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Psychologist: Children Use Reason, not Gut, for Moral Problems

Audun Dahlis thinks that the case against moral reasoning has begun to unravel

A psychology prof (pictured) at University of California, Santa Cruz offers us a surprising message about children: They do not rely merely on feelings, but rather reason, when making moral choices:

For decades, research on children – unlike research on adults – has overwhelmingly concluded that participants do reason about moral issues. (Strangely, psychological research often portrays children more favourably than it does adults.) In one classic study from the 1980s, researchers interviewed six- to 10-year-old children in the United States. They asked about several fictional moral violations: for instance, a child who pushed another child off the top of a slide. When asked why pushing was wrong, children typically explained that it could hurt the victim. Accordingly, most children said that pushing would still be wrong even if adults had given permission. That is, children embraced the principle that pushing was wrong because it caused harm and, consistent with this principle, judged that pushing was wrong, whether adults gave permission or not.

Audun Dahlis, “Young children use reason, not gut feelings, to decide moral issues” at Psyche (September 16, 2020)

Despite the evidence, he explains, some researchers claim that “humans systematically disregard evidence from experts, and that we rely on gut feelings instead of reason” and that “most of our moral judgments spring from automatic, unconscious and affective reactions,” that “moral reasoning rarely shapes our moral judgments, but rather serves to justify our emotion-based judgments after the fact.”

Overemphasis on “gut feelings” may cloud the picture:

Recently, the case against moral reasoning has begun to unravel. It turns out that the effects of gut feelings on moral judgments range from small to nonexistent. Even if being disgusted makes you judge moral violations slightly more harshly, no amount of disgust can make you judge that saving a drowning child is wrong. Other critics argued that studies purporting to show that adults are unable to explain their moral judgments – so-called ‘moral dumbfounding’ – suffered from methodological limitations. When those limitations were removed, researchers found little or no evidence for moral dumbfounding. Lastly, although emotions are integral to our moral sense, emotions and thoughts are more intertwined than researchers once assumed.

Audun Dahlis, “Young children use reason, not gut feelings, to decide moral issues” at Psyche (September 16, 2020)

One background issue is that much psychology today is based on naturalism, according which consciousness may be an illusion, along with moral choice—flickers of neurons that merely help us spread our selfish genes. The relationship with reality would then be accidental.

If, in fact, reason and moral choice are part of the nature of the world in which we live—as neurosurgeon Michael Egnor would maintain—then we should not be surprised that children would show early evidence of these abilities simply because they are human:

Free will is a devilish problem — for materialists. Dualists have no similar difficulty; they assume that some aspects of the mind, such as intellect and will, are immaterial and thus not determined by matter. This belief in libertarian free will is common across cultures and is correct.

But for materialists, free will is the Great White Whale that has, metaphorically, bitten off their legs at the knee — and, like Captain Ahab, they are incessantly stalking it for revenge. After all, we all (even materialists) have an almost undeniable sense that we make real choices. If our intuition is correct, then the materialist superstition that we are machines made of meat falls apart. If we can genuinely make choices — if we genuinely have free will — then we are more than collections of atoms. But materialists cannot accept the immateriality of the human soul. They propose to hunt and harpoon it, once and for all.

Michael Egnor, “Physicist rejects free will—and thus fails logic” at Mind Matters News

And the naturalists never quite succeed in harpooning the reality of the human soul. It seems that the problem (for them) begins far too early for that.


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Psychologist: Children Use Reason, not Gut, for Moral Problems