Thursday, 28 June 2007

moral stunts

University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt and graduate student Jesse Graham have expanded on previous theory to come up with a list of five domains for ethical “intuitions” that seem to be common across humankind: concern for harm to people, fairness, loyalty to members of the in-group, respect for authority, and “spiritual” purity.
I make a distinction between ethics and morals that may not be universal. Ethics are rules of action, while morals are the values underlying them (I can get away with loose talk like this because I'm neither a moral philosopher nor an ethicist). It's not clear yet whether Haidt and Graham are following a similar distinction, but you should take a moment to judge for your self based on the five categories they've picked out.
Haidt and Graham then asked 1,613 people who identified themselves as liberals or conservatives to answer questions aimed at identifying which of the five domains elicited strong reactions from them (including cognitive disgust at certain possible moral scenarios). The results were stunning, if not entirely surprising with hindsight: while conservatives where sensitive to all five moral “domains,” liberals were concerned only with the first two (harm to others and fairness).
I think Haidt and Graham are conflating ethics and morals. That might be an unfair accusation, given that it's my distinction and not theirs, but I make it for a reason, and it's precisely to draw a line between such principles as fairness and loyalty. Perhaps it's a failure of imagination on my part, but it's hard for me to imagine a situation in which actions guided by "fairness" would be wrong, but I can easily think of situations in which loyalty would be. Fairness is universal, loyalty conditional. It never occurred to me that anyone else could think otherwise. Taking the results on board
may go a long way toward explaining why certain people simply cannot see the point of starting a moral crusade in response to, say, homosexuality (which falls under “spiritual purity,” whatever that is), or do not understand how someone can follow a leader regardless of how stupid or criminal his actions may be (“my country right or wrong,” which falls under both respect for authority and loyalty to the in-group).
From here.

I have questions: Where does the difference come from? Is it innate? Genetic? Learned? How strong are these "intuitions"? Are there degrees? Can these intuitions be overcome? Reasoned for or against? How does one decide between the five in cases of conflict? Does everyone have a set order?

I have trouble deciding between avoiding harm to people and fairness. But both are clearly more important than the other three. Loyalty is a clear winner over there remaining pair. I tend to respect authority because it is easy and convenient. There are some activities I'm uncomfortable witnessing and others I refuse to take part in. I assume that's what's meant by spiritual purity, but I'm really not certain.

I suppose that makes me a godless liberal.

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