The Social Intuitionist Model of Moral Judgement SIM

The Social Intuitionist Model of Model of Moral Judgment

The Socialist Intuitionist Model of Moral Judgment [SIM] proposed by J Haidt and F Bjorklund et al aims to give a descriptive account of where our moral beliefs come from and the process that enter into their formation. So it is aiming to give an outline of the sorts of things that people think are moral issues and how people engage in reasoning when they are discussing moral issues. The outline is in very broad terms with morality coming under five main categories.

1: The foundations of Morality

Haidt claims that human moral codes reflect what humans care about and share some similarity with what other primates care about.

1.Harm/care domain

These concern the actions of humans that cause suffering to others as well as actions that relieve suffering. Actions that involve harm typically raise moral issues such as whether the harm outweighs the good that will follow. Think of issues such as whether parents/schools are entitled to give corporal punishment to their children.  The moral issue is often cast in terms of the outcomes for such children. Those that think such punishments are justified will tend to claim it does them no lasting harm, whilst those that stand opposed to such treatment tend to claim that there is more likely to be lasting harm, or that such treatment is ineffective and therefore the harm of punishment not justified.

2. Fairness/reciprocity:

Moral domains in all cultures revolve around issues concerning fair and unfair treatment. There is a fascinating experiment by Frans De Waal outlining monkeys reaction to different rewards for the same amount of work. This reaction is found in humans and if you think about when different groups of people are rewarded more than others but they are not working any harder it is often a source of discontent and raises complaints of “unfair”.


Within all cultures there are concerns about whether people ought to be loyal to the group that they identify with. Think of the identity of your country and whether you are loyal to people in your own country when supporting teams at the world cup, or whether you think that there are certain sovereignty issues or ownership of territory that your home country claims against those of outsiders.

The last two tend to raise more controversial issues


Haidy claims that there is a common theme in morality regarding which types of authority figures deserve respect. Think of the figures that hold power in your country and whether you think that they are deserving of respect because they occupy these positions i.e. does the Head of State, or Head of Country deserve respect? What about the Headmaster of your school? What about your parents?


Haidt claims that morality is typically concerned about physical and spiritual contagion, including virtues of chastity, wholesomeness, and control of desires. The idea here is that it is a moral issue about how people take care of their bodies not just a health issue.

Haidt goes on to argue that these foundations may generate different sets of moral codes depending on which domains are stressed and as such the moral codes need not be commensurable. Haidt offers an example of such differences the culture war between liberals and conservatives which he describes as an attempt to build different moral systems from over-lapping moral foundations. Liberals are described as having a slimmer set of moral foundations emphasizing the first two or three components above whereas conservatives are more prone to emphasize the whole set.

Liberals are described as trying to build an open and diverse cosmopolitan place with the moral domain limited to harms, rights and justice – on such a conception moral regulation does not concern sexual matters or gender roles where these do not harm others.  Conservatives by contrast are described as trying to build less diverse more homogenous communities that respect authority and tradition whilst Liberals do not respect authorities or traditions unless they are beneficial.


2: How moral judgment works.

The Social Intuitionist Model [SIM] of moral judgment as its name suggests holds that moral judgment is chiefly a matter of intuitions that are most influenced by social factors.  The model is chiefly opposed to the rationalist model of moral judgment. Haidt et al propose the following model as an outline of moral judgment with the unbroken lines representing the most common pathways and broken lines representing less frequent occurrences:

1: The Intuitive Judgment Link

Haidt et al describe intuitions as fast, automated processes that occur without conscious reflection and give rise to moral judgments or more generally evaluations of situations. The affective elements of experience (like-dislike, good-bad) reach consciousness so quickly and automatically that we can be aware of liking something prior to knowing what it is. In stressing the primacy of affect Haidt holds that the human mind is always evaluating regardless of whether it is men’s faces, a menu, or people’s names and much of the information that goes into such evaluations occurs non-consciously. Hence Haidt defines moal intuition as:

[T]he sudden appearance in consciousness, or at the fringe of consciousness, of an evaluative feeling (like-dislike, good-bad) about the character or actions of a person, without any conscious awareness of having gone through steps of search, weighing evidence, or inferring a conclusion

Haidt & Bjorklund, 2008, p. 188

The evaluative feeling that arises automatically then typically gives rise to a moral judgment that is consciously endorsed by the agent. However there are cases whereby the moral intuition and the moral judgment come apart so that one has a negative or positive evaluation of something without consciously endorsing that attitude:

[T]ight connection between flashes of intuition and conscious moral judgments…is not inevitable: Often a person has a flash of negative feeling, for example, towards stigmatized groups…yet because of one’s other values, one resists or blocks the normal tendency to progress from intuition to consciously endorsed judgment.

Haidt & Bjorkland 2008

Link2 The Post Hoc Reasoning Link.

Perhaps the most important link in SIM is the link between moral judgment and reasoning. Reasoning is defined in opposition to intuition and is ‘conscious mental activity that consists in transforming information about people in order to reach a moral judgment.’ Such reasoning is effortful and controllable and the reasoner is aware that it is occurring.  We often feel a need to justify our moral intuitions (especially when questioned by others) much more that we do with judgments of aesthetics or taste. However according to SIM whilst we like to imagine ourselves reasoning like ideal scientists looking for truth in an unbiased manner we actually search for reasons in a highly biased way to support our existing beliefs rather that our reasoning being used to transform our existing beliefs. Haidt describes this as:

Moral reasoning is usually an ex post facto process used to influence the intuitions (and hence judgments) of other people. In the social intuitionist model, one feels a quick flash of revulsion at the thought of incest and one knows intuitively that something is wrong. Then when faced with a social demand for a verbal justification, one becomes a lawyer trying to build a case rather than a judge searching for the truth.

Haidt 2001, p.18

Haidt illustrates when moral reasoning is taking place in the post hoc lawyer mode by the use of moral vignettes that invoke harmless taboo violations. For instance in a scenario involving incest subjects quickly express that incest is wrong but can only cite reasons that have already been ruled out by the vignette. In this they appear to be relying on heuristics from their cultural background i,e, reasons typically given for thinking that the action is wrong such as possible harm to offspring or social stigma. Their lack of responsiveness to change their initial moral judgment when these reasons are defeated could be construed as evidence of modularisation of moral domains or more general phenomena of a reluctance to revise moral judgments that are driven by a strong affective response.

In stressing the primacy of affect laded intuitions over reason Haidt also cites studies whereby peoples level of disgust (via hypnotic subjects that have disgust associated with some otherwise neutral term, or by having subjects sat at a dirty desk) has been manipulated and as a consequence the severity of moral judgment is increased and in some cases people will make a moral judgment about a situation that would otherwise appear morally neutral. Finally Haidt cites a great deal of neuro-scientific evidence supports the view that flashes of affect are “essential for moral judgment” in that damage to the areas that regulate emotion such as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex can render a person morally incompetent. [Greene & Haidt 2002, Damasio 1994].

The conclusion that Haidt draws from this research is that fast automatic intuitions guided by affect have a primary role in moral judgment making rather than slow conscious reason. Further when gut feelings guide our moral judgments moral reasoning is likely to be a post hoc affair used to justify our initial moral judgment rather than seek out whether our initial moral judgment is true or not. As Haidt says:

These obviously post-hoc rationalizations illustrate the philosopher David Hume’s dictum that reason is “the slave of the passions, and can pretend to no other office than to serve and obey them.” This is the first rule of moral psychology: feelings come first and tilt the mental playing field on which reasons and arguments compete. If people want to reach a conclusion, they can usually find a way to do so.

Haidt, J. (2008) What makes people vote Republican?

Link 3 The Reasoned Persuasion Link.

Haidt holds that moral reasoning that is used to justify our actions to others can sometimes affect other people, although moral discussions are noted for the rarity for which persuasion takes place. Further, reasoned persuasion works not by logical reasoning but by triggering affect laden intuitions in the listener and the rhetorical use of language often takes primacy over logical argument. They give an example of arguments concerning the altering of male and female genitalia at birth or during initiation rites which is common practice in different cultures noting that the language of persuasion is aimed at triggering our emotions.

This is a clear case of child abuse. It’s a form of reverse racism not to protect these girls from barbarous practices that rob them for a lifetime of their God-given right to an intact body (Burstyn, 1995).

Haidt 2008

Link 4 The Social Persuasion Link

Ppeople are highly attuned to the emergence of norms and influenced by friends and acquaintances even when no reason is given.   Haidt cites with approval Chaiken’s (1987) heuristic –systematic model of persuasion whereby people are guided by the ‘principle of least effort’.  A useful heuristic that guides people’s judgments is the ‘agree with people I like heuristic’.  For instance if your friend tells you how they have been mistreated by a stranger it will make sense to agree to this without asking whether the stranger had good reasons to mistreat them. However Haidt notes that whilst people are poor at examining their own assumptions, when engaged in moral discourse with others (so long as they differ in opinion) there is the possibility of revising ones judgment.

The core of the model gives moral reasoning a causal role in moral judgment but only when reasoning runs through other people. It is hypothesised that people rarely override their initial intuitive judgments just by reasoning privately to themselves because reasoning is rarely used to question one’s own attitudes or beliefs.

Haidt 2001, p819

These four links are the core of SIM. There are 2 others that occur less frequently. These are:

Link 5 The Reasoned Judgment Link.

Haidt notes that people may reason their way to a conclusion through sheer force of logic but such reasoning is rare and occurs where the intuition is weak. Where a firmly held intuition is held a ‘dual attitude’ may be held where the intuition continues to exist under the surface that still influences behaviour. Haidt cites Peter Singer’s view that a healthy chimpanzee deserves greater protection than a severely disabled human infant.

Link 6 The Private Reflection Link

Haidt holds that the best way to trigger new intuitions is to put one self in the shoes of another, or to emerge oneself in the same practices as another so as to understand the other side. When a person comes to experience both sides of an issue they may be faced with competing intuitions. Here Haidt cites with approval William James:

Reason per se, can inhibit no impulses; the only thing that can neutralise an impulse is an impulse the other way. Reason may, however, make an inference which will excite the imagination so as to set loose the impulse the other way..

Haidt 2008 p.194

[1] It is important to note that there is a distinction between the proper and actual domain that a module functions in. For instance the proper domain is used to indicate the environment in which the module would have evolved e.g. compassion triggered in response to suffering would have been to one’s own offspring but over time and with cultural modification this gets extended to the actual domain where others children, other animals (baby seals or pet dogs that whine when you leave them) trigger compassion.


Haidt, J . (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgement. Psychological Review. 108, 814-834.

Haidt, J., & Bjorklund, F. (2008). Social intuitionists answer six questions about moral psychology. In W. Sinnott-Armstrong (Ed.), Moral Psychology, Volume 2: The Cognitive Science of Morality: Intuition and Diversity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (pp. 181-217)

Haidt, J., & Bjorklund, F. (2008). Social intuitionists reason, as a normal part of conversation. In W. Sinnott-Armstrong (Ed.), Moral Psychology, Volume 2: The Cognitive Science of Morality: Intuition and Diversity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Haidt, J. (2008) What makes people vote Republican? Published on, 9/9/08


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One Response to The Social Intuitionist Model of Moral Judgement SIM

  1. Pingback: 舉世爭議的「電車難題」是戲弄人的詭辯 | PanSci 泛科學

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