Street Philosophy: Moral Foundations

Morals are often at the centre of ideological divides like liberalism, conservatism, and libertarianism. It has practical implications as well; George Lakoff notes that in local politics, people vote their self-interest, but in national politics, people vote their morals. We seek a common language with which we can discuss morals.  

When politics gets so polarized, one of the legitimate challenges becomes sharing a language or framework with which we can discuss morals. Jump on facebook, friend someone from the “other side” and read the political memes that they post, and their community respond to it. You will often get an odd feeling. I don’t mean, “I disagree with your position.” I mean, anywhere from, “Your reply makes no sense. We’re talking past each other” to “Sir, I think I recognize the individual language pieces you use as English, but don’t comprehend your meaning at all.” That is, there is often a dissonance so wide in the moral and sometimes cultural realms, that not only are you fighting the backfire effect, but you are failing to speak the same language as the other person.

I’m going to propose a framework of morality being studied by Dr. Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist, as a starting point. First, stop reading this, and go to his page, For an entertaining tl;dr about his approach, watch his TED talk about the moral roots of liberals and conservatives. It goes into personality, as well which is interesting.

The approach differs from traditional moral philosophy. It’s not about meta-ethics (Are morals real? Do they mean anything, and what are moral claims? How does one gain moral knowledge, if you believe they are real?) nor is it prescriptive (what ought you to do). Moral foundations are a claim about what people consider to be moral questions, and not about whether it’s justified or not, which are normative claims. The strength of this approach is that it gives partisans a shared language to discuss morality on neutral ground. Here’s what Haidt claims to be the foundations of moral claims:

Care/Harm (Progressives, Conservatives)

Fairness/Cheating (Progressives, Conservatives)

Liberty/Oppression (Libertarians, Conservatives, Progressives* This is just a guess)

Loyalty/Betrayal (Conservatives)

Authority/Subversion (Conservatives)

Sanctity/Degradation (Conservatives)

The claim is empirical in that, these are what people believe to be moral claims. The stance and assumption of Haidt (this will likely be loose, hopefully not butchered) is that morality has evolved in various societies as a survival tactic to cooperate within groups and to compete with outsiders and the environment. It’s a naturalistic explanation of the basis of morality; if you understand it this way, you will see that most mammals will exhibit moral behavior just like humans. That is, it’s separate from moral reasoning, which I’ll cover later. Haidt’s finding is that liberals focus a lot on the first two: Care/Harm, and Fairness/Cheating, and little or not at all on the other four (although I believe liberty/oppression was added later as a foundation so we’ll see) while conservatives were more well balanced in treating all 6 foundations as moral in nature. Certainly liberals reject loyalty, authority, and sanctity as moral categories. Observing the world, Haidt notes that liberalism/progressivism is an outlier: He calls them WEIRD.






The name is not an accident. He means that liberalism/progressivism is actually a statistical outlier when you look across cultures in the world. Most of the world accept Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, Sanctity/Degradation as legitimate moral claims. Liberals largely do not, but they are not the majority opinion. Here’s a few examples of sanctity/degradation that Haidt offers:

A family’s dog was killed by a car in front of their house. They had heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog’s body and cooked it and ate it for dinner. Nobody saw them do this.

A man goes to the supermarket once a week and buys a chicken. But before cooking the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he cooks it and eats it.

FYI (in case you’re not a progressive), fucking dead chickens is a pretty standard Sunday activity for a city liberal/atheist; it’s like going to church for conservatives. Liberals/progressives feel disgust (not as much as conservatives but more than libertarians), but don’t see it as a moral problem. Nobody was harmed; the man has a right to do what he likes with a chicken he bought that’s already dead. That is, rationalism is their guiding morality. For conservatives, the social order is very close (sometimes even equal to) moral order. Certainly the general view of philosophers is that reason is the guiding light (though there are exceptions like proponents of virtue ethics which centers around personal growth, habit building and judgments). We progressives would reason that while care and fairness are universal, while loyalty, authority, and sanctity, are arbitrary.

This doesn’t mean, however, that in the real world, that’s how morality is perceived and understood. Haidt’s claim (and he’s largely right IMO, confirmed by most social psychology) is that reason did not evolve to arrive at the truth; we use our big brains to rationalize and justify our gut beliefs. There’s no evidence that philosophers who are moral non-realists behave any worse than philosophers who are moral realists. That is, it’s a survival tool, integral for social cohesion. The emotions are far more powerful than reason, which is why political debates result in talking past each other, name-calling, and straw mans more than any other debate.

Whether you take utilitarianism (the general idea that morals are there to maximize happiness and the consequences are what matters) or deontological ethics (based around moral duties regardless of consequences) as a guiding your morals, these are reasoned morals (although Kantian (deontology) ethics are probably more intuitive). Peter Singer’s argument for vegetarianism/veganism is a great example of reasoned ethics using utilitarian principles. I’ve read Animal Liberation, and as a utilitarian, I’m very much convinced of the argument for vegetarianism, but I continue to eat meat. Do I feel guilty? Meh, I mean, very mildly. Intellectually, I’m very sympathetic to vegan friends, but I probably eat as much meat as the average person. I eat meat less now, but I think that’s probably more for health reasons. More than likely though, if I was disgusted from say, working at a slaughterhouse, this would likely convince me better than Peter Singer or any other moral philosopher’s reasoning. It’s quite clear that emotive cues are far more powerful than reasoned ones, and I suspect that Jonathan Haidt is right when it comes to his moral foundations. They are survival tools that have evolved with our environment, selection pressures, and history.

That was a super brief and shitty summary of what Haidt considers the foundations of progressives vs conservatives. (I’d recommend you read The Righteous Mind–here’s a pdf). This is a great description of moral origins, and how we use them in practice (we feel first, then rationalize). In terms of prescriptives (what ought we to do given that…), we’re still a bit left out, although Haidt does provide insight through his yin/yang metaphor that these opposing forces help balance each other out. This is John Stuart Mill versus Emile Durkheim.

Society is a social contract invented for our mutual benefit. All individuals are equal, and all should be left as free as possible to move, develop talents, and form relationships as they please. The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of civilized society is to prevent harm to others.

Society is not an agreement, but something that emerged organically over time as people found wisdom to live together, binding themselves to each other, suppressing selfishness, and punishing deviants and free riders who eternally threaten to undermine cooperative groups. Man cannot become attached to higher aims and submit to a rule if he sees nothing above him to which he belongs. To free himself from all social pressure is to abandon himself and demoralize him.

This is a fine generalization, but I feel he stays out of the war so to speak. The million dollar question, is which morality (6 morality base) or (2 or 3 morality base) works better? Again, we are accepting the assumption of moral foundations, and that morality has a naturalistic origin that evolved with group cooperation. Do we embrace the tribe, or do we embrace the individual?

If we accept that moral intuition is strategic–that is, a way of surviving and thriving in the world, we should also accept that it should take into account our human nature, and second, that it take into account our environment. There’s no doubt that the Durkheimian society describes our past, and not our ancient past, but our past until maybe 100 years ago. The dude born in 1900 likely shares far more in common with the Romans than with you. If we developed moral intuition, it’s likely from where the majority of our ancestral development is from. Look at any graph of human development and you will see an exponential curve right around the turn of the 20th century. If our historical society is Durkheimian, it is going through a massive transition in such a short span of time, and a lot of us are reeling at this. Our moral intuitions do not adapt that fast, and many of us are left feeling sick on the transition.

As a prescription, however, this is problematic in my view. There is a (IMO) worrying wave of right-wing nationalism brewing in world politics now, but in the long view, the world has progressed, and politics have moved more liberal and progressive with each generation. A nation’s development mirrors their politics not exactly (Korea and Japan are quite conservative and clearly historical/cultural divides play a role) but generally. Conservative places are again, generally pretty shitty places to live in. Your liberal grandfather is still quite conservative, and your liberalism will likely strike your grandchildren as conservative. As nations become city-centred, morality becomes individualistic as opposed to collective. Social anomie is tantamount to death for a tribe in a dangerous environment. In a less dangerous environment, these restrictions become sources of arbitrary oppression and discrimination. Strategically speaking, liberals can afford to be fair because they live in a better world.  

Take racism. If we may be politically incorrect for this blog, every nation is racist insofar as race is tied in closely with the nation. Consider Japan. There is no distinction between a Japanese and a Japanese citizen for all practical intents. If I say that I’m Canadian, well, I’m not really answering their intended question. What they’re asking is, “What breed of Asian are you, lol?” (Yes, race is not a very scientific distinction, but let’s not quibble here). Since the Alt-right brought the idea of race purity and social anomie (Sweden can cooperate, have social welfare, etc. because they’re racially pure), it’s become a bit of a point of thought. Yes, when you have a race/nation state, you can have some levels of ingroup cooperation that you don’t find elsewhere. Right wing Japanese nationalists still bind together in their hatred of Chinese and Korean people (I mean a historical “revisionist” or denier is still their PM). It’s the ugly counterpart of a binding culture.

When you live in a racially and culturally mixed city, you can’t separate yourself from diversity. Your moral intuitions cannot reject an otherness, and you are forced to recognize the same humanness with others not intellectually, but through direct experience. Your moral intuitions begin to reflect the environment that you live in and the concerns that you face. There is a historical inevitability of social evolution as people concentrate into cities, and populations inevitably mix towards a morality that reconciles these forces. As a prescription, we should aim to reason morality. Yes, we clicked buttons in the past, and through social evolution came to a reasonably stable strategy in a dangerous world. That is, if we were playing a simulator game, and we could choose our traits, it makes no sense to be a liberal for much of human history. When the environment changes, we need to adapt; rather, we do adapt like it or not. We shouldn’t forget that our moral origins are likely far more emotional, and expect to face some backlash if we try to intellectually engineer a rational morality, but we shouldn’t make a conscious decision to devolve into emotivism either. If we accept Haidt’s conception of moral foundation theory–a naturalistic explanation of our moral intuition, it seems clear that liberalism is (as it always has been with incremental progress) the future.

Clearly, there is dissent here as well. There are conservatives who also study Haidt’s work (and this guy clearly has delved into Haidt’s work much more deeply) and comes to a different conclusion altogether.


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