September 19, 2007

Haidt on Morality, Evolution, Religion and Politics

Filed under: Politics — Bob Gifford @ 9:25 pm

It seems that, morally speaking, I’m a liberal. But then you already knew that.

Let me explain. Yesterday the NY Times had a write-up on research done by Dr. Jonathan Haidt on morality. The whole thing is worth a read, but one of his key hypotheses are his five moral systems:

He identified five components of morality that were common to most cultures. Some concerned the protection of individuals, others the ties that bind a group together.

Of the moral systems that protect individuals, one is concerned with preventing harm to the person and the other with reciprocity and fairness. Less familiar are the three systems that promote behaviors developed for strengthening the group. These are loyalty to the in-group, respect for authority and hierarchy, and a sense of purity or sanctity.

People’s relative weighting of these moral systems apparently determines their politics:

They found that people who identified themselves as liberals attached great weight to the two moral systems protective of individuals — those of not harming others and of doing as you would be done by. But liberals assigned much less importance to the three moral systems that protect the group, those of loyalty, respect for authority and purity.

Conservatives placed value on all five moral systems but they assigned less weight than liberals to the moralities protective of individuals.

Dr. Haidt believes that many political disagreements between liberals and conservatives may reflect the different emphasis each places on the five moral categories.

And of course there is an online test to rate your views on these five moral dimensions and compare your results to self-identified liberals and conservatives. My results are here:

So like I said, I track pretty well with the average liberal.

I find this theory has a great deal of explanatory power. Liberals view gay rights as a fairness issue, while conservatives view it as a purity issue, and hence the need to “protect the sanctity of marriage” sounds nonsensical to liberals but vitally important to conservatives. The erosion of civil liberties is a fairness issue to liberals, but this concern is exceeded for conservatives by their submission to authority. Flag-burning offends conservatives’ sense of loyalty to the country, while liberals are more concerned about the fairness issue of putting political protesters in jail for expressing their beliefs. It makes a lot of sense.

Of course there’s always the “so what” question — it’s nice to have some explanation for differing views, but what does this have to do with our daily lives? From the article:

Extreme liberals, Dr. Haidt argues, attach almost no importance to the moral systems that protect the group. Because conservatives do give some weight to individual protections, they often have a better understanding of liberal views than liberals do of conservative attitudes, in his view.

I think it’s incumbent upon liberals to better understand conservatives instead of just shouting past each other. To the extent Haidt’s theory is confirmed, it can shed a lot of light for us on how to better engage in a more meaningful (and ultimately more persuasive) dialogue with those with whom we disagree.

For more on all this stuff in Haidt’s own words, see here, and for an unpublished Reason article on the topic see here (h/t).

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