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Why We Disagree on Moral Issues

Why do liberals and conservatives argue so much about morality? Don’t they have a common sense of right and wrong?

Yes and no. For the common examples given by Christian apologists (torturing babies, for example), we’re all on the same page, but it’s more complicated than that. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has brought the amorphous domain of morality into focus to reveal five separate categories. It’s a simple idea that explains much and can help us get past our differences (or at least understand them).

From his TED video, Haidt’s five foundations of morality follow.

1. Care/harm. We’ve evolved to feel (and dislike) pain. This isn’t just true for ourselves; we also sense and dislike pain in others. From this comes kindness, nurturing, empathy, and so on.

2. Fairness/reciprocity. This is related to reciprocal altruism. From this foundation comes justice, rights, autonomy, and the Golden Rule.

3. Ingroup/loyalty. We have a long history as tribal creatures able to adapt to shifting coalitions. This foundation underlies patriotism, selflessness, and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s one for all, and all for one.

4. Authority/respect. As primates, we understand hierarchical social interactions. This foundation underlies the virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

5. Purity/sanctity. This is shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. Being repulsed by things that look or smell bad can keep us from eating unsafe food. It also underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, and more noble way.

Haidt theorizes that the rise of civilization may have needed all five of the morality categories.

Make love, not war

Here’s the interesting bit: when people from different viewpoints are tested against these five categories, everyone strongly endorses #1 (care/harm) and #2 (fairness/reciprocity).

As Haidt’s drawing shows, Americans across the political spectrum strongly endorse the foundations of Care/Harm and Fairness. Not so for the next three. The conservative says “go team,” while the liberal says “celebrate diversity” (#3). The conservative says, “respect authority,” while the liberal says, “question authority” (#4). The conservative says, “life is sacred,” while the liberal says, “keep your laws off my body” (#5).

That’s a caricature, of course. Liberals like the team, authority, and purity as well; it’s just that they are likelier than conservatives to fear these good ideas taken to an extreme.

Liberals speak for the weak and oppressed, and they’ll risk chaos for the benefits of change. Conservatives speak for institutions and traditions, and they’ll risk injustice to those at the bottom for the benefits of order.

Haidt observes that in Eastern thought, it’s not the zero-sum game that it is in the West. While there are opposites (yin and yang, for example), they aren’t enemies. Each is recognized as having value. Brahma is the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. Each has a role.

This insight that morality is composed of different components has been helpful to me in making clear how those who disagree with me aren’t evil or insane but simply see morality differently. We value the same moral foundations but rank them differently.

Are we at an impasse?

Let me ask for some audience participation. Critique the following thought process.

Social liberals and conservatives will see issues like abortion and gay marriage differently. The liberal acknowledges the differences and wants each person to be minimally constrained. You need an abortion? Within reason, it’s your choice. You want to get gay married? Go for it.

Alternatively: You don’t like abortion or gay marriage? Don’t get one. You want to argue against them? The First Amendment allows that.

The conservative typically wants minimal government intrusion but makes an exception here because the stakes are so high. Life is too important to permit abortion. Marriage is too important in the traditional sense to expand the definition. Government is tasked to impose the correct approach on everyone.

Do we have two equally valid moral approaches here? Are we destined to struggle? Are there social trends pushing us in one direction or the other where (like slavery and civil rights) one side will prevail?

Never let your sense of morals
prevent you from doing what is right.
— Anon.

Photo credit: United Nations

About Bob Seidensticker
  • Kellen Connor

    I’m fine with opinions and even moral compasses that differ from mine, but I feel that someone wishing to hold me to their moral standard should be first held to a standard of rationality and evidence. To be more clear; someone who wants a law that keeps me from marrying another woman because it would threaten traditional marriage should be required to explain why my marriage would be such a threat, and why traditional marriage is has more intrinsic value than gay marriage. And after hearing literally hundreds of such “arguments,” I have to say that the standard of evidence has yet to be met.

    • Machintelligence

      I’m fine with opinions and even moral compasses that differ from mine, but I feel that someone wishing to hold me to their moral standard should be first held to a standard of rationality and evidence.

      Therein lies the problem. Moral values are those that are not subject to question or debate. I fear that conflict is unavoidable. If you look at the three values that conservatives tend to favor over fairness and harm, they are the values of a tribal society, which is more fragmented and violent than our more recent and inclusive large state type.

      Ingroup loyalty is most often achieved through xenophobia and out group demonization. Respect for authority is dependent only on the perceived legitimacy of the authority. Hence all of the “birther” nonsense, a blatant attempt to discredit the legitimacy of Obama as president. (If he was really the president, he would be a respected authority.) Purity is the least rational of the moral values and the hardest to defend. Yet another value (not mentioned above) is tradition. “We have had that (whatever) for 50 years” is considered a valid argument even if the (whatever) was illegal or wrong from the beginning.

      There must be an instinct to form tribes, however. Look at football teams. They command loyalty based on — what? We cheer for team uniforms and logos. Riots sometimes occur after games (well, not so much lately).

      It appears to take a strong central government with effective law enforcement to counter the tribal instinct. Libertarian claims to the contrary, a strong government is essential for the preservation of individual liberty. Also note that conservatives favor “small” government and don’t appear to be too upset with mob rule.

      • smrnda

        I think conservatives’ take on the size of government depends on how likely the government is to enforce their values. If the government is locking up undesirables, protecting the property of wealthy citizens and punishing deviance, then the government can’t be too big. If the government is protecting minorities of various sorts, providing benefits to those in need and preventing discrimination against homosexuals, then it’s ‘too big.’ Trillions in military spending is no outrage to many conservatives, but food stamps are apparently breaking us.

        • Hanan

          >protecting the property of wealthy citizens

          That would make sense if everyone that is conservative is wealthy and has a stake in what you just said. Almost 50% of the country voted for the right. Are you saying those 50% are wealthy?

          >but food stamps are apparently breaking us.

          That is because you are looking at it too simplistically and ironically, proving Haidt’s point that Conservatives understand Liberals, but Liberals just don’t ‘get’ Conservatives, hence the only explanation against Conservatives is that they MUST be “bad.”

          “Social conservatives see welfare and feminism as threats to responsibility and family stability. The Tea Party hates redistribution because it interferes with letting people reap what they earn. Faith, patriotism, valor, chastity, law and order — these Republican themes touch all six moral foundations, whereas Democrats, in Haidt’s analysis, focus almost entirely on care and fighting oppression. This is Haidt’s startling message to the left: When it comes to morality, conservatives are more broad-minded than liberals. They serve a more varied diet.”

          “Haidt applauds the left for regulating corporate greed. But he worries that in other ways, liberals dissolve moral capital too recklessly. Welfare programs that substitute public aid for spousal and parental support undermine the ecology of the family. Education policies that let students sue teachers erode classroom authority. Multicultural education weakens the cultural glue of assimilation. Haidt agrees that old ways must sometimes be re-examined and changed. He just wants liberals to proceed with caution and protect the social pillars sustained by tradition.”

          and most imporant:

          “The hardest part, Haidt finds, is getting liberals to open their minds. Anecdotally, he reports that when he talks about authority, loyalty and sanctity, many people in the audience spurn these ideas as the seeds of racism, sexism and homophobia. And in a survey of 2,000 Americans, Haidt found that self-described liberals, especially those who called themselves “very liberal,” were worse at predicting the moral judgments of moderates and conservatives than moderates and conservatives were at predicting the moral judgments of liberals. Liberals don’t understand conservative values. And they can’t recognize this failing, because they’re so convinced of their rationality, open-mindedness and enlightenment.”

          You might as well read the whole bloody article :)

          http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/25/books/review/the-righteous-mind-by-jonathan-haidt.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

        • Machintelligence

          I read the article, and here is a paragraph near the end:

          Haidt is part of this process. He thinks he’s just articulating evolution. But in effect, he’s also trying to fix it. Traits we evolved in a dispersed world, like tribalism and righteousness, have become dangerously maladaptive in an era of rapid globalization. A pure scientist would let us purge these traits from the gene pool by fighting and killing one another. But Haidt wants to spare us this fate. He seeks a world in which “fewer people believe that righteous ends justify violent means.” To achieve this goal, he asks us to understand and overcome our instincts. He appeals to a power capable of circumspection, reflection and reform.

          It appears that the power he is appealing to is rational thought. The problem is that most moral judgments are impervious to rational refutation. It isn’t that Conservatives have more moral foundations, it is that they have more ways to be pigheaded and wrong. Scientists, most of whom are liberals, are constantly asking “what if we are wrong?” and revising their opinions when they are. I see no evidence of this attitude on the part of Religious Conservatives (and the religious right has pretty much taken over the Republican party). Sadly for them, reality has a liberal bias.

        • Hanan

          So why does he not consider himself a Liberal anymore?

        • Machintelligence

          Perhaps he distinguishes (as do I) between a small “l” liberal and a capital “L” Liberal.

        • Phil

          Hanan,

          I keep encountering this idea (from conservatives) that Chait has somehow proven that conservatives’ morals are better because they use “more” factors when making moral decisions. This makes no sense to me.

          Rather, what Chait has helped done is explain why conservatives and liberals might make different moral choices, but he hasn’t done anything to explain that one system is better than another. (At least not to my mind–I’d be curious to hear if someone thinks otherwise).

          On a tangential note, here’s an example of the values in immediate conflict (I read this in some holocaust memoir years ago–I have no idea which one–but the anecdote has always stuck with me): In the concentration camps, prisoners of all different nationalities would be put together, and the prisoners would run the soup lines. When it was your turn to ladle out soup, you were expected by your countrymen to give them more soup than the other nationalities. The writer mentioned that when he went through the line, he was always grateful to see the Communist (who was of another nationality) ladling out the soup, because he gave the same amount to everyone. Of course his countrymen did not care for this (I think he was beat for it). Who was right?

          (Would it change your opinion if the person ladling out the soup was not a Communist, but a Christian?)

          Finally, with regard to Chait and his no longer being a liberal, a quick internet search has led me to believe that he still holds all the same (liberal) views that he used to hold. Although if you know of any views that have changed, I’d be curious.

        • Hanan

          I never said that the thinks Conservatives are better. He thinks Conservatives are more balanced. If, according to him societies flourished due to 1-5, than those are needed. Now he doesn’t say that you will ALWAYS need number 4 for example. Sometimes you will need fairness and nothing more. So he hasn’t lost all his Liberal ideas. He is now centrists after writing his book. That means he is able to now look at both sides of the aisle more freely and admit that Conservatives may have certain points when all Liberals think of is Compassion/Fairness. Remember what the article said: That though he applauds some of the things Liberals have done, he fears that they are a little too reckless in destroying certain pillars that are important for the society.

        • Phil

          That means he is able to now look at both sides of the aisle more freely
          and admit that Conservatives may have certain points when all Liberals
          think of is Compassion/Fairness.

          It is certainly true that you need to be able to articulate the other side’s position in a manner that the other side recognizes and would own, before explaining why you disagree with it.

          If you cannot do that, then you’ve got a problem.

        • smrnda

          I was not addressing Haidt – I was addressing talking points from conservatives.

          On ‘protecting the wealthy’ – if you think of the trope of the ‘welfare queen,’ it was a skillful ploy to get working class people (particularly white people) to believe that when people talk about taxing ‘the rich’ they’re talking about taxing *them* and giving their money to welfare queens.

          As to Haidt’s views, then I just think he’s wrong and trying to appear broad-minded by doing the ‘everybody is a little bit right’ dance.

          Plus, the Tea Party is just an astro-turfed organization invented by rich people who want more tax breaks, mostly going to people who earn money through passive ownership, not work.

          If Haidt told me I hadn’t ‘opened my mind’ it’s just that I’ve rejected ideas that I’ve never heard a solid case for.

          If I’m not open-minded because I can’t get on board with sanctity, I’m glad that Mr O So Wise Haidt thinks I’m not open-minded. I’m also not open to young earth creationism, either.

        • smrnda

          Additionally, I don’t exactly see intelligent, well-thought out arguments coming from conservatives. Tea Party types rant about ‘wasteful spending’ while collecting Medicare. I’m not saying there are no intelligent conservatives, just that they aren’t part of the Tea Party.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          The big/small government paradox is particularly ironic. They want government out of their business … unless it would be handy for some social pet project (no gay marriage, no abortion), and then government imposing restrictions on all Americans sounds peachy.

  • Greg G.

    The liberal sees morality as the interactions with fellow citizens. The conservative sees morality as a set of rules to be followed with little thought to the consequences.

    I see harm and fairness as the most important considerations. Many things can be passed off as moral issues, especially when one has religious fears or superstitious fears.

    Purity is a health issue that would only be a moral question in a situation where others would be harmed. Religion and superstition make it a moral issue through irrational fears of harm.

    The ingroup comes in as a distribution of resource issue coupled with fairness. I’ll share my surplus today if you share yours tomorrow. It tends to limit our morality. We become more moral by expanding our ingroup.

    The issue of authority is orthogonal to morality. We are moral within our peer group because we can expect others to help us when we need it by showing others that we will help them when they need. An authority figure need not participate this way. The authority can command that his inferiors treat him as he wishes to be treated. The more powerful the authority, the less he needs to abide by moral constraints. We comply so we can keep what we have. Research has shown that when people are put in positions of power over others, they can become less moral.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      Greg: I like your critique, but this is simply what a liberal guy (you or me) would say. A conservative person would have a different response. You say that purity helps us avoid bad food and little more; the conservative might say that homosexuality being icky is a valid response and can’t be ignored, and so on. Though I agree with you, I don’t see that you’ve seized the objective high ground. It seems like this devolves into you and the conservative just shouting at each other (again).
      Or have I missed something?

      • Greg G.

        No, you didn’t miss anything. I was trying to come up with a reasonable explanation for the other position, something that didn’t sound like a strawman, but couldn’t. Then things got busy so I posted it as is.

        When I was a believer, I was told two things, one or the other by several different people, that related to this. One was that the laws and morals came from God for our benefit and that the laws and morals were for a higher purpose that was beyond our understanding. The former is the liberal position, with or without the middle man. The latter seems to be the conservative position, usually as is.

        Andrew’s link makes some good points with the zombie scenario. It’s sort of how I see the conservative position but it’s not how they arrive at their position, which is what I would like to have a few conversations about. When I have spoken with conservatives on the issue, they don’t seem to be introspective enough to question why they are inclined that way. Many can’t get past a “God said it” explanation that sounds like a child explaining how the cow jumped over the moon.

        Anyway, the descriptive analysis of morality from my POV is that we must have a reputation as a “credible moral agent” to have “others do unto you” as you would like them to. This works among equals but breaks down between the more powerful and the less powerful, which aligns with our experiences with reality.

        Some of us would like to make things better for more people while some of us fear that adjustments will only make things irretrievably worse. One is a curiousity-based rationality and one is a fear-based rationality.

        • Kodie

          The position many theists seem to have is that morality is handed to us for our own good. We don’t have to think about it, we just do it, and god is the parent and it wouldn’t be good for us to be rebellious or do whatever we wanted to do. That is how it is framed from the theist side (it is really hard for me to think in terms of liberal and conservative without conflating these same issues). Most people do want to do whatever they want, as if there is nothing wrong with any of it, from their perspective. I don’t think of conservatives as being particularly rule-abiding – they just don’t create rules they don’t want to follow and defy people who want them to follow rules, like for example, integration.

          Anyway, from the idea of objective morality, there is a list of things we’re not supposed to wander the line and do, no matter what. It’s tempting, but it’s for our own good that we’re supposed to stay inside the lines. If we don’t like where the line is, we could just draw the line in a different place and say that’s “objective” morality, we were wrong in assuming the line says, for example, homosexuality is an affront to god and nature, so we can move where the line is, and say that gay people are alright and should have the same equal rights as straight people. Somehow that is not redefining “god” from their perspective; instead, that is “discerning” or “revealing”. And neither is it defying god. It’s not breaking the old rule, it’s making up a new rule. Theists often seem to put these ideas into god as the parent, and the parent says “as long as you live under my roof…” and “I’m god, that’s why.” It’s assumed that the parent has our best interests in the end. It’s faulty reasoning, although many people had parents like that and parent the same way.

          Like, if I said “no wire hangers,” I don’t care what you want, that’s my irrational rule, and if I find wire hangers (I often wondered how Christina Crawford thought to get herself some new hangers), I am allowed to beat you. It’s for your own good that you know what I don’t like, and it may distort your clothes a little and embarrass me when we are seen in public, like I couldn’t afford to buy proper wooden hangers (?) and you look like some kind of moppet, and make me look like a terrible mother. So I will beat you!

          I think since children often don’t know what the heck they’re doing, a little parental guidance is obviously necessary to show them around the earth and figure stuff out, but I don’t know where parents got the idea that children are awful sinners who need to be authoritatively controlled within the millimeter or else all their bad habits and tendencies will snowball into a life of defilement and satanism. That seems to be how some people view morality that comes from an invisible source – as parents to their children, they still have to report to someone higher, and when they accuse atheists of wanting to be their own authority, imagine that we would allow anything from ourselves. It is the sort of, like, we are teens whose parents let us stay home for a whole weekend so instead of being mature and gaining their trust by keeping it together, we throw a party with beer and rape and television at all hours! If you don’t instill a fear of being watched all the time, that’s what they imagine we are plotting to do with our own authority. Even if you cleaned up really good before your parents came home, god still knows. What it comes down to for me is the selling short of humanity. They are taught to think of themselves as sinners, their children as sinners, and all of us as sinners with absolutely no other means of self-control or empathy or sensibility.

          And they’re not sure what will actually happen. That doesn’t seem to matter. Some think the weather is controlled by rebellion against god. Some think the US is in dire need of god’s protection or else he will abandon his children and it will be Sodom & Gomorrah. For as much as it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship, an awful lot of people think they have to belong to an army of sorts, and their own salvation is dependent on group salvation. I don’t know how it works that things are important to someone on earth, like outlawing abortion, but when they die, will they still be concerned? No. In heaven, people are relieved of concern for humans who may be headed for hell or the destruction of a government they pretend to cherish and define as synonymous with whatever they believe is moral and correct. They got theirs and that’s what morality is for.

          I have gone on a tangent. :)

        • Greg G.

          Yes, that is pretty much what conservatives say but when you say it without the ambiguous phrases, it sounds ridiculous so they will say you’ve created a strawman. 8o)

      • smrnda

        I think you’re in error there. Some of these moral dimensions can be defended by rational argument. I can make an appeal to your sense of fairness by asking you if you want to be treated unfairly. I could probably come up with some similar case for most of the other ones. However, there seems to be absolutely no rational, pragmatic case for purity.

        I do agree this means that conservatives and liberals are talking past each other, but I think that some conservatives, particularly ones who care about ‘purity’ just have a worldview that is not based in logic or reason. Notice how anti-equality people typically try to use the level of their disgust over homosexuality as if it were a rational case against it – they’re using a gut reaction that largely stems from tribal affiliation as if it were a sensible cost-benefit analysis.

        The more vocal anti-GLBTQ voices are spectacles of complete irrationality. They say gay marriage *will* topple civilization despite empirical evidence to the contrary, they’re clinging to unfalsifiable psychoanalytic theories on homosexuality that have been ditched a long time ago, and you’ve got people inventing ideas like those from the Pink Swastika. These arguments are preposterous to anyone outside of their clique. I just think that ‘purity’ is something that, once a person acquires the capacity for rational thinking, is outgrown.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          And the argument that gay marriages will injure the upbringing of every child in the country, that evolution and global warming are wicked conspiracies by commies determined to take away our religion and guns, and so on.

          Yes, having a rational argument can be challenging.

    • Hanan

      >The conservative sees morality as a set of rules to be followed with little thought to the consequences.

      This is the exact opposite of what Haidt would say:

  • RichardSRussell

    Values are arbitrary — including these 5 general ones. The nearest we will ever come to “objective” values is via the evolutionary process of seeing which ones survive and thrive.

    Incidentally, Haidt pronounces his name height, not hate.

  • Andrew G.

    I have run across this theory:

    http://slatestarcodex.com/2013/03/04/a-thrivesurvive-theory-of-the-political-spectrum/

    I think it has a lot going for it, though like all such theories it is possible that it is oversimplifying.

    • Machintelligence

      Wow! Great link. I’ll just point out that according to a Pew poll:

      By the year 2050, 41% of Americans believe that Jesus Christ definitely (23%) or probably (18%) will have returned to earth.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

        The last two bazillion claims of the end have been wrong, but they’re just feeling lucky, I guess? How wrong does a religion have to be before you walk away from it?

  • ortcutt

    Isn’t a major part of moral education learning that 3,4, or 5 aren’t part of morality?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      ortcutt: I don’t know that that’s the case. Some respect for authority is a good thing (listening to a cop); excessive respect is bad (My Lai massacre). And so on.

      How do you find the balance? If conservatives have a different balance than yours, how do you argue as a peer that yours is any better? They sense that their way is best just like you do yours.

      • ortcutt

        Respect for authority may have instrumental value (toward 1 and 2), but I really don’t see how it could have intrinsic moral value. That’s the issue and the instrumentality explains why respect for authority is sometimes good and sometimes bad.

  • stanz2reason

    Do we have two equally valid moral approaches here?

    How might we determine & judge validity here? If for nothing else, I might say a conservative moral view is less consistent as to how it’s applied to public policy. They value authority, yet that doesn’t seem consistent with their views on government, especially their actions and rhetoric vs. the present administration. They value ‘their own’, so to speak, yet complain about public efforts to offer medical care to their fellow citizens, a modest income to the elderly, and other benefits to the poor. They can be pro-life & war hawks at the same time.

    Are we destined to struggle?

    Yes

    Are there social trends pushing us in one direction or the other where (like slavery and civil rights) one side will prevail

    Yes. Conservatives have relegated themselves to governing by obstruction at the national level and governing by insanity at the state level. While the US remains a slightly center right country, I can’t think of many social trends that aren’t becoming more liberal. In all fairness, some of this can be attributed to a clear blue/red line being an illusion or at best an oversimplification and that the reality is a more complex mix of the two.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      I have heard that in general, in the long term, Western society is moving toward a liberal viewpoint. I don’t know what to make of this claim. This does get confusing (to me, anyway) when it gets into economics or foreign policy–I’m not sure what’s right and what’s left.

      • stanz2reason

        Consider a few things.
        1) The red/blue divide is largely imaginary. In reality there is more crossover than we all realize making it very difficult to keep score, so to speak. There are social conservatives who also like government efforts to feed the poor and care for the elderly. There are social liberals who would prefer the government stay out of their business. Large blocks of groups might tend to align with one particular view more than another (say religious believers and conservatism or religious skeptics & liberalism) but it’s a messier picture at the individual level.
        2) Don’t consider the policy, but the tactics used in seeing which side is presenting a winning grander argument. Consider the conservative tactics of placing imaginary fears into the minds of readers and viewers. Consider the half-truths, misrepresentations & outright lies they propagate. Consider the endless appeals to and attempts to align with peoples religious beliefs. Consider the denial of scientific evidence and facts in general. Consider that their political power is relegated to obstructing at the national level and enacting utterly insane policy at the state level. These tactics have short-term gains no doubt, but they are not the tactics from a side who is winning an argument. They are desperate tactics used by desperate people.
        3) Consider how politics breaks down between generations. That younger people tend to be more liberal is more and more evident everyday, especially on social issues. This doesn’t seem like a trend that’s slowing down either. Everyday an older, likely more conservative person dies and a younger likely more liberal person turns 18 and starts voting.
        4) Economics & foreign policy are more complex than social issues.
        In terms military actions there is a fine balancing act between keeping our nose out of other peoples business and preserving order / preventing a wider humanitarian catastrophe. For every shameful example of action like Iraq, there is a shameful example of inaction like Rwanda or the Balkans in the 90′s. It’s difficult to anticipate the wider consequences of military action or inaction, and even more so when considering the political aspect. Personally I’m willing to walk the line between an idealistic dove and an overeager hawk and believe that a pragmatic balance between the two leads to the greatest overall good. This isn’t to say I’m opposed to constant debate over the ethical implications of military action (drone warfare). The worst thing the public can do is become indifferent to military action, and unfortunately that’s a real world issue.

        In terms of economics, it comes down to what works best. In many ways a capitalistic system has been shown to work best, however that isn’t to say a pure capitalistic system is best. Sure when considering buying a TV or a car, letting companies fight it out to put the best product out there is great. But issues like healthcare are far more complex and frankly our model is just awful. Paying twice as much and not living longer or better is just plain dumb. That every (or nearly every) industrialized country has some form of universal government subsidized healthcare is a fact. That these systems, and they vary quite a bit from country to country, cost far less and deliver near identical service is also a fact. Universal care removes an incalculable burden from both it’s citizens who fear lack of coverage and employers who bear much of the cost. Mandating insurance coverage might be well intended, but it’s glaringly obvious that insurance companies are an unnecessary middleman. We already have working models with Medicare & Medicaid which function far greater (and less costly) than their critics allege. Medicare for all and call it a day. My point here is that the best system, much like the foreign policy positions, is a pragmatic one that recognizes the successes of capitalism in some areas and the successes of socialism in others. Neither of these two break down cleanly into liberal/conservative positions.

  • Hanan

    >Are we destined to struggle?

    Yes. And maybe that is not a bad thing. As Haidt suggests it is sort of a Ying/Yang relationship.

  • Jerry Lynch

    Being iberal or conservative on any issue, incuding morality, is naturally being unreasonable, by the presumed bias or prejudice of its perspective. Critical thinking demands that such propensities be treated at the very least as distractions or more so as self-delusion.

    Or is that observation what a liberal believes he or she is doing all the time, while the conservative sees it as the arrogance inherent in human nature?

    Morality in a humanistic view I see as being more about the aesthetics of our interconnectedness, where ways are sought to maintain, strengthen, and enhance communal growth, safety, and productivity, gradually weeding out the defective ones adulterating the gene pool and leaving them to die on some barren plain or mountain top.

  • Ellie

    Morals are personal and ethics are societal. We can think all sorts of things are moral however when we act upon them and they hurt others in society it has become unethical. Number 3 and 4 have a great chance of often being unethical, creating ingroups will often hurt those not in that group, for example gay marriage. Number 4 too can be very unethical, respecting authority and tradition is often the cause for great harm to others. When it comes to your scenario at the bottom, I believe that liberals can see that everyone has their own morals and are free to live by them but when people try and enforce their personal morals on to others they are acting unethically. So yeah, I’m kinda sick of this whole moral argument and wish people would concern themselves with ethics, number one and 2 on your list.

  • smrnda

    I am beginning to think that harm/benefit is the only real moral dimension. Fairness is kind of related, but most of the others are really more like cognitive shortcuts regarding moral thinking.

    Let’s take in-group loyalty. The idea behind that would be that it increases fairness; you don’t cheat, piss or shit on members of “your” group, which leads to fairness and benefit instead of harm. However, it can also lead to out-group hostility or indifference. Taken as a value in and of itself is a bad idea.

    Respect for authority is kind of a shortcut as well, since we’re assuming that authorities are keeping us from harm and enforcing sensible rules, but *in the end* authority is only good if it does those things. However, seeing respect for authority as a virtue in and of itself is not just wrong, but lazy thinking.

    Purity probably arises from the fact that we aren’t good at deciding what is good or bad for us, and, in the absence of better information, we use the ‘ick factor.’ If it smells icky, don’t eat it. The problem is that, these days, we can do better than that. Just because something looks or tastes ‘icky’ or gross doesn’t mean it can’t be good for you.

    So to me, Haidt’s mistake is to believe that authority, purity or in-group loyalty can be defended *for their own sake.*

    On the idea that liberals ‘don’t get’ conservatives, I’d just say that I can reiterate a lot of conservative talking points, but that I feel the arguments behind them are really weak or rely on outright distortions. Freak-outs over ‘wealth redistribution’ ignore the reality that we don’t have equality of opportunity and that much wealth isn’t produced because on party worked harder than the other – that’s a silly myth like believing in the Easter Bunny. Beliefs that acceptance of non-traditional family or relationship structure is based on taking a norm from the 1950s and imagining it was ahistorical. Freak-outs over the idea that multiculturalism is doomed because people will lack a common identity ignore the fact that a ‘common culture’ has never existed in the US.


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