Am I in a Moral Matrix? (Or “A Response to Jonathan Haidt’s Work in Moral Psychology”

Posted on Posted in moral psychology, Politics

The above video is a nice introduction the work of moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt.

I been aware of his work for a little while now but have never had the chance to study it seriously. The video definitely offers an interesting challenge to those of us who consider ourselves liberals, in some sense.

If you watch the video you learn that according to Haidt’s research there are five basic elements of moral psychology:

1. Harm/care: basic concerns for the suffering of oth- ers, including virtues of caring and compassion.

2. Fairness/reciprocity: concerns about unfair treatment, inequality, and more abstract notions of justice.

3. Ingroup/loyalty: concerns related to obligations of group membership, such as loyalty, self-sacrifice and vigilance against betrayal.

4. Authority/respect: concerns related to social order and the obligations of hierarchical relationships, such as obedience, respect, and proper role fulfillment.

5. Purity/sanctity: concerns about physical and spiritual contagion, including virtues of chastity, wholesomeness and control of desires.

He is obviously trying to push a message aimed at liberals to be more tolerant and work to better understand conservatives and to see that they have something important to offer to society. That being the case I really tried to hear his presentation as open-mindly and charitably as possible.

That being said, I wasn’t convinced, although this is just some initial thoughts to later be possibly revised when I get around to reading more of his work.

Here are some of my complaints:

Pointing out that there are 5 traditional foundations of morality does nothing to answer questions regarding which if any of them should have a privileged status in moral philosophy or our moral thinking.

Referring to 3, 4, and 5 he says, “aren’t those foundations xenophobia, authoritarianism, and puritanism.” To me the answer is “Yes they are.” They are usually the very things we need to overcome to be moral in many cases.

He says it took all of our moral psychology to have enable humans to form into groups and societies. Io  think that is probably true but it is not clear that we don’t need to now let go of some of them to further evolve as a society. Primitive societies were not necessarily known for their morality, in most cases it is just the opposite.

He said we should step back and not be “for” or “against” anything. To me what he is urging us to do at the end is transcend ingroup loyalty, which I think is a good thing. He seems to be invoking a liberal value at the end. What he seems to be saying is “Liberals, don’t make the same mistake conservatives make by getting sucked into ungroup/outgroup thinking.” That is a perfectly fine message but a far cry from what he seems to be arguing for.

I have serious doubts about the openness to experience and liberal/conservative correlation. Without looking at the research it seems likely that this is merely a correlation. If you are conservative you are not going to be open to experience because almost anything you experience is going to challenge your ideology. Right? I’m guessing there is a much stronger causal relationship between education and liberal/conservatism.

am I liberal

On a similar note here is one of the slides from the presentation:


Taking a few steps back. Philosophy is about the use of reason. Using reason to examine and critique beliefs. Moral philosophy is about using reason to examine and critique our moral beliefs. It seems to me that moral philosophy and morality is extricably bound up with the use of reason in determining universal moral principles. And that the very exercise of reason in conflict with basic conservative principles of ingroup loyalty and respect for tradition and authority. So much the worse for these principles, at least that’s the way it looks to me. But maybe I’m just stuck in the moral matrix.


If you’ve enjoyed the content or learned something, click here to donate one dollar to help support the content here at Socratic Diablogs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *