I have been frustrated for some time with some aspects of Moral Foundation Theory, as most recently explicated in Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. When I first found it, it was a revelation. Finally, a way to describe in a meaningful way the conflicts I kept inducing by my mere presence: they were moral conflicts, though people did not use that word. Though not always engaged explicitly, moral viewpoints are profoundly essential to our view of ourselves and our place within our groups and society, including how others should behave and dress. Pivotal information I desperately needed as a walking social science experiment. It did not take much time working with Moral Foundation Theory to realize that it had some holes and was not useful to explain some particular experiences I repeatedly had among those of the liberal moral viewpoint. I began this blog as a way of trying to start a wider conversation about the limitations I had been discovering.
Haidt’s theory assumes an innate difference in the way liberals and conservatives as individuals and groups formulate their morality and how that morality functions within the individual and in the world. The theory asserts that conservatives are more groupish: invoking authority, loyalty and sanctity foundations that liberals pretty much don’t invoke; meanwhile liberals are more individualistic, ignoring those awful groupish foundations and concentrating on their moral issues: care, liberty and fairness. Conservatives are seen as invoking these foundations as well, but by balancing them against the other three, it is less obvious how they do so to liberals. Or that is what Haidt et al propose. They argue for innateness, but an innateness of difference.
I see an innateness, but not an innate difference, rather an innate sameness. The foundations (as described by Moral Foundation Theory) are, I believe, all invoked by all, just some have explicit language for it (conservatives) and some use euphemism to disguise their use of those foundations because their explicit use is denigrated. Those holding a liberal moral viewpoint are, from my viewpoint, entirely as capable as conservatives of having moral concerns around loyalty, authority and sanctity. They just look different, are described differently, are invoked differently.
I had recently become quite discouraged that no one else seemed to have any of my concerns. In fact, most people seemed to love the theory and find it completely useful as is. Then, after some delay, I was able to get ahold of a copy of Christopher Suhler and Patricia Churchland’s critique, but rather than be heartened (as their concerns addressed some of mine and more), I found myself more dispirited when I read Haidt and Craig’s response. If Haidt et al aren’t going to listen to Suhler and Churchland, and their response was quite dismissive of the concerns raised, then what hope is there that the theory will be fixed?
As my sense of dis-ease with the theory grew, I began to see a growing tendency of those with the liberal moral viewpoint to use social science research to “scientifically” condemn those of the conservative moral viewpoint, as illustrated in Chris Mooney’s The Bad Republican Brain. This led me to Chris Mooney and Dan Kahan’s online debates about whether or not there is “asymmetry” (at last one word to describe my problem with the theory!) between conservatives and liberals over the use of motivated reasoning. Mooney argues yes, Kahan no. This led me to Kahan et al’s Cultural Cognition Theory of Risk. What a revelation! I had been working for weeks on my own group-grid taxonomy (though I did not call it that and had not yet found Mary Douglas’ work that mine, apparently, was mimicking).
Working with my ideas on liberals as societal bully-detectors and conservatives as societal cheater-detectors, this was my first group grid:
Then I discovered Dan Kahan et al’s version of a grid, and then Mary Douglas’ original work. What a relief! An explication of difference that was not asymmetrical. I am convinced that the asymmetry Haidt et al are endlessly capturing with their data is not essentials but superficials: it is what people self-report and self-describe. It is not a road-map to deeper reality. It is a road-map to the rider, not the elephant. At last, I felt I had found a theory that might be describing something that wouldn’t lend itself to helping anyone feel fundamentally superior to anyone else. (I am convinced one of the reasons Moral Foundation Theory proves so popular is that it allows everyone to feel superior in their morality: conservatives get to feel more moral and liberals more caring. It makes no one arrive at the conclusion that the other group is anything but wrong. And in the case of liberals, it is casting a wide shadow of there being a potential genetic superiority to their viewpoint. Not good. And pretty much the opposite, I think, of what Haidt’s goals are.)
But, of course, I can’t just accept a theory as presented. As I have been absorbing Mary Douglas’ Cultural Theory, particularly as it has evolved into Dan Kahan et al’s Cultural Cognition Theory of Risk, I have found a great deal to admire. And their ability to formulate their theories and then back it up with data is something I cannot hope to emulate. Nonetheless, my experiences in US cultural life have me arguing somewhat with their conclusions, as I understand them, and to dislike the labels Kahan et al have chosen for the vertical axis of their group-grid mapping. One of Kahan’s slides outlining Cultural Cognition of Risk Group-Grid mapping:
I believe groups organize themselves relatively organically around a shared sense of the correct placement of Moral Authority. I have adopted the term “Mechanists” in place of “Hierarchs” as more useful. The Hierarchs aren’t promoting hierarchy per se, they strongly believe in the mechanism, the supra-human agency, that creates the hierarchy, whether that is God/the Bible or the Constitution or Market Forces. When being applied correctly (which they never are BTW), these concrete manifestations of the Given Order are considered to create a more perfect social order than human understanding and effort can equal. I believe science, as an institution, finds the hierarchy and inequality of outcomes acceptable because the mechanism of science is superior to anything we might try to equal it with, and so any false paths and (ultimately) empty theories are acceptable in the short-term because in the long-term, the scientific mechanism will produce the best and most accurate truth. Scientists, whatever their personal worldviews, are working within a Mechanistic system. Similarly, I discard the term “Egalitarians” as unhelpful, and prefer “Activists,” as their sense that human beings are the sole source of insight and action to overcome any challenges causes them to consider action a moral imperative. Moral Authority, for the Activists, is placed within the individual.
I have also found it helpful to do what I call “overloading” where I try to take the viewpoint of one group and then explore what (pejorative) labels they apply to other groups. Certain sorts of these labels can be quite telling. For one thing, they wouldn’t stick if they didn’t somewhat fit reality, if they weren’t somehow fundamentally satisfying to the group doing the labeling, and the individual using the label. It tells us something meaningful, I think, about the group/individual doing the labeling. “Godless heathens” says as much if not more about the labeler as the labeled. Most importantly, it is frequently a good way to give myself the giggles, and the giggles test is the most valid and reliable way to tell if one is arriving at a fundamental truth. This is my “overloaded” view of group-grid mapping in the US:
It was the “Snobs” labeling that I thought particularly telling. I think it is a form of accuracy, and it is part of what makes the “Egalitarian” label used by Kahan et al more than a little problematic. If Egalitarian can include thinking one is more equal than another, it might be useful. But that is not what most people think of when they use that term.
This is my current group-grid mapping.
Undoubtedly I have a long way to go in learning more about this new windmill I am tilting at: Cultural Cognition Theory of Risk. But it is a worthy opponent, I think, and an intriguing one, being fleshed out by intelligent and insightful people.