Saturday, August 12, 2006

Moral intuitions

I followed a pointer provided by Tyler Cowen, and read an interesting paper ("When morality opposes justice: Conservatives have moral intuitions that liberals may not recognize") by Haidt and Graham on the moral intuitions of Liberals and Conservatives. The writers are apparently liberal academics, and they explicitly address their predominately liberal colleagues in an explanation of how liberals and conservatives differ in their views on morality. There is no mention of libertarians, but I think I can tease out a comparison that includes us. If someone knows of a similar approach that has been prepared or presented more carefully, I'd appreciate a pointer. I also welcome discussion of whether what I say seems roughly true to other libertarians.

The main claim in this paper is that there are consistent standard bases for moral reasoning used by liberals and by conservatives, and they're not the same. Haidt & Graham point to a long literature on the subject, mostly written by liberals, so it emphasises the liberal ethos, but there are other papers that explain how the conservatives fit in. The basic idea is that liberals take equality or reciprocity ("justice/rights/fairness") and compassion ("harm/welfare/care") as the only significant concerns. Conservatives, according to the argument, have three additional foundations, which he calls ingroup, hierarchy, and purity. Ingroup treats the group you are a member of as a moral end in itself; hierarchy says that deference to authority (usually hierarchical) is a moral fundamental, and purity treats our attitudes of disgust (toward people who behave differently, bodily fluids, or evidence of decay) as a moral indicator. They talk about evidence showing these attitudes are common and correlated with political attitudes.

Here are examples of the type of questions used to distinguish each concern in an on-line survey:

  • Whether or not someone was harmed [harm foundation]
  • Whether or not someone acted unfairly [reciprocity]
  • Whether or not someone betrayed his or her group [ingroup]
  • Whether or not the people involved were of the same rank [hierarchy]
  • Whether or not someone did something disgusting [purity].

The paper presents an evolutionary scenario to show how the 5 foundations could have evolved, and explains that people who adhere to all five foundations (fundamentalists) are more common than those who follow just the two liberal tenets. The explanation they profer is that the larger list arose over an evolutionary time scale while modern liberalism is a result of more recent forces that they didn't identify. The three conservative-only bases make sense in the evolutionary environment. The liberal foundations have been presented before as part of Maslow's hierarchy of needs or Kohlberg's stages .

I think libertarians believe strongly in justice and fairness, but the emphasis is quite different from liberals: for libertarians, the point is equal treatment, while for liberals, it more often equates to equality of outcome. I wouldn't have included "reciprocity" in that constellation. And libertarians view compassion as a personal virtue or preference, rather than something for which you fault others. Compassion is much less a driver of fundamental moral insights for libertarians as long as justice and rights are respected.

The causes Haidt and Graham suggest for the shrinking list of moral concerns of modern liberals also makes sense for libertarians:

the growth of free markets, social mobility, science, material wealth, and ethnic and religious diversity. Mobility and diversity make a morality based on shared valuation of traditions and institutions quite difficult.

I'm not sure what to add to their story to explain the difference between libertarians and liberals.


Anonymous said...


I thinkyou should really change the background image....

Chris Hibbert said...

Thanks for pointing that out. I don't know what changed, but the background used to only be in the margins.

Chris Hibbert said...

Looks like there may have been a change to the template parser. incorporating changes to the basic templates seems to have fixed it.

Anonymous said...

For a somewhat more libertarian presentation, see:

Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (2006). Evolutionary psychology, moral heuristics, and the law. In G. Gigerenzer & C. Engel (Eds.), Heuristics and the Law (Dahlem Workshop Report 94). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (