What can psychology tell us about moral reasoning that literature and the humanities cannot?

June 15th, 2010 by Ravi Iyer

Some colleagues of mine were fortunate enough to gather in Herzilaya, Israel for a conference on morality, the product of which is publicly available online. As I reach the end of my graduate school career, I find myself wondering about the greater purpose of some of the research psychologists do and I found particular resonance in this chapter from the conference, Paradigm Assumptions About Moral Behavior: An Empirical Battle Royal by Lawrence J. Walker, Jeremy A. Frimer, & William L. Dunlop of the University of British Columbia.

What interested me was not the data, but the critique of how psychologists attempt to illuminate the human condition.  A few quotes from the chapter summarize the points I’d like to emphasize.

Psychologists often study phenomena in isolated, artificial environments, which allows researchers to necessarily isolate variables of interest, but….

Aiming to isolate phenomena, scholars in this research enterprise are prone to devise somewhat peculiar and overly constrained assessments of moral functioning that are remote from everyday moral experience.
Psychologists then generalize these findings to natural settings that are ‘messy’ with extraneous factors.
A gold nugget in Gilligan’s (1982) critique of moral psychology was her skepticism concerning such constrained dilemmas and her advocacy for assessing moral judgment more naturalistically, tapping moral problems from individuals’ own experience.
If 60% of participants in a study do X in situation Y, psychologists are prone to saying that “people” tend to do X in situation Y, not addressing the 40% who did not do that.  Or in experiments, it may be said that Y causes X, rather than saying that Y can sometimes cause X.
Another paradigmatic assumption to which we draw attention asserts that people are psychologically “cut from the same cloth,” uniformly operating by the same moral psychological
processes. This assumption is manifest in the frequent reliance on a single type of research participant (e.g., undergraduate students garnering course credit), a lack of consideration for
individual differences, and a homogenizing “people” label.
Sometimes psychologists point out such methodological flaws with the conclusion that psychologists need to do more rigorous research. I would say that instead, perhaps there are inherent limits on how convincing any single piece of research can be. Published research can be seen as evidence to be shared, rather than conclusive final words on a subject, which they rarely are when dealing with something as complex as human behavior. Similarly, the author’s conclusion is not to throw out psychological research, but rather to use “multiple lenses” on the same phenomena before concluding anything.
Our proposal contends that lab experimentation should be balanced with real-world observation of socially significant affairs and that morally relevant aspects of personality should
be tapped across all levels of personality description. Different methodologies should be mutually informative. Multiple lenses on the same phenomena contribute to a more comprehensive understanding, whereas divergent findings across methodologies hearken our attention.

So what can psychology tell us about moral reasoning that literature and the humanities, or simply reading the newspaper thoughtfully, cannot?  I would say not much, but rather that psychology can help buttress what can be learned by other methods and vice versa. They both get at the same questions. A colleague of mine once shared that he thinks of psychology studies as statistical parables, in the same way that stories of the real or fictional world provide us with different kinds of parables. Anyone who has read a really good novel might believe Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote that “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.”

The authors I quote above want us to use multiple lenses to understand the human condition, referring to the lenses that psychologists might use (different samples, different methods). I would further extend that analogy to all fields that attempt to understand the human condition, such as literature and the humanities, but also just reading the news. This is not to say that there is not something powerful about quantitative analysis and methodologically rigorous psychological research. But as I step back from the research, I find that I’m only convinced by findings where there is a web of evidence, of the type that one researcher, paper, study, method, or discipline, could never produce…where the statistical parable has been replicated in other ways by other people and is echoed in situations I’ve faced and news stories I’ve read about. Fortunately, the internet and semantic web technologies promise to make it easier to discover such webs of evidence…but that’s a subject for another post.

If you have the patience, it’s worth reading the results of the conference in Herzilaya, but if not, perhaps I’ll make a practice of summarizing some of the other chapters as I read them. Social psychology can be unfortunately unintelligible, in ways that literature is not.

– Ravi Iyer

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