An Evolutionary Science Perspective on Intuition, Rationality, Conflict, and Moral Judgments: Evolutionary Perspective on Moral Decision Making

An Evolutionary Science Perspective on Intuition, Rationality, Conflict, and Moral Judgments: Evolutionary Perspective on Moral Decision Making

James M. Honeycutt, Ryan D. Rasner
Copyright: © 2021 |Pages: 13
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-7439-3.ch003
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Moral judgments can be the result of cognitive deliberations, which develop with age and socialization. Rationality began in humans with the development of the cerebral cortex. Alternatively, they can be the based-on survival mechanisms emanating in the sympathetic nervous based on innate, survival mechanisms (fight, flight, freeze) and the amygdala. Common examples are road rage (e.g., I was right while the other driver was wrong, cut me off, and could have killed me) and hold-your-ground state laws for self-defense (the victim was justified in killing the intruder, even though the intruder had no weapon when reaching into their coat pocket). Moral decision making can be based on an innate survival mechanism. Those who did this did not survive and were not our ancestors. This chapter reviews the research on signal detection theory, how aggression is favored over conciliation, as cognitive reasoning breaks down. Physiological studies involving the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system are reviewed in terms of the amygdala and emotional intelligence.
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Intuition goes by various names such as “gut feeling,” “inner voice,” or “hunches.” Intuitive actions take place in milliseconds. It has been argued that intuition has adapted over the course of evolutionary history, to be sensitive to constant, linear, and causal relationships among stimuli in the environment (McCrea, 2010). Correspondingly, rationality involves deductive reasoning, cognition, and logic. Moral judgements can be made instantly (e.g., crowd chanting kill them at a rally) based on conditioning as well as thought out through deductive reasoning. Relatedly, when we fight, we can be logical and rational. Yet, we often lose this focus, as we become frustrated and see that our goals are not being achieved.

Intuition can be thought of as insight that arises spontaneously without conscious reasoning (cf., see Kahneman, 2011, p.16). Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel prize in economics for his work on human judgment and decision-making, has proposed that we have two different thought systems: system 1 is fast and intuitive; system 2 is slower and relies on reasoning. The fast system, he holds, is more prone to error. It increases the chance of survival by enabling us to anticipate serious threats and recognize promising opportunities. But the slower thought system, by engaging critical thinking and analysis, is less susceptible to producing bad decisions. Similarly, Dbiec and LeDoux (2009) discusses two neural pathways through which the amygdala's fear responses can be triggered: an emergency, fast “low road” from the thalamus to the amygdala, and a standard, slower “high road” that passes from the thalamus to the neocortex and only then to the amygdala, said LeDoux. Evolutionarily speaking, it may be prudent for the faster pathway to err on the side of caution.

Figure 1.


Source: Dbiec J., LeDoux J. (2009) The Amygdala and the Neural Pathways of Fear. In: LeDoux J., Keane T., Shiromani P. (eds) Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Humana Press.


The first section overviews the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system and how they protect us from harm and in dealing with stress. The next section deals with moral judgements based on the evolutionary need for utter survival. The third section reviews signal detection studies. The fourth section discusses aggressive and conciliatory options for resolving conflict. The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of brain chemistry differences in leadership and conflict resolution.

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