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Introduction to Moral Psychology

The Three Principles of Moral Psychology

NOTE: Haidt originally posited four principles.  He has since reduced the number to three by combining the first two. His three principles are described in the three sections of his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.  They are 1) Intuition comes first, strategic reasoning second, 2) There’s more to morality than care and fairness, and 3) Morality binds and blinds.

In Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion (1) Haidt describes a “new synthesis” of “cross-disciplinary scientific interest in morality” which has taken place since the advent of the technology of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI).  Our new ability, with fMRI, to see which parts of the brain are active when we react to various situations, in combination with other findings from social science research – notably including that of Haidt – shows us that “Emotional responses in the brain, not abstract principles of philosophy” explain why we humans think and act the way we do about moral and social issues.    

Haidt summarizes this new synthesis in with four principles of Moral Psychology:

1)   “Intuitive primacy, but not dictatorship.”  We are driven mostly by our instantaneous emotions and intuitions (e.g., fight or flee, approach or avoid.)  Reasoning, on the other hand, “by its very nature is slow, playing out in seconds,” long after we’ve experienced our emotional reaction to something.  The use of reason to override our intuitive reactions “happens rarely, maybe in one or two percent of the hundreds of judgments we make each week.”   

2)   “Moral thinking is for social doing.” Reason is for winning arguments, not for finding the truth.  Language and reasoning evolved to help us persuade others to see and do things our way. 

3)   “Morality binds and builds.”  “Morality is a set of constraints that binds people together into an emergent collective identity.”  Humans “form tight, cooperative groups that pursue collective ends and punish cheaters and slackers, and they do this most strongly when in conflict with other groups.  Morality is what makes all of that possible.”

4)   “Morality is about more than harm and fairness.”  Many people believe that morality is about fairness, and the “care and protection of the vulnerable.”  “But if you try to apply this two-foundation morality to the rest of the world, you either fail or you become Procrustes.”  [Procrustes is a mythological figure who would persuade passers-by to stay the night with the promise that he had a bed which would fit them perfectly.  After they accepted his offer he would stretch them or amputate parts of their legs so they would fit the bed.  Procrustean analysis is the process of fitting the data to fit the solution.]  “If you want to describe human morality, rather than the morality of educated Western academics, you’ve got to include the Durkheimian view that morality is in large part about binding people together.”

So, if it is true, then, that we’re driven more by emotion than by reason, and morality is about more than just care and fairness, then what, exactly, are the core, innate emotions which drive us, and how do we put them to use for “social doing”?   This is where Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory comes in. 


(1) Also availble from Haidt’s web site: “This essay was reprinted in: J. Schloss & M. Murray (eds.), (2009). The believing primate: Scientific, philosophical, and theological reflections on the origin of religion. New York: Oxford. pp. 278-291. This version is better for printing than the original Edge essay– it is better formatted, and includes references.”


2 thoughts on “The Three Principles of Moral Psychology

  1. update this post! 🙂


    Posted by Friended FOREVER | March 27, 2018, 12:10 pm


  1. Pingback: The Delusion Behind “Viewpoint Diversity” and “No Labels” Exacerbates Our Problems | The Independent Whig - December 9, 2016

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