Eric Knowles and Peter Ditto endorse what they call a “warm” view of human reasoning. This is a “hybrid view” that recognizes that human reasoning is “necessarily both” “’hot’ (rooted in motivations and emotions) [and] ‘cold’ (rooted in cognitive operations).” (15). In their estimation, this dichotomy between hot and cold reasoning — what they also refer to as the “preference-principle dichotomy” — “oversimplifies human psychology.” (4). In “Preference, Principle, and Political Casuistry,” Knowles and Ditto present empirical evidence for their favored warm, hybrid view and attempt to explain away this preference-principle dichotomy.
Knowles and Ditto begin by noting that the attribution of principle is, inter alia, “a lay-psychological hypothesis concerning the causes of another’s behavior.” (3). But the behavior with which they are particularly concerned is moral and political judgment. Thus, they raise the question: “When it comes to basic judgments of right and wrong, do people (educated adults, at least) reason dispassionately from abstract moral principles (Kohlberg, 1969), or do they offer principles as rationalizing cover for their emotion-based intuitions (Haidt, 2001)?” (4).
A hot explanation of these judgments offers a “preference-driven account” where the “causal factor underlying [a] political position” is something like an “emotional preference,” a “simple desire” or just “personal self-interest” (or “group-based interests”). (6-7). While a cold explanation “frames a political position as deriving [logically] from general intellectual or moral principles.” (7). [Although, there are also these people, who seem to be “cold types” but who see moral principles as “at best crutches a morally sensitive person would not require.”] Knowles and Ditto reject both explanations in favor of a view which sees moral and political judgment as caused by both underlying preference and general intellectual principles. They think that the preference-principle dichotomy assumed by both of these explanations originates in certain psychological biases — specifically, the actor-observer bias (i.e. “the tendency of actors to see their own behavior as responsive to situations, but for observers to see the same behavior as reflecting the actor’s dispositions”) and the “perceivers’ motivations… to hold a position view of themselves, as well as of others who share their attitudes and group membership.” (12).
Having rejected the preference-principle dichotomy, Knowles and Ditto suggest a hybrid view in which “affective and motivational factors can influence judgments…by affecting the cognitive processes that underlie them [but also] cognitive processes constrain and shape affective influences on judgment.” (15). “People do not believe whatever they want [to] believe simply because they want to believe it.” (15). Instead, we are “clearly sensitive to the plausibility of our beliefs.” (15). And we work to maintain an ‘illusion of objectivity’, “essential” to producing “genuine belief.” (16).
Since we care about possessing accurate and objective beliefs, the effects of our preferences on our beliefs must happen subconsciously and without awareness. Thus, Knowles and Ditto suggest that we engaged in an “implicit casuistry” in which, from case to case, “individuals unwittingly select principles that happen to provide intellectual justification for preferred conclusions.” (20). This happens because “affective preferences operating in a particular case guide reliance on general principles in such a way that selectiveness of the choice of principles is obscured from the reasoned.” (20). This process, in turn, shapes “a host of attitudes about controversial social and political issues.” (21). So, while “our political and moral choices may be experienced as principled,” they are, nevertheless, “shaped, if not determined,” by our “interests or preferences.” (4).
For example, “one subtle – but effective – way that people skew judgments towards preferred conclusions is by ‘shifting the standards’.” (17). In one study (Norton et al., 2004), “male subjects faced with a decision about who to fire for a stereotypically male job (in the construction industry) were found to rank education as a more important hiring criterion than job experience when make decisions about applicants of unknown gender, but reversed this ranking if faced with a decision in which a male applicant had less education but more experience than a competing female candidate.” (18). In another experiment, participants were faced with “mock hiring decisions for a peer councilor.” When “the applicants’ qualifications were strong or weak,” they “exhibited no preference for White over Black candidates.” But when “qualifications were middling, [anti-Black] bias emerged.” (43). The point for Knowles and Ditto is that “participants rejected the Black candidate only when doing so could be rationalized in terms of a race-neutral principle” and that those participants “almost certainly experienced their decisions as driven by [such] principles.” (44).
Why not add a Daily Show video at this point exposing hypocrisy? After all, they note the Daily Show as evidence and their point is about the selective application of principles. …. ok, I will:Vodpod videos no longer available.
Knowles and Ditto also provide evidence that people switch between deontic and consequentialist justifications “selectively” as a result of underlying preferences. For example, they describe an experiment in which “political liberals and conservatives” were faced with one of two variations of a trolley problem. The “key modification was that… half of the participants were faced with a decision about whether to push a man named ‘Tyrone Payton’ onto the tracks to save ‘100 members of the New York Philharmonic’, while the other half had to decided whether to push a man named ‘Chip Ellsworth III’ onto the tracks to save ‘100 members of the Harlem Jazz Orchestra.” (25). The result was that “Liberal college students were significantly more likely to endorse consequentialist principles when the trolley dilemma involved Chip than Tyrone, whereas conservative students showed no hint of that effect.” (26).
So, while they “would embrace the Biercian point that principled explanations are often little more than a ‘front’ for the expression of self-based, group-based, or ideologically-based preferences.” (50). Nevertheless, they admit that “even preference-based reasoning frequently bears some of the constraining features of principled judgment.” (50). “[O]nce a principle is invoked, even in the service of justifying a specific affective preference, it has the potential of influencing other judgments that are subjectively relevant to the principle.” (50).
A followup study involving the trolley problem “showed just this kind of ‘carry-over’ effect.” (51). Revealing that “[p]articipants seemed to perceive a strong constraint to remain consistent in their use of moral principles across the two scenarios, even when their initial choice of principle was evoked by motivational factors.” (51). In fact, this sort of effect leads Knowles and Ditto to conclude that “[a]t the extremes of generality, motivationally invoked principles might even be able to achieve a kind of functional autonomy, becoming detached from the motivations that produced them.” (52). Thus, they find it “entirely plausible” that ideologies could achieve “internal consistency, philosophical support, and substantial validity.” (52). In which case, they conclude that “it misses the mark to say that all judgments made on the basis of that commitment are ‘unprincipled’.” (53).
They also suggest that these studies support the conclusion that “our intuitions about fundamental moral questions are at least (if not more) ‘valid’ than the principles available to justify them” perhaps because of some Humean “moral sense,” which “divine[s] truly ethical behavior.” (53). They speculate that these intuitions may “reflect adaptive insights accumulated over the course of human evolution,” what they later call our “implicit wisdom.” (54). Thus, “the kind of casuistic reasoning highlighted here is not necessarily illegitimate simple because of its post hoc nature,” I assume because it reflects this “wisdom.”
While I find much of what Knowles and Ditto suggest compelling, I worry about what they seem to assume, i.e. that there are some causal, psychological processes which confer legitimacy upon their judgment-results, and others which do not. I have had hard time understanding what this would mean. I can understand how we might come to see a certain causal process as producing legitimate judgments — perhaps even doing so always — but it seems that this would be because the results were antecedently legitimate, not because the process conferred legitimacy.
It seems to me that part of what makes our brains so spectacular is that they are so capable of learning — and, specifically, learning on the basis of a perceived correct result. Perhaps this sort of learning accounts for the “carry-over effect” described above as well as a principles “functional autonomy.” Moreover, as Knowles and Ditto note (although they do not give it considerable attention), “reasoned moral analysis” sometimes overrides “intuitive moral reactions,” perhaps this sort of analysis is the relevant kind of “moral learning” — a decidedly consequentialist sort of analysis (see Joshua Greene‘s “The Secret Joke of Kant’s Soul.”) As a result, perhaps future “intuitions” can be more consequentialistly defensible as opposed to being the artifacts of our evolutionary history. But any such claim at this point is entirely speculative.
Nevertheless, the evaluative has a tendency to swallow up whatever it touches; we can re-evaluate our “intuitions” and values. As Nietzsche shows, even morality – which presents itself as the morality, forbidding the possibility of alternatives – can be subjected to evaluative appraisal. That is, we can ask whether morality is itself good. Perhaps some of our intuitions reflect “implicit wisdom” but, even in those cases, critical re-evaluation can give us much-needed assurance that are judgments are sound and comfort that we conduct ourselves as we ought to. We should be learning what judgments are morally sound instead of learning how to defend the judgments we already make as morally sound.