Friday, September 26, 2008

5 ways of looking at morality

No matter what side you’re on, we’ve all been getting an overdose of election coverage and anxiety-generating punditry. Most of it is pure speculation, usually driving toward a pre-determined conclusion, but I recently came across an article, cited somewhere I can’t even remember (probably slate or wsj or nyt’s or who knows) which brought a fresh structural perspective, mainly to challenge liberal enlightenment assumptions about what makes a good society (or at least makes people feel like they are living in one).

It’s by Jonathan Haidt, a cultural anthropologist at UVA, who works on morality and emotion across cultures. His opening salvo also functions as a summary of the article, reminding us that while liberals tend to privilege individual rights, conservatives tend to privilege forces (like authority and hierarchy and rules) which tend to build strong social bounds.

...the second rule of moral psychology is that morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way. When Republicans say that Democrats "just don't get it," this is the "it" to which they refer.

He then goes on to map the moral dimensions that support these two world-views--the Dem’s enlightenment-individualist world view and G.O.P’s interest in social cohesion—across five dimensions: harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, purity/sanctity.

It’s probably not a huge surprise that liberals tend to be pretty dismissive of the last two dimensions. Purity? More surprising, according to Haidt’s research, who is himself a self-described liberal, is that people who are more likely to vote Republican tend to be interested more well-rounded in their moral concerns, equally invested in all these dimensions. Liberals, on the other hand, care about a more a more narrow definition of morality, one that privileges just the first two dimensions.

He then goes on to suggest some interesting and provocative strategic angles: including questioning the value of “diversity” as a moral virtue (because it tends to weaken social cohesion). The article leaves a lot of unanswered questions, not least how Liberals and Conservations position economic (vs. social) policy in relation to these dimensions, but it’s still an intriguing and useful perspective. Check it out here.


peter said...

Kant's moral theory is, therefore, deontological: actions are morally right in virtue of their motives, which must derive more from duty than from inclination. The clearest examples of morally right action are precisely those in which an individual agent's determination to act in accordance with duty overcomes her evident self-interest and obvious desire to do otherwise.

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sk said...

Appreciate the thoughtful response, but to be honest, wasn't thinking of these claims to morality in the context of categorical imperatives or the continental tradition at all. But now that you bring it up, it strikes me that some of Haidt's (anthropological) categories could be more easily analyzed through a Kantian ontological framework than others. Surely: purity/sanctity and harm/care have more absolute boundaries than fairness/reciprocity or authority/respect, which seem hopelessly social and relative. Assuming I understand your point, it's an interesting query to pose to Haidt: does that make Republicans or Democrats more Kantian, in the classic sense?

agnes said...

We take opportunities to discuss the choices facing us, the plausible results of each option, and how we’ll feel about those results. Not in so many words with the kids. More like, “You can do this, or that. If this, these next things happen. If that, those next things happen. Which do you want to happen, these or those? OK, then, should you choose this, or that?” (Still working on being consistent with this.)



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Anti Money Laundering said...

The type of fig leaf which each culture employs to cover its social taboos offers a twofold description of its morality. It reveals that certain unacknowledged behavior exists and it suggests the form that such behavior takes.