Sprouting New Moral Foundations

There are a lot of important ideas in Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, which I just finished reading. He makes a descriptively compelling case for how WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) most of the readers of his book are, myself included, and how we should take our own moral intuitions with a grain of salt, knowing how different they are from those of people in most of the world.

In light of this, it is valuable for all of us to question our moral intuitions and understand those of others, so you know why other people think and act the way they do. This seems especially true given Haidt’s finding that liberals are worse at answering questions like conservatives than the reverse (that is, they are worse at ideological turing tests). And why is this?

Haidt’s research has found that humans tend to think about morality on six axes (from Wikipedia):

  1. Care/harm for others, protecting them from harm.
  2. Fairness/cheating, Justice, treating others in proportion to their actions (He has also referred to this dimension as Proportionality.)
  3. Liberty/oppression, characterizes judgments in terms of whether subjects are tyrannized.
  4. Loyalty/betrayal to your group, family, nation. (He has also referred to this dimension as Ingroup.)
  5. Authority/subversion for tradition and legitimate authority. (He has also connected this foundation to a notion of Respect.)
  6. Sanctity/degradation, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions. (He has also referred to this as Purity.)

Except that apparently, liberals care primarily about the first three, seeing 4-6 as morally less relevant, where conservatives care about all six. You can see where you fall at YourMorals.org.

These are my results. Probably not surprising.

These are my results. Probably not surprising.

I certainly fall into the pattern for liberals – whether something disgusts me isn’t relevant to how I judge it morally, at least when my System 2 is doing the evaluating. And it’s even worse than that; as a utilitarian, I’m really choosing to focus on care/harm and forget all the rest. Now, utilitarians have a long history of skirting that issue by simply saying that we care about 2-6 insofar as other people care about them. If degrading what is sacred to others makes people less happy, then, huzzah, we also care about sanctity. And even if disrespect for medical ethics makes sense in one particular case, such as using medical professionals ostensibly giving vaccines in Pakistan to sniff out Osama bin Laden, we can claim to take a longer view, noting that people may no longer trust those handing out vaccines.

That’s one of the primary strengths of utilitarianism; much like rationalism, it can simply absorb critiques and adapt to “care” about whatever other people seem to care about. On the whole, this is great, and utilitarians can learn a great deal from Haidt’s findings. It’s much easier to make people happy (or satisfy their preferences, or make them live better lives) if you know what those things mean. We ought to note that people like living in moral communities, where some things are held sacred, and some people are held as authority figures, even if those axes don’t mean a lot to some of us personally. As a plus, the research indicates that people behave better and give more to charity when they inhabit communities like this, since they are surrounded by people keeping them accountable to their professed values.

But none of this is the same as actually understanding what it would be like to feel that a standard of purity, or loyalty, or authority is a viscerally important ethical fact. What would that feel like?

My first instinct with regard to is to say it would feel like letting all of your lowest, instinctive feelings come through. Elevating the glimmer of disapproval I’ve had when I see women dressed “overly” sexily, or “too young” to an actual ethical consideration. Letting myself wholly disapprove of people when I feel that sense of disappointment that they don’t agree with all the liberal positions I thought they did. Hell, even chastising people for consuming too much low art: too much tv, not enough books; too many romance novels, not enough Jonathan Haidt. (It’s important to note that all of these would entirely condemn me as well). Even more grotesquely, it could start to look like The Gag Reflex, an article arguing for the value of letting our “natural” disgust at gay sex inform our moral sense about it. (Descriptively, several studies indicate that some significant portion of anti-gay attitudes are related to disgust). Sure, there are steelmen of these ideas, but these aren’t moral positions I want to get anywhere near.

Attempt 1:

But to really try, I might venture to say that there’s something beautiful or comforting about a natural order (whether from religion or from a secular teleology), which promises stability and contentment, if everything is in its place. Depending on what that order consists of, I might be comfortable with being concerned that my own actions or those of others are disrupting such an order. Conservatives do a lot of this, especially with regard to sexual morality, but I can imagine utilitarians and economically minded people thinking the same way about everyone working in a field where their comparative advantage lies. If we were really committed to the kind of world where everyone did what they do best and contributed the most, seeing someone do something where they weren’t would seem kind of…low, kind of missing the point of what you’re supposed to do with your life. How’s that for sanctity?

Attempt 2:

Or if you really believe, in a secular virtue ethical kind of way, that people seem to be happier and more fulfilled when they take steps to interact with other people around important issues, or spend time with nature, rather than watch Netflix or spend the day indoors? Or even the question of doing something active (blogging, exercising, reading) over something passive (sleeping, watching tv); I don’t hold by this, but I could imagine what it would be like to want to push people to the “higher” things over the “lower” things.

Attempt 3:

If you’re in an Effective Altruism community, you might think that most of the focus is on Care/Harm, since you’re trying to help the most people with your money. However, Leah Libresco has pointed out that features of that world harken closely to the purity axis, since every part of your life now becomes up for critique as “the best thing you could be doing with your time and money” or “not the best thing you could be doing with your time and money.” We could extend that further; if I lived in a community where everyone committed as much money and time as they could to saving lives, and someone didn’t, they wouldn’t just be impure; they’d be disloyal: to their cause, to their community, and to the global poor that this community has claimed as their sort-of-in-group.

Part of the philosophy is how people tend to do philosophy and charitable giving incorrectly.

Attempt 4:

In some of the best examples of moral communities the liberal world has to offer, communities of political activists and secular/humanist groups, respecting authority could mean that it’s important to give your president or humanist minister the benefit of the doubt, and questioning what they want us to do on Sundays, whether it’s go to a march in Ferguson or go to a blood drive, would be undermining the very moral communities that research has shown us are so important. There are so few strong secular or progressive moral communities, someone might say, it would be such a shame to divide this one by not letting the duly selected leader do their best.

I have the podium! Listen to me!

It is easy for people on the left side of the political spectrum to find issues with every example I’ve constructed. It would be awful to coerce people into choosing jobs that made them unhappy just because it’s what they’re best at. There are dozens of reasons, including issues surrounding physical and mental disability, why it would be terrible to stigmatize “passive” activities and elevate “active” ones. And few of us would want to be in a secular community where people shushed us for questioning the leader; that attitude is why so many left religion in the first place. I’ll examine examples like these in the next piece.

But these are, for me, examples that at least make it plausible that Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity could be ethically relevant in my life. If you agree that it’s important to understand where other people are coming from and why they think the way they do, what worlds would activate the moral axes that you usually dismiss? What features do they have? What can we learn from them?

9 thoughts on “Sprouting New Moral Foundations

  1. Anonymous says:

    Liberals have purity intuitions. Haidt just restricted his definition of “purity” to things that were stereotypically conservative. He’s since backed away from that and is more cognizant of liberal intuitions now.

    Liberal purity is less sexual and more ideological. How many people have you heard call sexist or homophobic beliefs “disgusting” or “creepy”, or respond with “ick” or “yuck”? I realize this sounds metaphorical, but the more I think about it the more I think the metaphor works because it really is calling up those same intuitions, both about the beliefs and about the people who hold them. A friend of mine recently who doesn’t get feelings of disgust about food or sex recently said the only way she understood the feeling at all was through her reaction to racism.

    Conservative blogger Spandrell has an interesting post on people who say they feel like they need to wash themselves after reading his blog (it’s at https://bloodyshovel.wordpress.com/2014/08/01/liberal-purity/ , but fair warning, you may feel like you need to wash yourself after reading Spandrell’s blog)

    • Chana says:

      Yes, I totally agree. In fact, this post was going to include all the examples I could think of of times when liberals have purity, authority and loyalty intuitions, but it got off track, so that will be my next one.

      Social justice discussions online have lots of overtones of purity, as do lefty spiritualities and environmentalism. And I think examining those and also conservative reactions to them is really helpful for thinking critically about Haidt’s implicit (or not so implicit) claim that if we understand Moral Foundations Theory better we will understand our political opponents better and have more productive discussions.

    • Chana says:

      I didn’t see an actual post at that link, just screen shots of twitter and a youtube video. Did I miss something?

  2. […] There are a lot of important ideas in Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, which I just finished reading. He makes a descriptively compelling case for how WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) most of the readers of his book are. [Read more] […]

  3. I thought of something like this years ago — less formally, and entirely within the confines of my own head, I’m not claiming priority — only my theorizing only involved the first three. Now, I was describing political ideologies rather than moral systems, but even so, the fact that I ignored 4 through 6 entirely probably reflects my beliefs.

  4. Nice summary of Haidt’s book. I’d also recommend his first book, The Happiness Hypothesis. Recently I found a Kindle ebook called The Three Languages of Politics by Arnold Kling. His approach is a bit simpler than Haidt’s. He claims that liberals, conservatives and libertarians talk different languages, each of which are based on different axis. (Kling is a libertarian.) Liberals focus on oppressors vs. the oppressed. Conservatives care about civilization vs. barbarism while libertarians see things in terms of liberty vs. coercion. His book provides some examples from each group. As I listen to advocates of each side I do see more examples. Kling admits that people don’t always rely on their preferred axis but when pushed they revert to their favored language.

    • Chana says:

      Thanks for the recommendations! I’ve heard about that other schema, in which there are three languages of political thought. I find all of this world psychology really interesting, and I hope that it can lead to more understanding, but in reality it doesn’t always seem to work that way.

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