I’ve studied moral philosophy for many years, mostly in frustration. Though many philosophical theories of morality have offered tantalizing glimmers, they ultimately fail to account for the “moral” decisions people make in the real world. Traditional philosophical accounts of morality have appeared especially feeble in light of the ongoing and volatile American culture wars. For instance, some of us claim that torture is OK while others feel that we have a moral duty to impeach the President and Vice-President for failing to stop the torture. Starting with the assumption that both sides to this controversy are sincerely, no philosophical moral system begins to account for both of those positions.
Recently, I had the opportunity to read an extraordinary article by Jonathan Haidt (pronounced “height”) and Jesse Graham: “When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions That Liberals May Not Recognize.” This article is written in an easily accessible style and its 16 pages are packed with ideas that bridge Haidt’s theories to the real world. If you’re in the mood to watch rather than read, sit back and view this video of Haidt describing his approach (the 30-minute video moves right along–Haidt is an eloquent speaker as well as a talented writer).
I’m not going to try to hide my excitement at Haidt’s approach. The more I learned about it, the more I thought of the words T. H. Huxley spoke upon learning of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection: “How stupid of me not to have thought of it.”
If you want to test your own moral foundations before proceeding, go to Haidt’s site and take a short test to determine your own moral foundation. Then read on (either read Haidt’s article or come back here).
The problem with most philosophical moral systems is illustrated by the story “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” In that story, each of the blind men was able to touch one body part of the same elephant but they drew conflicting conclusions about what an elephant is like. Invariably, they concluded that the elephant was fully-describable as the one particular part they touched. One of the blind men touched only the elephant’s floppy ear and concluded that an elephant is like a fan. Another blind man touched only the elephant’s leg and concluded that an elephant is like a tree. The blind men proceeded to get into a needless argument.
One point to this story is that we must be careful so that we don’t over-generalize. Because many things in life are multifaceted, they are not fully describable after a partial investigation. Nor are they capable of being simply described. There is no reason to assume that there is any “grand unification theory” of morality, all moral phenomena subsumed under a single formula or description.
Philosophers have repeatedly made the mistake of trying to jam all “moral” phenomena into one tightly-defined category. The proof that traditional philosophical moral theories fail is that no one makes reference to them when making difficult moral decisions. Over the years, I’ve asked three tenured moral philosophers the extent to which they refer to their meticulous studies of moral theory when they themselves need to make a difficult moral decision. Every time I asked this question the answer was: “Not at all.”
Here’s another clue that traditional philosophical moral theories fail. Moral philosophers have traditionally used only a few select examples to illustrate their moral theories. For the most part, the theories of moral philosophers break down when people attempt to apply those theories to real world, which are inevitably complex. The real world always presents more that is “relevant” than traditional philosophical theories are capable of considering.
For example, Immanuel Kant presented his “categorical imperative” as the solution to something he considered an anathema: ad hoc resolution of moral conundrums. Kant sought certainty and a deep-rooted analytical framework. In my opinion, Kant failed to deliver what he promised. I sometimes imagine filling a large room with the world’s best Kant scholars and asking them to apply the Kant’s categorical imperative to several real-world problems such as gay marriage, abortion, and telling lies. Every time I run this thought experiment, I imagine the Kant scholars getting into loud arguments (and fist fights!) and coming to no agreement at all. I suspect we’d get the same result if we filled a large room with utilitarians or virtue moralists.The categorical imperative (to use one example of a traditional philosophical approach) is utterly incapable of shedding any light on the reason liberals and conservatives so often talk past each other on matters of morality. None of these philosophical theories account for the obvious real-world chasm that exists between liberals and conservatives.
It was with great satisfaction, then, that I learned that Jonathan Haidt is making serious use of the scientific method to understand the factors that drive real-work moral decision-making. His approach is especially interesting in its description of the moral differences between conservatives and liberals. Which group is more moral? That isn’t the right question, according to Haidt. Both groups strive to be moral. The difference in the way they characterize morality is that conservatives and liberals base their moral sense on different measures. For conservatives, morality is a composite of five measures that are each taken seriously:
- authority/respect and
For liberals, however, the moral domain consists primarily of the first two of these five measures; the other three tend to fly under the liberal radar. Haidt describes each of these measures of morality on page 6 of his article. Here is a capsule summary of each:
1. Harm/care. Evolution has shaped maternal brains to be sensitive to the suffering of offspring. In humans, this tendency has been generalized beyond our relationships to offspring. Human beings react to the suffering of other humans, whether child or adult, whether biologically related or not. Humans feel compassion when they see other humans suffer and they are disturbed by cruelty and harm.
2. Fairness/reciprocity. Humans, like many other primate species, readily form alliances. This tendency “has led to the evolution of a suite of emotions that motivate reciprocal altruism, including anger, guilt and gratitude.” As a result of these emotions, “all cultures have developed virtues related to fairness and justice.” Haidt points out, however, that the almost universal tendency of cultures to value reciprocity does not necessarily lead to a belief of individual rights, equal distribution of resources or equal status.
3. Ingroup/loyalty. Human animals have developed strong emotions “related to recognizing, trusting and cooperating with members of one’s co-residing ingroup, while being wary and distrustful of members of other groups.” As a result, many cultures have valued loyalty, patriotism and heroism. Cultures are thus commonly suspicious of diversity. Further, a member’s willingness to criticize his or her own ingroup is seen as betrayal or treason.
4. Authorities/respect. In many primate species, most members react to the physical force and fear displayed by those in leadership positions. For humans, “the picture is more nuanced, relying largely on prestige and voluntary deference.” Many societies have thus come to value “virtues related to subordination: respect, duty and obedience.”
5. Purity/sanctity. In most human societies, disgust has become a social emotion as well as a physical reaction. In these cultures, “disgust goes beyond such contaminant-related issues and supports a set of virtues and vices linked to bodily activities in general and religious activities in particular. Thus, those who are ruled by “carnal passions” are seen as corrupt or impure compared to those who are spiritual or sanctified.
Haidt does not hide the fact that he is a liberal and an atheist. One thing he is not is an armchair philosopher. He is also a psychologist who is hungry for real-world data. His moral theory is based upon psychological experimentation and ultimately founded in evolutionary theory.
Consequently, Haidt distrusts the reasons people give for their moral decisions. See, for example, his article: “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment.”
Intuitionism in philosophy refers to the view that there are moral truths, and that when people grasp these truths they do so not by a process of ratiocination and reflection, but rather by a process more akin to perception, in which one just sees without argument that they are and must be true . . . Moral reasoning is usually an ex-post facto process used to influence the intuitions (and hence judgments) of other people . . . [In sum], 1) the reasoning process has been overemphasized; 2) reasoning is often motivated; 3) the reasoning process constructs post-hoc justifications, yet we experience the illusion of objective reasoning.
Haidt’s theory focuses on the undeniable chasm between self-described liberals and conservatives and proposes an explanation for this chasm. Liberals base their moral systems primarily upon the first two of the five foundations (harm/care and fairness/reciprocity). To the extent that something does not fall within these two categories, it simply is not a moral issue in the eyes of liberals. Conservatives disagree intensely. For a conservative, it matters greatly (in a moral sense) whether an act or omission offends one’s conceptions of proper ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect or purity/sanctity. For liberals, these three measures, though they might be of Machiavellian interest, are simply not matters of morality. As Haidt points out,
The five foundations theory can also explain to puzzling features of the 2004 American presidential election. The first puzzle is that a plurality of Americans who voted for George Bush said in a well-publicized exit poll that their main concern was “moral values.” The second puzzle is that political liberals in the United States were shocked, outraged, and unable to understand how “moral values” drove people to vote for a man who, as they saw it, tricked America into an unwinnable war, cut taxes for the rich and benefits for the poor, and seemed to have a personal animosity toward Mother Nature. Our explanation of these two puzzles and of the culture war in general, flows from this simple proposition: the morality of political liberals is built on the harm and fairness foundations, while the morality of political conservatives is built upon all five foundations.
To test his theory, Haidt asked 1600 people to rate the relevance of 15 concerns to their moral judgments. Liberals rated concerns with harm and fairness as being significantly more relevant to moral judgment.
Conservatives rated ingroup, authority and purity concerns as significantly more relevant than liberals. Extreme liberals said that only the first two foundations were highly relevant, while the other three foundations were not nearly as important. Extreme conservatives, in contrast, said that all five domains were equally relevant in making moral judgments. We are continuing to explore this difference between liberal and conservative moralities with studies on persuasion and implicit cognition. Do the two groups differ in their implicit attitudes as greatly as they do in their explicit values? Will moral appeals for liberal causes that press emotional buttons related to ingroup, authority and purity persuade political moderates, who make up most of the electorate, where more traditional liberal appeals have failed? We expect that the five foundations theory will be useful in the study of political action and rhetoric. If our initial findings hold up, they would indicate that justice (and related concerns derived from the fairness/reciprocity foundation) is literally half of morality for liberals, while it is only one-fifth of morality for conservatives.
Haidt’s own review of literature pertaining to morality indicates that most scholarly articles reject conservative concerns related to ingroup, authority and purity as “bad” on the grounds that they often conflict with proper measures of morality: harm and fairness. In short, most moral studies reject the legitimacy of several of the things that conservatives revere as moral measures. For a dramatic portrayal of this rejection of the bases of conservative morality, see the chart on page 16 of Haidt’s article.
I took Haidt’s test and found that my moral foundation clearly fell into the “liberal” configuration, in that I tend to reject the measures of ingroup, authority and purity. I’ll confess that these conservative measures seem immature and stunted to me. They seem like the sorts of reasons toddlers might drum up to justify their actions.
For example, I consider it to be irrelevant what my alleged ingroup thinks. When someone tells me that I ought to support the Iraq occupation because I’m an American and a need to support America, I can barely contain my frustration. What comes to mind is this: if everyone else decided to jump off a cliff should you jump off a cliff? I reject authority as a basis for my own moral decision-making. Many conservatives would support the war in Iraq (as a moral issue) because the president of the United States (a salient authority figure) has asked for that support. My gut reaction? Bush is either an idiot or evil. That he is an authority figure has no bearing on whether he is correct. Therefore, that he is an authority figure does not compel me to consider him to be a moral authority any more than I would consider any other human being.
I recently wrote a post on the fifth measure of morality: purity/sanctity. I’ve struggled with this topic more than the others. My initial intuition is that the extent to which something disgusts me has nothing at all to do with morality. I’ve struggled with this purity measure, however, because, on many occasions, my feelings of disgust seem to fuel my own moral intuitions. Yet I am suspicious of disgust. In my experience, disgust is too often an unreliable indicator of what is moral or immoral. According to Haidt’s research, conservatives strongly disagree with me. That disgust is critically important to conservatives comes even more clearly into focus when you consider that disgust is one endpoint on a continuum, the other endpoint being that which is sacred. For conservatives, things which are taken to be sacred are automatically deemed moral. Anything that defiles anything that is sacred is immoral.
Haidt stresses that his five foundation theory is a cultural-psychological theory as well as a nativist theory. The virtues of a culture are constructions. “Children develop different virtues in different cultures and historical eras, yet the available range of human virtues is constrained by the five sets of intuitions that human minds are prepared to have.” Haidt also has a lot to say about the existence of long-standing cultural institutions. He cautions that such institutions often have “a collective wisdom incarnate in them.” As such, traditional institutions “should be given the benefit of the doubt; they should not be torn down and rebuilt each time one group has a complaint against them.” As an illustration, he uses gay marriage. Using Haidt’s approach, the conservative warning that gay marriage will destroy marriage “is no longer incomprehensible-it is correct. Legalizing gay marriage would be a change to an ancient institution.”
Haidt’s program is a strong beginning to a new round of study of the topic of morality. There is much more to explore within the framework he offers. Here is one topic on which invites further analysis: Consider the locus of control regarding the five measures of morality. Do you “own” the measures or do they “own” you? Using the measures of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity, one is likely to feel as though one is an active participant working through social issues. Using these two measures, one might feels like one is actively tweaking a big hydraulic system that allocates risks and resources. On the other hand, the measures that conservatives tend to add to this mix (ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect and purity/sanctity) come predetermined and prepackaged, from “out there” somewhere. People don’t normally sit down and calculate how to assemble their social group, whether to give respect to the person in charge or consciously decide what is holy. For most conservatives, those things are “givens” that are not amenable to further analysis. For conservatives, the only calculation needed is how fast to fall in line with these measures that originate somewhere out there and to decide how aggressively to push others to do the fall in line too.
Another issue inviting further analysis is the method by which people apply the five separate measures to resolve conflict. I doubt that we’ll ever determine a specific calculus—people don’t actually have the cognitive firepower to “weigh” the factors in a precise way, but I do suspect that people make use of recurring strategies when considering the emphasis to give each of the five measures. It might come down to a set of heuristics or people might develop strategies as a result of become culturally trained up, from childhood on. Pattern-matching makes much more sense to me than any detailed attempt at calculation. As Andy Clark wrote in Being There, people are “good at Frisbee, bad at math. I suspect further that for many people, the some measures would trump all other measures, at least on some issues. In the case of gay marriage, for example, the purity measure might trump all others—many people wouldn’t see the need for any attempt to “weigh” the measures to the extent that the measures might drive the decision in opposite directions. I would also suspect that attentional factors drive these decisions. It would thus be interesting to explore why and how certain measures become bright and shiny things in certain contexts.
Haidt offers a deeper explanation as to why some people end up liberal while others are conservative. He starts with the presumption that it is normal to use all five measures of morality. It is historically normal to be conservative. What needs to be explained is why some people are liberal. For Haidt the answer has to do with social mobility:
Looking at the entire range of human societies, the statistically “normal” human society is built upon all five foundations. It is modern liberalism (not the “continent” of all other cultures) which requires a special explanation. Why is it that in a minority of human cultures the moral domain has shrunk? How did it come to pass that in much of Europe, and in some parts of the United States, moral concerns have been restricted to issues related to harm/welfare/care and justice/rights/fairness? We believe that a team of historians and sociologists could easily tell such a story, probably involving references to the growth of free markets, social mobility, science, material wealth, and ethnic and religious diversity. Mobility and diversity make a morality based on shared valuation of traditions and institutions quite difficult (Whose traditions? Which institutions?). These factors help explain the electoral map of the United States in the 2004 presidential election. When viewed at the county level, the great majority of counties that voted for John Kerry are near major waterways, where ports and cities are usually located and where mobility and diversity are greatest. Areas with less mobility and less diversity generally have the more traditional five-foundation morality, and therefore were more likely to vote for George W. Bush – and to tell pollsters that their reason was “moral values.”
It makes intuitive sense that communities consisting of diverse mixes of cultures would need to downplay the three conservative measures. Whose ingroup? Whose authority figure? Whose version of the sacred/purity? Downplaying those three factors is an implicit truce. Failing to downplay these factors would result in high tension and even bloodshed. Compared to these three measures, the first two (harm & justice) invite pragmatic resolution, because liberals and conservatives both come equipped with a deep understanding of the measures of harm and justice. No matter what their background, everyone can roll up their sleeves and work through methods protect people from harm and allocate resources in the kinds of ways that avoid riots.
Haidt’s theory of the five measures of morality allows the two sides of the culture wars to communicate with each other in a fine-grained way, rather than shouting “You are immoral” at each other. His theory allows the discussion to move up at least one level to considering the validity and application of each of the five measures. With Haidt’s approach, people can consider the merits of each of the five measures, based upon the function that those measures have traditionally served. Haidt’s five measures approach assists the two sides in the culture war to identify what it is that they’re not understanding about each other. It invites a real-life research agenda, one that is already bearing fruit, for studying and, perhaps, cooling down the culture wars.