Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Moral Reasoning

I mentioned Jonathan Haidt’s research a few months ago, and Bird Dog at Maggie’s Farm just brought it up again. Haidt claims that liberals measure morality on just two axes, fairness/reciprocity and harm/care. Conservatives, OTOH, work from a suite of five measures of morality, adding in authority/respect, purity/sanctity, ingroup/loyalty. Experimentally, conservatives accurately predict how liberals will reason about a moral issue, but liberals have a hard time guessing how conservatives reason.

My initial reaction was that the schema which comprehends the others is usually regarded as better in some sense. Dreaming/waking, insanity/sanity, uninformed/informed – we give the nod to the side that sees both. But Haidt goes through enormous contortions to show that liberal moral reasoning is actually better because the three things added in by conservatives are unnecessary, superfluous. The two measures liberals use are the Real Deal. Sigh.

Upon reflection, I took too much at face value. Haidt reported that liberals disregard three axes and I believed him. Yet looking at the three rejected measures, I see liberal archetypes more than conservative ones.

Purity/sanctity makes us think of religion, sin – sex, drugs, and rock & roll – so we leap to the conclusion that it is a conservative fave. But environmentalism has a strong, even puritanical strain, of purity/sanctity issues. Organic foods, pristine wilderness, biodegradability, offshore drilling – why should you care if there’s a hill of plastic in Montana? Heck, why should you care if there’s one in your town? You’re not affected. Your sense of purity is affected. All-natural, my Aunt Fanny. Victimology and anti-corporate rhetoric also have purity strands hanging off them.

Authority/Respect What is the bias toward academia and credentials if not an appeal to authority? That experts from the government should regulate the behavior of others? These are not the conservative stereotype of authority – parents, police, the Bible – but it is equally rigid. Liberals question authority by relying on other authorities. Maybe they are better authorities, but it’s still the same type of fence.

Ingroup/Loyalty – I have previously gone on at length about the Arts & Humanities Hive. Ingroup and loyalty issues are as strong among progressives as conservatives. As with transnationalism versus patriotism, it’s the same phenomenon with a different tribe. When feminists agonised over supporting Bill Clinton in 1998, it was a conflict between the loyalties of feminism and liberalism, but it was still much about loyalty.

If these other measures are just as much a part of liberal moral reasoning as conservative, why isn’t it showing up in Haidt’s data? My suspicion is that they are less-conscious, less rational, and so get stuffed into the other two categories. Environmentalism is not seen as a purity issue, but as a harm issue, even when there is nothing measurable. If I bury ten car batteries deep in the White Mountain National Forest no one’s ever going to notice it unless they are looking for it with sensitive measures. But liberal reasoning would say that it is wrong because there is harm, somehow. Incidentally, this is why people actually addressing environmental problems come up with very different priority lists than activists and popular opinion.

Because the authority issues are more diffuse – not much, really, but enough to make it invisible – liberals don’t see that authority is entering in to their reasoning. It’s subtle, disguised, but still present. Accepting the word of experts rather than running the data yourself is at least as common among libs.

Thus also with loyalty. Liberals don’t officially consider it a moral measure, but their behavior says it’s just as much part of the package. They are affected, but are not aware they are affected.

Related: I think this ties in strongly with the post about bias as a spiritual problem. Insight. Self-awareness.


Kurt said...

You've got many excellent points here. Although left-leaning folks often like to criticize the validity of the term "puritanism" when employed to describe some of their various views, it seems, to me, to fit them quite well. And it's not just the environment that they're worried about. A lot of the left's anti-war rhetoric is also puritanical in that it is a form of the "clean hands" argument. Indeed, it is this insistence on the "clean hands" argument that often prevents them from distinguishing between different kinds, gradations, and levels of evil.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

An excellent continuation of my thought. I had been near that, but you articulated what was not fully formed in my mind. The "Not In Our Name" petitions and the apologies to the world after Bush's election seem to tie in with this - the idea that you can just publicly wash your hands of things and your moral duty is finished.

Sam L. said...

So, AVI, Pontius Pilate Lives!

Part of the Lib "problem" seems to be of the "does a fish know it lives in water" variety. Which, seems to me, explains why they think there's no media bias, "nobody here but us mainstream chickens". We're all alike, therefore we're "mainstream". Unfortunately, they don't seem to know that rivers flood, jump their banks, and sometimes the main channel moves, leaving a backwater.

It would appear, to me, that the libs are "ignoring" the other factors by differently identifying them.

Which brings me to "What's The Matter With Kansas?" The people of Kansas are voting against their best interests as T. Frank sees them--finding the interests of Kansans, as defined by Kansans, to be "false". I concede that they may be wrong about their interests, but I'd bet that (in effect) calling them idiots won't help the situation. They're WRONG! What FOOLS!

Or maybe T. Frank can't see the trees for the forest, and insists it's a desert, or grassland, or a mountain.