20 September 2008

The moral high ground -- or is it?

After a long description of a Sarah Palin rally, Judith Warner closes her piece with

No Laughing Matter - Judith Warner - Domestic Disturbances - Opinion - New York Times Blog:
Jonathan Haidt, an associate professor of moral psychology at the University of Virginia, argues in an essay this month, “What Makes People Vote Republican?”, that it’s liberals, in fact, who are dangerously blind.

Haidt has conducted research in which liberals and conservatives were asked to project themselves into the minds of their opponents and answer questions about their moral reasoning. Conservatives, he said, prove quite adept at thinking like liberals, but liberals are consistently incapable of understanding the conservative point of view. “Liberals feel contempt for the conservative moral view, and that is very, very angering. Republicans are good at exploiting that anger,” he told me in a phone interview.

This has been picked up by several people who have blogged about it. or written about it on Usenet, and have quoted passages such as the following:

In several large internet surveys, my collaborators Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek and I have found that people who call themselves strongly liberal endorse statements related to the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity foundations, and they largely reject statements related to ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. People who call themselves strongly conservative, in contrast, endorse statements related to all five foundations more or less equally. (You can test yourself at www.YourMorals.org.) We think of the moral mind as being like an audio equalizer, with five slider switches for different parts of the moral spectrum. Democrats generally use a much smaller part of the spectrum than do Republicans. The resulting music may sound beautiful to other Democrats, but it sounds thin and incomplete to many of the swing voters that left the party in the 1980s, and whom the Democrats must recapture if they want to produce a lasting political realignment

So I went to the web site and did a couple of the tests.

I took the basic test to see what they were talking about, and I concluded that
their reasoning is dangerously flawed.

Their theory is that in all cultures morality is based on five factors:

Harm, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority and Purity

Their finding was that self-described liberals tended to rate the first two higher, and self-described conservatives tended to rate the last three higher.

My own score (I'm a self-described liberal) was somewhere in between on all points except the last (purity) where my score was higher than the average for both liberals and conservatives.

I disagree with the conclusion that the results show that conservatives have more empathy for liberals than liberals have for conservatives. I believe that is a false inference, because the test questions did not test for that kind of empathy.

A more valid inference would be that conservatives are more likely to be suckered into supporting totalitarian governments, like Communist and Nazi ones, because of the higher value placed on loyalty and authority. And that has been shown by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report in South Africa.

If you regard respect for authority as very important in determining morality, and more important than not harming or fairness, then when deciding on whether or not it is right to exterminate Jews or Kulaks would depend on whether it was ordered by those in authority. One of the questions in the test was whether one thought it right to kill others if ordered to do so by someone in authority, so it is precisely this kind of thing that is being tested, and not empathy for supporters of the US Republican Party.

Fr Alexander Schmemann in his book For the Life of the world makes the same point, when he shows that obedience is not a virtue, because Adolf Eichmann, who sent a million Jews to their deaths in Nazi Germany, claimed as his justification that he was simply obeying orders. Fr Alexander pointed out that obedience is not a virtue, only obedience in love. I noticed that the morals test said nothing whatever about love.

The set of questions I answered appeared to be measuring how far people thought something was good because it was backed by authority.

Of course there are many different ways of looking at authority.

Jesus spoke with authority and not as the scribes. I take that to mean that his teaching was authoritative rather than authoritarian.

It is the same with a holy spiritual father who speaks with wisdom from above.

But it seemed to me that that was not what the questions were testing. Perhaps I misunderstood the questions, but if the questions are so easily misunderstood, it seems to put the validity of the test into question.

Not only do the conclusions not seem to be warranted by the data, but the data themselves are flawed, because the assumptions underlying the collection of data appear to be incomplete. Morality and its foundations are a lot more complex than Haidt and his colleagues seem to assume. The analogy with an audio equaliser is fundamentally flawed. It is not simply a matter of mixing five ingredients in the right proportions to achieve a good morality. As Fr Alexander Schmemann points out, obedience in itself is not a virtue. Obedience in love can be. I can't speak for others, but for Christians, love is the foundation of morality. Without it, I'm a clanging brass of a clashing cymbal. Bang goes the audio mix.


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Magotty Man said...

I agree with you, the survey is highly flawed. But it ties in with what one of my colleagues described as the American tendency to only think vertically, in neatly separated columns. They are obsessed with pigeon-holing, and have a totally skewed understanding of the words liberal & conservtive. For instance, collectivism is a conservative tendency for them, and individualism is liberal. That makes no sense whatsoever. Nothing is as simple as that.

I think the compilers of the survey would score high in the simple-mindedness category.. (lol)

Steve Hayes said...


Yes, i think you are right there.

I was discussing it with the bloke who pointed me to the Haidt thesis in the first place, and I pointed out that one question, "Are you proud of your country's history?" seemed designed to test loyalty, but was essentially amoral, and reveals nothing about the foundations of morality, because if you answer "Yes" it means you believe in the proposition "My country, right or wrong", and the "right OR wrong" indicates the essential amorality.

He responded by saying:

"Semantically, probably so. However, we may have put our finger on a reflexive difference vis a vis how an American reads that question compared to another person. When you have a national identity woven up with those documents (philsophy, but also historical documens) to a mythic level, it changes the way you read certain things."

That could be quite important for intercultural communications between Americans and non-Americans, though I still suspect that a lot of Americans really DO think in terms of "my country, right or wrong" and are essentially amoral about it.

And so Haidt's research shows that many Americans have a skewed view of morality.


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