Haidt on Morality and Political Identity

Jonathan Haidt has an interesting TED talk about what research on moral psychology tells us about how key personality traits correspond to liberal and conservative political views. The evidence is pretty overwhelming on this and he talks about a good bit of the research on the question.

httpv://youtu.be/vs41JrnGaxc

Follow Us!
POPULAR AT PATHEOS Nonreligious
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum
  • abb3w

    I think his recent work on “liberty” as a moral value is a bit more shaky (since I suspect the common concept is somewhere in the vicinity of capricious to inconsistent in formulation), but the rest of his moral foundations work seems exceptionally solid.

  • doublereed

    I liked some of his points except near the end. Didn’t China use all the various religions as propaganda for their regimes? Like it seemed as if he was suggesting that the eastern religions are somehow above their western counterparts, at least from a political perspective, and I am highly skeptical of that claim.

  • D. C. Sessions

    abb3w, the concept of “liberty” depends very much on whether one can identify with being at the bottom of the power heirarchy. For too many people, “liberty” means being able to exercise power over those below you without interference.

    It is thus very much a “moral” value, but curiously resides simultaneously at both ends of what I consider “morality.” What I consider “liberty,” a slaveowner would consider “tyranny.” This makes for some very strange discussions, as you might imagine.

  • abb3w

    D. C. Sessions:

    abb3w, the concept of “liberty” depends very much on whether one can identify with being at the bottom of the power heirarchy. For too many people, “liberty” means being able to exercise power over those below you without interference.

    That seems to make some sense — suggesting that any foundational factor of “liberty” might in practice be heavily mediated by the INGROUP or AUTHORITY factors of hierarchy. That said, I still think the formulation of “liberty” isn’t thought out as precisely as Haidt’s others.

  • Vinay Edwin

    Please ignore the title, the article is actually really interesting and provides a counterpoint to the idea of moral foundations theory. http://www.salon.com/2015/03/05/the_right_has_fked_up_minds_meet_the_researcher_who_terrifies_gop_congress/

  • doublereed

    From Vinay’s link @6

    The basic idea is that there are five or six innate (evolutionarily prepared) bases for human “moral” judgment and behavior, namely fairness (which moral foundations theorists understand largely in terms of reciprocity), avoidance of harm, ingroup loyalty, obedience to authority, and the enforcement of purity standards.

    My main problem is that sometimes moral foundations theorists write descriptively as if these are purely subjective considerations—that people think and act as if morality requires us to obey authority, be loyal to the group, and so on. I have no problem with that descriptive claim—although this is surely only a small subset of the things that people might think are morally relevant—as long as we acknowledge that people could be wrong when they think and act as if these are inherently moral considerations.

    At other times, however, moral foundations theorists write prescriptively, as if these “foundations” should be given equal weight, objectively speaking, that all of them should be considered virtues, and that anyone who rejects any of them is ignoring an important part of what it means to be a moral human being. I and others have pointed out that many of the worst atrocities in human history have been committed not merely in the name of group loyalty, obedience to authority, and the enforcement of purity standards, but because of a faithful application of these principles.

    For 24 centuries, Western philosophers have concluded that treating people fairly and minimizing harm should, when it comes to morality, trump group loyalty, deference to authority, and purification. In many cases, behaving ethically requires impartiality and disobedience and the overcoming of gut-level reactions that may lead us toward nepotism, deference, and acting on the basis of disgust and other emotional intuitions. It may be difficult to overcome these things, but isn’t this what morality requires of us?

  • chirez

    Surely the entire point of critical thought and the application of reason is to identify, overcome and ultimately supplant our innate biases, in all spheres, including morality.

    I appreciate that there is a very sticky wicket right at the outset, in that the foundation of any moral system is the identification of ‘the good’, but the principles of least harm tend to be universally accepted by both liberal and conservative thinkers.

    The true problems arise when people of all stripes refuse to accept reason and evidence as a foundation for decision making. This is not strictly a liberal or conservative issue, but it seems to be more prevalent on the right wing at this point in time, perhaps because we are in a period of necessary change.

  • wscott

    @ Vinay & doublereed: It sounds to me like Haidt & Jost are coming at the same conclusions from different directions and quibbling over terminology. Which is fine – that’s what academics are supposed to do. But his criticism of moral foundations (particularly the section doublereed quoted) seem to miss Haidt’s point rather spectacularly IMO. I didn’t hear anything in Haidt’s talk implying all five foundations have to be given equal weight. At the risk of oversimplifying, what I got out of Haidt’s talk was:

    1) Just because group loyalty, obedience to authority, and purity are often to justify evil doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. (Kinda like the way Creationists try to use eugenics to discredit evolution?) Put another way: yes Hitler couldn’t have risen to power without those traits, but OTOH let’s be honest that the Allies couldn’t have beaten him without appealing to those same traits.

    2) Perhaps more important: if you want to actually persuade Conservatives about…just about anything really, then you need to recognize that those values are important to them, even if they’re not important to you. Think of it as speaking to someone in their language. It’s okay to say “I recognize [purity argument] and [loyalty argument] are important to you, but to me they’re outweighed by [care/harm argument] and [fairness argument].” That’s called having a conversation. But if we can’t even acknowledge that those other values exist, then you’re essentially ignoring half of their argument and we’re doomed to continue talking past one another until the sun goes cold.

  • Nick Gotts

    wscott@9:

    Just because group loyalty, obedience to authority, and purity are often to justify evil doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. (Kinda like the way Creationists try to use eugenics to discredit evolution?)

    No, nothing like that at all. No-one is denying that the traits concerned exist.

    Put another way: yes Hitler couldn’t have risen to power without those traits, but OTOH let’s be honest that the Allies couldn’t have beaten him without appealing to those same traits.

    But if those traits hadn’t existed, they would not have needed to. They couldn’t have won without killing a lot of innocent people either – that doesn’t make doing so a good thing.

    It’s okay to say “I recognize [purity argument] and [loyalty argument] are important to you, but to me they’re outweighed by [care/harm argument] and [fairness argument].”

    But that would be dishonest, since I don’t recognise that purity, group loyalty and obedience to authority are principles we should hold.

    But if we can’t even acknowledge that those other values exist

    Of course I recognise they exist, just as I recognise that racism, misogyny, antisemitism, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of bigotry exist.

  • Kermit Sansoo

    Nick – but we are social animals. It seems to be hard-wired into us to have group loyalty. Not, obviously, to the same degree in all individuals. Some folk s are natural loners, and not just Asperger’s people. When you say that of course group loyalty exists, just as you acknowledge bigotry, well… You are explicitly condemning any valuing at all of group loyalty, which is not only not obviously correct, but rather judgmental of a natural instinct in humans. Do you also reject value in sexual desires, competitiveness, reluctance to embrace all changes, a desire to play, and curiosity? They are not only natural, but arguably the source of no end of mischief. (Examples can be given.)

    .

    Are you differentiating among “valuing X”, “tolerating X”, and “considering X to be a moral principle”?

    .

    I also note that the concept of “tribe” is multilayered, complex, and sometimes ambiguous. I consider myself a member of the global humanist tribe (and a gardener, and computer geek, and several others). I’m not sure what all is encompassed in identifying with a tribe (group). Can I show loyalty to my friends? If I do, I will almost certainly be showing loyalty to my group (or one of them).

  • doublereed

    @11 Kermit

    And that’s the level of disagreement. Although “loner” does not imply they are low on group loyalty. It’s the amount of value placed in loyalty that matters. Group loyalty does not imply social behavior. The person, for instance, could be paranoid, or feel betrayed by society in some way.

    The difference is treating it as a moral guide, that in some cases, it’s okay for group loyalty or authority to trump harm and fairness. The fact is that we know, through history and sociology, that purity, group loyalty, and authority should never trump the values of harm and fairness.

    That is the argument being made by fascists and authoritarians all the time. That it’s okay to harm that person because of our loyalty or authority or purity.

    When we look at fundamentalists, we often see how betrayed they are about their children. That’s what “honor killing” is referring to. When the values of purity and loyalty trump harm. Loyalty, we quickly see, is a dangerous thing to have in that kind of equation.

    And that’s a major issue with Moral Foundations theory. It is sometimes phrased as allowing those factors into the equation, and presented as foolish and naive to not want to do so.

  • wscott

    @ Nick: But if those traits hadn’t existed, they would not have needed to.

    And if Hitler hadn’t had an army we wouldn’t have needed one, therefore we shouldn’t have had one? Sorry, we don’t live in that universe.

    @ Nick: They couldn’t have won without killing a lot of innocent people either – that doesn’t make doing so a good thing.

    Fair enough; probably not the best analogy I could’ve chosen. Kermit did a better job of pointing out that those traits, like many things, can be used for good or ill. Any moral principle can be misused or misapplied. For example, every social scientist who has studied homelessness acknowledges the most effective and cheapest way to end homelessness would be to simply give free housing to the chronically homeless. (1% to 10% depending on who you’re talking to.) But you’ll never get that passed because it violates peoples’ sense of fairness, even among liberals.

    @ Nick: But that would be dishonest, since I don’t recognise that purity, group loyalty and obedience to authority are principles we should hold.

    My point wasn’t that you should pretend to hold those values, but that you need to recognize they are important to the person you’re trying to persuade. Sometimes you have to meet people where they are, not where you think they ought to be.

    @ Kermit: Can I show loyalty to my friends? If I do, I will almost certainly be showing loyalty to my group (or one of them).

    Exactly. Boil “tribalism” down to its most basic level and you get “family is important.” Does that mean [every TV show about family ever] is evil? While I agree an excess of tribalism is a bad thing – and also an all-too-common thing in our society – that doesn’t mean we can afford to reject the entire concept outright.

    @ doublereed: The fact is that we know, through history and sociology, that purity, group loyalty, and authority should never trump the values of harm and fairness.

    That sounds nice, but it seems massively overly simplistic; the real world is rarely so black and white. If you said that purity/authority/group loyalty are far too often allowed to trump harm & fairness, I would completely agree. But saying “these values aren’t important to me, therefore they shouldn’t ever be important to anyone else” strikes me as not only reductionist but frankly kindof self-centered.

    But even if we agreed that those values should seldom-rarely-hardly-ever-maybe-never be allowed to trump harm/fairness, that still ignores the fact that they are important to roughly half of humanity, and you must address them if you wish to persuade them of just about anything. Ignoring someone’s argument isn’t a refutation.

  • wscott

    Clarification: I realized after I hit send that the last sentence of my previous post could be read as saying that I felt doublereed was ignoring my argument – not what I meant at all! I’m saying if someone holds a position based partly on, say, group loyalty, simply ignoring that position because it’s not important to you is not going to win any arguments.

  • Gordon Trenchard

    Re: “The true problems arise when people of all stripes refuse to accept reason and evidence as a foundation for decision making. This is not strictly a liberal or conservative issue, but it seems to be more prevalent on the right wing at this point in time, perhaps because we are in a period of necessary change.”

    You’re right that it’s not a liberal or a conservative issue. It’s a human issue.

    You’re also right that many people refuse to accept evidence as a foundation for decision making. Or ideology.

    If evidence were the sole driver of ideology then liberalism as we currently know it would not, could not exist. The understanding of human nature upon which liberalism rests is refuted by evidence.

    Evidence proves that reason is, and can only ever be, a post-hoc rationalization of intuitions already felt, and decisions already made. It also proves that humans are very good at seeing the tiniest of flaws in the reasoning of those with whom we disagree, and very bad at seeing the gaping holes in our own.

    Knowing this, humans put in place the scientific method through which test our ideas by subjecting them to the scrutiny of others. It is from this method that knowledge emerges.

    Current knowledge of human nature shows that we are the only species that evolved to form into large cooperative groups of individuals who are not related to one another. Morality is the mechanism through which we cooperate. Morality is defined as follows:

    Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible. (The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion” by Jonathan Haidt, page 314)

    The evolved psychological mechanisms of morality include at least the following:

    1) Care/harm

    2) Fairness/cheating

    3) Liberty/oppression

    4) Loyalty/betrayal

    5) Authority/subversion

    6) Sanctity/degradation

    Current knowledge of human nature shows the following statements to be false:

    There’s no heritable genetic component to differences among people of different races, classes, sexes, cultures, subgroups within cultures, moralities, and ideologies.

    There’s no heritable genetic component to one’s intuitive sense of what constitutes right and wrong, good and bad, and better or worse in the realm of social thought and behavior. In other words, there’s no heritable genetic component to ideology or morality.

    Conscious reason motivates social thought, behavior, morality, and ideology to an equal or greater extent than does subconscious intuition.

    Individual conscious reason is objective, not subjective.

    Differences in race, class, sex, culture, morality and ideology result from either of the following, or a combination of both, but little if anything else: 1) social constructs and, 2) reason/teaching/learning.

    Achieving desirable human thought and behavior within a culture is a matter of implementing the right social constructs and teaching the right ideas and reasoning. In other words, human nature is malleable.

    Morality starts and ends with care, empathy, compassion, and fairness toward, and autonomy of, each individual.

    There’s no down side to morality understood in this way.

    This understanding of morality is the human norm. Other moralities are outliers.

    Liberals understand conservatives as well or better than conservatives understand liberals.

    Liberals understand human nature as well or better than do conservatives.

    Conservative morality is one of the outliers.

    It is not the aim of conservatism to achieve a society that is fair, just, equal, and does the most for the most within the limits of human nature.

    Conservatives vote against their own interests.

    Conservatives vote that way because they’re duped into it by their political leaders.

    Conservatives have less empathy than liberals.

    Conservatives are less compassionate than liberals.