Monday, June 29, 2009

The Moral Equalizer

When I was in the dry tortugas last month I read a really interesting article in a Miller McCune magazine that someone brought on the research boat. It was by this guy named Jonathan Haidt who studies people and sociology and stuff. Basically, Haidt was ranting against the way liberals (like me and like himself) tend to be self-righteous and smug, considering themselves to be intelligent and moral, and conservatives to be just a bunch of stupid jerks. He said that comes from the fact that liberals recognize only the first two of the five "pillars of morality" that underly all human societies. The pillars are (quoting):

Harm/care. It is wrong to hurt people; it is good to relieve suffering.
Fairness/reciprocity. Justice and fairness are good; people have certain rights that need to be upheld in social interactions.
In-group loyalty. People should be true to their group and be wary of threats from the outside. Allegiance, loyalty and patriotism are virtues; betrayal is bad.
Authority/respect. People should respect social hierarchy; social order is necessary for human life.
Purity/sanctity. The body and certain aspects of life are sacred. Cleanliness and health, as well as their derivatives of chastity and piety, are all good. Pollution, contamination and the associated character traits of lust and greed are all bad.

Different cultures across the world place more or less emphasis on different parts of morality, and the analogy Haidt uses to describe this is that it's like tuning the sound levels (bass, mid-range, treble) on an audio equalizer. Of course liberals have harm / care and justice / fairness turned way up and the others turned way down. A muslim jihadist has in-group loyalty and purity / sanctity turned way up and the others turned down. Conservatives have things pretty even across the board. You can see where YOUR morals are by taking a psychology survey on the website


Haidt explains it all better himself in this 18 minute video...

This doesn't make me think that conservativism is always the "correct" attitude, though. Yes, it does take some respect for authority, patriotism, and shared ideals to hold a society together, but it also takes some irreverent liberals to cry foul when the system becomes oppressive or corrupt.


Johnny Douglass said...

Interesting: This eminds me of some landmark book I read about 30 years ago that used a series of line graphs to represent people's moral compass. The graphs had things like an individual's concept of "value" on the vertical axis and various horizontal axes of perspective. Perspective meant things like closeness in time or closeness to my people. One graph's horizontal axis went through now, my life, my kids' life, this century, a thousand years, etc. In surveys it was found (not surprising) that everyone valued now highly but people diverged widely in how fast the line dropped after they were dead. In another the closeness progressed through me, my family, my friends, my sports teams, my countrymen, all humanity. Surveys found lots of variation in this one, not just in slope but in curve shape. Some people kept it pretty high and flat until it took a dive somewhere like just past family or just past countrymen. I suppose most of what we'd call liberals today would still have it pretty high out in the all of humanity regime.

James Douglass said...

Hmm, that's cool. I guess that would relate to how important "in-group loyalty" is on the moral equalizer. Someone who is very concerned about caring and fairness but isn't too tight on the in-group loyalty might extend their concern even beyond the human species, to animals rights and stuff. Anna Douglass and Nadia Winstead are kinda like that.

Anonymous said...

very interesting test. thanks for posting. found your blog looking for windsurfing gear - is your old stuff still for sale? i emailed your hotmail address. have enjoyed your blog since.

James Douglass said...

thompke- No, sorry! My stuff has been spoken for. Maybe next time.