Moral Judgment and Perceptual Metaphor — Good to Think?

by johnmccreery

Morality is so rich and complex. It’s so multifaceted and contradictory. But many authors reduce it to a single principle, which is usually some variant of welfare maximization. So that would be the sugar. Or sometimes, it’s justice and related notions of fairness and rights. And that would be the chemist down the street. So basically, there’s two restaurants to choose from. There’s the utilitarian grille, and there’s the deontological diner. That’s pretty much it.


We need metaphors and analogies to think about difficult topics, such as morality. An analogy that Marc Hauser and John Mikhail have developed in recent years is that morality is like language. And I think it’s a very, very good metaphor. It illuminates many aspects of morality. It’s particularly good, I think, for sequences of actions that occur in time with varying aspects of intentionality.


But, once we expand the moral domain beyond harm, I find that metaphors drawn from perception become more illuminating, more useful. I’m not trying to say that the language analogy is wrong or deficient. I’m just saying, let’s think of another analogy, a perceptual analogy.

Johnathan Haidt, Edge.

To an anthropologist entranced for more than four decades by Levi-Strauss’ call to consider the “logic in tangible qualities” and a student of Victor Turner, who envisions symbols as bipolar–one pole a cluster of concepts the other, the sensory pole, a cluster of tangible qualities that evoke powerful emotions, Haidt’s thinking is highly appealing. What say others here?

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2 Comments to “Moral Judgment and Perceptual Metaphor — Good to Think?”

  1. Reminiscent of Lakoff too. I like this but it seems a little restricted to me, the sort of thing an academic researcher distant from everyday communication would be thinking. When I’m teaching or just talking with people I try out a whole range of metaphors, hypotheticals, experiential and sensory evocations and so on until the conversation makes that clicking sound. The understanding that results is rough and ready in a way that would never satisfy a serious ethicist, but that’s the thing: at different scales of expertise the discourse gets refined and narrowed in different ways.

  2. OK, now reading Haidt’s talk I see he’s trying to do exactly this pragmatic expansion of moral discourse. So yes, I’m all for it.

    It’s interesting though that even here, in a project to make moral discourse more inclusive and encompassing, little unexamined personal biases creep in. In his case it’s where he talks about using a taste metaphor and assumes sweet is good and sour/bitter are bad. But actually palates are both wired up and trained differently on that. I am aware of this because I’m not a big fan of sweet, but I love sour and bitter; and of course a ‘sophisticated’ palate wants a balance of those flavors, which are neither good nor bad in themselves but only in context. Point being that shifting the metaphor does not actually change the diversity of valences that are assigned, although it may be instructive about how that works. Which he actually knows, which makes the shorthand disconnect even more funny.

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