What topics spark our impulsive moral judgments, and how can we make better moral judgments? (More)

The Righteous Mind, Part III: What We Judge

This week Morning Feature explores Jonathan Haidt’s new book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Thursday we examined how we make moral judgments, and the respective roles of conscious reasoning and unconscious intuition. Yesterday we considered why we make moral judgments, and why we evolved to seek affirmation over truth. Today we see the different moral models of progressives, conservatives, and libertarians, and how we can better discuss our differing moral judgments.

Jonathan Haidt earned his Ph.D in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. He is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, where his research includes applied social psychology, culture, ethics, and social cognition. Dr. Haidt was the principal developer of moral foundations theory, and is presently a visiting professor teaching business ethics at New York University. He also authored The Happiness Hypothesis, published in 2006.

You May Be WEIRD

As we’ve seen this week, there is strong scientific evidence for the theory that we usually make intuitive judgments before conscious reasoning begins, and conscious reasoning more often defends than challenges those intuitive judgments. Conscious reasoning seems to have evolved to seek approval more diligently than truth, perhaps because we are an “ultrasocial species” whose primary survival advantages come from living and working together in groups. The cognitive ability to believe and conform to unproven stories of external authority – religions, ‘natural’ principles, etc. – may be a key evolutionary breakthrough that helped very large human groups to cooperate and flourish.

Yet since World War II, most research on moral development focused on individual reasoning and judgment, and data seemed to support those individualistic theories. If Dr. Haidt’s research is reliable, what was wrong with the earlier studies?

One answer, he argues, is that the subjects of most of those studies were American college students, most of whom come from cultures that psychologist Joseph Henrich calls WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. Dr. Haidt’s early research included both the usual sampling of American college students and also samples from urban and rural communities in Brazil, and a working class neighborhood in Philadelphia. His findings, since replicated in his and others’ later studies, showed that U.S. college students – while often used as samples because they are readily accessible to professors doing the research – are hardly representative of the human population. For example, the college students Dr. Haidt interviewed were the only group in which a majority decided the hypothetical man was not morally wrong to have sex with a chicken carcass before cooking it for dinner.

Perceptions differ between WEIRD and other cultures. Asked to list characteristics that follow “I am…,” Westerners are more likely to offer individual traits (e.g.: “an athlete” or “an engineer”), while others are more likely to offer relationships (e.g.: “a mother” or “an employee at X”). Americans and East Asians perform differently on some perception tests, with Americans better able to redraw individual elements of a complex figure while East Asians better replicate the elements’ relative sizes.

Not surprisingly, the moral norms of individualistic and sociocentric cultures also differ, as do moral norms within subcultures. Dr. Haidt does not argue that WEIRD cultures are ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than others. His point is simply that it’s risky to assume universal moral norms based on agreement among others like ourselves.

Six Moral Foundations

Dr. Haidt is best known for his work on moral foundation theory. He now offers six core moral values (he previously offered five) and uses the metaphor of taste buds. He suggests that we may inherit a genetic predisposition to some over others, just as babies seem to inherit different genetic predispositions to taste. He cites studies that suggest even pre-verbal infants make moral judgments. But he also emphasizes that our moral principles, like our tastes in food, are strongly influenced by cultural norms and can change over time. Returning to the elephant-and-rider metaphor, if our elephant feels comfortable with (or needs to) walk beside certain other elephants, we tend to listen to the stories told by their riders … and our rider is likely to tell stories that justify fitting in.

Dr. Haidt’s six moral foundations in brief:

  • Harm – Based in our capacity to feel (and dislike) our own and others’ pain, expressed in ideals like kindness and gentleness.
  • Fairness – Based in reciprocal altruism, expressed in ideals such as justice and equality/proportionality.
  • Liberty – Based in our desire for autonomy, expressed in ideals like freedom and resistance to oppression.
  • Loyalty – Based in social bonding, expressed in ideals like heroic self-sacrifice and “one for all, all for one.”
  • Authority – Based in our evolution in hierarchical groups, expressed in ideals like leadership and deference to legitimate authority.
  • Purity – Based in the psychology of disgust and contamination, expressed in ideals like cleanliness and taboos.

Dr. Haidt added Liberty in his recent research, having decided it stood apart from the other five other moral foundations, and he notes that it often stands in tension with Authority.

He also revised Fairness in 2011, broadening equality (equal sharing, which he claims is favored by progressives) into proportionality (sharing relative to contribution, which he claims is accepted by all and favored by conservatives). He argues that equality is a subset of proportionality. I disagree and think proportionality is a subset we apply when we perceive contributions to be so unequal that equal sharing would be ‘unfair.’ For me, the difference is whether equal sharing is the default assumption for which an exception must be justified, or whether unequal sharing is assumed to be proportional unless proven unjust.

Are All Six Moral Foundations Equal?

His research, including tens of thousands of interviews and online survey responses, has shown consistent patterns for progressives, libertarians, and conservatives:

  • Progressives – Respond strongly to stories about Harm, Fairness, and a bit less to stories about Liberty. Respond much less strongly to stories about Loyalty, Authority, or Purity.
  • Libertarians – Respond strongly to stories about Liberty, and much less strongly to stories about Harm, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, or Purity.
  • Conservatives – Respond about equally to stories about all six moral foundations, though “extreme conservatives” respond slightly more to stories about Loyalty, Authority, or Purity than to stories about Harm, Fairness, or Liberty.

Dr. Haidt concludes from this that conservatives respond to a wider range of moral concerns, and that this gives conservative politicians an advantage. He does not specify whether this advantage exists because moderates and even some generally progressive individuals may respond to stories about Loyalty, Authority, or Purity that progressive politicians are reluctant to tell … or because he believes a roughly equal balance of all six moral foundations (i.e.: conservatism) is inherently ‘better.’

He offers two progressive insights that he argues libertarians and conservatives should heed: (1) large corporations can be dangerous and only (some) governments can limit their power; and, (2) government regulation is necessary to limit negative externalities (such as pollution). He also offers a conservative insight that he argues progressives and libertarians should heed: we can’t fix our problems by “breaking the hive,” i.e.: casting aside all of the moral norms that help us to cooperate.

I obviously agree with his progressive insights. I also agree with his conservative insight … unless those “moral norms” require continued pampering of the privileged at the expense of everyone else. (Note: Dr. Haidt does not argue that the current Republican Party offers any useful moral insights, and he makes that distinction clear.)

He also offers a libertarian insight that he argues progressives should heed: “markets are miraculous.” Ironically, the example he offers – that health care would be more affordable and better in quality if more of us paid for more of our own treatment, rather than relying on insurance – is a case for which he offers no empirical data. It’s also a case where both behavioral economic theory and the empirical data from other countries support the opposite conclusion. I agree that markets enable the development and testing of a wider variety of new ideas, but health care is a special case where the “consumer” is ill or injured, frightened, and usually has too little expertise to make the rational decisions on which market theory relies. What’s more, most progressives already accept that markets are worthwhile … if government limits the power of large corporations and regulates negative externalities, the very progressive insights he argued.

Encouraging Our Riders

I think Dr. Haidt tried to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, and that’s good for book sales. His book appeared on last week’s New York Times bestseller list, and I hope it continues to do well. I value his method and his data, even if I don’t agree with all of his conclusions. While progressives won’t like every point he makes, his overall focus on humans as an ultrasocial species whose evolution shaped us to survive and thrive in groups is a welcome scientific counterpoint to the myth of rugged individualism that too often dominates our political discourse.

That said, how can we make and encourage better moral judgments that enable the more diverse societies whose “sidewalk ballets” are more likely to find innovations to meet our current challenges? How can we temper the worst impulses of selfishness and groupishness, and stimulate the best each offers?

Dr. Haidt describes three contexts in which our conscious reasoning can best influence our intuitive judgments:

  • Pause to Reflect – The cognitive signal of our elephant’s lean lasts less than two seconds, unless reinforced. Before leaping to respond in a dispute, where your rider will more likely justify your elephant than explore the problem, take a few seconds to reflect. As moms used to say, “Count to ten before you answer.”
  • Don’t Assume Agreement – Studies show we are more likely to practice exploratory reasoning (looking for a solution vs. defending a impulse decision) when: (1) we hear multiple points-of-view; (2) we have to explain our decision; and, (3) we can’t predict how our audience will react. If we think we know our audience, we will usually tell a story that defends an impulse decision for that audience. But if we can’t predict their reactions, we tend to seek a decision we can defend for better reasons.
  • Respect Disagreement – Far more often, we rethink our impulse decisions because someone whose approval we value points out a flaw in our reasoning. This is the core concept of Fred Whispering, which focuses on active listening and valuing the relationship above winning the argument. If our elephants want to walk together, our riders are more likely to listen to and learn from each other.

We cannot be creatures of pure reason, and probably should not be. But we can reason better, and make better moral judgments, if we recognize how, why, and what we judge.


Happy Saturday!