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.

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