One of the criteria that Jonathan Haidt uses to identify Liberal vs. Conservative thinking is an openness to new experiences. This basic and seemingly innocuous indicator tracks well with certain political affiliations as they related to the five foundations of morality. Liberals as you may suspect are more open to new ideas and are therefore more willing to change. They are more likely to focus on the good things in change, hoping for the best. Conservatives tend to be reluctant to change, fearing that change may ruin the good things and bring more problems; unintended consequences. Such an outlook tends to track with age; younger people tend to be more liberal and older people tend to be more conservative.
While researching morality Haidt wondered if there existed a difference in how conservatives and liberals view morality. He created an interesting experiment to determine if there were moral differences between the two groups. He posted a questionnaire online which asked various questions relating to these five foundations of moral values (www.yourmorals.org). Questions are first asked to determine your “openness to new experiences”, which determines your liberal or conservative slant. Then questions on five foundations of morality are asked.
The results of thousands of respondents in several countries provides clear evidence for a divergence of importance placed on these five foundations of morality. Liberals’ value – Harm/Care high, then Fairness/Reciprocity, then a big drop to Authority/Respect and In-group/Loyalty, then least Purity/Sanctity. Conservatives’ value – Harm/Care lower than liberals but place it at the top of their lists as well. Authority is a close second followed closely by In-group/Loyalty, and Purity/Sancitity, with Fairness/Reciprocity at the bottom.
Graph results for 23,684 participants within the USA; more studies at www.yourmorals.com
I find the fact that Fairness/Reciprocity is ranked lowest by conservatives to be a very disturbing finding. It seems somewhat intuitive but this study helps to quantify the correlation. Conservatives, valuing authority much higher than liberals would suggest that they would be far more susceptible to authoritarian behavior; which does prove historically accurate and can be clearly seen in today’s politics. That means a greater focus on “the mission“.
It therefore makes sense that Fairness/Reciprocity would be ranked lowest because Fairness/Reciprocity tends to get in the way of the mission. As noted earlier, authority does not have to take the form of a human authority figure. A meme that a person or group holds near and dear, a sacred value, can have authority. This authority can be used to make good people do bad things. That is an imbalance that should be of concern to everyone.
If one was feeling a bit less generous, they may conclude that given the closeness of the conservative responses, it could be conservatives in general have a poor understanding of ethics all together. If one took all of the culturally prescribed “rights” and “wrongs” as being morally equivalent, it would be hard to distinguish between any of the five categories. If what you understood of right and wrong was what your authority figures told you (God, Country, Family, etc), distinction between different categories would not matter much and a cultural understanding of morality would be all you would be able to understand. Ethics, would seem a foreign concept. Liberals on the other hand seem to have a better understanding of ethics, and therefore can prioritize the five foundations of morality better.
Liberals tend to comment that Ingroup/loyalty, Authority/respect, and Purity/Sanctity (items 3,4,&5) can and tend to lead to xenophobia, authoritarianism, and puritanism. In his TED talk Jonathan Haidt points out that one thing in common with every successful civilization through history is that all five tenants of morality as he defines them have been present. These successful civilizations seem “to use every tool in the tool box”. That is an astute observation and accurate.
Haidt makes the argument that both liberal and conservative views are important and provide a balance. This conceptual balance is seen in the Eastern cultures of Zen in the form of Ying and Yang, in Hinduism with Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the Destroyer, and elsewhere. Haidt notes that liberals tend to favor change and conservatives stability. He futher notes, “The great conservative insight is that Order is really hard to achieve, its really precocious, and it is really easy to lose.” I would agree with this analysis.
In his TED talk he references a good quote, “If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. “The struggle between for and against is the mind’s worst disease.” – Sent-ts’an, c.700 C.E.
So in response to the question Haidt asks regarding, “Is it possible to not be for or against things?”, I would say yes to some extent. I think you can stand beside an issues for long enough to properly evaluate it with the clearest possible lens and use language suitable to prevent your lens or analysis from becoming too highly contrasted to provide proper analysis to finally achieve that lofty goal of ethical Truth.
Ethics is circumstantial, so in the analysis of an ethical dilemma – one that likely exists in the grey of the world – use of the terms better or worse instead of right/wrong or good/evil helps to allows people to not stand for or against per se but beside an issue long enough to fully evaluate it without too much bias. Inevitably if you are going to make an ethical judgement, you have to weight the circumstances presented and make a decision. Inaction or ineptitude does not further justice.
As Haidt goes on to state: Our Righteous Minds were designed to…
- Unite us into teams
- Divide us against other teams, and
- Blind us to the truth
…So his advice is to use moral humility to provide a passionate commitment to the truth.
I am not sure what he means by the term “moral humility”. That phrase is ambiguous; kind of like “religious moderate”. With regards to the statement, “Our righteous minds were designed to…” I would say that righteousness is the logical conclusion of a moral foundation and necessary to its cause; and as noted likely an innate condition of the human mind. Righteousness usually results from the perceived or real violation of an individual’s or group’s sacred values. Unfortunately every great human atrocity has had elements of the last three elements of Haidt’s prescribed elements of morality. While the correlation does not lead to a causal association it does offer some pause and some further investigation.
Sacred values induce inner fear scenarios – taboo decisions carry negative emotions. This is the reason fear is such an important and effective means of control. Negative emotions make people fearful, and visa versa; the two are closely linked and almost synonymous. Seeing as three of the five foundations of morality are valued by conservatives far more than liberals; and that these three foundations have little if anything to do with ethics – rather are heavily based in religious memes evolved more as a means of control than of empathetic introspection; it makes sense that conservatives tend to favor hypothetical fear scenarios and other scare tactics to motivate their base where as liberals tend to try to energize their base with hope. If a meme is sticky it will repeat itself. Fear controls. A meme that induces fear is one that controls thoughts and behaviors and likely repeats well.
So am I arguing against conservative thought in general?…or the tenants of morality as defined by the five pillars that Haidt discovered?….not exactly. What I am primarily trying to do is to provide distinction between an Ethical foundation and a Moral one.
Until I read about Haidts distinctions of morality and how it related to liberals and conservatives I had not given a correlation much thought. I do not think all conservative and morally based thought is wrong, but I have always been very concerned by the foundations of said thought as it relates to politics. Many of the arguments used to defend some of the more extreme conclusions the fundamental elements of both groups arrive at have seemed ethically corrupt; and now I have a better understanding of why.
Conservative thought as it relates to a reluctance to change is good to a degree; likewise with liberal thought being a willingness to change-to a degree. The problem is the political reality. Extreme liberals tend to be anarchist; extreme conservatives tend to be authoritarians. Extreme liberals are those who’s good intentions pave the way to hell on earth. Extreme conservatives are those who’s mission focus leads them to actively create hell on earth; all while thinking they are doing the right thing.
By the nature of motivating forces (fear vs hope) and the fact that 66% of the worlds population is highly susceptible to the demands of authority, I find that political conservatives are better able to organize their troops and far more likely to engage in unethical behavior. It is that realization that is what I fear and which is partly a motivation for writing this blog. I believe that better educating people on ethics will lead to better social institutions with a focus and foundation on ethics, which will lead to greater stability with less need for authority, in-group loyalty, and concepts of purity/sanctity.
As a note of interest, I did take Haidt’s online test. I rated (harm/care) equal to the conservative average (slightly below most liberals), I rated (fairness/reciprocity) slightly higher than the average liberal, and I rated (In-group/Loyalty, Authority/Respect, and Purity/Sanctity) lower than most liberals. So my bias is clearly liberal leaning, if you did not already guess that. From an American political perspective I am fiscally conservative and socially liberal; and after reading, “The Wrecking Crew” by Thomas Frank, and “The Death of the Liberalism” by Chris Hedges, I am left with no political affiliation at this moment in American history. The context of conservative and liberal for the discussions above and throughout most of this blog are not American political centric, rather general in the global sense; just like Haidt’s study. That being said, I may use some current and past American political ideas to illustrate a few points.
After taking Haidt’s online test and using a bit of introspection, I realize my notions of fairness have been a strong driver for me my entire life; it likely lead me to think long and hard on the subject of ethics and write this blog.
Almost any emotion can be useful. Anger is typically considered a negative emotion and for good reason, it can eat away at people like acid. But acid is not always bad, it is made useful in many processes, including batteries or your stomach. It can be used to neutralize chemical bases. I have used my anger caused by the worlds incidences of unfairness to fuel me. In many ways, my inner sense of fairness fuels many of my passions to seek a better world.
As people climb the social ladder, many seek the pursuit of happiness, thinking it is a goal. This search for many follows a somewhat logical path of eliminating the bad. Happiness in not a destination, it is the residue of doing good. It can not be found, it has to be produced. The more you try to seek it, the less happy you will likely become. If however you focus on making the world around you a bit better today than it was yesterday, happiness is almost guaranteed.