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[/amazon_link]Social and Cultural psychologist Jonathan Haidt
begins his quest for a new psychological theory of morality with the question of why people on the political left and right (or, in American, liberal and conservative) are so adamant that the other side have virtually no morality at all.
Haidt’s book starts by reviewing the work of Drew Weston and others in establishing that, for many of our moral decisions, we are not thinking morally at all, but rather post-rationalising what we already think. So far so good. Haidt is actually very good at teaching the reader to question psychological theories of morality. Most instructive is the way he points out that most psychological research is WEIRD — that is to say, it is based on White Educated Industrial Rich and Democratic people, and therefore suffers from selection bias.
Haidt wrestles manfully with his selection bias, but as the book progresses it becomes increasingly clear that he is working with an American sample but trying to develop a universal theory of morality.
Despite this caveat, Haidt’s work is really quite compelling until the later chapters — and until you put the book down and think about what he has actually said.
Essentially, his major thesis is that there are six dimensions of morality which our moral sense engages with. These are:
- Care vs harm
- Liberty vs oppression
- Fairness vs cheating
- Loyalty vs betrayal
- Authority vs subversion
- Sanctity vs degradation
So far so good, but his crucial insight is that liberals (in the US sense, meaning progressives) only harness the Care vs harm, Liberty vs oppression and Fairness vs cheating dimensions, while conservatives (again in the US sense) appeal to all six.
This is the reason — according to Haidt — why Democrats have done badly at the polls over the last few years compared to Republicans.
If Haidt is really right — and he has amassed an impressive sample using to test his theories — then everyone involved in politics anywhere should be taking notes.
But is he right?
The methodological bias in Haidt’s research is that participants only get to answer the questions that Haidt and his team chose to ask. And these questions are fundamentally about explaining why Americans vote in a particular way. Care, Fairness and Sanctity (though many people would choose a different term) are in a certain sense moral absolutes: you cannot have too much care, you cannot have too much fairness and you cannot treat the things you regard as sacred too sacredly. Loyalty, authority and liberty are a little more problematic. While right wing Americans may believe it is impossible to be too loyal to America, an awful of lot of other people believe that too much loyalty is a dangerous thing. When Europeans (including the British) see too much loyalty, we tend to think of the loyalty that Hitler and Mussolini inspired. We have the same issues with too much authority. Liberty — in the libertarian sense of the freedom to do whatever we want — is also a quality which liberals outside the USA feel should be moderated, especially by care. This is not to say that anyone believes that betrayal or oppression are good things, though there are certainly groups that believe that subversion is always preferable to authority.
Haidt might argue that we think this because we are liberals (almost everyone in Britain and Europe is ‘liberal’ by comparison with USA norms), but that is equivalent to making the claim that the USA is a naturally more moral nation than anywhere else in the world. Most independent commentators would probably suggest that Americans look north, to Canada, a more liberal but also more generally crime-free nation. When we think of ‘USA’, very few of us think of ‘morally upright’ as the first epithet.
Is it that Republicans successfully engage with more of the brain’s moral sensors, or that they successfully engage with more of the American cultural distinctives. Americans don’t have the European perspective on Authority or unquestioning Loyalty (“We were only obeying orders”), but they do have a strong historical narrative of America, the land that defeated Oppression.
A broader international study might show up different results, and Haidt could improve his model.
However, it is what is missing which is more problematic than what is present. Crucially, Truth vs Lies is not one of his dimensions. This is very strange: one of the earliest moral lessons we teach children is that it is wrong to tell lies, and we always distrust someone, and consider them to be less moral than we previously thought, if we discover they deliberately lied about some important issue, especially for the sake of gain. Linked to that is the absence of Greed on any of the negative poles, and the absence of Love (however we define it) on the positive.
Haidt’s book introduces some genuinely interesting research, and raises some substantial questions about political discourse. What it doesn’t do is account for morality in any sense that we normally discuss it.
To some extent, Haidt’s quest was bound to fail. Something which has challenged philosophers to define over three millennia is unlikely to be solved by doing a few surveys, no matter how comprehensive or rigorous they are. As an American researcher, and one who admits he has begun to cross the shop floor towards conservatism, Haidt was always going to find the answers he went looking for.
What needs rather more thought is how we frame the questions.