Monday, April 30, 2012

Morality roundup

A few things worth sharing on the topic of morality:

First, and perhaps most importantly, Jonathan Haidt gives a TED talk on the differences in moral thinking between liberals and conservatives.  I think liberals in particular will find this to be an interesting challenge to some of their preconceived notions. (19 min)  Haidt also has a book on this topic, titled The Righteous Mind., which I have not read.  Haidt is in the territory of moral relativism, cautioning us against the presumption that someone else's view must be wrong.

Next, in another TED talk, Frans de Waal explores moral behavior in other mammals: (17 min)  He has written The Age of Empathy, which I have not read.

and Jessica Pierce describes some additional instances of animal morality that we have observed.

Finally, in this debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig, the origins of morality are explored.  Harris is describing and defending the ideas that he has put forth in his new book, The Moral Landscape, which I am still reading.  Harris' position is that morality stems from the well-being of conscious creatures, and that once we accept this assertion, morality can be objectively examined, even if it is neuroscience is not yet advanced enough to make this a practical matter in many cases.  Harris' ideas challenge both the conservative notions of morality from God or other authority, as well as the liberal notions of moral relativism.  Craig's position is the traditional theological notion that morality comes to us from divinity.  Unfortunately Craig's opposition is largely focused on his refusal to accept that Harris has any basis to assume that well-being has any relationship with morality.  While I recommend seeing the entire thing for fairness and context, in my opinion it is Harris and his ideas that makes this video worth the two hour investment.


My personal take is that there is value in all of these.  Haidt seems to describe morality as it is actually implemented by different people, and de Waal describes that natural origin of our moralistic impulses.  I think the conservative ideas of morality sanctify principles that preserve the group in the face of extreme adversity.  Probably these are behaviors that served us well in our more tribal past, but it does not seem to me that those ideas still serve us well now.  I'm sure it will take you less than 10 seconds to think of several examples where authority and morality were at direct odds with each other.  In-group thinking is valuable when groups compete, and destructive when they lose the opportunity to cooperate.  Finally, purity would have been valuable in a time when medicine, sexual education, and contraceptive care were not available, but in modern times puritanical thinking seems to act to the detriment of women more than it accomplishes anything else.

Finally, while I embrace the idea of the equivalence of many different cultural values, I think Harris is right that there is an objectivity, or at least some objective elements, to morality.  To say that it is abhorrent to stone rape victims to death, and to say that it is proper - these are not morally equivalent positions.  We do not live in a world where all moral opinions are equal.

Overall, I am still exploring and refining my ideas on human morality, and have much more reading to do.

What do you think?


  1. Only had time to watch the first video at the moment.

    It definitely rings true and I think there are a TON of people who could benefit from watching it, on both sides of the political spectrum. I'm lucky enough to have both sides of the political spectrum pretty well represented in my life and have definitely seen the "________ are hateful/immoral. I don't know how they can live with themselves" idea expressed by both sides towards the other.

    When I hear people expressing such opinions it always makes me wonder if they are aware that the "other side" feels pretty much the exact same way about them.

  2. Having come from more conservative origins and then migrating over to the liberal side of things over a period of time, I'm acutely aware. I actually am coming around to the notion that conservative and liberal minds are good at different things, and suited for different environments.

    Here's a passage from Harris' The Moral Landscape:
    "Consider political conservatism: this is a fairly well-defined perspective that is characterized by a general discomfort with societal change and a ready acceptance of social inequality. As simple as political conservatism is to describe, we know that it is governed by many factors. The psychologist John Jost and colleagues analyzed data from twelve countries, acquired from 23,000 subjects, and found this attitude to be correlated with dogmatism, inflexibility, death anxiety, need for closure, and anticorrelated with openness to experience, cognitive complexity, self-esteem, and social stability."

    He goes on to say that liberals are not in the clear either, but only gives one example, in which liberals were much more willing to sacrifice one white person to save 100 non-whites than they were to sacrifice one non-white person to save 100 whites. Conservatives illustrated little preference.

    There are others that I would add from my anecdotal experience. Liberals suffer from analysis paralysis and uncertainty. Liberals see things in shades of gray and conservatives see them as black and white. Liberals are better able to hold contradicting thoughts in their minds comfortably. Conservatives are more decisive and more confident in those decisions. Liberals are less likely to make moral condemnations, even when they are clearly needed and particularly if there is concern that those condemnations might run afoul of accusations of racism or cultural insensitivity.

    In short, if we were in a war zone I would want conservatives running the show. A more binary world-view combined with fear-based thinking and a respect for authority leads to quick decisions and quick action with little equivocation. It seems likely to me that evolution would have strongly favored such traits during our tribal origins. People have been shown to get more conservative in their decisions when drunk, multi-tasking, or otherwise mentally taxed. It is, in some ways, a low-overhead mode of thought, which would also be valuable in the middle of combat, for example. Conservatives seem more prone to zero-sum thinking, leading them to be more competitive and less willing to entertain cooperation with out-groups.

    However, if we are trying to have a flourishing multi-cultural society in a globally connected world, I think liberals are better suited for running that show. The world is not actually a simple place, and when steering a society a well thought out decision is more important than a rapid one. Not that liberals are perfect here, just better IMO. There's also a strong correlation between conservative thought and religious zealotry, so that is another reason that I don't think it's merely my liberal bias that makes me very distrustful of conservative ideology. Liberals reliably fail on understanding that trade benefits a nation for some reason. This stems from concern about domestic jobs, but I'm not sure what is broken about liberal thought that makes them refuse to see that part of economics. In some ways liberal thought is a luxury item, requiring people's needs to be met well enough for their social altruism to open up.

    Anyway, those are my current perspectives and biases on it. I try to be fair, but I definitely don't see them as equivalently sensible approaches to running a secure and prosperous country. Perhaps conservatives simply wouldn't agree that we are secure and prosperous.

    There are also rural/urban differences here, with corresponding focuses on self-reliance or the compromises of living in a dense community.