Dialog on Morality, Part I


“Yes, of course I got your list of demands.” New Yorker caption contest


People have been wondering about the nature of morality ever since Socrates wandered around Athens annoying his fellow citizens with questions about justice. The literature is vast and complicated.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (with a little help from his friends) has a theory about morality with plenty of relevance to current political developments. (See BQTA posts “Justice vs Nationalism” and “Loyalty vs Justice”.) Haidt calls his theory Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) and it has its own website, http://moralfoundations.org/  Here’s the introduction (slightly shortened):

Moral Foundations Theory was created by a group of social and cultural psychologists to understand why morality varies so much across cultures yet still shows so many similarities and recurrent themes. In brief, the theory proposes that several innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of “intuitive ethics.” Each culture then constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world, and conflicting within nations too. The five foundations for which we think the evidence is best are:

1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.

3) Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”

4) Authority/subversion: It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

5) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions). 

We think there are several other very good candidates for “foundationhood,” especially:

6) Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation.

Much of our present research involves applying the theory to political “cultures” such as those of liberals and conservatives. The current American culture war, we have found, can be seen as arising from the fact that liberals try to create a morality relying primarily on the Care/harm foundation, with additional support from the Fairness/cheating and Liberty/oppression foundations. Conservatives, especially religious conservatives, use all six foundations, including Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, and Sanctity/degradation. The culture war in the 1990s and early 2000s centered on the legitimacy of these latter three foundations.

Haidt explained the theory at length in The Righteous Mind and with colleagues in “Moral Foundations Theory: The Pragmatic Validity of Moral Pluralism” (Graham, Haidt, Koleva, Motyl, Iyer, Wojcik, Ditto 2012), and this paper makes clear that the point of MFT is

its scientific usefulness for both answering existing questions about morality and allowing researchers to formulate new questions… We also emphasize, at the outset, that our project is descriptive, not normative. We are not trying to say who or what is morally right or good. We are simply trying to analyze an important aspect of human social life. Cultures vary morally, as do individuals within cultures. These differences often lead to hostility, and sometimes violence. We think it would be helpful for social psychologists, policy makers, and citizens more generally to have a language in which they can describe and understand moralities that are not their own. We think a pluralistic approach is necessary for this descriptive project.

So if these psychologists are not trying to say “what is morally right”, what makes MFT a theory about morality, rather than just “an aspect of human social life”? Can’t the Loyalty Module, for example, create fascist immorality if it goes too far? How can that be part of morality? If these researchers can’t reveal the ultimate nature of morality, what can? MFT describes patterns of behavior without passing judgment. The normative project—the one that usually concerns philosophy—tries to determine what being morally right or good can possibly amount to. What gives anyone the right to pass moral judgment on anyone else? MFT seems to be saying that different groups can have incompatible but equally valid combinations of the Moral Foundations. How can there be a universal moral standard? 

MFT is a fine jumping off point for our discussion of morality, and BQTA has brought in top intellectuals (see BQTA post “What Top Intellectuals Are Doing”) who are equal to the task.

Carter Gillies:    Each of the moral modules that Haidt has identified evolved for its own purposes rather than to necessarily square with each other, and this is the case with all human values. And this independence is what makes it often impossible to coordinate between different starting points. They work provisionally, but the full blown context of a human life or society make it very difficult to extend into all reaches. The lines need to be drawn somewhere, and even fairness for some may seem like injustice to others on the wrong side of it.

Loyalty is perhaps especially pernicious. This is because the line dividing who is included and who is not gets drawn so boldly and often unconditionally. Loyalty as the basis of morality simply means as narrow a focus as is necessary. And the ideal of justice being ‘blind’ is anything but that. We are drawn in so many opposing directions that the dream of things working out harmoniously and consistently is just one of those fables we tell ourselves. We sleep better at night with such dreams. So they are worth striving for even if by definition it could never come to pass in the messiness that defines human lives.

Sometimes the purity and ideality of our justice and morality aim us in directions that appear to be superhuman and even inhuman. But this seeming unattainability is possibly also necessary if the point is for us to attempt to be better than we naturally are. We need examples that transcend us. They are corrections on our more primitive inclinations.

Moral progress may simply mean shedding the parts of our moral modules that we have outgrown, or which living in broader societies has taught us no longer function adaptively. But these are human choices, and the rules for deciding between them have not been drawn up in advance. They need to be negotiated, as every other instance of progress will teach us. Welcome to the human drama!

Rick Lenon:      Family higher than distant strangers?  Laid off coal miners in West Virginia, against starving children in South Sudan?  We certainly understand the coal miners’ situation better.  It has happened that wheat sent to Africa has been captured buy officials at the docks, resold into international market.  That tends to amplify civil wars.  Or it gets where it’s supposed to go, and puts local farmers out of business.  And here at home, it tells the coal miners that we care more about those black kids 10,000 miles away, than we do about them. 

The tribal identity/loyalty uber alles stuff has clearly gotten worse in recent years, and I think it’s MERITOCRACY that’s done it.  Globalism vs Nationalism, around the world, same thing.  It’s us against them.  

 And who does own moral authority anyway?  Who gets to say what’s true and what isn’t?  It’s those same pinhead geeks that replaced me with a robot, that are now telling me I can’t drive my pickup, or the planet will go up 3 degrees in 50 years, instead of just 2?  They’re worried about gay rights and affirmative action for blacks and illegal immigrant.

Meritocracy is worse than aristocracy, because with the latter, if’s clearly just fate.  With meritocracy, the assholes think they earned it, and we didn’t.  

GNS:   One way to look at Haidt is that while he has identified interesting factors in the red staters’ value system he has not identified new kinds of morality. Not every value is a moral value. That authority tells you to do something is a reason to do it, all other things being equal, but it stills makes sense to ask if the act required is moral. What authority requires of you is one thing, what morality requires is another. They may overlap, they may not. Ramping up the authority module at the expense of fairness or care leads to fascism, as Haidt himself acknowledges.

The loyalty module is the most clearly tribal. It may be useful in overcoming individual selfishness, but it is easy to imagine loyalty conflicting with morality. The gang wants you to kill a rival gang member. You value loyalty, but the poor slob you’re supposed to kill does not deserve it. What to do? The loyal thing or the moral thing?

So while sanctity, authority and loyalty—what Haidt calls the ‘binding foundations’ – are important values, they can clearly conflict with morality and therefore are not moral values. MFT may be a theory of red state psychology, or the values of values voters, but not of morality.

Social psychologist Joshua Greene says that Haidt puts the blame on moral philosophers and other children of the enlightenment. (Even Thomas Jefferson? Oh well, just another sexual predator) In a nice passage, Greene responds in his book Moral Tribes (2013):

The great philosophers of the enlightenment wrote at a time when the world was rapidly shrinking, forcing them to wonder whether their own laws, their own traditions, and their own God(s) were any better than anyone else’s… Natural science was making the world comprehensible in secular terms, revealing universal natural laws and overturning ancient religious doctrines. Philosophers wondered whether there might also be universal moral laws that, like Newton’s law of gravitation, applied to members of all tribes, whether they knew it or not. Thus the Enlightenment philosophers were not arbitrarily shedding moral taste buds. They were looking for deeper, universal moral truths, and for good reason. They were looking for moral truths beyond the teaching of any particular religion and beyond the will of any earthly king. They were looking for what I’ve called a metamorality… One might say, as Haidt does, that liberals have narrow moral tastes. But when it comes to moral foundations, less may be more. Liberals’ moral tastes, rather than being narrow, may instead be more refined… American social conservatives are not best described as people who place special value on authority, sanctity and loyalty, but rather as tribal loyalists—loyal to their own authorities, their own religion and themselves. pp 338-340.

Loyalty to one’s tribe is what gets in the way of solving the problem of us vs. them, what Greene calls the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality.

Haidt ends up endorsing utilitarianism, which Greene says “is both paradoxical and instructive… When faced with the ultimate question—what should we do?—it seems the autistic philosopher [Bentham] was right all along.” When resolving moral disputes, understanding the other tribe is a good first step. “But that’s not enough. We need a common moral standard, a metamorality, to help us get along.” 344-5. For Greene, as for most social scientists, that’s utilitarianism.

So the moral values—morality in the normative sense, not just the descriptive sense— still come down to fairness (deontology) and care (consequentialism). The key to both is respecting others as much as we respect ourselves. Deontology focuses on trying to explain why we are morally compelled to value everyone equally; consequentialism focuses on maximizing welfare, with the crucial proviso that everyone’s welfare gets valued equally.

Greene makes a good case for utilitarianism, which tends to be favored by social scientists. It’s hard to imagine organizing a modern society without giving considerable thought to maximizing human welfare. Greene sees happiness as what gets maximized. He opposes seeing the utility solely in terms of resources or money. Happiness means what people actually experience, so we’re maximizing the quality of their conscious experience. We’re supposed to imagine happiness being quantified in some way. If the guy in the expensive suit can easily save the drowning child, he is morally obligated to do so, even if getting the suit wet will ruin it.

This would seem to have the consequence that if I can increase one person’s happiness— like my own— without affecting anyone else’s, I should do it.

CG:    One of the things GNS seems to claim is that when stuff like loyalty and authority conflict with what you see as ‘the right thing to do’, loyalty and authority cannot, therefor, be moral. I think that is a mistake, not simply because it sets you up as the final arbiter of what counts as moral (when clearly others might disagree), but because it seems to promote the idea that morality is something we discover about the world rather than a thing that humans place there. In other words, do we discover what morality is or do we invent it?

My thought is that the work Haidt did was less about discovering what morality is than discovering how humans invented it. Not consciously invented, of course, but as the manifestation of individuals living in groups. The natural history of morality is a tale of human social invention.

An interesting aside is that we live in an age where morality seems unbounded. EVERYTHING can be taken as having a moral dimension. Dan Kaufman wrote an essay exploring this, and it seems a point worth making: There is a pervasive moral scrutiny directed at almost anything and everything in our lives.


For me the only conclusion seems to be that morality is a species of judgment that has evolved and continues to evolve. Not from extrahuman causes necessarily, but for and from the reasons humans arrive at to do one thing rather than something else. Which makes it a contested battlefield at best. There is no metamoral victory deciding which version wins out. If one version of morality ends up taking the day, it won’t be because the morality itself proved superior (to whom, one would even need to ask) but that the humans expounding it carried the field.

In the end, we will be rid of racism and sexism and all the other (to you and I) disagreeable human temptations not when we figure out which morality is best, but by becoming the sorts of people for whom those things are objectionable. Which will undoubtedly still mean that we will be a mixture of the basic modules that Haidt uncovered, but perhaps also something new. Who can tell? Humans and human society are not yet done evolving. How different was the world in which slavery was taken as the rule rather than an exception? Do we have a moral duty to farm animals? Where is it inscribed that we either do or we do not have such a duty? Are meat eaters immoral? Either we are the kind of people who eat meat and don’t consider it an issue, or we are the kind of people who refuse to eat meat and make it an issue. Every moral dispute plays out in exactly the same way.

The appeal to a metamorality is pure invention, and as such is liable to be invented differently by different people. There is nothing in the world that indicates either we could all agree on morality or that we should. There is no evidence that morality is something that is not simply provisionally agreed upon. In every circumstance. There is no evidence that morality will ‘add up’ in some meta calculus. At best we merely replace one version with another.

The moral to the story? Humans decide what is and what is not moral. End of story.

GNS:    Dan Kaufman’s piece “Morality Everywhere” is very good and might merit a separate discussion. His problem, however, may be not so much “excessive moral appeals”, as excessive utilitarianism.  “As Shelly Kagan says, “Given the parameters of the actual world, there is no question that …(maximally)… promoting the good would require a life of hardship, self-denial, and austerity…a life spent promoting the good would be a severe one indeed.” (wikipedia). Haidt would give the remedy as more emphasis on the Loyalty Module.

Carter Gillies says, “Humans decide what is and what is not moral. End of story.” In a way this is clearly true, since there is no morality in the natural world. But does this mean that humans can decide anything at all to be moral? If everyone decides—as they once did—that slavery is moral, does that eliminate the moral objection to slavery? It would seem so, if the only morality is what humans decide. If morality evolves, toward what and by what selective mechanism? Or do “we merely replace one version with another”, so that ours is no better than the 18th century’s when slaveholding was routine?

Compare mathematics. What if we said, “Humans decide what is and what is not mathematics.” Well, the birds and the bees are not writing any mathematical textbooks. Still, human decision making in mathematics is constrained by mathematical reality. The pythagorean theorem was true before humans evolved and will still be true after we’re gone.

The idea would be that moral decision making is similarly constrained. No amount consensus will make slavery OK. If everyone were to decide that slavery is OK, everyone would be wrong.

Carter seems to be arguing for some form of moral relativism or irrealism. “The appeal to a metamorality is pure invention, and as such is liable to be invented differently by different people.” Different people “invent” different morality? So what’s moral for one group is not moral for another, and there are no objective moral standards, not even in theory? Then why “ought” I to follow any of these inventions if I find them inconvenient?

If there is no objective morality, there is no “ought.” There are only assorted human customs and practices, assorted taboos. Social psychology endeavors to describe these practices. It’s generally agreed—and certainly by Haidt— that these descriptions of what people call “morality” do not create an obligation on anyone to do anything.

Haidt spends a lot of time in The Righteous Mind attacking philosophers who tried to figure out how there can be actions people ought to do or not do—morality in an objective sense.

Philosophers typically distinguish between descriptive definitions of morality (which simply describe what people happen to think is moral) and normative definitions (which specify what is really and truly right, regardless of what anyone thinks). So far in this book I have been entirely descriptive. p315

 Carter agrees that Haidt’s task is only descriptive: “the work Haidt did was less about discovering what morality is than discovering how humans invented it.” Carter does not seem to think a normative definition of morality is possible—that nothing is really and truly right regardless of what anyone thinks. Haidt is skeptical as well.

But philosophers are rarely interested in what people happen to think. The field of normative ethics is concerned with figuring out which actions are truly right or wrong. The best-known systems of normative ethics are the one-receptor systems I described in chapter 6 : utilitarianism (which tells us to maximize overall welfare [roughly equivalent to the Care Foundation]) and deontology (which in its Kantian form tells us to make the rights and autonomy of others paramount [roughly equivalent to the Fairness Foundation]). When you have a single clear principle, you can begin making judgments across cultures. Some cultures get a higher score than others, which means that they are morally superior. p315-316

Haidt is saying we cannot judge across cultures, because that would require a “single clear principle”, and morality rests on multiple foundations, not just one. MFT shows that various combinations of the foundations are valid, not just one. He implies that judgment across cultures is culturally insensitive, and therefore something we ought not to do (Haidt uses a normative standard after all). So no objective judgment is possible?

My definition of morality was designed to be a descriptive definition; it cannot stand alone as a normative definition. (As a normative definition, it would give high marks to fascist and communist societies as well as to cults, so long as they they achieved high levels of cooperation by creating a shared moral order.) p316

Isn’t Haidt making an objective normative judgment across cultures after all? Amazing that this crucial point is near the end of the book and parenthetical to boot. Haidt is saying that it would be wrong to give high marks to fascism. We might say “of course!” but on what basis can he or any other scientist make such a claim? A meta-moral theory (some sort of a philosophical theory) would be needed to explain what’s wrong with a coherent moral system like fascism. That theory would appeal to a universal moral standard to say that fascism—like slavery— is bad whether anybody knows it or not. 

I’m not saying that I can prove that there must actually be morality in the normative/objective sense. There are many sophisticated philosophical theories of moral irrealism. I’m saying that the consequences of irrealism are tough to accept.


CG:   What I wanted to say is that among people who are exercised by these issues, GNS is clearly not alone. He is in pretty good company, if the history of philosophy is any indication. Relying on beliefs that certain things are (or need to be) ‘objectively justified’ seems to be a large part of the human intellectual make-up, from very early times on. The temptation to do metaphysics runs a deep and wide course through human history and its many contemplative activities. 

Personally, I am less concerned with being justified in that sense. And I don’t think morality suffers from being invented and inherently contingent. Morality that is invented is real in the only sense of ‘real’ that matters. It is real to humans for real human purposes. 

GNS spoke of mathematical reality as though that too were not a human invention. Wittgenstein has plenty to say on that in his Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics. As in much of his other work, he was attempting to show us that the foundations we so often crave are not what we think them to be. For Wittgenstein, mathematics is something humans invented, and that fact does not prevent it from being incredibly useful to us. What more do we need from ‘reality’ than this?

But as much as we live our lives in the hurly burly of squalid things we are seldom entirely satisfied with simply the reality at ground level. We crave a higher view that encompasses things objectively. We desire a ‘view from nowhere’ as Tom Nagel puts it (the title of his 1989 book), or the the ‘view from eternity’ as Wittgenstein might have said. We desire the purity and dispassion of something extra-human. 

So when GNS says, “the consequences of irrealism are tough to accept”, this says more about his own needs than what we ordinarily take for reality. Because on the ground floor, where we live our lives, we muddle along just fine in its (objectivity’s) absence. Which is not to say that objectivity doesn’t have its place in our lives too! Simply that we grossly exaggerate how many places we should expect to find it. 

Somehow we expect that in the proliferation of different things people do and different values they bring to the table, there is an outside view that measures them properly. We imagine that all conflicts will ultimately be resolved in an objective calculus. But our conflicts are as real as anything else. That is part of any human life and many human interactions. 

We don’t often see the boundaries of our activities, where things fit, and where they don’t. We so often do a poor job of respecting differences. As if our differences were a muddle or a misunderstanding rather than merely starting from incompatible points of view. As if our differences were a fiction to be overcome by a more ‘objective reality’! But between any two disagreeing human values there is not necessarily some objective take that adjudicates between them. Not without mistreating them, as Haidt also suggests.

Our disagreements are not necessarily resolved by abstracting ourselves out of the equation. We more often find satisfaction negotiating between points of view than in finding some independent or objective source of justification. Who gets the dog in the divorce? To accommodate life we need to keep living. The appeal to objectivity is more often a soulless and bloodless simplification of the messiness inherent to human lives. But we seem to crave it none the less! It is simply not (in all cases) the answer we think it is…….

Because it seems to work so well in some arenas of human endeavor, we generalize it outward into a universal compulsion. Among the many things we crave, we crave generality and universality, along with justification and objectivity. With our heads in the clouds things can seem a lot simpler than they do on the ground! But if we don’t actually pay attention to where we are going our feet may trip on the very things we are ignoring……

That so many of our problems are intractable is not an automatic signal to make the move to objectivity. Intractability is not some deficiency, necessarily. Some problems are not there to be ‘solved’. Assuming a solution is an assumption about reality in the very instance that has not yet been proved! The problems exist, because they exist for us, but the objective solution? 

We get ourselves stuck by imagining only answers of a certain sort. Our cravings lead us inexorably into that fly bottle. (“What is your aim in philosophy? To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.” Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations §309) Which is why Wittgenstein cautioned us to dissolve our problems rather than continue fighting them in the same manner we are used to…… We obsessively bang our heads on the glass walls of our entrapment. (§133 “For the clarity that we are aiming at is indeed complete clarity. But this simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear.”)

Sometimes we need better questions than answers.

§109. It was correct that our considerations must not be scientific ones. The feeling ‘that it is possible, contrary to our preconceived ideas, to think this or that’— whatever that may mean— could be of no interest to us. (The pneumatic conception of thinking.) And we may not advance any kind of theory. There must not be anything hypothetical in our considerations. All explanation must disappear, and description alone must take its place. And this description gets its light— that is to say, its purpose— from the philosophical problems. These are, of course, not empirical problems; but they are solved through an insight into the workings of our language, and that in such a way that these workings are recognized— despite an urge to misunderstand them. The problems are solved, not by coming up with new discoveries, but by assembling what we have long been familiar with. Philosophy is a struggle against the bewitchment of our understanding by the resources of our language.

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