Why conservatives and liberals talk past each other on moral issues.

July 7, 2007 | By | 24 Replies More

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.

Luckily, we are in a new era with regard to understanding morality.  Cognitive scientists such as psychologist Marc Hauser and primatologist Frans de Waal are studying morality with new sets of tools.

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:

  • harm/care
  • fairness/reciprocity
  • ingroup/loyalty
  • authority/respect and
  • purity/sanctity.

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.


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Category: Good and Evil, Meaning of Life, Politics, Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Morality | English College English Panel | June 3, 2013
  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    Erich writes: "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 sometimes imagine this same thought experiment, except the room is filled with people who describe themselves as "Christians." I likewise imagine them getting into arguments over how to interpret the "absolute truth" of the Bible, and coming to no agreement at all, just as we see in the real world. For this reason, I entirely agree with Erich's comment that, "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." Examine so-called 'Christian ethics' on *any* controversial issue and it will reveal itself to involve the exact same situational ethics that charismatic Christians denigrate in secularists. Who can count the number of times he has heard a fundamentalist evangelical call the Bible an 'absolute authority' on human morality, yet who can count the number of times this has proven to be true? Even "thou shalt not kill" conveniently goes by the wayside whenever it becomes inconvenient, even among "believers" who appear the most sincere. George Bush, whose unjustified invasion of Iraq has officially resulted in the needless slaughter of more than 60,000 innocent Iraqis (the true number is likely more than double this number), provides a glaring case in point.

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    "Thou shalt not kill" is a bad translation. The proper phrase is "Don't commit murder", a particular specific subset of "kill". It does not include killing in self defense, in war, for God, or of animate property (donkeys, slaves, women, etc).

    Just like "Thou shalt not lie" is a bad translation of "Do not bear false witness", as in false accusation or alibi.

    Absolute morality based on bad translations is quite dangerous.

    Meanwhile, let's examine this list of moral categories in light of the Stages of Moral Development. The conservatives are stuck in an earlier stage than liberals, where rules trump reason.

    Here's some more about the evolution of understanding/philosophy of moral development from the U of I in Chicago.

  3. Ebonmuse says:

    Interesting test. I got 4.1 Harm, 4.4 Fairness, 1.6 Loyalty, 1.3 Authority and 0.9 Purity. That sounds about right. 🙂 I'm happy to see I scored below the average on those last three categories.

  4. T. G. says:


    Is it sophistry or reality to measure and categorize morality? For example, George W. bush is a sociopath, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Simply because he is responsible for the deaths of up to perhaps a half million Iraqi civilians.

    So, how can you argue with the morality of life and death? And who is responsible? They were real people. Something not conjured up in mere abstraction?

    T. G.

  5. T. G. says:

    I'm inclined to see this article as sophistry rather than a constructive argument about morality. But perhaps it lends itsself to something constructive as a point of departure for further thought.

    T. G.

  6. Donald Groce says:

    What a nice relief from the liberal-conservative shouting match. Excellent article with thought provoking insight and analysis.

  7. David H. says:

    I find this article helpful in understanding the herd mentality of conservatives. I would like to point out to all those who subject themselves to the leadership of others that shepards always have an agenda and at the end of the trail you die and the shepard gets paid. You must be suspicious of their motives and scrutinize their directives or risk being led astray, used and abused. Look at Hitler, Stalin, Castro, Hugo Chaves, Caliphates like Sadr, Komeni, Pat Robertson,. If you think that there are 70 virgins waiting for you if you martyr yourself you are a conservative.

  8. Thomas Penn Johnson says:

    I simply stopped reading after awhile because of apparent flaws: (1) False dichotomy of pure categories of conservative/liberal–I and many others am both & neither, but definitely not one or the other. (2) The moral of the story of "The Six Blind Men of Indostan" is that they are from the East, not the West; so "each is partially in the right and each partially in the wrong", and, consequently, they agree to disagree and go off together to smoke a hookah or do whatever. In the East they would have drawn their moral swords and hacked each other to smithereens on account of arguments over words. Western religious zealots are willing, and even eager, to slaughter one another over words. (3) Morality is a matter of action, a matter of doing the right thing: one doesn't need philosophy to do the right thing, one needs a heart (feeling) and a conscience which moral compasses are available to anybody, even the illiterate or primitive. (4) The doctrine of moral equivalency (betweeen conflicting views) is self-serving to the conservative line of argument which seems primarily to be pugilistic, adversarial, derogatory, ad hominem, and frigid (in terms of rationality and equity)–they always frame the argument to portray liberals as illogical, mean-spirited, or even traitorous. Who wants all that negativity around them, even if it's couched in moral theory and a tone of intellectual superiority and snobbery? Contemporary American political conservatives should do the rest of us a favor and address their moral expostulations to themselves. Respectfully, Thomas Penn Johnson

  9. Erika Price says:

    T.G.: Blood on the hands does not a sociopath make. Plenty of psychologically normal people kill, and in a way more physically direct than Bush- does every soldier or cop who has willingly killed qualify as a sociopath? No, sociopathy does not lie in the act- it lies in behaving selfishly with seemingly no capacity to consider the feelings and humanity of others. I don't think Bush can get off that easily. He knows "right" from "wrong"; he just convinces himself that his current actions represent right, moral, and just. Normal people play such tricks on themselves all the time. But unlike a sociopath, they should have to pay for it.

  10. Kevin Jones says:

    Interesting analysis that finds support in other forms of political analysis. Liberalism has long been held to be a "least common denominator" morality which amputates traditionalist ethics for the sake of, say, social peace(after the Reformation destroyed religious unity) or for the sake of business opportunites. The wider vocabulary of conservative ethics seems to allow for greater nuance in theory. Though friendship or marriage, for instance, can be understood under harm/care or fairness/reciprocity, recognizing the virtues of loyalty and purity provides further layers for ethical exploration and discussion.

  11. Mikela Smith says:

    Stumbled upon this site via Stumble, and as a teacher of writing and logic, I must admit that your argument is weak (at times non-existent), muddled, and vague. Specificity is the key to writing well. For example, you quote "three moral philosophers", but fail to cite exactly who they are, where they work, and the details of their education or degrees. Are they pontificating drunks at your local watering hole? Distinguished professors from a reputable university? Do tell. And, why you are at it, cut to the chase. It reads as if you want to present a solid, commendable position (known as a thesis), but don't have the wherewithal or the language to do so. Go back to school. Pay more attention. Stop dropping names, and start supporting your statements.

    Every time I asked this question the answer was: “Not at all.”

    Who answered this question? God? Darwin? A local prostitute?

  12. Erich Vieth says:

    Mikela: I refuse to respond to your viciousness with viciousness. That's one of my moral tenets. I'm curious, though. I've never met you before. What did you think you would accomplish with your string of insults? With all of your alleged training in logic and writing, was there no gentle or kind-hearted way for you to show your disappointment with my post?

    For the record, the three professors all taught at reputable universities. They were not drunk, pontificating prostitute idiots. If you wanted to know more about Haidt's article, you could have followed the link and read Haidt's article for yourself.

  13. Vicki Baker says:


    As a teacher of writing, you might need to brush up on genres and discourse levels. It was clear to me that Erich's intent was to share some research he found interesting and invite further discussion, not present a formal paper on moral reasoning. A blog article like this is on the informal end the scale of formality to informality in written expression, somewhere beyond the personal essay.

    In regards to the question and answer you found so egregious, the adjective "tenured" gives all the context you need: obviously the people who answered were professionally engaged as moral philosophers in some institution or other. (A dirty job but somebody's got to do it.)

  14. Ben says:


    "Haidt closes his essay with another trite accusation. The New Atheists might help advance the cause of atheism, but it muddles up science with "moralistic dogma" and damages the "prestige of science" — we're hurting the cause, that tiresome old whine. Oh, please, do buck up. The New Atheism isn't about throwing away moral systems or introducing a new dogma, it's about opening up a protected realm to inquiry and sweeping away old cobwebs, refusing to allow people to hide absurd ideas from criticism behind the foolish plea of faith."


  15. Ben says:

    On "Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion" By Jonathan Haidt

    David Sloan Wilson, Michael Shermer, Sam Harris, PZ Myers

    "The point is that religion remains the only mode of discourse that encourages grown men and women to pretend to know things they manifestly do not (and cannot) know. If ever there were an attitude at odds with science, this is it."


  16. Erich Vieth says:

    Ben: That is a rip-roarin' discussion on Haidt's article. Really good issues raised by some excellent writers. I did enjoy the quote you posted (it was by Sam Harris). Another good passage was this one, by P.Z. Myers:

    By my side right now, I have a small plush animal. If it were conclusively shown that beliefs in a god or religion were definitely beneficial in and of themselves, that humans needed this little kernel of worship in order to thrive a little better, and I said that my toy octopus was a god, lord and savior of us all, and if only you believed in him, you would gain an empirically demonstrable extra year of life and a quantifiable increase in your happiness, what would you do? Would you abandon one little piece of rationality and bow down before the toy? Would you even be capable of that level of credulity?

    I would say that the New Atheists definitely would not, not even for an extra year of life (I don't know about the rest of you; I'm beginning to be suspicious.) We couldn't. I would also say we shouldn't. There is more to our lives than the raw quantity of it, and bliss isn't the ultimate goal of our existence — I think even the American religious who are the subject of those surveys might be a little aghast at the idea that the purpose of their belief was to help them cling to a life of hedonism for as long as possible. I would sacrifice a little happiness to know the truth, and I would find no consolation in a lie, no matter how cheerful that lie might be. I'm sure there was a time when I was extremely happy about Santa Claus, but that was long ago, and I have no desire to return to that state of blissful ignorance. I grew up. Most of us do.

  17. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's a thoughtful article about Haidt's five sources of moral values from the NYT.  Link here.  Especially note the criticisms of Haidt's approach by Frans de Waal at the end of the article.

  18. Erich Vieth says:

    I've inserted a chart of Haidt's five sources of morality into this post, including each of the following with regard to each moral source:

    – Adaptive challenges

    – Proper domain (adaptive triggers)

    – Actual domain (the set of all triggers)

    – Characteristic emotion

    – Relevant virtues (and vices)

    This is a well-crafted compilation that really puts Haidt's work into context; it was used by Owen Flanagan in his talk at the The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. http://ccare.stanford.edu/node/23

    Here's a link to the chart.


  19. Erich Vieth says:

    "Libertarians are closer to conservatives on two of the five main psychological "foundations" of morality that we study—concerns about care and fairness (as described above). But on the other three psychological foundations—group loyalty, respect for authority and spiritual sanctity—libertarians are indistinguishable from liberals and far apart from conservatives. We call these the three "binding" foundations because they are the psychological systems used by groups—including religious groups, the military and even college fraternities—to bind people together into tight communities of trust, cooperation and shared identity. When you think about morality as a way of binding individuals together, it's no wonder that libertarians (who prize individual liberty above all else) part company with conservatives."


  20. Jon Kinnaman says:

    Interesting argument, but I question the assumption that liberals do not register on the categories of authority and purity. Liberals have an ethic around authority, but it it one that demands accountability, consensus and transparency from those to whom power is vested. They will follow, so long as leaders to defer to law and to opinion. It would go without saying that the previous administration stirred outrage on this point and that the present one causes some discomfort. As for purity, liberals of my acquaintance have an aversion to ostentation. You can take that one all the way back to the Puritans and Cavaliers.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Jon: I agree with you on all points. Haidt doesn’t say that liberals never base moral decisions on purity or authority, only that they tend to do this less than conservatives. In fact, in his brand new book, Haidt lays out some of the sacred concerns of liberals. I have pointed this out regrading skeptics. http://dangerousintersection.org/2010/12/04/sacred-places-for-skeptics/ The name of the book is The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

      I also agree that liberals are not immune to basing moral decisions on authority, and that it is not the same type of authority as most conservatives (I see it as a claimed responsiveness to the People less than to particular leader, though their willingness to overlook many of the blatant problems with Barack Obama is making me rethink this too).

  21. I agree that liberals have a set of values around authority. We respect Gandhi and King. But take a look at the Occupy movement, and what you see is a desire not to have to have leaders: “if the people lead the leaders will follow.” We don’t believe in being subordinate to leaders. The need for leaders may be a necessary evil (perhaps evil is too strong a word… necessary but not ideal.) But if we could turn out movement into a fantasy, Occupy would be leaderless: our fundamental values are fairness and care, and we want all of us including leaders to have integrity in getting us there. If conservatives had a fantasy, I think they would choose to have a strong leader worth following. In their *ideal*, a person can stand above others, be worth following, worth being subordinate to. They would find the “placeless,” structureless equality of Lennon’s “Imagine” a confusing place instead of an ideal if impractical goal … liberals value leaders that exemplify and implement our core values; conservatives directly value leaders.

  22. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    It seems to me that the problem of discourse between Conservatives and Liberals stems from differing views concerning the the source of authority.

    Conservatives tend to believe in born leaders, who have the experience and wisdom to take decisive action and rule in a top-down manner. They seem to emphasis individual exceptionalism, whereby some individuals are exceptions from the application of the law. A few Conservative politicians I’ve spoken with are of the notion that they, as individuals, exemplify and embody the ideals of their constituents, that what they want represents what their constituents want. Conservatives have been less likely to listen to constituents that disagree with their world view.

    Liberals tend more to believe that authority flows from the bottom up, that people willingly submit to rule, and that while rules are necessary for everyone to get along, the rules must apply to everyone equally. Liberal leaders try to be much more accessible to their constituents, but are less decisive. and think of themselves more as an aggregator of the will of the people than and embodiment of that will.

    The problems, however, lies not with the political styles, but with the influence of corporations in our political system.

    Corporations are legal facades, masks if you will, behind which hide the people who operate the them, and benefit from those operations. Those that rise to power in the corporations are often sociopaths. seeking power and authority while avoiding responsibility, laying claim to all benefits while “externalizing” all losses.

    Over the years, corporations have used many subversive techniques to manipulate governments in ways that benefit their principal stock holders. Through lobbyist and front groups, they manipulate the voice of the constituency by controlling the public access to information.

    They have used astroturfing and FUD(Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) to manipulate public opinion, to divide the population, create paranoia among the people that are managed by the one percent for the benefit of that one percent.

    A recent tactic has emerged. where copious amounts of money are spent to buy political offices for “True believers”, politicians so completely indoctrinated into a cult of greed and lawlessness, that they believe it is their moral duty to destroy democracy from within.

    The Occupy Wall Street protests, heavily mocked by Conservatives as being leaderless, scared the socks off the sociopaths by forcing the media to hear voices other than those of the high priests of the cult of greed, For a while, the public mind set turned away from the distractions of hate and fear mongering against other races, other religions, against unions, and teachers, and particularly against government, to focus on the role of corporate executives who have placed themselves beyond the law.

    Occupy spoke truth to power, and the powerful retaliated. They retaliated with violence against civil disobedience. They retaliated through their minions with illegal arrest, detainment, entrapment and in some cases torture. They retaliated by having their bought and paid for legislator enact laws that put a price tag on free speech.

    In Tennessee, A “no Camping” bill was introduced by Eric Watson. The bill was a carbon copy of ALEC drafted bills passed in other states to outlaw Citizen occupations of public spaces.

    Rep. Watson is very secretive about his personal life, and some have noted that his listed home address is actually the home address of some wealthy friends. Tennessee requires representatives to maintain residency in the district they represent.Does Rep Watson actually have a home in his district? Inquiring minds want to know.

    However, Occupy in not dead and gone. It has started working within the ranks of the financial and political systems that rely on the expectations of greed as a prime motivation, and are learning to work the systems for the benefit of the 99 percent.

    One of the earliest efforts was the “Move your money” campaign which encouraged citizens to move their banking services from the “Too big to fail” global banks to local banks and credit unions.

    Another, less publicized campaign involves using voluntary contributions to buy defaulted mortgages at pennies on the dollar, and rather than foreclose on those mortgages, the debt is forgiven and liens are released.

    Others are also being inspired. Across the nation, numerous homeowner associations have taken legal action against derelict properties taken by the banks are foreclosing on the bank own properties.

    The point Conservatives often miss is that absolute allegiance to a leader means surrendering your will.Absolute allegiance to an ideology means giving up independent thought.

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