Monday, December 17, 2012

Morality and the Hierarchy of Values

Last week, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt et al. came out with an article about how liberals and conservatives pre-judge each others' moral values.  In the corresponding study, self-identified liberals and self-identified conservatives were asked a series of questions to determine how they placed on scales for the five moral valences that Haidt acknowledges: fairness, care/protection from harm, in-group loyalty, deference to authority, and purity/sanctity.  After taking the test themselves, the subjects then had to take a survey answering as though they were a "typical liberal" or "typical conservative."  According to the study, extreme liberals were the most off-base with their predictions of the moral attitudes of both liberals and conservatives, and moderate conservatives were most accurate.

I have now seen several articles (including the one linked above) that emphasize the takeaway that "liberals stereotype more than conservatives."  An immediate problem with this claim is the definition of stereotype.  Moral stereotypes are not the same as racial stereotypes or ethnic stereotypes or religious stereotypes or gender stereotypes, etc., etc.  The phrasing itself implies something that the study does not.

However, to move into more substantive terrain, I will introduce the quote that demonstrates the issue I have with the interpretation of the findings:

"Liberals tended to stereotype conservatives as uncaring, rather than realize that conservatives’ genuine concerns about harm and fairness are tempered by other moral values that have less value to the left, such as loyalty and respect for authority." 

Prioritization is the foundation of morality, and for many conservatives (of either party), deference to authority trumps other values. Even if two people were to be rated at the same level for "fairness," if one placed "deference to authority" even higher, their moral codes would be completely different and, also, irreconcilable in many ways.   Deference to authority can often negate or override fairness because authority is not always just.  Likewise, feelings toward care can run up against in-group loyalty (the welfare state tampered by xenophobia and racism) or against deference to authority (be that authority the "market gods" or a fundamentalist God, neither of whom might want humans to rectify the pitiable state of their fellow beings).  You and I might feel just as much sympathy toward another person as each other, but if you are feel stronger in-group loyalty or deference to authority, you might not want to take any action to improve that person's well-being.  I might thus underestimate your sympathetic emotion, but that is because your hierarchy of values is fundamentally opposed to mine, demoting the values I see as most important.

Furthermore, I think that Haidt's model leaves out important aspects of morality. As noted above, he focuses on care (protection from harm), fairness, loyalty, obedience (deference to authority), and purity. However, he leaves out dignity ("I will be treated as a person"/"I will not be used."/"I will not be treated as a thing"), which is important to personal morality and social/political morality. Dignity, as I see it, lies at the foundation of fairness ("I will not be cheated"), purity but not sanctity ("I will not be sullied"), and protection from harm ("I will not be abused").   Each of those moral attitudes stems from an individual sentiment that becomes socialized by recognizing the dignity of other persons.  Dignity, socialized into respect for persons, lies at the foundation of those but also exists in its own right, and as I see it, democracy (a a form of political morality) rests on dignity (the equal dignity of all persons).  Dignity, when socialized and universalized, tempers the power of the moral attitudes of obedience and in-group loyalty because it encourages a sense of egalitarianism, and such respect for persons provides the vital step between sympathy and action.  I might pity you, but unless I view you as equal in dignity, in personhood, to myself, I may idle and stall and avoid action.  Social change comes from the translation of pity into respect, and that respect is born out of the socialization or universalization of dignity.

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