Jonathan Haidt asserts that moral judgment is primarily given rise to by intuition. Now intuition is used in many different senses of which I want to emphasize the meaning "as opposed to instinct", but I think Haidt primarily means: "to know without reasoning".

Isn't this "knowledge without reasoning" similar to what is behind instinctive "moral" behavior of animals? Is the sole difference (and thus goal) between instinct and intuition "the distinction between animal and human"? What is the difference between human instinct and animal instinct? Is it just a matter of complexity? If animals cannot have intuition, how can they seemingly have morality, do they reason? :)

In "The Righteous Mind", it seems that Haidt does not include animals (p. xiii) "Our righteous minds made it possible for human beings--but no other animals--to produce large cooperative groups, tribes and nations without the glue of kinship."

To add: A psychologist argues that animals do not have morality. But this seems to be grounded in her reference to 'collective cognition' which she seems to misidentify with 'collective learning' which seems to have been exibited by animals other than humans (the process by which more knowledge is preserved over generations than is lost. This process improves collective cognition in my opinion.)

  • Hi, welcome to Philosophy SE. Please visit our Help Center to see what questions we answer and how to ask. It is unclear what the philosophical aspect of your question is, the difference between instinct and intuition is already addressed on Psychology and Neuroscience SE. Instinct refers to a disposition to behave in a certain way, it has nothing to do with knowledge. Humans are animals, and so have animal instincts.
    – Conifold
    Mar 22, 2018 at 23:01
  • @Conifold: good point, however I will try to clarify the philosophical aspect through these questions: (1) isn't knowledge the (partial) result (though very influential in rise of complexity in humanity) of collective learning? And (2) does our body (stimulus-responding-device) not evolve based on stimuli (both internal and external)?
    – Ropstah
    Mar 22, 2018 at 23:14
  • @Conifold: to add: could this disposition of behavior not be "hardwired in the same way" as other knowedge? Or maybe I should ask: "what creates a disposition of behavior?" - What kind of knowledge are you referring to?
    – Ropstah
    Mar 22, 2018 at 23:26
  • 1
    @FrankHubeny: I guess he's right when he says "nations". But "tribal behavior" and especially "cooperative groups" can be classifications of behavior addressable to animals other than humans? Could it be defined as (I hope i'm not repeating myself): "ability to communicate abstract concepts"? And is morality at a certain level of abstractness? Cooperation in groups to "kill and get food" also requires communication (or at least reason/instinct) but I guess at a lower level of abstraction?
    – Ropstah
    Mar 23, 2018 at 0:03
  • 1
    Maybe it makes sense to draw a parallel between "humans-animals-organisms" and "intuition-instinct-reflex"? In psychology it seems to be accepted that humans do not have instinct (or at least not (need it) any more). But does this still allow for morality to be grounded in intuition and be considered to be exhibited by animals?
    – Ropstah
    Mar 23, 2018 at 0:55

2 Answers 2


The central question

This is whether human 'moral judgment is primarily given rise to by intuition' ? It is not about whether we share morality with (other) animals or how such animals come about whatever moral judgements or moral thinking if any they are capable of.

How Haidt explicates intuition

Haidt refers to the work of Bargh, Damasio, de Waal, and others and tells us that this work stimulated :

me to formulate the social intuitionist model (SIM) of moral judgment (Haidt, 2001). The SIM posits that moral judgment is much like aesthetic judgment - a rapid intuitive process - and defines moral intuitions as follows: "the 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 model suggests that moral reasoning is frequent, but given the speed and ubiquity of moral intuition, moral reasoning rarely has a chance to play out in an open and unbiased way, as is often assumed by cognitive-developmental researchers. Rather, consistent with research on motivated reasoning (Kunda, 1990) and everyday reasoning (Kuhn, 1991), people engage in moral reasoning primarily to seek evidence in support of their initial intuition and also to resolve those rare but difficult cases when multiple intuitions conflict. (Jonathan Haidt, 'Morality', Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol. 3, No. 1, From Philosophical Thinking to Psychological Empiricism, Part I (Jan., 2008), 65-72: 69.)

The operative contrast, then, is not with instinct but with reasoning. The OP recognises this but focuses on a contrast between intuition and instinct. But it is impossible to answer the question, 'What is the nature of moral intuition according to Haidt?', when his actual answer involves no reference to instinct whatever.

To probe Haidt's account for its implications for instinct is a perfectly legitimate endeavour. What is not quite right in my view is to ask for Haidt's views about instinct in a question to which instinct is beyond the scope of Haidt's answer. It's no defect in Haidt if he doesn't say anything about the relation of instinct to intuition when he never set out to produce a theory that dealt with instinct at all.

Intuition and reasoning

Haidt does not see an incompatibility between intuition and reasoning. They are not inimical, rather there is a partnership between them. This is clear from the passage above in which it is clear that there are situations where intuitions are not enough and moral reasoning is engaged in. The partnership idea is explicit in the following passage in which he lists three models for the partnership between intuition and reasoning and clearly indicates his preference:

1 Reasoning as senior partner. Intuition and emotion are acknowledged, but most of the action is in moral reasoning, which can "channel" moral emotions, and which can and ought to drive moral behavior. This was Kohlberg's view.

2 Equal partnership. Both processes are (roughly) equally important in our daily lives, and both can work indepen- dently to reach different conclusions. This is Narvaez's view. She described her own efforts to wrestle with choices about moral action in these words: "Instead of intuition's dominating the process, intuition danced with conscious reasoning, taking turns doing the leading" (Narvaez, 2008, p. 235).

3 Intuition as senior partner. Reasoning is acknowledged, but most of the action is in moral intuition, which can "motivate" moral reasoning, and which often drives moral behavior. This is my position, which was shaped strongly by the work of David Hume, Robert Zajonc, Antonio Damasio, John Bargh, and Richard Shweder. (Jonathan Haidt, 'Moral Psychology Must Not Be Based on Faith and Hope: Commentary on Narvaez, (2010)' Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol. 5, No. 2 (MARCH 2010), pp. 182-184 : 183.)

This specifies the nature of intuition, defines the operative contrast as one with 'reasoning' and not 'instinct', and identifies a 'partnership' model in which intuition and reasoning can and do co-operate.


Jonathan Haidt, 'Moral Psychology Must Not Be Based on Faith and Hope: Commentary on Narvaez', (2010)' Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol. 5, No. 2 (MARCH 2010), pp. 182-184.

Jonathan Haidt, 'Morality', Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol. 3, No. 1, From Philosophical Thinking to Psychological Empiricism, Part I (Jan., 2008), 65-72.

J. Haidt & F. Bjorklund, 'Social intuitionists answer six questions about morality', W. Sinnott-Armstrong (Ed.), Moral psychology: Vol. 2. The cognitive science of morality, (2008) 181-217.

Jonathan Haidt, 'The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment', Psychological Review, 108, (2001), 814-334.

D. Narvaez, 'The social intuitionist model: Some counter- intuitions', W. Sinnott-Armstrong (Ed.), Moral psychology : Vol.2. The cognitive science of morality. (2008), 233-240. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

D. Narvaez, 'Moral complexity: The fatal attraction of truthiness and the importance of mature moral functioning', Perspectives on Psychological Science, (2010), 5.

D.Kuhn, The skills of argument. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press (1991).

Z . Kunda, 'The case for motivated reasoning', PsychologicalBulletin , 1990, 108, 480.


Jonathan Haidt in the first part of The Righteous Mind describes the dominant idea of moral psychology in the late twentieth century as a belief in rationalism with moral themes restricted to issues of harm. Moral development in a child was not viewed as social construction (nor anything innate) but the child’s own reasoning about what led to least harm.

The data justifying a morality based on harm came from work done by Piaget, Kohlberg and Turiel. Turiel’s experiments involved telling children stories about harm and then asking them questions. He noted that children could distinguish between conventional rules and moral issues of harm. This suggested that it was reason rather than social construction that was responsible for the child’s moral development.

Haidt not only doubted social construction but also our ability to reach moral conviction through reasoning. The moral conviction comes first, then the rationalizations. He aligned with Hume’s view of reason, quoting these words of Hume from A Treatise of Human Nature, “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” (Haidt, page 25)

So where does this moral decision independent of culture and reason come from? If one removes culture and reason, what is left is something innate whatever that happens to be. This leaves open an area to explore. What does being innate mean?

This brings us to the questions. Is this innate, intuitive source of human moral foundations in any way different from animal instinctual behavior? Clearly we are different from other animals and clearly we have similarities. How does our moral lives differ and how are they the same?

Although Haidt discusses evolution the main use of his data is to reject reasoning and social construction. He limits his perspective to the human species. These questions are outside the domain of his data.

This means one would have to look for answers to these questions elsewhere. Does there exist any research into non-human, animal morality? Such research exists. In particular see Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce’s Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals for a survey of the issues.

Another place to look is plants. If there is a concern with keeping a distinction between humans and other animals with respect to morality, the issue magnifies when one considers if plants are also in some way at least more intelligent than we have assumed. There is research here as well. See Stefano Mancuso and Alessandra Viola’s Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence.

While recognizing we are different from other animals and plants, we do have similarities to them. We may need to rethink how similar our morality may be to how other species behave.

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