Following on from the internal logic of human morality, a claim about internal consistency, I want to use the framework to discuss how and why we value what we value (and thus how and why we consider moral what we consider moral, aka moral epistemology).
Epistemology is a notoriously tricky field in philosophy (see for example Weingarten, 2016[i]), so discussing moral epistemology, where morality is also contentious, is doubly tricky. To make it even more contentious, the discussion must necessarily take into account emotions; that aspect of humanity, which, on the one hand, we all recognise in ourselves and in each other (to varying degrees of accuracy), and on the other hand, has no consensus definition amongst those that study it (Fox, 2008[ii]). I don’t wish to get embroiled in any of those debates, any more than absolutely necessary, so I will attempt to make as conservative a set of claims on all of those fields as I can, ironically.
To this point I have belaboured the left/right dichotomy, and suggested that this relates to our relationship to the general- and social- environments, respectively. As I have also been saying, values, or rather our relationship to them, can be described by another dichotomy: internalization or idealization. Whilst someone who self-defines as liberal has a more internalized sense of themselves (an organism), as embedded in the general environment, and a more idealized sense of what society (made up of individuals) should be; the individual that self-defines as conservative has the opposite traits, which is to say, a more internalized sense of themselves, as embedded in the social environment, and a more idealized sense of the individual, and the general environment in which they are embedded. The general environment, however, is significantly less malleable than the social environment, but conservatism rails against this, and where technology has enabled us to overpower the environment, this position has seemed tenable (not sustainable, but tenable).
Conservatism is defined by its desire to maintain social norms (to revert back to the Golden Age of [insert value here]), and to modify the environment in line with those norms. The (predominantly conservative) American Senate’s vote that climate change is not anthropogenic being an example of this (see Goldenberg, 2015[iii]), and the consequent blocking of laws that address it (e.g. Davenport, 2015[iv]). Kahan, et al. (2007) put it this way, “relatively hierarchical persons […] perceive assertions of environmental catastrophe as threatening the competence of social and governmental elites.” It is notoriously difficult to sanction Mother Nature, or change her laws (I’m using this gross anthropomorphism to make the point). Note that apologists for climate denial do come up with plausible-sounding reasons, and that as such this is a paradigm case of an intuition-based belief being argued for using post hoc rationalization, i.e. exactly what Haidt argues for with regard to morality in general, and conservatism in particular. The problem is, in this case, it is applied to a concern that, whilst potentially moral in its repercussions (impacts on the behaviour of people, and business, etc.), is not inherently moral. This is a Category Error: the general environment is notably impervious to, and devoid of, moral concerns (unless you happen to believe that the general environment is imbued with moral agency, aka God, as many conservatives do).
To try and avoid claims of bias in the foregoing, I would point out that a certain liberal mindset engages in similar behaviour to that of the Republican-led Senate. If you present a highly empathic person with a story told by an upset mother struggling to come to terms with her child’s diagnosis of autism, that individual will superimpose the mother’s idiosyncratic interpretation of causality that arises from a heightened emotional state, over their own. Antivaxxers will suspend rational thought because of the way an individual has presented an emotional case for a particular interpretation of events (notably, often articulated as an attack against an out-group, e.g. Big Pharma). This more liberal individual is swayed by emotional claims about an individual in the general environment; the previously described conservative individuals were swayed by their emotional reaction to claims about their in-group. In both cases the rational aspect of one’s understanding of the general environment has been swamped, either by the heightened emotion of a single individual to which they were connected by empathy, or by the heightened emotion inherent in thoughts about the group to which one belongs, and thus also a single individual… themselves.
There is more to the current model than the mere dichotomization of general environment vs. social environment (and the individual’s reactions to them). Both Haidt and Schwartz (and indeed Kahan, et al., 2007) break the moral/political landscape into four distinct regions. I previously made a general claim that the Libertarian-Hierarchical Individualist quadrant was based in the left, but trending rightwards, and that the Religious Left/Egalitarian Communitarians are religious (a right-based value), trending leftwards. It is worth noting that, in Schwartz’s (1994) values, he made a distinction between organism and group and, importantly, the interaction between them. The values that related to that interaction, were:
Achievement, Power, Security, Conformity, Benevolence, and Self-Direction (p. 22).
Achievement and Power are the values that make up the Self-Enhancement quadrant, central to Libertarianism. Benevolence is one of two values in the Self-Transcendence quadrant, central to the Religious Left. Conformity and Self-Direction sit outside (on either side) of Self-Transcendence, and stand in need of explanation. However, this is outside of the scope of this essay, and nothing particularly hangs on it. That said, what I consider to be the mislabeling of these values in Schwartz’s model appears exacerbated in Haidt’s theory, given the strong religious and conservative-leaning nature of that model.
At its base, my qualm with Haidt is about Moral Epistemology. I contend that Haidt, is biasing his interpretation of morality towards conservatism in general, and American conservatism in particular. In doing so he has taken a leap backwards in understanding morality more generally. Indeed, what I think Haidt has done is highlight the need to do more work on explaining American Conservatism in the context of morality more generally, and why it is a deviation from a greater human moral norm (which I will attempt in my next post). This peculiarity of American culture seems to be the primary driver of Haidt’s Moral Foundation Theory, and relates to the peculiar state of self-construal in American Protestantism (Li, Johnson, Cohen, Williams, Knowles & Chen, 2012[v]), and the self-perpetuating nature of this belief system (Stern, West, Jost & Rule, 2014[vi]). As such, I am going to claim that the Schwartz circumplex not only models the human moral sphere better than Moral Foundations Theory, but that the peculiarities of American conservatism (and conservatism more generally) that Haidt’s model privileges, can be explained through reapplying his Social Intuitionism to the Schwartz model. In combination these can explain the idiosyncrasies of American politics. First, in this post, I need to position moral epistemology in the context of Schwartz.
The values, by segment
I contend that the Schwartz values are descriptive of both predispositions in ways to assess stimuli, and of a progression that every single stimulus passes through, so as to be emotionally assessed. Our intuition, our System 1, receives stimuli and prioritizes certain response-sets based on past exposure to the same or similar stimuli. So, just as System 2 oversees and interferes with System 1 (Kahneman, 2003[vii]), so our moral (intuitive) epistemology is overseen by our classical (cognitive) episte-mology[viii].
We start with Stimulation (the receipt of a stimulus, whether engaged with reactively or proactively), and pass through all of the values to Self-Direction (judgment upon future action relating to this stimulus). Each value comes with a particular vocabulary for generating propositions about the stimulus (albeit that System 1 is pre-verbal, so it is only with conscious (post hoc) consideration that such vocabulary can be generated). Whilst no valuing is wrong, per sé, notice that the right side references social context. As such, the in-group, or rather one’s perception of it, intrudes upon the experiencing or processing of the stimulus itself (Kahan, et al., 2007). This must have repercussions.
I don’t think that it is value-laden to suggest that stimuli start as new to the individual, and end up as being mastered by the individual (to some degree). The level of this mastery (which may be as low as ‘avoid at all costs’) defines how one orients to the stimulus next time (the response-set). That having been said, we do have predispositions that cause us to predictably bias towards particular response-sets. As Maslow (1966/2002[ix]) famously said, “I suppose it is tempting, if all you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail”, but equally, and in opposition, if what you have to deal with is a nail, you may have to “hammer” it in with a stapler or a shoe. My contention is that the conservative hammer that is employed to deal with a great many stimuli is authority, and instructions on how to deal with that stimulus, as defined by authority. However, putting aside conservatism as something to be more fully explained, later, the following table looks at how the Schwartz Model can be deployed as a basis for all moral epistemology, including conservatism.
…Intrinsic interest in novelty and mastery
(An Exciting Life, A Varied Life)
Excitement, novelty, and challenge in life.
A desire for affectively pleasant arousal
(Pleasure, Enjoying Life)
Pleasure and sensuous gratification for oneself.
(Successful, Ambitious, Capable)
Personal success through demonstrating competence according to social standards.
Social superiority and esteem
Social status and prestige, control or dominance over people and resources
Avoiding or overcoming threats by controlling relationships and resources
(Social Order, Sense of Belonging)
Safety, harmony, and stability of society, of relationships, and of self.
Protection of order and harmony in relations
Preserving existing social arrangements that give certainty to life
(Obedient, Respect for Tradition)
Restraint of actions, inclinations, and impulses likely to upset or harm others and violate social expectations or norms.
Subordination of self in favor of socially imposed expectations
(Respect for Tradition, Sense of Belonging)
Respect, commitment, and acceptance of the customs and ideas that traditional culture or religion provide.
Normative behavior that promotes close relationships
Devotion to one’s in-group
(Helpful, A World at Peace)
Preservation and enhancement of the welfare of people with whom one is in frequent personal contact.
Enhancement of others and transcendence of selfish interests
(Equality, A World at Peace)
Understanding, appreciation, tolerance, and protection for the welfare of all people and for nature.
Reliance upon one’s own judgment and comfort with the diversity of existence
(Choosing Own Goals, Independent)
Independent thought and action – choosing, creating, exploring. Excitement, novelty, and challenge in life.
Intrinsic interest in novelty and mastery…
Table 1: The Schwartz Values Model (1994, p. 22): Each higher order value has examples (in brackets) of the values most descriptive of it (according to my sample). Between each pair of values is a description of a motivation sits between them (according to Schwartz, 2012, p. 9-10). Note that the ellipses at the start of the first line and the end of the last are intended to indicate the cyclical nature of the values, despite being presented in a table, for ease of reading, here.
I have started the above table at the motivation that arises from a combination between self-direction and stimulation. Notice that on the circumplex this is where Openness to Experience would sit. I have said that Openness to Experience is the primary motivation in liberalism; as such claims of anti-conservative bias won’t be far away. However, it is an unavoidable fact that children are curious (need stimulation). This is how children learn about themselves (self-discovery) and their environment (e.g. Eccles, 1999[x]). Children learn from this, and orient to affectively pleasant arousal. They may achieve self-centered satisfaction from it. Infants remain broadly in this quadrant for some while. Once old enough, children may be praised for engaging with stimuli, and come to notice when they get praise and their peers don’t (Power). But they will also notice when they are told off for engaging in self-centred satisfaction to the exclusion of their peers (Conformity) – consistency in such parenting is comforting (Security). As such parents are engaging some form of affectively unpleasant arousal to push children to engage with both the stimulus, and the repercussions in the social environment (I will discuss the quite literal impact of physical punishment, in the next post).
In opposition to the “liberal” quadrant of Stimulation and Self-Direction (giving rise to “Intrinsic interest in novelty and mastery”), we encounter the “conservative” quadrant: Security, Conformity, and Tradition. These give rise to “Protection of order and harmony in relations”, “Subordination of self in favor of socially imposed expectations”, and “Preserving existing social arrangements that give certainty to life.” This is the normalizing of things in a social environment, but this normalizing may have nothing to do with the reality of the stimulus. One can normalize the sacrifice of children to ensure the rising of the sun, for example. Once the regular sacrifice of children is attached to the reliable rising of the sun, one may seek to preserve such social arrangements. This again places the environment (in the form of a sun god in this case) right in the social milieu… and God wrote the constitution (Ashtari, 2014[xi])… and gave us dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:28[xii]), and he would not have done so if doing so would cause us to destroy the environment, right?
- Security is best described as a Sense of Belonging
- Conformity is best described as a Respect for Tradition
- Tradition is best described as a Sense of Belonging
Now, admittedly, my sample is of 119 people, the majority of whom are from the UK or US. A larger sample may give rise to definitions that make cleaner distinctions between the values. Certainly that is the case in Schwartz and colleagues’ more recent samples, wherein even narrower distinctions between values are made (Cieciuch, et al. 2014[xiii]), but that may just broaden the circle around which this circular reasoning travels: Respecting Tradition gives rise to a Sense of Belonging – the feeling of Security from Belonging increases one’s Respect for Tradition… ad nauseam. I will refer to this area of cyclic self-reference as the ‘conservative vortex’ (I’m now openly encouraging a flurry of outraged conservative commentators – but I will be making an important distinction later).
Notice that Benevolence is either a good start for breaking out of this cycle, or a means of entrenching it. Recall that Schwartz’s definition of benevolence was “Preservation and enhancement of the welfare of people with whom one is in frequent personal contact” (Schwartz and Boehnke, 2004, p. 239[xiv]). Clearly, if one is mostly in contact with one’s own in-group, then benevolence is all about supporting one’s own kind, and thus, by extension, oneself. If, however, one is open to experience, and regularly socializes with those outside of one’s own in-group, then benevolence extends to a wider circle, i.e. moves towards Universalism (“Enhancement of others and transcendence of selfish interests” [ibid.]). When others are more like the self, benevolence is a matter of selfish interests. As the sphere of concern broadens, it becomes less selfish. If something is universal it is to some extent true for one’s self, as it is for all, and as such one has a “Reliance upon one’s own judgment and comfort with the diversity of existence.” From this position it is possible to be interested in both new things that challenge these views, and the mastery of those new things …And so the cycle begins again.
This cycle can be used to derive narratives on the progression of any stimulus. If one sees a fish (or tastes the fish someone else caught), one may learn to catch a fish for oneself, one gets better at catching fish than one’s peers, one has enough fish to eat (and notes that some peers, whilst no good at catching fish, are very good at cooking them), one gives a fish to a starving friend, one gives a fish to a starving stranger, one learns to catch other (bigger? more interesting?) fish, and so on. I’m not suggesting that every stimulus must necessarily pass through all values in circumplex, indeed, the more one experiences, the more one can notice similarities between past stimuli and new stimuli, though of course, one must avoid the hammer/nail issue, in both directions, as well as overuse of heuristics, confirmation bias, and so on.
Adding a third dimension (making an actual moral sphere [or oblate spheroid])
I am comfortable using the circumplex in its current two-dimensional form. I think I showed in the last full-length blog post that this disc gives us great traction on discussing morality (based, as it is, on global surveys of participants and a balancing of their idiosyncratic definitions). There is another dimension that should be borne in mind. I have been a bit erratic in discussing the left as being both about the individual (organism) and about the general environment, likewise, though to a lesser extent, I’ve discussed the right as being about the group first, and the individual in that group second. There are two reasons behind this, and I’ll go into them now.
- The Environments and the SelfI have talked about the general environment, the social environment, and self-construal a bit. I see the circumplex as being a top-down view of morality that takes in all of these elements. It is a representation of what the individual believes to be the case and values, as represented by words, for which the meanings do vary from person to person. Underneath this, and out of sight (in the representation given thus far), are the facts about the general environment, and the facts about the social environment to which these values and beliefs relate.
- 1.1 The General Environment
I see the general environment as being very much larger than that which an individual can represent, much less value. So beneath, and off out to the left of the left wing is the general environment beyond that which the individual can know and care about. This does also reach across a small way to the right, and underpins some of what makes up the social environment. The best illustration of this is the transition from conformity to tradition. Conformity may well relate to some intractable fact of the general environment, such as the sun rising, or the possibility of food poisoning from eating seafood or pork. Once it becomes tradition, then the reason why the practice was originally adopted is lost, decoupled from considerations about the general environment, and now a fact of the social environment, and thus an inert authority.
- 1.2 The Social Environment
Understanding the social environment interposes between the general environment and the self; sometimes this makes sense, sometimes it does not. As outlined above, tradition may be predicated on a genuine need for a particular behaviour in response to the general environment – conformity to the preferred behaviour therefore makes sense. However, continuing to conform to a tradition when the tradition is decoupled from, and no longer relevant to, the realities of the general environment may still be a matter of concern about the organism in the general environment. That is, as an organism with needs – with the access to food, water, and shelter that the social environment enables – conformity is expedient. Likewise a threat of violence for failure to conform has very real organismic consequences. This causes a confusion between the social and the general (more on this next post).Now it may be that, at some point, there was a good reason why Judaism fell out with pork and certain types of seafood – maybe particularly vicious strain of trichinosis (but probably not, see here[xv]), or an algal bloom, but they didn’t have the science then, and we don’t have the records now, to know for sure. But knowing that you can’t eat pork or shellfish/crustaceans means fewer decisions to be made about what to have for dinner, and so the rule has some utility (need for closure and all that).What is possibly worth noting as regards both seafood and pork, is that both are very good sources of the amino acid, tryptophan (SELFnutritiondata, n.d.[xvi]). Tryptophan is necessary for the production of serotonin, the neurochemical that decreases aggression, increases feelings of relaxation, and so on (see Young & Leyton, 2002[xvii]), and it is particularly important for young men with a susceptibility to affective disorders (Benkelfat, et al. 1994[xviii]). What is interesting, is that high levels of tryptophan can give rise to many of the behaviours associated with religious euphoria, and depleted tryptophan gives rise to anxiety and aggression, and both of these, as polar extremes, relate to psychosis (Geyer & Vollenweider, 2008[xix]).
- The impact of the Conservative Vortex: Politics, Religion, Science, and Philosophy
- 2.1 Politics and Religion
If we accept that everyone has their own experiences, down in the individualism quadrant, there are exactly as many understandings of the world as there are people who have those understandings – this breadth of experience gets whittled down by direct competition. A hierarchy of personal philosophies is formed, and politics arises. Some people are better able to utilize their experience, and will thus be more powerful than others, and some will exert that power on others. In exerting that power some individuals will rise still further, and come to be able to define the rules of the game to suit themselves, increasingly detached from concerns about the general environment. Power, as established through success allows one to call the shots, and use “lesser” people as human shields between oneself and the vagaries and vicissitudes of the general environment. As such, a narrower, but much more idiosyncratic set of rules as to what the social norms are, become entrenched in the communitarianism quadrant, we call this religion. Only some of these rules will make it to the point of a universal rule that enables self-direction, or rather, only some of these rules will make it into general consumption from a given society to the human species as a whole (e.g. The Golden Rule). Just as physical punishment may cause one to conform out of survival instinct, so conversion by the sword may cause certain belief systems to seem more successful than their actual utility would otherwise dictate (this is meme theory writ large).
- 2.2 Science
Religion privileges conformity, and tradition, for their own sake. It makes claims about the general environment, which, as mentioned earlier is, or could be, a category error, depending upon the claim. Science privileges the conformity and tradition of a given method, and predominantly in the general environment. Science also makes claims about the social environment, which are less likely to be a category error, given that the social environment exists wholly within the general environment, but again, it depends upon the claim.
Given my earlier suggestion about the respective positions of spirituality and religion on the circumplex (in opposition to one another, spirituality on the left, religion on the right), one can see how claims about a higher power, grounded in spirituality, combined with beliefs about a social god, might merge to become a god that makes claims about the general environment (for example Karen Armstrong’s (1994[xxi]) claim that Yahweh was a “social” (which is to say “war”) god who gained his creator-god status after the fact). One can also see how Enlightenment deism might be a move back to a spiritual higher power (see Bristow, 2011[xxii], for a discussion on The Enlightenment, with a section on Deism).
- 2.3 Philosophy
Philosophy is using one’s own wisdom to separate between religious claims and scientific claims utilizing, as it does, the ideas from both magisteria, as well as a fair few of its own that have in turn been adopted by religion and science. Science and religion both invoke unimpeachable sources (the universe, and a god, respectively) that are, nevertheless open to interpretation. Religion relies upon the supernatural world, where science relies upon the natural – philosophy can invoke both the metaphysical and the physical.
- The Moral SphereThe circumplex is presented in its original form, by Schwartz (1992), as a flat disc, and for ease of use I have continued that trend. Rather than being held up by elephants on the back of a very large turtle, I am suggesting that this disc is held up by the general environment on one side, and the social environment on the other. I have placed emphasis on self-construal in previous posts, and suggested that there is a position of equilibrium at the centre, and that this centre is also the centre of a radial category: self. I want to further suggest that self-construal relies on a balanced representation of both the general and social environments as they relate to the self. A perfectly balanced self-construal is at the high point, at the very centre, and the individual is less balanced as they move out from the centre. I want to further suggest that the extreme left and the extreme right in fact meet on the dark side of this sphere, with the complete loss of self. As such, when certain right wing individuals refer to left wing extremism as fascist, there is a grain of truth to it (albeit one predicated on projection and self-blindness), but only because, rather than passing through the political centre, the extreme left have joined the extreme right in dogma-driven dehumanization. The left tend to do so on the basis of man, the organism (e.g. from each according to his ability, to each according to his need); the right tend to do so on the basis of man, the social construct (gender, race, politics, nationality, religion).
I have laid out a very general take on moral epistemology. I have looked at the individual that must necessarily balance the needs of the organismic self with the needs of the social self (which is also in service of the organismic self), and the interactions that arise from these two sets of needs. These needs define what is valued. The 10 values from Schwartz (1994) make up a cyclic model of how stimuli may be processed by an individual, and how values arise from motivations directed towards stimuli. I have illustrated how conservatism appears in many (probably all) social undertakings and that, as such, it is not conservatism that needs to be explained – it is quite appropriate to make conservative estimates, and to treat data conservatively, in science, for example, the self-referential nature of the “Conservative Vortex” notwithstanding. What does need explaining is religious and/or political conservatism, which is an entirely different animal. Scientific conservatism seeks to apply the values of security, conformity and tradition to the scientific method; political conservatism values security, conformity and tradition as they apply to security, conformity and tradition, thereby turbo-charging the conservative vortex.
In the next post I will look at the impact that the valuing of security, conformity and tradition has on education, and the resultant epistemology. I am, in effect, putting natural conservatism up against nurtured conservatism.
[ii] Fox, E. (2008). Emotion Science: Cognitive and Neuroscientific Approaches to Understanding Human Emotions. Palgrave Macmillan.
[v] Li, Y. J., Johnson, K. A., Cohen, A. B., Williams, M. J., Knowles, E. D., & Chen, Z. (2012). Fundamental (ist) attribution error: Protestants are dispositionally focused. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(2), 281.
[vi] Stern, C., West, T. V., Jost, J. T., & Rule, N. O. (2014). “Ditto Heads” Do Conservatives Perceive Greater Consensus Within Their Ranks Than Liberals? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 0146167214537834, 1-16 http://psp.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/06/10/0146167214537834
[vii] Kahneman, D. (2003). Maps of bounded rationality: Psychology for behavioral economics. The American Economic Review, 93(5), 1449-1475.
[viii] By “classical epistemology” I just mean what is normally meant by ‘epistemology’ not ‘moral epistemology.’
[ix] Maslow, A. H. (1966/2002). The Psychology of Science: A Reconnaissance. Chapel Hill, NC: Maurice Bassett Publishing. http://www.abrahammaslow.com/books.html
[x] Eccles, J. S. (1999). The Development of Children Ages 6 to 14, The Future of Children: When School is Out, 9(2), p. 30-44.
[xiii] Cieciuch, J., Davidov, E., Vecchione, M., Beierlein, C., & Schwartz, S. H. (2014). The cross-national invariance properties of a new scale to measure 19 basic human values a test across eight countries. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 45(5), 764–776. DOI: 10.1177/0022022114527348
[xiv] Schwartz, S. H., & Boehnke, K. (2004). Evaluating the structure of human values with confirmatory factor analysis. Journal of Research in Personality, 38(3), 230-255.
[xvii] Young, S. N., & Leyton, M. (2002). The role of serotonin in human mood and social interaction: insight from altered tryptophan levels. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 71(4), 857-865.
[xviii] Benkelfat, C., Ellenbogen, M. A., Dean, P., Palmour, R. M., & Young, S. N. (1994). Mood-lowering effect of tryptophan depletion: enhanced susceptibility in young men at genetic risk for major affective disorders. Archives of General Psychiatry, 51(9), 687-697.
[xix] Geyer, M. A., & Vollenweider, F. X. (2008). Serotonin research: contributions to understanding psychoses. Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, 29(9), 445-453.
[xxi] Armstrong, K. (1994). A History of God. Random House Digital, Inc.
[xxii] Bristow, W. (2011) “Enlightenment”, in Edward N. Zalta (ed.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/enlightenment/#RelEnl