Sunday, September 25, 2011

Five senses of morality, not two

Let's take this further. I am arguing that societies need some way to restrain free-riding or deviant behavior in order to progress. If you don't have that, you both encounter serious problems and risk delegitimizing collective effort altogether. You get precisely the kind of anti-government, anti-elite, anti-tax backlash we see in many Western countries.

Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, has a fascinating research-based perspective on this. He is a leader of the positive psychology movement and a Democrat by inclination. But he discovered in research abroad just how different the moral intuitions of other cultures like India are. It sensitized him to the different moral intuitions back home in the US as well, as he explains in his book The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom.

It turns out, he says in an article here , that conservatives in the US respond to a broader range of moral intuitions than liberals do. This explains why liberals so often have difficulty putting their point across to the electorate.

A scientific consensus is emerging that human moral psychology was shaped by multiple evolutionary forces and that our minds therefore detect many—sometimes conflicting—properties of social situations. The two best studied moral senses pertain to harm (including our capacities for sympathy and nurturing) and fairness (including anger at injustice). You can travel the world but you won’t find a human culture that doesn’t notice and care about harm and fairness.

Political conservatives in the US, Britain and many other nations value three additional sets of moral concerns. Like liberals, they care about harm and fairness, but they care more than liberals about loyalty to the in-group (which political party cares most about flags and borders?), authority (which side demands respect for parents and teachers?) and spiritual purity (which side most wants to restrict homosexuality and drug use?). It’s as though conservatives can hear five octaves of music, but liberals respond to just two, within which they have become particularly discerning.

In particular, liberals have difficulty understanding intuitions about limiting free-riding. Haidt says

Here's my alternative definition: morality is any system of interlocking values, practices, institutions, and psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible. It turns out that human societies have found several radically different approaches to suppressing selfishness, two of which are most relevant for understanding what Democrats don't understand about morality.

Haidt also talks here about how this perspective helps explain the rise of the Tea Party.

One of the biggest disagreements between the political left and right is their conflicting notions of fairness. Across many surveys and experiments, we find that liberals think about fairness in terms of equality, whereas conservatives think of it in terms of karma.

Karma is, for him, what people deserve.

The notion of karma comes with lots of new-age baggage, but it is an old and very conservative idea. It is the Sanskrit word for "deed" or "action," and the law of karma says that for every action, there is an equal and morally commensurate reaction. Kindness, honesty and hard work will (eventually) bring good fortune; cruelty, deceit and laziness will (eventually) bring suffering. No divine intervention is required; it's just a law of the universe, like gravity...For the tea partiers, federal activism has become a moral insult. They believe that, over time, the government has made a concerted effort to subvert the law of karma.

This has a number of implications. First, liberals simply don't respond to the other three moral senses - or even realize they are there. This means that continual appeals to "fairness" simply won't convince the majority of the population who do not see morality primarily or only in terms of fairness. (Liberals are roughly 20% of the US population, conservatives are 40%). And the liberal point of view is very rare in most other major cultures and regions around the world.

Secondly, the other three intuitions largely bind societies together and work to restrain selfish behavior and free-riding - even if it comes at some cost to the first two intuitions. If liberals don't hear these octaves on the moral key, it means that well-intentioned liberal programs are more likely to fall apart because people DO free-ride or take advantage of them.

As Haidt points out, if liberals want to win elections, they need to be more sensitive to these other octaves, even if they don't agree with them. There needs to be less books like What's the Matter with Kansas and silly arguments about "framing."

What does this mean to me? The animating thing for me in this blog is to look at ways to change the economy for the better. That cannot be done if we weaken the immune system too much. And liberals are often blind to the existence of an immune system in the first place.

No comments:

Post a Comment