Mar 28, 2011

Dumbfounded by "Moral Dumbfounding"

Jonathan Haidt discusses "moral dumbfounding," the "stubborn and puzzled maintenance of a [moral] judgment without supporting reasons"[1]. His study purporting to show the existence of moral dumbfounding seems to suffer from a fairly obvious, though infrequently remarked, experimental error. Since the study is influential and often cited by psychologists and philosophers, it bears pointing out.

Haidt gives subjects vignettes of two cases of "harmless" taboo behavior, such as consensual adult incest and cannibalism. I want focus here on the incest case. The vignette contains no "harmful consequences" because the subjects are told that the participants in the incest have protected sex (so there is stipulated to be no risk of STI transmission or pregnancy) and suffer no harm at all [2]. The subjects in the experiments are asked whether the case of incest is wrong or not. They tend to say yes, and when they say that it's wrong because the participants are hurt or harmed, they are reminded that it's part of the vignette that there is no harm. The subjects then tend to get flustered, saying things like "I know it's wrong, but I don't know why!" Haidt calls this "moral dumbfounding."

The error in the experimental design is that what is probably the most important moral objection to consensual adult incest-- that it's deeply harmful to appropriate family relationships, irrespective of how participants in such behavior judge that it affects their relationships-- is being ruled out by experimental fiat. Being told by the experimenter that there is no harm does not make it true, but it does make it much less likely (given obvious social dynamics among experimenters and subjects) that the subjects will cite this sort of harm as a relevant moral objection. Moreover, this is a very important error, as it means that the study is of no value for discriminating between subjects who have reasons for their judgments but are not articulating them due to the dynamic just mentioned, and those who do not have reasons for their judgments at all. By failing to discriminate between these two groups, the study fails to provide evidence for moral dumbfounding. A similar objection could be made to the cannibalism vignette.

A better design would be to give subjects a simple prompt, like "Do you think that any kind of incest- among consenting adults, for example- is ever morally acceptable?" Then, experimenters would probe subjects' responses, not by rejecting their given reasons as inappropriate, but simply by asking for further justification for each reason given. Subjects will thus eventually reach a fundamental level of moral explanation at which moral dumbfounding will become apparent, if it exists. This design avoids the confound in Haidt's study and would provide clear evidence of moral dumbfounding, an interesting phenomenon that merits a place in the psychology of moral judgment.

[1] All Haidt quotes are from "Moral Dumbfounding: Where Intuition Finds No Reason," coauthored with Bjorklund and Murphy. Haidt makes use of this study in arguing for a social intuitionist account of moral judgment in "The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment," Psychological Review, 108 (814-834).

[2] The vignette does not explicitly say there is no harm, but when subjects refer to possible harm they are told that there is none.


  1. "Being told by the experimenter that there is no harm does not make it true..." This doesn't quite make sense to me. Unless you think it is, like, nomologically impossible for there to be adult consensual incest, then why can't the experimenter exactly make it true that _in this hypothetical case_ there is no harm, simply by stipulating that it is so?

  2. Sorry, that's a nonstarter as written. It was supposed to read "...nomologically impossible for there to be _harmless_ adult consensual incest". My bad!

  3. Suppose the behavior in question is disregarding someone's will after their death. One fairly plausible reason for objecting to this morally is that it is in a certain sense harmful to the deceased. (There are obviously questions about whether the dead can be harmed, but put those aside for the time being.) Going a bit further, we might argue that it's harmful to the deceased in every case.

    Now suppose that subjects are given this kind of vignette. And suppose that they believe the moral picture I just sketched for why the behavior is problematic. Suppose, further, that this moral picture is correct. (I don't care whether it is or not, it won't matter here.) It will then be true that the experimenter cannot stipulate that, in this vignette, the experimenter cannot be harmed. The stipulation will fail to pick out a coherent scenario: there are no scenarios in which wills can be disregarded without harm. Mutatis mutandis, that's the point I was making about Haidt's incest case. If adult consensual incest is in each case wrong in virtue of being harmful, then one cannot simply stipulate that it is not harmful.

  4. I should add that the issue you raise is largely independent of my main point. What matters is that a perfectly good reason that many subjects might give if provided the opportunity is ruled out by fiat. It is thus no surprise that they are "dumbfounded." That's the confound that I find problematic. As I said in the post, "the study is of no value for discriminating between subjects who have reasons for their judgments but are not articulating them due to the dynamic just mentioned [of their reason being ruled out], and those who do not have reasons for their judgments at all."

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  6. I agree that the experiment is problematic. Allow me to recreate it, though slightly differently:
    Experimenter: "Someone is sexually assaulted; is that bad?"
    Subject: "Yeah."
    Experimenter: "But I stipulate that in this case there was no harm."
    Subject: "Oh, weird. I'm dumbfounded, bro."
    Experiment: "Ahha! Another case of moral dumbfounding."


  7. Ok, so you do take consensual adult incest to be necessarily harm-involving. That seems to me a surprising claim, but I don't think it matters.

    If the subjects agreed with you, then what we'd expect them to do is to react not with _dumbfounding_ but with _confusion_. If you told subjects that you had a three-sided square, they won't be dumbfounded ("It's a square, I just can't tell you why"). Rather, they'll be nonplussed ("Um, I don't see how that can be a square, then. Say wha?"). But that's not what the researchers found. (That's also the problem with Anonymous' argument. The subject wouldn't be "I'm dumbfounded". They'd be: "Huh, what, I don't see how you can have sexual assault without commiting harm.")

    So it seems that the subjects didn't agree with you, i.e., they don't think that it's impossible for there to be non-harmful consensual adult incest. If the basis for their judgments about incest in more typical cases was based on a principle of harm, then they should judge Haidt's scenario as possible, but not morally wrong (which some do). But for the ones who do find the situation possible, but morally wrong, it can't be on the basis of an articulable harm principle;and they don't seem able to articulate much of anything else. So, yeah, it's evidence of dumbfounding.

  8. Thanks for the follow-up comment, 'Huh?'. Would subjects react with confusion rather than dumbfounding if they think the behavior always involves harm and yet are told by the experimenter that it doesn't? That sounds like an empirical hypothesis to me, and I'd be happy to know about evidence in favor of your assumption.

    The empirical hypothesis I'm appealing to (and that I think is plausible given Milgram and Asch) is that the power relationship between the experimenter and subject is such that being told by the experimenter that no harm is involved would tend to introduce a confound: some subjects will seem to become dumbfounded, even though before being told that stipulation they might have appealed to the harm. Provided that some of them are influenced in this way, we have a problem in experimental design, even if some are confused rather than dumbfounded. It can be easily fixed along the lines I suggested, and I have little doubt that if moral dumbfounding exists it can be induced experimentally.

    I'm thinking that even if you're right, I just need to make my conclusion a little softer: while the experiment might show the existence of moral dumbfounding, the confound prevents the experiment from giving an accurate measure of the extent of dumbfounding. So I don't think this is very damaging, but it is a nice point.

  9. Not a valid "study" at all. Just lazy, sensationalism-based, academic hypothesizing without following through with competent research to back it up.

    It begs the question of "no harm" (taking for granted that which should be demonstrated or proved). In the instance of incest the important question for study is not the physical harm but the potentially long-term damaging psychological harm (guilt, shame, blame, etc); and *that* could, and should, be made a subject of study, from which *valid* moral inferences could possibly be drawn.

    I would be surprised to learn that no such studies of incest exist. If, indeed, they don't then that would be time, money, and effort well spent unlike Haidt's hypothetical drivel.

    His "study" is silly, pointless, and irresponsible.

  10. Anonymous, I don't think Haidt's study is meant to show any moral conclusions, though I agree that the assumption that incest can be harm-free is a flaw in the study-- or more precisely, it's an aspect of the study's design that prevents it from showing what he thinks it shows.

  11. Matt, my point was that competent research could likely show that our culture's moral attitude toward behavior such as incest is, indeed, justified by or based in rationality and not - as Haidt's study purportedly shows - some sort of unjustified intuitive notion for which we then seek rational justification.

    In other words, a valid scientific study would have established a reasonable ground for showing that our attitude towards incest is founded in a posteriori rationality based on a likely finding of *psychological harm*. Or, in finding a generalized *absence* of pscyhological harm, then it would have lent support for Haidt's a priori, hypothesized "moral dumbfounding."

    I agree that his study wasn't meant to show any moral conclusions (though it probably *should* have in this example of incest had he bothered with actual unbiased, evidence-based scientific research) - looked to me like it was meant to show that many cultural moral values are irrational, vaguely intuition-based beliefs for which rational excuses are subsequently found to justify holding the beliefs. From the git-go. Like he knew what he was going to find before he even went. His ad hoc or on-the-fly "adjustments" to the hypotheticals (Oh, there was no physical harm, they used adequate protection; they both mutually enjoyed it, blah blah blah) pointedly demonstrating his research bias.

    Well, his fundamentally flawed "study" didn't pull it off, his dumbfounding conclusion of "moral dumbfounding" being non sequitur as articulated in your article and my previous posting.

    Thanks for your article. I think you nailed it on this one.

  12. I may see this from an overly-simplified point of view, but here it goes:

    It seems that the "dumbfounding" in Haidt's experiment is really just his subjects' inability to identify the composition fallacy built into the vignettes.

    Most of these "consenting adults" moral conundrums (conundra?) seem to make the same composition fallacy: they fiat the question of harm to the individuals in the vignette without acknowledging that lack of harm in the particular harm within the vignette does not answer the question of harm if the principle were universalized.

    Cannibalism seems like low hanging fruit. Just because two people may not suffer particular harm from Person A allowing Person B to eat his left middle finger, that does not mean that, when universalized, we would wrong to condemn that behavior as morally wrong--even for A&B. The condoning of A&B's private behavior may lead to further cannibalism, which may awaken a taste for flesh in less scrupulent members of society, zombie-ism, etc. The quick retort might be, "Then such behavior is only morally permissible for A&B and not for the rest of society who does not wish to participate in such behavior."

    That seems hardly satisfactory, because now you are not talking about morality (in a robust meaning of the word), but merely talking about private preferences that exist as taboos in spite of morality.

    Haidt's subjects appear to be simply at a loss to articulate such fallacies. If that is what he means by "moral dumbfounding" then so be it, but that does not strike me as much of an accomplishment.

  13. I think you folks are ignoring an important fact. Of the six questions that follow each vignette, the last one is: Suppose you learn about two different foreign countries. In country A, people participate in incestual acts very often, and in country B, they never do. Are both of these customs OK, or is one of them bad or wrong?
    There are MANY countries in which incest between consenting adults is not prohibited. Your arguments claiming that the vignette is wrong on its face because "The error in the experimental design is that what is probably the most important moral objection to consensual adult incest-- that it's deeply harmful to appropriate family relationships, irrespective of how participants in such behavior judge that it affects their relationships-- is being ruled out by experimental fiat." By claiming this, you're exhibiting an assumption that all people should feel uncomfortable about incest--that such a view is universal--when it obviously is not. There are cultures where incest isn't seen in the same way you want it to be seen--thus, you're guilty of moralizing.

    1. The problem of course is that these cultures that allow incest are wrong about incest. Your assuming a cultural equality. Some cultural practices are better then others. The prohibition on incest is one of them.

  14. While your criticism with regard to this vignette are valid, why have you not critiqued the "sex with chicken" vignette?

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