Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Foundations of morality - interview with Jon Haidt

Bloggingheads has Will Wilkinson of the Cato Institute conducting a fascinating interview with Jonathan Haidt - one of the harbingers of the emerging science of morality.

You can view the whole thing here.

It goes for an hour, which it a touch indulgent in this 5 minute YouTube world, but it's well worth riding the whole thing out. If you do only have 5 minutes, however, then of particular interest is Haidt talking about his Moral Foundations Theory around 18 minutes in to the interview.

This is Haidt's theory that there are fundamentally five foundations of morality: Harm/Care; Fairness/Reciprocity; Ingroup/Loyalty; Authority/Respect; and Purity/Sanctity. Haidt suggests every moral issue falls into one of these five camps.

But what's most illuminating is that contemporary liberals (or 'social liberals') acknowledge and respond to the first two, but don't respond to the last three. Conversely, conservatives (specifically 'social conservatives') respond strongly to the last three and only weakly to the the first two. Haidt suggests this is one reason for the ongoing debate between the Left and Right that seems intractable - basically, they're talking different languages, they share different values, and they can't even see why the other side would believe what the do, thus the arguments rarely reach the minds, if not the ears, of the 'other side'.

Haidt highlights this point by making a very poignant observation: after researching perspectives on morality in many different countries and cultures, and finding that harm/care and fairness/reciprocity were only two of five moral foundations, he realised that his own tradition - the social liberal intellectual tradition - was but a minority.
I realised I was a member of an unusual subculture – and my subculture was doing all the writing on morality!
This is an incredibly significant point, and one not to be overlooked. Academic research on morality has been done predominantly by followers of the social liberal intellectual tradition. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it comes with moral baggage that prevents it from seeing the bigger moral spectrum. Thus the moral theories that have sprung from this tradition - Singer, Rawls, Bentham - skip entire chunks of what many people and many cultures would consider moral.

This means the challenge for the next generation of moral thinkers is to construct a moral theory, or a prescriptive moral system, that takes all the moral intuitions into account. It may well be impossible to construct a system in an entirely self-consistent way, but this may be a result of the simple fact that our moral intuitions are not themselves self-consistent. In my thinking, this is because we operate more as a result of tensions between opposing forces - self-interest versus other interest etc - rather than having singular guiding principles.

One more parting thought - I wonder whether there might be another moral foundation. Wilkinson and Haidt already wrestle with the distinction between social liberal (or old school socialist Left) and libertarian, acknowledging that they both score low on ingroup/loyalty; authority/respect; and purity/sanctity, and the socialist Left focus more on harm/care while libertarians focus more on fairness/reciprocity. But I don't know whether that fully captures the distinction.

I wonder whether there's another axis along self/other-agency.

Let me use an example. When you see a homeless person begging on the street, clearly disheveled and likely to be on, or coming down from, drugs, what do you think?

I think the important thing is whether you attribute that individual's condition to their own actions or to external forces.

I would suggest a pillar of the socialist Left was a stronger belief in external factors guiding our lives. A few wrong turns and even a good hard working person can become homeless. For that reason, they deserve compassion.

On the other hand the strong libertarian might see that person as being more individually responsible for their own fate. They made some bad calls, or they were slack or weak, and they therefore deserve to bare the responsibility for their actions. As such, they don't deserve as much compassion from us.

Certainly, self/other-agency is not as easily identifiable as a moral foundation like harm/care, but it does set up which conditions make a particular thing worthy of moral consideration. The idea needs to be fleshed out, but I think the distinction between communitarian and individualist sentiments needs more clarity in the Moral Foundations Theory.

Still, the Moral Foundations Theory is a triumph of thinking - it's amazing it took us so long to figure it out. I'll end by echoing a sentiment of Wilkinson's at the end of the video: "I'm a Haidtist!"


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