Crawl Across the Ocean

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

106. The Righteous Mind - Part 3

Note: This post is the one hundred and sixth in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs which inspired this series.

This week the topic is the book, "The Righteous Mind" by Jonathan Haidt. Having read the book, I highly recommend the NY Times review of it as an excellent summary.

Note that we have encountered the work of Jonathan Haidt before, albeit indirectly, in this earlier post which discussed an essay by Steven Pinker, which was written as a reaction to Haidt's work.

Today's post covers the second of Haidt's three main arguments, that:

a) There are (at least) 6 dimensions to human morality: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Freedom/Oppression, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion and Sanctity/Degradation.


b) "liberals" (in an American sense, think the Democratic party) are only concerned with Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating and Freedom/Oppression whereas conservatives (think Republicans) are concerned with all 6 moral dimensions.

Let's start by giving a little more detail on each of the 6 dimensions that Haidt identifies. Note that in each case, Haidt offers an explanation of how this moral value might have provided an evolutionary advantage, and notes that although the original evolutionary value may no longer be valid, the moral value can still be triggered in modern circumstances and may have value in modern society.


"If blood will flow when flesh and steel are one
Drying in the color of the evening sun
Tomorrow's rain will wash the stains away
But something in our minds will always stay

Perhaps this final act was meant
To clinch a lifetime's argument
That nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could"

- Sting, "Fragile"

"Nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could" is a pretty fair statement of the Harm principle that Haidt describes. In Haidt's view, the evolutionary requirement to take care of our vulnerable children gives a desire to protect people from harm, and that our assessment that something is 'cute' is linked to this assessment of how much protection from harm someone (or some animal) needs.

"And now you're back from outer space
I just walked in to find you here with that sad look upon your face
I should have changed that stupid lock
I should have made you leave your key
If I'd've known for just one second you'd back to bother me
Go on now, go walk out the door
Just turn around now
('Cause) you're not welcome anymore
Weren't you the one who tried to hurt me with goodbye?
And so you felt like droppin' in
And just expect me to be free,
Now I'm savin' all my lovin' for someone who's lovin' me
Go on now..."

- Gloria Gaynor, "I Will Survive"

Haidt sees our desire for things to be fair as being necessary to secure cooperation without falling prey to cheaters. He relates the results of an experiment in which people could work together to increase their total payout by contributing to a public pool of funds, but where people could free-ride by not contributing to the public pool but still receiving their share of the public money.

In the experiment, people's willingness to contribute declines over time as they see free-riders taking advantage of their contributions. But when the experiment was modified to allow people to spend their own money to punish people who free-ride, people were more than willing to do so, and high levels of contributions to the public pool were sustained over time.

The willingness to take vengeance on people who try to take advantage of us, even when it costs us to take that vengeance, is necessary to sustain cooperation in the face of those who would try to take advantage of cooperative efforts.

In the song above, even if the singer might still be in love with her former lover, she knows that she needs to punish him for his past transgressions and that the long term goal of not being taken advantage of supersedes a short term desire for reconciliation.

In Haidt's view, conservatives focus more on ensuring that cheaters are punished, whereas liberals focus more on ensuring that people don't get cheated.

"Here comes the helicopter, second time today
Everybody scatters and hopes it goes away
How many kids they've murdered only God can say
If I had a rocket launcher...I'd make somebody pay"

- Bruce Cockburn, "If I Had A Rocket Launcher"

Like Sting in the quote above, Bruce Cockburn was writing in response to Central American violence during the 1980's, but Bruce Cockburn drew a different conclusion. Cockburn decided that fighting back was a better approach than turning the other cheek (interestingly, they both followed the same template in writing about Pinochet's dictatorship in Chile, with Sting's 'They Dance Alone' suggesting the regime will fall when it runs out of money, while Bruce Cokburn's 'Santiago Dawn' invokes an armed rebellion with military thugs under attack, doors broken down, rocks flying and barricades in flames).

Arguably, I could have filed this lyric under 'Fairness/Cheating' as well, since Cockburn is suggesting that the government should 'pay' for what it has done, but the reaction here is not to being cheated, but rather to being bullied and oppressed, and it is that opposition to bullying and oppression (in Haidt's view, the force that makes human hunter/gatherer societies egalitarian in nature) which is what Haidt is getting at with the Freedom/Oppression moral value.


"Police arrive -- muddy up the floor
Dig out half the plaster -- it's a .38 for sure
Kick the neighbour's door in
Saying better tell it all
Who put that bullet hole in Peggy's kitchen wall?

Blaster on the back porch, shaking up the lane
They're drinking gin and joking -- laughter falling down like rain
Everybody wears a halo
Never saw nothing at all
So who put that bullet hole in Peggy's kitchen wall?"

- Bruce Cockburn, "Peggy's Kitchen Wall"

As we've seen in our extensive discussions of the Prisoner's Dilemma in this series, people who are willing to work together, even in a case where they would individually be better off betraying each other, can reap a collective benefit from this show of loyalty.

Haidt focusses more on 'big' loyalty, to a country, to a sporting team, than on 'small' loyalty (e.g. a group of people who agree not to tell the police who put a bullet hole in someone's wall) but the principle is the same. Haidt takes it as self-evident that a group with loyalty will have an evolutionary advantage over one that doesn't but, although I certainly agree, it would have been interesting if he had made the case (for example, a tribe of people who gather berries wouldn't seem to get much benefit from cooperation as compared to a tribe of hunters, a tribe with warlike neighbours might get benefits from loyalty that a tribe with no neighbours would not, etc.)

"Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man

Born in the U.S.A., I was born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A., born in the U.S.A.

Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man said, "Son if it was up to me"
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said, "Son, don't you understand"

- Bruce Springsteen, "Born in the U.S.A."

At first, I couldn't think of any songs that invoked Haidt's notion of respect for authority (other than maybe 'Church of the Holy Spook', by Shane MacGowan)

But then I realized I should be looking for songs protesting the violation of this precept, not songs praising it directly. Why is Bruce Springsteen's protagonist so insistent that he was, 'Born in the U.S.A.'? - because he believes that he has fulfilled his part of the bargain, going off to fight for his country, but his superiors have neglected their side, leaving him unemployed and without prospects upon his return home. The moral value of Authority/Subversion that Haidt refers to is a two-way street, in Haidt's words, 'people who relate to each other in this way have mutual expectations that are more like those of a parent and child than those of a dictator and fearful underlings.' We see this in the song, which is a cry for a mutual expectation that has been betrayed.

Again, Haidt seems to take it as self-evident that support for a hierarchical structure will convey some sort of evolutionary advantage to groups that adopt it although he does not really specify what the benefit is (economies of scale? ability to cooperate across groups too large to bond with just loyalty? ability to distribute proceeds of cooperation without conflict?).


"In this cold commodity culture
Where you lay your money down
It's hard to even notice
That all this earth is hallowed ground"

- Bruce Cockburn, "The Gift"

The final moral value that Haidt identifies, 'Sanctity' seems the least useful at first glance. Haidt figures that this moral value was useful for helping us avoid poisons (like vegetables :) and activities that might carry disease or other harmful qualities.

He argues that, in a modern context, when we have science to tell us what is dangerous to eat or touch, this moral value is used to bind people together by allowing them to rally around some sacred item. To be honest, I didn't find this explanation particularly convincing, although I do think that this moral value can still be useful.

As the song lyrics above suggests, I think this moral value may lie behind what Jane Jacobs characterized as an almost inexplicable disdain for commercial activity that has existed throughout much of our history. In a modern context where the moral disdain for commercial activity has lessened, this value might still help us to see where certain things should not be for sale (body parts, votes, endangered species etc.) Of course, by the same token, it's likely this same value that propels the war on drugs and prevents legalization of, for example, marijuana.

So that covers the 6 moral values that Haidt has identified to date. Let's talk about Haidt's second main argument in this section of the book, that there is a distinct difference between liberals / 'WEIRD' - W(estern) E(ducated) I(ndustrialized) R(ich) D(emocratic) people, who only place value on 3 moral dimensions (Care/Harm, Fairness, and Freedom/Oppression) and who mostly follow a 'no harm, no foul' morality, and conservatives who place value on all 6 moral dimensions.

There was a story on the CBC website the other day about a Dutch man who, after his cat had died in an accident, decided to turn his cat into a flying helicopter (see the video at the link). There were a number of comments on the story that were popular and uncontroversial (meaning few people clicked 'dislike' on the comment) and these comments were all some sort of humourous commentary on the story. But there were also a number of comments that were both popular and controversial (many dislikes) and these comments were along the lines of:


"Gross!!!! How disgusting...."

"I find this disturbing and disrespectful. Whenever one of my pets has passed away, I've grieved. I believe that's a normal, sane response to losing a furry family member. Never would it occur to me to turn my pet into flying 'art'. *shudder*

"Being a former cat owner, having lost our guy who was 16 years of age, I find this completely disgusting and very disrespectful to the cat."

Invariably, comments on the disgusting, gross, disrespectful or profane nature of the dead flying cat were met with a rebuttal indicating that it was no big deal because the cat was already dead, and thus no harm was done. The last comment I quoted above provoked responses that flesh out the details of the argument in full.

The first response is,
"Then don't do this with your dead cat, and let this person be."
To which the response comes back,
"No Tyler, sugarpei is right, what this guy has done is sick. Had it been a human, he would had been arrested for causing an indignity to a corpse. This is no different."

In reply,
"... Its not up to us to judge this guy. The cat isn't getting hurt or suffering from this.

To repeat; cats are not equal to humans, and what someone does with the remains of their pet is up to them."

In general, there seemed to be widespread agreement that more than the principle of harm was at stake because there was general agreement that it would be wrong to do this with a human corpse, even though there would be no 'harm' done since the person was already dead. In addition, there was general agreement that it would be wrong to kill a cat just for this purpose because that would harm the cat. But where there was less agreement was on the point of whether the same moral value that prevents us from desecrating a human corpse should also apply to a cat. It wasn't clear to me reading the comments that anyone made the argument why cats should be protected from harm, like humans are, but not protected from degradation like humans are.

Haidt surveyed 12 groups of people from around the world and found that one group, comprised of people attending the University of Pennsylvania, was different from the rest, in that the participants resembled the folks in the comment thread on the dead cat who saw nothing morally wrong as long as no harm was done. The other groups were more willing to morally condemn actions even where no harm was caused. Haidt has found that the distinction between the two ways of seeing the world mostly came down to culture and class, with upper middle class people from Western countries ('WEIRD' people) showing the strongest tendency toward a 'Harm-based' morality system, and Americans being the strongest outlier in that direction even within the Western world.

Haidt argues that this flows from a upper/middle class Western world view premised around the notion of autonomous individuals vs. the rest of the worldview which is centred around relationships.

Unfortunately, Haidt seems mostly uninterested in why this might be the case. He does make a passing reference (page 122) that 'The virtues taught to children in a warrior culture are different from those taught in a farming culture or a modern industrialized culture' but he doesn't seem too interested in what those differences might be or why they might vary.

Over and over again, Haidt makes passing reference to ways that people's moral values have changed over time, almost always suggesting that they have become more 'liberal' or harm-focussed.

For example, on page 120, "As Western societies became more educated, industrialized, rich and democratic, the minds of its intellectuals changed. They became more analytic and less holistic." or page 124, "in the past fifty years people in many Western societies have come to feel compassion in response to many more kinds of animal suffering, and they've come to feel disgust in response to many fewer kinds of sexual activity" or page 142, "Until recently, Americans addressed strangers and superiors using title plus last name"

In all of these cases, the trend described by Haidt is towards a more liberal, harm-centred viewpoint. And at every instance I felt the urge to write in the margin of my copy of the book, 'Why?' but Haidt never goes into why.

It's a bit funny because in the latter part of this section of the book, Haidt argues that American liberals are at a disadvantage because conservative politicians make arguments that invoke all 6 moral values, while liberal politicians invoke only 2 or 3. But it doesn't seem to add up that the most liberal place is getting more liberal over time and that somehow this has started to become a problem for liberal politicians in the last few decades. Clearly there is more going on here than is covered by Haidt.

Of course, the whole point of this series of posts is to discuss Jane Jacobs' 'Systems of Survival' so I must point out that the 'WEIRD' morality that Haidt refers to sounds a lot like the commercial syndrome. Hierarchy, loyalty and prowess are all discounted, while shunning fraud and force (which would cause harm) and being honest (fairness, no cheating) take precedence. Haidt never references the 'solo' virtues that can be practiced without the presence of other people (thrift, innovation, hard-work, etc.) but as we'll see in the next post, Haidt eventually defines morality in the context of social cooperation, so this oversight in understandable.

Meanwhile on the conservative side (the non-Weird part of the world in Haidt's view), we have respect for hierarchy, obedience, loyalty, respect for tradition and taking vengeance, all good guardian virtues, per Jacobs.

Furthermore, Haidt identifies the commercial syndrome morality as being most prevalent among the wealthier parts of societies descended from what Weber described as 'The Spirit of Capitalism.'

Like so many others, Haidt never considers the possibility that morality might be context-sensitive, not just in the sense that some morals might be more useful than others in certain cultures (which he does acknowledge) but that even within one culture some actions might be moral or immoral depending on the context.

However, given that Haidt's main focus seems to be to get people who have a 'WEIRD' morality system to appreciate the value of recognizing all 6 virtues (i.e. to get people with a commercial cast of mind to appreciate the guardian cast of mind), and that the focus of his book ends up being two of the main guardian aspects of our society (The subtitle of the book is, "Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion") it seems that he may realize this unconsciously, even though it hasn't made its way into his writing yet.

Afterthought 1: In Haidt's view, U.S. politics involves a harm-focussed, commercially minded left (the Democratic party) matched by a guardian minded conservative right (the Republican party), and from this he concludes that the harm-focussed morality is a left-wing morality. But I think his findings rather speak to the absence of a Guardian minded left party in U.S. politics, akin to the NDP in Canada or the Labour party in Britain. On reflection, it does seem that the Canadian system is more like a liberal centre with two guardian minded wings, whereas the U.S. system lacks political representation for guardian minded people with left wing politics.

Perhaps I am just generalizing from my own example, where Haidt's survey showed my moral compass aligning with a Conservative worldview in which almost all the moral dimensions identified by Haidt are valued, but yet you won't find me voting for the Conservative party in Canada any time soon. With that in mind, I took many of the song lyrics describing a conservative/non-WEIRD/guardian view of the world from Bruce Cockburn, a left-wing Canadian musician.

Afterthought #2, here's another CBC article, that one outlying Haidt's views, the article itself isn't particularly useful, but the comments are mostly spot-on, in my opinion, and worth reading.

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