Cognitive and moral limits

[ed. note] I just posted the following thoughts on our Psychology Today blog, The Gorilla Guys. With the permission of the Psychology Today admins, I’m posting it here as well. –Dan

Paul Bloom has a fascinating overview of moral reasoning in infants and toddlers in the New York Times. Studying moral reasoning in infants is a challenge – you can’t just ask infants what they think about another person’s actions. Instead, you have to infer their moral beliefs from their actions: where do they look, who they favor or punish, etc. One of the take-home messages of Bloom’s essay is that the primitive morality system available to infants is essential as the basis for more sophisticated moral reasoning in adulthood, moral reasoning that can come under more cognitive control. In many respects, this limited moral system is akin to intuition.

Intuitive systems work well under restricted conditions. They serve an important purpose. As Bloom notes, some primitive structure is needed to acquire more complex structures. But, they can also operate quite differently than those more complex processes.

The same principle applies to the sort of intuitions we discuss in The Invisible Gorilla. Intuitions often serve us well, especially when the decisions we make map onto the relatively simple situations in which these mechanisms evolved. Where they lead us astray is when we face situations that lack clear black and white distinctions or when the complexity of modern society renders the intuitions faulty.

Just as an infant’s rudimentary moral reasoning differs from that of an adult (at least of an adult with time to reason about the situation and make a more principled judgment), our rapid, intuitive judgments often differ from what we might decide if we took the time to reason it out. The difference, though, is that infants lack the ability to reason it out. We can decide to override our intuitions, but we often don’t recognize when it would be a wise thing to do.

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