2017-09-09

Care, Loyalty, Authority, Fairness, Liberty, and Sacredness

Moral Psychology, part 2

For many people, it just feels wrong to push a person to his death, even if doing so will save five other people, and it doesn't feel wrong to pull a lever to consign one person to death instead of five – even though the results in both cases are the same. But most of us have a hard time articulating a rational basis for that feeling.

The two points I want to make are:
  1. Moral intuitions are crucial. We need them. Rationality is too slow and plodding to the do the job alone.
  2. Moral intuitions are also problematic: on the one hand, they are stubbornly resistant to evidence that they are misguided, yet on the other hand they can often be easily manipulated to our detriment. Bringing in reason, plodding as it is, can, over the long haul, slowly tend to correct for the limitations of our moral intuitions.
First: our unreasoning feelings are very important for making moral decisions. Our moral intuitions are there to guide us in real-life situations where we don’t have the sort of certainty that the trolley scenario asks us to assume. No matter how much you’re told that you know pulling the lever will save five and kill one person on the side-track forty yards away, and that you know pushing the large man onto the track will likewise save five, the damage of pulling a lever just doesn’t feel as certain as the harm of pushing somebody right next to you off a platform into the trolley’s path. Thus, we can’t help but recoil from the near harm more than from the distant harm – which is also surely a factor in why we haven’t sent $50 to the Against Malaria Foundation: it’s so far away.

Consider what life would be like without the moral emotions. Patients who suffer damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex lose their emotionality.
“They could look at the most joyous or gruesome photographs and feel nothing. They retained full knowledge of what was right and wrong, and they showed no deficits in IQ. They score well on tests of moral reasoning. Yet when it came to making decisions in their personal lives and at work, they made foolish decisions or no decisions at all. They alienated their families and their employers, and their lives fell apart.” (Haidt 39)
You need your gut instincts, your moral intuitions, even if you can’t rationally justify or explain them.

Here’s something reasoning is good for: You need to buy a new washing machine, and you have to choose from among ten options. Assuming you have no brand loyalty, you list your criteria and you do some research on how each machine rates on each of your criteria: price, energy efficiency, water use, load capacity, cleaning efficacy, durability and repair record. You work out some way of balancing strengths in some areas with weaknesses in others, and you make your selection. Now
“imagine what your life would be like if at every moment, in every social situation, picking the right thing to do or say became like picking the best washing machine among ten options, minute after minute, day after day. You’d make foolish decisions, too.” (Haidt 40)
That’s what life is like for people with ventromedial prefrontal cortex damage.

Moral intuitions, tied to our emotional reactivity, give us our shortcuts. Reasoning it all out is just too slow and tedious. We have certain moral circuitry that allows for the quicker judgment we need.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has identified six moral foundations that, he says, have a genetic basis because they helped our ancestors survive, and also require learning and training to take particular shape. The six moral foundations are: care, loyalty, authority, fairness, liberty, and sacredness. In each of these areas, our brains develop shortcuts of moral reactivity that guide us in negotiating the complex moral landscape that we face every day.

Liberals tend to emphasize care. Caring for people is good, harming them is bad. (Cf. Judith Shklar's definition of a liberal as someone for whom cruelty is the worst thing we do.) Conservatives tend to emphasize loyalty and authority. Betrayal and subversion are bad. Conservatives also value caring for people – their children and families; liberals also value certain contexts of loyalty and respecting authorities, like teachers and doctors who can help us. So it’s a matter of emphasis.

Additionally, all of us value fairness and liberty, but these play out in different ways. For liberals, fairness is a matter of extending universal human rights. Everyone deserves education, health care, a chance at a decent living, nondiscrimination – denying these things to anyone is unfair. For conservatives, fairness is a matter of people getting what they deserve: hard-workers deserve their income, criminals deserve their punishment – anything less is unfair. For liberals, fairness is about equality. For conservatives, fairness is about differentiation.

Liberty also plays out differently. Liberals are more attuned to the threats to liberty that come from the oppressive working conditions and labor practices purveyed by corporations, or oppressive policing. Conservatives are more attuned to threats to liberty from oppressive taxes or government regulation, because that violates their fairness foundation – that people deserve what they work for, and ought to be rewarded, not hampered, in doing that work. They are less concerned about oppressive police, because their stronger authority foundation identifies police as necessary authority.

The sixth moral foundation is sacredness. Certain objects are sacred: flags, crosses. Certain places are sacred: Mecca, or a battlefield related to the birth of your nation. Certain people are sacred: saints and heroes. Certain principles are sacred: libert√©, egalit√©, fraternit√© – or, for Unitarian Universalists, our seven principles. Our bodies are sacred – which is why desecrating (de-sacred-ing) bodies of the dead feels so wrong even if it doesn’t do any objective harm.

The psychology of the sacred – and of the disgusting (the opposite of sacred) – offers a clue toward understanding how one animal, humans, managed to form such large, complex cooperative societies. A shared sense of what is sacred and what is disgusting helps bind individuals into moral communities.

The sacred and the disgusting are a bit more prominent in conservative than in liberal minds. Several studies have shown that conservatives are more easily disgusted than liberals – and that holds in cultures all over the world. Conservatives talk about the sanctity of life, the sanctity of marriage, and of the body, seeing the body as a temple. Liberals are more likely to have the sentiment expressed on this bumper sticker:


Liberals, though, also have a sense of the sacred. Often, it is evoked by nature, which helps energize concern for the environment. Rationally, yes, we pay attention to the science, but it’s hard to keep track of all the factual details about what consequences will result when from what environmental practices. A sense that forests are sacred, that ocean and desert ecosystems are sacred, is a very helpful moral shortcut.

We all value care, loyalty, authority, fairness, liberty, and sacredness. Some of these are in tension: liberty, for instance, is in direct tension with authority; loyalty to your own group can be in tension with care for people outside your group. We balance and prioritize these value foundations in different ways.

We have emotional feelings for these values, and for some of the balances we’ve worked out between them, and that’s a good thing. Without the intuitive, quick-reaction moral feelings -- the feelings lost when the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is damaged -- we only have our plodding rationality, and we can’t function very well.


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This is part 2 of 3 of "Moral Psychology"
See also
Part 1: Do We Want Our Moral Intuitions to Be Rational?
Part 3: Reason's Role

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