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What's Wrong With Morality?Review - What's Wrong With Morality?
A Social-Psychological Perspective
by C. Daniel Batson
Oxford University Press, 2016
Review by Kyle Furlane
May 17th 2016 (Volume 20, Issue 20)

In his new book, social psychologist C. Daniel Batson asks the question "What's wrong with morality?"  His answer: quite a bit!  Batson, who has done important empirical work on empathy and altruism, turns his gaze to moral psychology more generally.  The result is an illuminating, if somewhat depressing, examination of human attempts to be moral.  By looking at decades of social psychology (including much of his own work), as well as examples from history and literature,  he makes the case that people, by and large, lack "moral integrity" and act against their purported values and moral principles.  People lie, steal, and cheat--all the while avowing that they adhere to lofty principles.  Along the way the reader gets an informative analysis of the major trends in moral psychology past and present as well as an introduction to many important thinkers in psychology (e.g. Freud, Kohlberg, Haidt)  and philosophy (e.g. Aristotle, Hume, Prinz).  Through his analysis we learn that Batson's question is not new.  Countless thinkers have grappled with our "moral maladies" and have come up with numerous explanations for them.  Batson contends that no one culprit--weakness of will, poor judgment, situational factors, lack of motivation, lack of proper development,character flaws, etc.--is to blame, but instead the intricate and often mysterious confluence of  them.  All throughout he considers "the interplay of values, emotions, and motives that produce our behavior" because "it is in this interplay that [he] believe[s] much of the problem lies."(3)  He hopes that by looking closely at these connections will give us a more realistic picture of the hopes and limits of morality. 

Before getting into what is wrong with morality, Batson goes to lengths to be clear on what he takes morality to be.  For him, there are five ways in which moral behavior can be motivated: principlism, egoism, collectivism, and altruism.  Each has a distinct ultimate goal: egoism->"increasing our own welfare", altruism->"increasing another's welfare", collectivism->"increasing a group's welfare", principlism->promoting some moral standard, principle, or ideal." (29)  On the flipside of "moral integrity" is the fifth type of motivation, "moral hypocrisy" which is the "motivation to appear moral while, if possible, avoiding the cost of actually being moral."(94) He takes principlism to be be the only true moral motivator, the other four can lead to moral actions, but they are always instrumental to some other ultimate goal.  For example, you are not being moral even if you help someone at cost to yourself, because that helping behavior was caused by, say, the desire to reduce the suffering of the person (not a moral principle).  This is why to act for a principle is the only way to act with "moral integrity".  Importantly, Batson seems fairly loose about what he considers a "principle", including "rules, norms, commandments, ideals, and virtues."(3) While this distinction may strike some as strange, Batson uses it to give interesting, though not uncontroversial, results.

Batson argues that "moral integrity" (behavior motivated by our moral principles) is rare and moral hypocrisy (acting in a way that appears to be motivated by principles, but is not) is much more common.  Not only does our behavior fail to reflect our principles but we are actively engaged in "moral combat"(Ch. 7) in which we attempt to use appeals to moral principles to control other's behavior, but not our own.  Not only this, but we often fail to see that our behavior violates our own principles.  Furthermore, hopes of correcting these moral maladies do not seem promising, at least overall (Ch. 8).  From this we can see that Batson is attempting to change the conversation in moral psychology.  In the past the problem was conceived thusly: we know what the right thing to do it but something about the situation or ourselves prevents us from acting according to our principles and if we could only tweak ourselves or the environment we would act morally.  Batson contends that this is too simplistic.  The real problems with morality are more deeply-seeded and their solution will require a more holistic view of moral motivation.  One in which we need to "orchestrate" our motives, principles, and emotions so that "rather than the motives conflicting with and undercutting one another, the strengths of one can be used to overcome the weaknesses of another." (224)

While Batson's argument is compelling if we accept his framework and definitions, some will find them inadequate or problematic, especially his distinction between moral and nonmoral.  Some will argue that it is perfectly reasonable to think that we can act morally without the guidance or internalization of impartial, universal principles and that to definitionally prevent this is odd.  Furthermore, some may be confused why "collectivism" and "altruism" are always nonmoral motivation, especially when we consider that what many would see as quintessentially moral acts involve self-sacrifice for another.  His set-up will fit with utilitarians and Kantians, but he gives us few hints about what he would say to care ethicists, moral particularists, or even virtue ethicists (even though virtues can apparently be treated as principles, as stated above).  Readers of moral philosophy will see it as somewhat ironic that Batson chooses the term "integrity" to describe action motivated by principles because the same term was famously used to by Bernard Williams to argue against strict adherence to impartial principles (see Williams 1981).

Another potential issue is that Batson is making some big general claims about human behavior but most of the evidence he provides is coming from studies of a somewhat narrow population (undergraduates) in controlled lab settings.  This is especially important to note when we hear Batson characterize moral integrity as "rare".  Though there is not room here to get much into specifics, the basic setup of the experiments cited (especially those in Ch.5) are to give participants a questionnaire about their moral principles then put them in a situation where they can choose to go against those principles without much or any penalty. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most participants were liable to cheat when they are given "wiggle room" to act immorally.  Batson takes this as evidence that participants were motivated by moral hypocrisy, but this interpretation is not without its complications.  First, as noted above, he has a very particular definition of morality that leaves out much behavior (altruism and collectivism) that would commonly be deemed moral.  Second, in all of the studies cited, it is hardly the case that everyone was acting against their avowed commitments, most studies found at least 10% and sometimes over 30% of participants stayed true to their principles even when given "wiggle room". 

While Batson may be suspicious that some of this can be explained by moral hypocrisy, this is hardly the only interpretation.  This is partly because, third, it seems fair to think that many participants did not see these experiments as moral situations at all.  Surely, knowingly being in a study had some impact on behavior and it is reasonable to think students may simply  see the situation as non-serious, or that the stakes are too low for moral principles to come into play.  Students are at least implicitly aware of the "rules" of psychology experiments that disallow participants from committing immoral acts, and that appearances of immorality are part of the mimetic nature of the experiment.  With that said, Batson is forthright with his uncertainty and the speculative nature of his claims ("Evidence to date, although, supportive, isn't nearly as extensive and systematic as I would like.(7)) though he does his best to try to augment these studies with anecdotal, sociological and historical information.

These weaknesses notwithstanding, this book will serve as a great introduction to the current state of moral psychology.  Written in clear and often witty prose, this volume is suitable for undergraduate and graduate students, especially those in psychology and philosophy, or the general reader interested in the study of moral psychology.  Batson puts many important moral ideas in the broader context of social psychology.  Through this context Batson astutely highlights the frustratingly complex factors influencing our moral behavior and warns us to not oversimplify things by looking for a single cause for our "moral maladies" (such as "personal deficiencies" or "situational pressures").  This book is at its best in Ch. 2-6 where Batson serves as an expert guide through many important theoretical movements and experiments.  While you may not agree with all of his conclusions, his perspective is helpful in explaining the rationale behind these studies, as well as the limitations of their results. Especially for those of us who are not empirical psychologists.  Throughout he employs his usual cleverness to paint an interesting, if somewhat pessimistic, picture of human morality.  

 

Work Cited

Williams, Bernard (1981). Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers, 1973-1980. Cambridge University Press.

 

© 2016 Kyle Furlane

 

Kyle Furlane is a Ph.D student in the Philosophy Department at the University of Cincinnati


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