1) 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.2) A family’s dog was killed by a car in front of their house. They had heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog’s body and cooked it and ate it for dinner.3) A brother and sister like to kiss each other on the mouth. When nobody is around, they find a secret hiding place and kiss each other on the mouth.4) A man goes to the supermarket once a week and buys a dead chicken. But before cooking the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he thoroughly cooks it and eats it.
Do these things seem wrong to you? Most would say yes. But let me ask you a question, what is, exactly, wrong with each? That is, without simply restating the problem (e.g., that’s unpatriotic, you shouldn’t eat your dog, brothers and sisters should not kiss, etc.), what moral principle is being violated in each situation?
If you are like most people, you’ll find it hard to locate a moral or ethical principle being violated in each scenario. Yet, without a doubt, we know and feel that each scenario is wrong. As I've written about before, this feeling, the strong sense of wrongness while being at a loss for a moral argument, is called "moral dumbfounding" in Jonathan Haidt's interesting research.
For our purposes Haidt's research nicely illustrates the fissure between System 1 and System 2 in our moral judgments. Specifically, in Haidt's scenarios the "feeling of wrongness" is immediately activated by System 1. It's an automatic appraisal. The "reason for wrongness" is a System 2 search. And Haidt cleverly selected his scenarios to flummox that search. A feeling of wrongness exists in System 1 while System 2 spins its wheels to provide reasons, justifications, bible verses, rationales, and warrants for that judgment.
The shocking thing about Haidt's research is that it tends to turn our understanding of moral judgements upside down. Specifically, we tend to think that reasons drive our moral feelings. I judge that X is wrong and, as a consequence, feel that it is wrong. Cognition precedes emotion. Judgment causes feeling.
But Haidt's research suggests that this just might be backwards. Emotion precedes cognition. Feeling causes judgment. We feel something to be wrong and then go in search for a reason. Moral warrants (the stuff of an ethics class) are, essentially, post hoc justifications. And, for most of us, we operate with a "good enough" search criteria. That is, people, seeking to justify their knee jerk moral judgements, generally land upon warrants that provide "just enough" justification. Doesn't matter if these judgements are logically consistent or coherent upon inspection, all that matters is that they quickly help us reconcile our feelings with our self-concepts. This is why moral reasoning, as any philosopher can tell you, is generally so poor and unreflective. The reason is that moral reasoning isn't creating our moral judgments. What generally passes for "moral reasoning" is simply a quickly marshaled justification (for you and me) for why I feel the way I do. I'm not really offering an argument of any kind, although I'd like for you to think that I am. In short, for the most part moral reasoning is painted, as a kind of cognitive decoration, upon an underlying, unshakable conviction. No wonder moral or political discourse is so broken. Emotions are driving the car. All the talking at town halls is just so much verbiage. People already know what they believe. Or, more properly, they feel it. Deep in their bones. And words just don't penetrate.
In short, we are back to the conflict between System 1 and System 2. System 1 is driving our moral judgments. As a consequence, argument has a difficult time affecting moral judgments.
So can we change, morally speaking? Yes, just not through sharing reasons. The only way to change System 1 is to change emotionally and experientially. When your feelings change then you begin to prefer different kinds of moral warrants. Your heart has softened in some way and what previously sounded persuasive no longer moves you. It doesn't ring true. And some verses in the bible now seem cold and distant while others seem warm and alive.