one of the authors of the study, published in the current issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

One could contend that on the Lusitania the chaos was an exogenous shock which resulted in the atomization of the passengers into pure “rational actors” (ironically) who instinctively maximized their own utility. A Hobbesian “all-against-all” scenario. On the Titanic the shock was followed by a large enough gap in time so that the social order could coalesce and engage in collective action which expressed the norms of the culture at that time. I don’t think there’s anything instinctive about “women and children first.” There’s enough cross-cultural data that I’ve encountered, both historical and anthropological, which suggests that in many societies men will place themselves first. The chivalric impulse is conditional on culture and context (men who are chivalric to women and children of their own group may still rape & kill women and children of outgroups in war). Parents may have an instinctive love for their children, but they have sold them into slavery because of economic stress, and infanticide was a relatively common and accepted practice in most societies.

The two main issues with evaluating this sort of behavior are:

– a pure individualistic perspective probably misses group-level dynamics. It isn’t just cognitive psychology, there’s also social psychology. We’re fundamentally a social creature.

– a dichotomy between reflex and reflection mislead, as there is a complex relationship between norms, emotions, and individual assessments of group expectations. Additionally, many actions which initially require reflection can be transformed into reflex through repetition or practice.

Anyway, there’s a lot to say about this sort of social science. The key is not to get carried away with any particular study, and push an overly simple model of human nature and nurture to the forefront based on a thin empirical sliver.

Note: The social context can explain, for example, why Americans have an inordinate attachment to free expression. The founders were likely expressing both the British tradition of the time, and pushing it to the maximum conditioned on their perception that they were tyrannized. There were also certainly reasoned arguments for the necessity and utility of free speech at the commanding heights. But the broad-based mass support for this viewpoint may have less to do with reason, and more to do with the fact that it is customary and traditional in American society. In other words, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights have become quasi-sacred documents, not axioms which serve as sources of inferences.

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  • Vaibhav · March 3, 2010 at 3:39 am

    I doubt this:
    “We’re fundamentally a social creature.”

    Or is it that we’re fundamentally individualistic and we use the social fabric to our benefit?

    I say this assuming that society is not a part of “human instincts”. Is it?

  • Author comment by David Hume · March 3, 2010 at 3:48 am

    Or is it that we’re fundamentally individualistic and we use the social fabric to our benefit?

    you could make this reduction.

    what i was trying to get at is clear by analogy. cells use the multicellular organism to perpetuate their own existence, and replicate their genetic code. but when we’re talking about ethology, the behavior of organisms, we’re really fundamentally focusing on the level of the organism, even though the organism is reducible to cells, and organismic behavior is simply in the service of the cells.

    so in regards to moral action its intelligibility is removed without any social context.

    perhaps the use of the word “fundamentally” was a mistake. perhaps i should have said “operationally.”

  • Vaibhav · March 3, 2010 at 4:11 am

    I agree that operationally fits better.
    Would love it if you elaborate more on:
    “so in regards to moral action its intelligibility is removed without any social context”

    PS: Great posts! Really!

  • John · March 3, 2010 at 9:19 am

    I think most of our decisions, both having to do with morality (should I steal that candy bar from the store?) and not having to do with morality (should I watch CSPAN2 or South Park?) are based on habit and instinct. I think a lot of psychological research has shown that a lot of what we like to think of as rational thought is really us acting on impulse, and then later rationalizing what we did.

    When I go to the store, I don’t spend time thinking about whether it is moral or not to shoplift. I’m just not the kind of person who shoplifts, so my brain saves itself the effort of thinking about it all the time. We act on instinct because we are just not smart enough to think everything through all the time.

    Unfortunately, a lot of moral reasoning stops there. Some people, in deciding whether or not something is moral, ask themselves, “Do I feel offended by that?” Of course, what offends me may not offend you, and so that is not really a good way of making decisions.

    If we want to know what’s really moral, than I do think you have to engage in the tough slog of philosophy and reasoned argument. Figure it out by long deliberation, than build the habits and instincts from there. Once you’ve had time to kick back and decide if stealing is wrong, and under what circumstances, then live your life based on the rational rules of your philosophy, teach it to your kids, and instill the habits.

    So I half-agree with Dreher. As a practical matter, most moral behavior is based on instinct, emotion, and habit. But, if there is disagreement between different people on what is moral, there is no alternative but to consult the Great Books.

  • Will · March 3, 2010 at 9:23 am

    Your argument is at least growing more consistent, especially in its clear dismissal that our value judgments in politics, morals or culture are fundamentally rooted in rationality. Instead they are a reflection of something more like instinct or passion. Thanks for this clarification.

    May I therefore recommend that you change the site’s motto? For honesty’s sake, it should be changed from “Reason and Reality” to “Emotion and Reality” or “Instinct and Reality” or “Prejudice and Reality.”

    Of course, once you take “Reason” out, I’m not sure what “Reality” means either. So confusing!

  • 8 · March 3, 2010 at 11:38 am

    A Hobbesian “all-against-all” scenario

    Rather common scenarios over the last few decades (if not centuries). Holy Katrina lootin’ par-tay Batman.

    It should be recalled, however, that Hobbes the Leviathan says covenants and laws are rational, at least in a sort of instrumental sense (rather than theological or platonic). Hobbes has often been read, misread as a sort of machiavellian or statist, but that’s not really correct. Humans (and societies, nations, etc) should cooperate, work together: the social contract itself might be said to be pragmatic reason at its best, or nearly.

  • Vik · March 3, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    More reflexive than rational…. for the great pre-alchemical Taoists, acting without the weight of excess conceptualization, in accordance with the Way, more a skill, like hunting or gathering, rather than precepts derived from rationication, or worse, dictated from on high.

  • Vaibhav · March 4, 2010 at 8:06 am


    The problem with Great Books is that they do “not” have disclaimers – and hence are taken as “the” source of all answers. Whereas, my guess (who knows it anyways?) is that they were written to solve such conflicts like the one you mentioned.

    Can you think of any other ways in which 2 people can understand and appreciate that what is moral to each is different just because they are different people?

  • Nathanielson · March 4, 2010 at 12:55 pm


    The “Reality” in the motto refers to an intuitive grasp of the fundamental nature [including instincts/emotions] of man. This is something that all cultural leftists and many atheists reject in favour of the notion that we are all blank slates that can be reformed through correction and environmental control. They misuse their faculties of reason to lead to conclusions of how things ought to be, rather than how they are [John touches on this above]. I gather that this site is for those who seek to gain understanding of human nature first, and let their reason follow from there.



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