Theory on framework issues

Friday, October 12, 2012

14.4. The deeper solution to the mystery of moralism—Morality and free will are hazardous to your mental health

The complex relationship between Systems 1 and 2 and construal level

The distinction between pre-attentive and focal-attentive mental processes  has permeated cognitive psychology for some 35 years. In the past half-decade has emerged another cognitive dichotomy specific to social psychology: processes of abstract construal (far cognition) versus concrete construal (near cognition). This essay will theorize about the relationship between these dichotomies to clarify further how believing in the existence of free will and in the objective existence of morality can thwart reason by causing you to choose what you don’t want.

The state of the art on pre-attentive and focal-attentive processes is Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, where he calls pre-attentive processes System 1 and focal-attentive processes System 2. The reification of processes into fictional systems also resembles Freud’s System Csc (Conscious) and System Pcs (Preconscious). I’ll adopt the language System 1 and System 2, but readers can apply their understanding of preconscious – conscious, pre-attentive – focal-attentive, or automatic processes – controlled processes dichotomies. They name the same distinction, in which System 1 consists of processes occurring quickly and effortlessly in parallel outside awareness; System 2 consists of processes occurring slowly and effortfully in sequential awareness, which in this context refers to the contents of working memory rather than raw experience and accompanies System 2 activity.

To integrate Systems 1 and 2 with construal-level theory, we note that System 2—the conscious part of our minds—can perform any of three routines in making a decision about taking some action, such as whether to vote in an election, a good example not just for timeliness but also for linkages to our main concern with morality: voting is a clear example of an action without tangible benefit. The potential voter might:

Case 1. Make a conscious decision to vote based on applying the principle that citizens owe a duty to vote in elections.
Case 2. Decide to be open to the candidates’ substantive positions and vote only if either candidate seems worthy of support.
Case 3. Experience a change of mind between 1 and 2.

The preceding were examples of the three routines System 2 can perform:

Case 1. Make the choice.
Case 2. “Program” System 1 to make the choice based on automatic criteria that don’t require sequential thinking.
Case 3. Interrupt System 1 in the face of anomalies.

When System 2 initiates action, whether it retains the power to decide or passes to System 1 is the difference between concrete and abstract construal. Case 2 is key to understanding how Systems 1 and 2 work to produce the effects construal-level theory predicts. Keep in mind that the unconscious, automatic System 1 includes not just hardwired patterns but also skilled habits. Meanwhile, System 2 is notoriously “lazy,” unwilling to interrupt System 1, as in Case 3, but despite the perennial biases that plague System 1, resulting from letting it have its way, the highest levels of expertise also occur in System 1.

A delegate System 1 operates with holistic patterns typifying far cognition. This mode is far because we offload distant matter to System 1 but exercise sequential control under System 2 as immediacy looms—although there are many exceptions. It is critical to distinguish far cognition from the lazy failure of System 2 to perform properly in Case 3, as such failure isn’t specific to mode. Far cognition, System 1 acting as delegate for System 2, is a narrower concept than automatic cognition, but far cognition is automatic cognition. Near cognition admits no easy cross-classification.

Belief in free will and moral realism undermine our “fast and frugal heuristics”

The two most important recent books on the cognitive psychology of decision and judgment are Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and Gut Reactions: The Intelligence of the Unconscious by Gerd Gigerenzer, and both insist on the contrast between their positions, although conflicts aren’t obvious. Kahneman explains System 1 biases as due to employing mechanisms outside their evolutionary range of usefulness; Gigerenzer describes “fast and frugal heuristics” that sometimes misfire to produce biases. Where these half-empty versus half-full positions on heuristics and biases really differ is their overall appraisal of near and far processes, as Gigerenzer is a far thinker and Kahneman a near thinker, and they are both naturally biased for their preferred modes. Far thought shows more confidence in fast-and-frugal heuristics, since it offloads to System 1, whose province is to employ them.

The fast-and-frugal-heuristics way of thinking helps in understanding the effects of moral realism and free will: they cause System 2 to supplant System 1 in decision-making. When we apply principles of integrity to regulate our conduct, sometimes we do better in far mode, where System 2 offloads the task of determining compliance to System 1. Not if you have a principle of integrity that includes an absolute obligation to vote; then you act as in Case 1: based on a conscious decision. But principles of integrity do not really take this absolute form, an illusion created by moral realism. A principle of integrity flexible enough for actual use might favor voting (based, say, on a general principle embracing an obligation to perform duties) but disfavor it for “lowering the bar” if there’s only a choice between the lesser of evils. The art of objectively applying this principle depends on your honest appraisal of the strength of your commitment to each component virtue, a feat System 2 is incapable of performing; when it can be accomplished, it’s due to System 1’s unconscious skills. Principles of integrity are applied more accurately in far-mode than near-mode. [Hat Tip to Overcoming Bias for these convenient phrases.]

But beliefs in moral realism and free will impel moral actors to apply their principles in near-mode because these beliefs hold that moral conduct results from freely willed acts. I’m not going to thoroughly defend the premise here, but this thought experiment might carry some persuasive weight. Read the following in near mode, and introspect your emotions:

Sexual predator Jerry Sandusky will serve his time in a minimal security prison, where he’s allowed groups of visitors five days a week.

Some readers will experience a sense of outrage. Then remind yourself: There’s no free will. If you believe the reminder, your outrage will subside; if you’ve long been a convinced and consistent determinist, you might not need to remind yourself. Morality inculpates based on acts of free will: morality and free will are inseparable.

A point I must emphasize because of its novelty: it’s System 1 that ordinarily determines what you want. System 2 doesn't ordinarily deliberate about the subject directly; it deliberates about relevant facts, but in the end, you can only intuit your volition. What a belief in moral realism and free will do is nothing less than change the architecture of decision-making. When we practice principles of integrity and internalize them, they and nonmoral considerations co-determine our System 1 judgments, whereas according to moral realism and free will, moral good is the product of conscious free choice, so System 2 contrasts its moral opinion to System 1’s intuition, for which System 2 compensates—and usually overcompensates. With the voter who had to weigh the imperatives of the duty to vote and the duty to avoid “lowering the bar” when both candidates promote distasteful or vacuous programs, System 2 can prime and program System 1 by studying the issues, but the multifaceted decision is itself best made by System 1. What happens when System 2 tries to decide? System 2 makes the qualitative judgment that System 1 is biased one way or the other and corrects System 1, implicating the overcompensation bias, by which conscious attempts to counteract biases usually overcorrect. A voter who thinks correction is needed for a bias toward shirking duty will vote when not really wanting to, all things considered. A voter biased toward "lowering the bar" will be excessively purist. Whatever standard the voter uses will be taken too far.

Belief in moral realism and free will biases practical reasoning

This essay has presented the third of three ways that belief in objective morality and free will causes people to do other than what they want:

  1. It retards people in adaptively changing their principles of integrity.
  2. It prevents people from questioning their so-called foundations.
  3. It systematically exaggerates the compellingness of moral claims.


  1. Hi Stephen, interesting post, thought I'd prod around a bit, if you don't mind. Why would a determinist lack a sense of outrage? I can understand a determinist might say there are no moral facts, because there's no free will, but still surely he/she could well say that his/her outrage is, or was, predetermined? Or something a little more biological like a sense of outrage is a way of humans ensuring that our society is supportive of the reproduction of Homo sometimes Sapiens, and so whilst lacking any more logical defense than "the Cheetah catches the gazelle" it could be expanded into something similar to "the Cheetah catches the Gazelle to ensure it survives and produces baby Cheetahs, if it didn't have the urge to do this, there well may have not been a Cheetah in the first place".

  2. Hi Joseph,

    What I contend a consistent determinist must lack isn't the capacity for outrage but belief in desert: that bad people ought to be punished, hence it's outrageous if they're punished too leniently. What is desert? It's not just a matter of favoring punishing someone; it's entirely possible to favor punishing people when they don't deserve it, as when a camp counselor punishes a group of campers for the needs of one in a utilitarian spirit. Desert implies that there's a moral requirement that punishment be applied because of the badness of the actor.

    Consider how we react to the misdeeds of a nonhuman animal. It's very hard to think of a dog as deserving punishment; and that's because we don't endow dogs with free will.

  3. "Sexual predator" is propaganda language. Unfortunately it tells us nothing about the actual harm caused, and it is routinely applied to nonviolent people engaging in consensual sex which violates some formal norm, e.g. statutory "rape".

    The moral judgment conveyed by this language is self-reinforcing because it adds the implication of assumptions (violence, harm, no consent) even though it is practically applied to cases where these assumptions are actually false.

    Therefore, its practice reduces the rationality and accuracy of actual moral judgments, and consequently politcal and legal judgments. This is socially harmful.

  4. Whether or not free will “truly” exists is irrelevant, psychological research suggests, to the question of whether or not an individual is able to control his or her behavior in a particular moment. A person either controls herself by acting in a way that is consistent with a particular set of norms or does not control herself by acting in opposition to it. -RHB


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