Where Does Moral Thinking Come From?

Jonathan Haidt tackles a big question in his book ‘The Righteous Mind.’ Haidt, a psychology professor who has done stints as a speech writer for democratic politicians, looks at why democrat and republican voters in the US seem never to agree on almost any moral issue.

Book cover righteous mindAfter doing extensive opinion polling and interviewing voters to get their reactions to hypothetical moral situations, he finds that people seem to take five factors into account in forming moral judgements. These are: (i) Is anyone injured by an action? People generally avoid doing harm to others, and see it as wrong. (ii) Fairness. – not cheating, not taking more than you are entitled to.  (iii)  Loyalty to a group. This comes from our early origins as tribal creatures.  People who show disloyalty to  organisations, sporting teams, the army or their country are often condemned. (iv) Respect for legitimate authority. (v) Showing respect for ‘sacred’ objects, such as national flags, or religious objects, and avoiding ‘dirty’ or contaminated things.  A person who places a lot of weight on this factor will disapprove of burning national flags, and, for example, disapprove of the photograph ‘piss Christ’, by Andres Serrano, which shows a crucifix in a jar of urine.  More details are available here  here  here.

Interestingly, when Haidt asks American voters to rate themselves on a seven point scale where 1 represents a very liberal (in the American sense of progressive or democratic voter ) and 7 represents very conservative, he finds an interesting result. Voters who rate themselves as 1 on that scale use criteria (i) and (ii) in their reasoning, but give almost no weight to the other three. And as you move across the political spectrum, the emphasis on  the last three factors rises steadily People who rate themselves as very conservative give all five factors roughly equal weight.

Some of this jells with other things I’ve read elsewhere. For example, conservatives are usually strongly opposed to pardons to people like Chelsea Manning who leaked documents from the army. This relates to criteria of loyalty and respect for authority. I’ve read that having strong reactions of disgust at photographs of ‘unclean’ objects such as meat with maggots, or a person treading in dog poo is a strong predictor of voting conservative – this relates to the criteria about avoiding things that are seen as disgusting.

Haidt claims one reason why democrat politicians fail to appeal to conservative voters is that their speeches and advertisements only ever appeal to criteria (i) and (ii), and leave out the other two. He tried to persuade democrat politicians to include more of the last three factors in their speeches, with limited success. Progressive and conservative voters are, in a very real sense, speaking a different languages.

Haidt also discusses the role of religions in moral thinking. He believes they act as reinforcers of moral values by giving  a stamp of approval to rules that promote social cohesion, such as don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie or cheat, or commit adultery, and so on. All societies have these rules, because you need them to keep harmony ain a primitive society that relies on group harmony to be able to function. All religions promote these rules because in Haidts view, that’s what religions are for.

It’s an interesting read, and I strongly recommend it.


Political Viewpoints are not Just Like Food Preferences

Recently on a social media thread I was commenting on, I said that I said that I was bothered at how people seem to adopt political opinions in ‘bundles’ without thinking individual policies through based on evidence. They buy the centre-left bundle, or the libertarian bundle, or the conservative bundle. Someone else commented, “An opinion is just that an opinion. It is not truth or fact and doesn’t need to be. I hate okra. My opinion is based on the “fact” that it is slimy and tastes bad to me. What if I said okra is bad, that’s a different story but still it’s still based on my personal view. ”

Soup from pixabay dot com
Not a political opinion. 

The notion that political opinions are just opinions like food preferences lies at the heart of what is wrong with much of political discussions. When it comes to describing political problems and proposing solutions, there usually are relevant facts. They may be sometimes be hard to discover or hard to weigh up, but some relevant facts usually exist and we should make the effort to know them before we advocate positions.

There are actual facts available on police shootings of black people in the US, and those statistics can and should influence your view on whether there is a real problem that needs to be fixed. If you deny the existence of a problem when the stats say there is a problem, then you won’t take action when it should be taken, and if the stats were to show that there isn’t a problem then you would be making major changes and spending money to fix a problem that didn’t exist. (Note here, and below that I’m talking about the relevance of facts to the policy you do or don’t advocate, I’m not – here- adopting a position on BLM, I’m saying that relevant facts usually exist.)

When environmentalists advocated removing CFC gasses from refrigerators and aerosols in the 1970s and 80s because CFC gasses were damaging the Ozone layer, those claims about CFC damage were either factually right or they weren’t. If the factual claims were wrong, then an incorrect policy was being advocated. to solve a problem that didn’t exist. Refrigerators and aerosols would cost more to consumers when perhaps they didn’t need to. If the factual claims were right then the policy being advocated was correct and the need to fix the problem was real. The facts actually mattered.

In relation to abortion, there are many factors that might influence your position. One of them might be when a fetus becomes pain capable. If this is correctly claimed to be at 24 weeks, this may be a factor you want to take into account on when, if ever, you allow abortion.  If someone falsely claims that a fetus becomes pain capable at 10 weeks, this may make a difference to your position, and you would then be adopting a position on the basis of incorrect claims of fact.  There might be many other factors you want to take into account, but if you are influenced by a false claim of fact that’s really not a good thing.

In relation to NAFTA and whether you oppose further free trade pacts, it actually matters whether the people who have lost their jobs to cheap imports would have lost them anyway due to robotisation. A belief (for example) that free trade benefits countries as a whole but that free trade agreements should only go ahead with generous retraining packages for workers who will be displaced, and incentives for new industries to be established in affected areas is a position that involves millions of dollars of expenditure. If such policies are advocated or opposed, it actually matters whether factual information exists and whether it supports one side or another. It’s not the same as ‘I like pumpkin soup but I don’t like potato soup.’

If you adopt the position that opinions are all just like food preferences, then politics just becomes a process of tribes screaming each other about soup, resulting in whoever screams the loudest getting to spend billions of dollars on policies that might or might not work at fixing problems that might or might not exist.

Note that I’m NOT starting a debate here about BLM, abortion, or NAFTA. My point is that on almost all political and social issues, relevant facts exist. A disregard for facts leads to mere tribalisation of politics followed by bad policy and expenditure on wrong policies when that money could be spent on policies that really would fix real problems. If we think that social policies are just opinions about soup, we are in a lot of trouble, and that thinking needs to be challenged.





In 1996 a lone gunman killed 35 people at Port Arthur, a popular tourist site in the Southern-most state of Australia. A wave of national revulsion swept through the country, and shortly after, a conservative Prime Minister and the six Australian states (lead by both conservative and labor state premiers) agreed to massive restrictions on gun ownership, and commenced a taxpayer funded $500m buy back of guns from Australian residents.
Now to be clear, Australia did NOT ‘ban all guns’. If you see someone on Facebook claiming that, they have no clue what they are talking about. You can still buy a non-self reloading shotgun and go duck hunting in Australia. You can still buy single shot long barrel rifles and go rabbit, fox, kangaroo or pig shooting in the bush. You can still join a target shooting club and have a handgun of the sort used in competition target shooting (and that includes semiautomatics, although you have to use the club’s guns for the first six months.) Australia does send target shooters to the Commonwealth and Olympic games so we have to have such clubs, right? About five percent of Australian households possess a forearm, compared to about thirty percent in the US, and let me repeat, because this is the essential point.it won’t be a semiautomatic.
Yes, all gun owners need a permit and each individual gun is registered. The biggest change that Australia introduced was the banning of semiautomatic rifles by civilians with only a couple of  exceptions: farmers (who periodically need to destroy livestock after fires and floods) , and professional shooters (many of whom do feral animal culling). The rifle magazine sizes are limited to ten. There s a couple of other provisions for gun dealers and collectors but they affect few people . Semiautomatic rifles are what you normally need to carry a mass public killing. The important point is that the “average person” can’t just go down the street and buy a semi-automatic gun.) It’s natural that people in the US, on both sides of the debate, simplify and distort what we did.
Australia hasn’t had a mass public shooting (normally meaning four or more dead in total) since. So why can’t the US just be sensible and do the same? For several reasons.
Australia has only six states and there is relatively greater degree of social homogeneity and similarity between the states.  The greatest difference between states and major cities in Australia is nowhere near the difference between, say, San Diego and Louisiana or between Arizona and New York. (I’ve been in all four places as a tourist.) Being more homogeneous, Australia is a more cohesive society, and reaching consensus is easier here. One of my American friends once said, “The thing you have to understand is that America isn’t one country. It’s fifty different countries.” Australia has numerous migrant groups, but our immigration is predominantly skills based, and no one migrant group dominates. We don’t have a dominant non-Caucasian group in the way the US has Latinos and African Americans.
The power balance between the state and federal governments is also different. The state governments have less power relative to the feds compared to states in the US. Australia isn’t like Britain, where regional governments are the creation of the national government and really can’t resist it. . Australian states exist in their own right, but the list of powers reserved to the federal government by the constitution is more extensive than in the US. If we made a scale with Britain on 1 at the left hand end and the US on 10 at the other end, Australia is towards the US end of the spectrum, but not all the way there. Maybe it’s a 7 or an 8. American states regularly take the national government to the Supreme Court; Australian states do, but not so often.
Australians don’t have the mind frame that Americans have where the national government is seen as something that is going to oppress us, and that we might have to overthrow by violence. Another American friend once said, “We are a nation of extremists. We had to be, or we wouldn’t exist. We were born of a revolution in the wilderness.” The mind set that you need arms to potentially overthrow your own government is something Australians don’t understand, because Australia wasn’t born that way. In the 1890s, the Australian colonies said to Britain , Hey, we feel like making our own country,” and Britain said, “Oh yeah, alright, hold yourselves a conference and write a constitution.” So everybody had a nice cup of tea, and we did. The American attitude of loathing and distrust of the national government looks incomprehensible to Australians,
The Australian voting system (preferential voting (or ‘instant runoff’ as Wikipedia calls it) in the lower house and proportional representation in the senate and state upper houses) forces major parties to stay relatively close to the political centre, and forces major parties to negotiate with each other or with minor parties to get things through the senate, and compulsory voting means Australian major parties focus on persuading the middle twenty percent of the population. The American system forces parties to focus on getting their base to physically turn out and vote, and cater to the fringe, and this results in different strategies and postures. In a normal senate election, we elect six senators per state, and each party gets one senator for each 14.29 percent of the vote (a “quota”) in that state. Normally both the conservatives and labor get two whole quotas each and hence get 2 senators each. There will then be several minor parties and independents with fractions of a quotas each. There’s then a method to determine who gets the last two places where nobody has a quota in their own right. Currently a quarter of the senate seats are held by minor parties and independents. This makes cooperation between parties necessary.
I feel much happier living in a country where I have only one fifth the chance of being murdered than a similar person in the US. But telling Americans to do what Australia did just isn’t going to work.
And here are some links to articles that anyone should read if they are not familiar with this issue.   The first is the article “What it’s like to own guns in a country with strict gun controls” from Time magazine, here. which gives the best factual account I’ve seen of Australia’s gun laws. The second is “It took one massacre: how Australia embraced gun control after Port Arthur” here ,from the Guardian, which describes what happened in the six weeks after Port Arthur. The third is Wikipedia’s article on “instant runoff voting” here. The fourth is “The rate of all suicides and homicides in Australia has declined since the gun buyback” from the Sydney Morning Herald which gives accurate stats on homicide rates before and after 1996 here .The fifth is Wikipedia’s article on “list of countries by intentional homicide rates” here.  (A lot of inaccurate nonsense is talked about murder statistics in Australia, compared to other especially by non-Australians who don’t understand the stats, and are believing what they want to believe.)

Finally, Some will claim that most gun deaths in the US are from suicides (this is correct). But the figures I quoted above (one fifth the chance of being murdered in the US) are based on intentional homicides so the suicide data is irrelevant. Some claim that British and Australian statistics are complied such that to die from murder, you have to die at the scene, but if you die at the hospital later you died from the wound, so it doesn’t appear in murder stats. This is incorrect. British law used to say that a violent act was murder if the victim died from the effects of the attack within a year and a day after the attack, so obviously if they died a year later they didn’t die at the scene. The year and a day rule was abolished in 1996, so the victim might now die after two years in a coma, but it’s still counts a s murder. Attackers are routinely charged with murder in Australia when the family of the victim turn off life support in hospital, so obviously the victim didn’t die at the scene. It’s still a homicide. I don’t know why these false claims keep circulating on the internet, other than confirmation bias.