Monday, January 02, 2012

Moral Foundations of OWS

Jonathan Haidt has an article over at Reason about the Moral Foundations of OWS. (Bird Dog originally linked it.) He is an academic, doing this empirically by looking at the signs carried at Zucotti Park and totting up what aspect of moral thinking they appeal to in their attempt to persuade. He and other researchers have developed a six-aspect basis for morality - not as a philosophical foundation, but a simple observation of what people actually do make reference to when they discuss the morality of something.
...six clusters of moral concerns—care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation—upon which, we argue, all political cultures and movements base their moral appeals.

The foundations are like the taste receptors on the tongue: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory. Each culinary culture creates its own unique cuisine using some combination of these tastes, including elements that lack immediate appeal on their own, such as bitterness. Similarly, each political movement bases its claims on a particular configuration of moral foundations. It would be awfully hard to rally people to your cause without making any reference to care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, or sanctity.
I love his stuff. It is very refreshing to read a liberal who more than partly gets it about what conservatives and libertarians actually think. I think his basic formulation of the components of morality is good, also. His further hypothesis is that liberals and conservatives use these differently - that liberals only use the first three of the six, while conservatives use all of them in discerning morality. I don't entirely disagree. Yet grant for a moment that it is entirely true, there is still a problem. If conservatives have a six-part morality and liberals a three-part, do Haidt and the other researchers immediately conclude "Whoe, there are some complex, nuanced aspects of morality we might have missed here! We'd better look into this!" No, they note that liberals simply find the other three extraneous.

Ah. I see. Rather neatly done, that.

But that is my smaller objection. More important, a little examination shows that liberals do indeed use those other three taste buds of morality. I acknowledge that they use authority/subversion far less generally. But it is very prominent in their climate debates, for example. Similarly, I think loyalty/betrayal shows up in other places in liberal culture, but the researchers don't notice them, and in particular lump them into fair/unfair discussions when they should more properly be broken out. Still, I grant that this measurement is more of a conservative than liberal yardstick.

But the sanctity/degradation, or sacred/disgust measurement he has entirely wrong, perhaps even backward. Liberals use these all the time. Vegetarianism is often driven by disgust at eating cute things. Health concerns, even quite rational ones, usually come later. The implied sacredness of the body - both the human and the animal - is not incidental. Initial environmentalist appeals are likewise much taken with the idea of "sacred" wilderness and preservation for reasons that are aesthetic rather than measurable. The possible negative consequences are often speculative and placed very far out in time or along risk-assessments. It is the idea of degrading the world that goes against the grain for people.

Plus, Haidt's initial data was drawn from tests which specified sanctity/degradation distinctions along lines that conservatives would respond to but not liberals. It was flags used for degraded purposes, not pictures of MLK, that were on the test. You could easily construct the questions to reflect liberal sensibilities.

I will say little at this point about comparisons between liberal and conservative use of the first three aspects of morality, except to note that Haidt makes the claim
My colleagues and I find that liberals score higher than conservatives and libertarians on all measures of compassion and empathy.
That would be all measures other than actual charity, then, as conservatives, on the strength of having more religious people, give more money, time, and blood than liberals. Haidt means paper-and-pencil measures.


Texan99 said...

Oh, AVI, you're such a blinkered conservative, insisting on measuring compassion and empathy in terms of effective action instead of emotion. How do you ever manage to feel good about yourself, or buff up the self-esteem of others?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

You actually do touch on a sore point. I was liberal for many years, and remain more postliberal than conservative in many ways. As no individual can do more than dent some highly localised ills, I still have a part of me that feels obligated to feel bad about the state of the world. This is indeed foundational to liberalism, and I haven't fully shaken it, however irrational it is.

Modern liberals divert it into anger at Bad Guys, which is much less painful. You only have to spend a few minutes feeling compassion, then switch to righteous indignation in sheep's clothing.

That is rather another topic, however, and for the time being, I was giving Haidt's theory credit as far as I could. I still like a lot of it.

Texan99 said...

All my snarkiness aside, there's no harm in feeling bad about the state of the world, especially if it's a spur to action. I myself find it only too easy not to suffer from the bad fortune of others as long as they're not in my direct view. Conservatism can easily be a convenient excuse for not troubling oneself with the imagination and empathy necessary to consider the needs of others.

That doesn't make it any easier to suffer the patronizing analysis of ineffectual liberals. Heart and hand, faith and works, we need them both.

Anonymous said...

I seem to remember Haidt abandoned without explanation one of the components with which he began: oppression / liberty. I wondered at the time whether that was so decisively a conservative concern, he didn't feel he could apply it evenhandedly. In generally, he certainly is refreshingly openminded, though, as you note, sometimes lacking in nuance about progressive thought.