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Would you eat your pet?

Well, would you? If you were not vegetarian, if the pet had died of natural causes, if you had received assurance from a veterinarian that it was healthy, and if you had a nice barbeque sauce for it?

If you are like my students you almost certainly said “NOOO!”


That’s the interesting question.  Can you articulate a reason?  Did you articulate that reason and conclude logically from that reason that you should answer “NOOO!”?  When I ask my students I generally get to the point at which they say “I don’t know why, but it just feels wrong!”  This is much the answer Jon Haidt has gotten, and I cribbed the example from him.

Haidt’s view is that in many cases our moral judgment is intuitive. We have a gut sense that something is wrong and we then come up with reasons to justify the gut sense.  So we might say “but it might not be healthy to eat Rover” but when upon hearing that the vet assures us, and we believe it would be healthy we still think “NOOO!”  Perhaps much of our moral life is driven by our gut sense and our subsequent efforts to justify our gut sense.  Our lofty moral explanations, then, are often just stories we tell ourselves so we don’t feel like idiots with strong moral intuitions not grounded in reason.

Haidt suggests that we have five (ok, now it’s six, but the link below focuses on the older version) foundations from which arise these moral judgments.  Is there harm?  Is it fair?  Does it obey authority?  Does it violate loyalty to the person’s group?  Does it violate purity/sanctity?

Much of his work suggests that conservatives are driven by all five foundations whereas liberals are driven mostly by harm and fairness.  Thus liberals often do not understand conservatives’ moral judgments because they don’t value those other three foundations (authority/loyalty/sanctity).  And both liberals and conservatives often work from intuitions but hold forth publicly using the stories they tell themselves, which are not the real reasons for their moral judgment (“It would be unhealthy!  Oh, it would be healthy?  Well, I still think it would be wrong. Give me some time to figure out why!”)  And so we have really awful public discussions of moral decisions in which we understand neither our own basis for morality, nor that of others, and we at best struggle to see the other as someone who is neither a dolt nor evil.

The linked piece (below, from Bloomberg) cites some new research suggesting that liberals might actually use those other three dimensions after all.  For instance, if someone paints an arrow on a mountain it evokes in liberal mountain climbers a reaction like that arising in conservatives who see an arrow painted on an American flag.  This seems not to be due to harm to the mount, but more a sense that the mountain is sacred and the paint a violation.  Similarly are there authorities whom liberals feel should be obeyed (environmentalists, for instance), such that it is only conservative authorities liberals do not think should be obeyed?  In his wonderful initial TED talk Haidt (link below) intimated that liberals might actually value sanctity/purity (organic food!).  But I had not seen data supportive of that til these articles described in the Bloomberg piece.

Why should we care?  What if we all (liberals and conservatives alike) have intuitions about the sacred, about authorities to which we defer, about the ingroups to which we should be loyal, but what if we often are unaware of these intuitions?  Things (like eating the pet) will seem wrong to us. We will come up with stories about our reasons that are just stories, not the real reasons for our intuitions, and we will be appalled by the badness of others whose intuitions differ from our own.  As McArdle (below) puts it: “Coming at someone with utilitarian math when the problem is actually that you’ve desecrated their sacred space is a recipe for bitter and unresolvable conflict — and perhaps, for a culture war that no one is going to win.”

But what if we understood ourselves to see some things as sacred, even if we do not fully understand what those are, even if we think at some level that “sacred” is just a superstitious idea?  Perhaps we could understand, at least a little, others who have views of the sacred as well.  Perhaps we could talk to them about the sacred, rather than about harm (when their intuition is about the sacred).  Perhaps then our disagreements will be less sulfurous.


Postscript: I find Haidt’s work beautiful to reflect upon.  How were my moral intuitions formed?  Likely they developed long ago and I often lack the language to articulate those morals.  How might I shape my intuitions to be somewhat more in line with my reason?  I do not have an empirical answer to that question.  But perhaps by reading moral philosophers and moral theologians with both an intention to be open and the knowledge that I am in some ways a stranger to myself.


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