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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