Monday, July 10, 2006

The dimensions of morality

Jonathan Haidt argues that there are 5 "taste buds" we use when making a moral evaluation: harm/suffering, reciprocity/fairness, in-group/out-group, hierarchy/duty, and purity/sanctity, and that how sensitive we are to these depend partly on the culture we grow up in.

If you are a nation of billiard balls, you want a morality that protects individuals from harm, but otherwise leaves them as free as possible. You want to build only on the first two foundations, which gives you the standard American/Enlightenment morality that focuses on harm/suffering/victimization and on fairness/rights/justice.

But if your society is a hive, you won’t be quite so concerned that every individual is getting his or her fair share; you’d be more concerned about the integrity of the hive itself, and the last three foundations are all about that: being very aware of who your “team” is and treating its members better than others; knowing and respecting the hierarchical divisions of labor that let your hive function efficiently and compete with other hives; and guarding your own personal purity—denying yourself the carnal and self-indulgent pleasures, and instead striving to live in a pure and holy way, ready to communicate with the God that your hive is oriented around.

He then makes this (not terribly original) point:

Whichever side you are on, you probably think the other one is motivated by hidden, devious, and ugly motives. I guarantee you: You are exaggerating. Everyone is morally motivated, even though those moral motives sometimes cause people to do terrible things. Just read Osama bin Laden or Adolf Hitler; you’ll find hypermoralism. By all means, work to make the world a better place, but understand first that much of the evil in our world comes from people pursuing differing notions of virtue.

This is his Edge home page, and this is his contribution to the Edge 2005 "World question center".

For what its worth, I agree with him- a lot of the heat in public debate comes from genuine anger, and a conviction that anyone who "won't see that" must be evil. And of course, I am a complete billiard ball.

HT: Aldaily Scitechdaily.

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