Harm, Fairness, Loyalty, Respect and Purity

According to Johnathon Haidt at The Edge, our morality springs from five universal principles that are present in every society:

  • Preventing harm
  • Promoting fairness
  • Being loyal to your group
  • Respecting authority
  • Desire for purity

To illustrate these principles, the Mousetrap describes a hypothetical experiment where participants are asked how much they would need to be paid to perform each of these morally questionable acts:

Harm/care

* Stick a pin into your palm.
* Stick a pin into the palm of a child you don’t know.

Fairness/reciprocity

* Accept a plasma screen television that a friend of yours wants to give you. You know that your friend got the television a year ago when the company that made it sent it, by mistake and at no charge, to your friend.
* Accept a plasma screen television that a friend of yours wants to give you. You know that your friend bought the TV a year ago from a thief who had stolen it from a wealthy family.

Ingroup/loyalty

* Say something slightly bad about your nation (which you don’t believe to be true) while calling in, anonymously, to a talk-radio show in your nation.
* Say something slightly bad about your nation (which you don’t believe to be true) while calling in, anonymously, to a talk-radio show in a foreign nation.

Authority/respect

* Slap a friend in the face (with his/her permission) as part of a comedy skit.
* Slap your father in the face (with his permission) as part of a comedy skit.

Purity/sanctity

* Attend a performance art piece in which the actors act like idiots for 30 min, including failing to solve simple problems and falling down repeatedly on stage.
* Attend a performance art piece in which the actors act like animals for 30 min, including crawling around naked and urinating on stage.

In his Ted lecture, Haidt argues that while everyone bases their morality on all of these principles, liberals place more emphasis on the first two elements, whereas conservative emphasize the the latter three.

His presentation is compelling, but something is missing. Like George Lakoff’s Moral Politics four years ago, Haidt seems to be trying too hard to make American politics fit neatly into simplistic categories.

Lakoff tried to come up with a single over-arching argument for why the strong-government theocons have common cause with the drown-the-government-in-a-bathtub ultra-capitalists and the paleocon realists and the neocon idealists and the america-first isolationists and the small-goverment libertarians. Haidt seems to be making the same mistake. A mistake will that will become clear if the Republicans lose badly in this election.

The republican coalition is an alliance of convenience that has served them well (and the rest of us badly) for nearly 30 years but I strongly doubt that the alliance will hold and future moral psychologists will have to explain why the party of Palin and and Robertson and Dobson has no place for people lower on the vertical axis of the Political Compass.

Hold that – I expect it will be true even if McCain/Palin wins.

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Ragged Clown

Based in San Jose, California

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