It is now becoming painfully obvious that moral judgments of all kinds are highly influenced by an intuitive, emotional, and non-reflective internal system. Reason tries to intervene, but succeeds only to limited effect.
In a recent paper, legal theorist Cass Sunstein and psychologist Daniel Kahneman lay out the case clearly and persuasively. They conclude that "Because of the operation of indignation, it is extremely difficult for people to achieve coherence in their moral intuitions."
People get indignant, S+K explain, when they think someone harms a victim for no good reason. A victim is harmed when he is made worse off relative to shared rules and expectations. As they point out, when this is interpreted by our intuitive judgment system, it tends to pick out some vague sense of "what we have a right to expect" -- and this usually, but not always, involves the status quo.
This, they argue, explains why we think that it is unfair for a store owner to raise the prices now when they expect costs to go up in the future, while at the same time thinking it is fair for those same owners to keep prices the same when costs drop, thereby increasing their profits. Rationally, what' s the difference in principle? But intuitively, we react as if the proper reference point for goods is the price at which they were bought. Of course, it's not clear whether our reason would endorse such a judgment: why not reference the price of replacement? Or a price that allows the store owner a reasonable but not extravagant profit?
I've always been mystified by the outrage expressed by free-market defenders when store owners charge an arm and a leg for shovels in snowstorms and water during hurricanes . . . after all, isn't that what free markets are all about? If you think this is wrong, then rationally, the same principle that makes it wrong seems to cast doubt on policies of non-regulation. Sunstein and Kahneman's research suggests their outrage springs directly from moral indignation, bypassing reason altogether.
Other puzzles involve "framing effects." People object intuitively to the idea of giving larger tax deductions for children to the rich than to the poor. But if we frame the question in terms of a set point for a two-child family, the same outcome would be achieved by requiring a larger surcharge for rich childless couples than for poor ones, which strikes many people as entirely appropriate.
Research is piling up that these unreasoned intuitive judgments are extremely difficult to change through reasoned deliberation and argument. As Jonathan Haidt puts it, the emotional dog wags the rational tail. When confronted with moral judgments that they cannot provide reasons for, Haidt says, people are often "morally dumbfounded,"unable to explain themselves.
It seems likely that lots of us are operating with different ideas about proper reference points and with different intuitive frames. This might help explain our widely varying moral intuitions about what we owe one another, with respect to fellow citizenship and taxation. Further, if reference points usually reflect the status quo, this might help explain why policies favoring higher taxes are so unpopular even when they bring obvious goods, even when they are low compared to other places and times, and even when they are rationally justified. Intuitive indignation says, "You can't take that away from me! It's not fair.
If people's indignation responds to intuition and emotion over reason, and if moral consistency is almost impossible, then it's not surprising that in our moral, political, and legal discourse, a lot of us are standing around gaping at one another.
UPDATE: The Sunstein and Kahneman paper is called "Indignation: Psychology, Politics, Law." The Haidt paper is called "The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment," and can be found here.