24 May 2007

Morality: Two or Five Foundations?

I just linked from Onegoodmove.org to this New Yorker clip with cultural psychologist Jonathan Haidt talking about the difference between conservative and liberal moralities.

Not only is Haidt nice to watch — funny, entertaining, smart (oh, and handsome) — he's got some great insights here that explain some things that I became aware of while working for the Catholic Church. Haidt describes how liberals have primarily a two-foundational morality based on protecting the weak from harm and on fairness. Both of those values are intrinsic to a social species with vulnerable young and nursing mothers, and which has reciprocal social interactions that are damaged by cheating.

Those moralities are our American, Enlightenment values, and reflect the definition of morality that psychologists go by and that of a tolerant, diverse society.

However, traditional societies, as exemplified by Islamic society and fundamentalist, conservative and rural societies, have five foundations to their morality that liberals miss out on. Their additional moral foundations are based on:
• in-group thinking, that is, loyalty;
• authority, that is, respect; and
• purity, that is, temperance.

Haidt refers to studies that show religious and conservative people to be happier, and he explains that like this: "As society gets more modern and more free, the depression rate goes up and people get lost… if you simply measure how happy people are... conservatives are happier... and a lot of the reason for this is because conservatives participate in denser, more binding social structures. We think we want freedom but if you get freedom beyond a certain point it’s actually bad for you..."

Talking about the three Democratic candidates, Haidt says that Ds have spent way too long thinking that people will vote for the person with the best policies. He cites Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink, on rapid cognition — which happens in the blink of an eye, and how a lot of choices that we liberals believe we should be thinking through actually happen on that basis.

Haidt judges that Hillary isn't a natural at speaking to people in a way that inspires awe and makes people feel elevated — although she's getting better. He sees Edwards and Obama as naturals, with Edwards operating from that liberal, two-foundation morality and Obama able to also reach the five-foundation crowd.

The entire talk lasts a while but is completely worth the time.

Haidt left out the odd libertarian version of conservatism, which pretty much leaves out kindness, fairness, authority, and temperance, and leaves only in-group, with the in-group being basically just that one person or family and Ayn Rand — and she's dead.

He offered this analysis so liberals could understand where conservatives are coming from — in particular on gay rights and abortion. It also explains a lot about the Iraq war (authority and in-group values). It does not explain, however, the deadly American distrust of government that has played into the hands of those who have for so long successfully denied Americans the universal healthcare that is a right of citizenship in every other industrialized nation on earth.

At least we've got universal primary and secondary education. Keeps the kids off the streets.

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