Psychological Foundations for Morality: Some Problems

In my previous post, I made a rather bold proposition: maybe our moral beliefs can be based on notions of mental health. The sound-bite version of this was:

Actions that serve to augment or support the mental health of moral agents are moral, actions that serve to diminish their mental health are immoral, and actions that have no impact on mental health are morally neutral.

I then solicited feedback in hopes of finding the most glaring holes in my idea. That feedback came in the form of comments under the post, as well as private conversations with my fellow Sweet-Talkers.

In this post, I’d like to summarize that feedback in hopes of highlighting what many perceived to be the major weaknesses of the idea. I’ll defer my own responses, where applicable, to a later post.

Morality Is Not An Individual Phenomenon

One of the most interesting (to me) criticisms I received came once again from Samuel Hammond, who not only agreed with the Mises passage I quoted, but took the idea even further.

My understanding of his view (i.e. my words, not his) is that morality is basically only ever a social question. In other words, we can talk about character development or mental health from an individual perspective, and raise all sorts of interesting points. However, since morality is only an assessment of the extent to which a given action is “pro-social,” such individual considerations are not questions of morality. They might be interesting. They might be worthy of examination. But since morality itself is a social question, individual choices can’t really be called “moral” or “immoral” except in reference to how those actions relate to the society in which they’re made.

Truth be told, if this criticism is true, then it is indeed devastating to my idea. If morality really is a purely social construct, then when one finds oneself at odds with society, I was right to have written, “Better luck next social order.”

Psychology Is Subjective

Several objections were raised that I might broadly classify as complaints that psychology, being highly subjective in a number of ways, cannot objectively solve moral problems.

One version of this objection, quite well articulated by Andrew, highlighted the fact that behaviors and mindsets have been considered mental illnesses at one point in time and completely normal and healthy at other points in time. In other words, “what is and is not considered a mental illness changes depending on the culture.” One very obvious example is homosexuality, but perhaps a less-obvious and more powerful example is autism. In psychology’s infancy, many autistic people were simply considered invalids, or mentally deranged. Today, however, we know them to be simply atypical, but fully capable of leading happy, mentally healthy lives as valued – often times superior – contributors to human society. Under the argument that mental illness classifications change radically over time, isn’t psychology poorly equipped to serve as a foundation for moral choices? Wouldn’t it have been wrong in the year 1850 to call an autistic person immoral for reasons of her mental health classification under the prevailing psychological theories of the times?

To complicate matters further, psychology isn’t just subjective across cultures, it’s also subjective within them. Another point Andrew raises is that the moral conclusions of a true sociopath will differ radically from those of a “normal” person. (See my comment to Andrew for a brief answer to the question of sociopathy.) Suppose we are to analyze the morality of a malignant narcissist. Such a person can feel no remorse and no empathy for other human beings, and consequently derives pleasure from taking advantage of and/or abusing others. If “mentally healthy” is to mean “baseline emotional equilibrium for the individual,” then such a person might feel morally entitled to engage in behaviors that the rest of us would consider obviously abhorrent. How, then, might psychology be able to answer that malignant narcissist’s moral justifications?

It would be great if the complications ended there, but in fact they get worse. The line between “mentally healthy behavior” and “mentally unhealthy behavior” isn’t even all that well-defined for any given individual. As in the Paradox of the Heap, a patient who slips into major depresssive disorder from a previous state of “mere” profound grief doesn’t suddenly become majorly depressed as a matter of 1, 2, 3, go! It is a gradual process in which the extremes are easily identified, but for which there is no one, defining moment that delineates between mental health and mental illness. And so it goes for other kinds of patient experiences as well. If lines can be so fuzzy for an individual in a single experience, how could we ever hope to delineate concrete moral precepts from sets of experience that have absolutely no perceptible demarcation?

Psychology Is Corruptible

Another powerful criticism against the notion of basing our morality on psychology is that psychology itself can be, and has been corrupted. I received a lot of examples of this this kind.

Andrew worried that my proposal runs the risk of “pathologizing moral disagreements,” and to buttress his case, he pointed out that Soviet dissidents were often psychologically “determined” to be unfit, and institutionalized. He also pointed out quasi-psychological theories exemplified by Liberalism is a Mental Disorder and The Reactionary Mind, both of which seek to dismiss leftist and rightist political ideologies as psychological problems rather than valid, informed, principled disagreements.

Adam, for his part, pointed to the experiences of the transgendered, namely Dierdre McCloskey and her experience being forcibly institutionalized by her own sister, a psychologist. In that case, it may genuinely have been true that McCloskey’s sister believed that Dierdre needed to be institutionalized, and yet when we take a step back and assess the matter more stoically (and within the context of a more modern culture), the reaction seems both heinous and extreme. That experience echoes the well-documented cases of homosexuals subjected to shock therapy in order to “fix” their homosexuality, and of all manner of torture our society has unfairly unleashed against innocent people whose only real “crime” is deviation from the norm.

If Psychology Is Founded On Moral Premises (Even Partially), Then My Proposition Assumes The Consequent

Paul offered what I thought was a rather novel criticism. He says, “[P]sychology… rests on certain axioms or assumptions. These axioms touch on moral topics. So it’s tricky to make psychology the singular foundation of morality.”

Restating this position in slightly different terms, if morality is logically prior to the axioms of psychology, then employing psychology as a foundation for morality is probably impossible. At the very least, any morality contained in the foundations of psychology will necessarily end up in our moral foundations, not because the evidence pointed that way, but because the way we have chosen to investigate the evidence can only ever perceive those moral precepts, and never contradict them.

This is a bigger problem than it first appears, and one that I will never likely solve. This is a foundational question about the philosophy of science, not really even unique to psychology specifically. How can a human mind seek to understand itself in objective terms? How can three-dimensional physical beings ever hope to understand the physics of an M-dimensional universe?

I must quickly and readily acknowledge my inability to respond to this question. It is much bigger than the present discussion, and indeed one of the biggest problems that exist in philosophy.


While I don’t agree with all of the criticisms above, I nonetheless hope I have done an adequate job in summarizing them in a way that makes them seem not only plausible, but also compelling. My objective here was to poke serious holes in my own idea, and where possible, I tried to elaborate on the ideas expressed by others in order to make their points even stronger than they were in the context of off-the-cuff, casual conversation.

If you, the reader, are now in serious doubt of my original proposal after having read the above, then I can consider my endeavor a success.

I can only hope that any subsequent response I provide to these concerns is equally successful.

2 thoughts on “Psychological Foundations for Morality: Some Problems

  1. Part of what motivates my view is an appreciation of the argument that a private language is impossible. I read Wittgenstein as discussing “rules” in general, not merely rules of grammar and word meaning. Any attempt to ground semantic meaning outside of social practice will fail. Likewise for morality.

  2. Paul Crider

    Good job on summarizing my view.

    “At the very least, any morality contained in the foundations of psychology will necessarily end up in our moral foundations, not because the evidence pointed that way, but because the way we have chosen to investigate the evidence can only ever perceive those moral precepts, and never contradict them.”

    My way of saying this is that we have to make assumptions to make any progress of any kind (see my post on faith). This doesn’t at all preclude the possibility of real progress being made, real knowledge being obtained. But it does mean all such progress and knowledge are contingent upon our assumptions and provisional to both new facts and new interpretations (or construals). Objectivity is an ideal – and a very worthy one at that! – but as an ideal it can only be approached by entertaining diverse approaches based alternative assumptions. As a eudaimonist, I think modern psychology is absolutely critical to understanding what it means for a human life to be a flourishing one. But I think traditional ethical and metaethical theorizing, sociology, legal scholarship, and even economic reasoning can shed light as well.

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