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Moral Intuitions and Heuristics: Evaluating the Evidence

replications / related research

Never trust a single study.
Eg. the same authors pubilshed another study in the same year \citep{schnall:2008_clean} which an attempt to replicate has quite convincingly indicated that the effect is not powerful enough to have been discovered by the original study \citep{johnson:2014_does}.
How are things with \citet{schnall:2008_disgust}? \citep{chapman:2013_things} is a broadly supportive review.

Eskine et al, 2011 figure 1

\citet{eskine:2011_bad} is another study which appears to support (end extend) \citet{schnall:2008_disgust}.
Relevant because bitterness is related to disgust.
Different tastes in mouth, ‘using Wheatley and Haidt’s (2005) moral vignettes, which portray various moral trans- gressions (second cousins engaging in consensual incest, a man eating his already-dead dog, a congressman accepting bribes, a lawyer prowling hospitals for victims, a person shoplifting, and a student stealing library books)’ \citep{eskine:2011_bad}.
Also ‘using Wheatley and Haidt’s (2005) moral vignettes, which portray various moral transgressions (second cousins engaging in consensual incest, a man eating his already-dead dog, a congressman accepting bribes, a lawyer prowling hospitals for victims, a person shop-lifting, and a student stealing library books)’ \citep{eskine:2011_bad}.
‘Results revealed a significant effect of bev- erage type, F(2, 51) = 7.368, p = .002, η 2 = .224. Planned contrasts showed that participants’ moral judgments in the bitter condition (M = 78.34, SD = 10.83) were significantly harsher than judgments in the control condition (M = 61.58, SD = 16.88), t(51) = 3.117, p = .003, d = 1.09, and in the sweet condition (M = 59.58, SD = 16.70), t(51) = 3.609, p = .001, d = 1.22’ \citep{eskine:2011_bad}.
‘Judgments in the control and sweet conditions did not differ significantly, t(51) = 0.405, n.s.’ \citep{eskine:2011_bad}.

Chapman & Anderson, 2013 table 2

11 studies here. Note that two studies found no effect of manipulating disgust on moral judgement.

‘To date, almost all of the studies that have manipulated disgust or cleanliness have reported effects on moral judgment. These findings strengthen the case for a causal relationship between disgust and moral judgment, by showing that experimentally evoked disgust---or cleanliness, its opposite---can influence moral cognition’


Chapman & Anderson (2013)

conclusion so far

There seems to be a variety of evidence for the claim

that manipulating disgust-related phenomena

can influence unreflective ethical judgements.

Compare two claims about an Affect Heuristic ...

1. Pachur et al (2012) on risk judgements

2. Sinnott-Armstrong et al (2010) on unreflective ethical judgements (‘moral intuitions’)

I want to suggest that there are two points of disanalogy ...

frequency, VSL & risk vs feeling

frequency & risk are unknown to subjects

we know feelings are distinct from, and no part of, frequency & risk

ethical valence (wrongness) vs disgust

Is ethical valence unknown to subjects?

Is disugust distinct from, and no part of, ethical valence?

Sinnott-Armstrong et al (2010)’s heuristic model:

unsupported by theory,

and by evidence (so far)

But this doesn’t mean we haven’t learnt anything


emotions do influence

unreflective ethical judgements

(and conversely).

If we reject Sinnott-Armstong et al (2010)’s heuristic theory, we are left with a deep puzzle.


Why do feelings of disgust influence unreflective moral judgements?

(And why do we feel disgust in response to moral transgressions?)

This is really a question about the function of morally-evoked disgust.
‘What is the function of moral disgust? One of the most intriguing features of moral disgust is that it is not clear why it exists at all. Why should an emotion originating in defense against toxicity and disease be triggered by a social stimulus? The mystery deepens when we consider that human beings already have a social emotion that seems tailored to respond to moral wrongdoing, namely, anger (Weiner, 2006). Why then do we feel disgust in response to moral transgressions?’ \citep[p.~317]{chapman:2013_things}.
Compare: why do we feel disgust generally? Because it helps us avoid poisons. ‘Disgust is thought to have originated in distaste, a food-rejection impulse or motivation triggered by the ingestion of unpleasant-tasting substances, prototypically those that are bit- ter (Chapman, Kim, Susskind, & Anderson, 2009; Rozin & Fallon, 1987). Because many bitter substances are toxic (Garcia, Hankins, Denton, & Coghlan, 1975), the role of distaste in food rejection has a clear and concrete adaptive function. Distaste appears to have very ancient origins: Even sea anemones, which first evolved some 500 million years ago, will expel bitter foods from their gastric cavity (Garcia et al., 1975)’ \citep[p.~300]{chapman:2013_things}.
Chapman & Anderson tentatively propose an analogy: Just as nonmoral disgust prompts us to withdraw and thereby enables us not only to avoid poisons but also to avoid eating things that might be less nutritous and wreck our appetites (opportunity costs), so perhaps moral disgust may exist to prompt us to withdraw from situations in which there are moral transgressions, so that we will either avoid harm or not miss an opportuinity engage in some potentially more rewarding situation. Moral disgust conserves energy. (Contrast anger, which might prompt us to punish or flight rather than to withdraw.)