When This Is, That Is

Exploring the world of conditionality

Virtuous Action As the Foundation of Morality

In earlier posts, beginning here, I talked about the five pillars of morality as defined by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt is a psychologist working in the field of moral psychology. He conducts studies to determine the differences between liberals and conservatives, both politically and spiritually.

He does what psychologists do: studies what drives peoples’ behavior. Psychologists want to know why people do the things they do. Of course, Haidt may be completely wrong about his five foundations of morality—after all, they are just ideas. Yet looking at people I’ve known over the years, many of them seem to fit well within Haidt’s categories. I don’t mean to argue that he’s right. Nor do I mean to dispute his theories.

People do things for many different reasons. On the surface, they may say things like “It’s the right thing to do,” or “It’s what God wants me to do,” or what have you. But I’ll assert that deep down, most of us really don’t know why we do what we do.

On thing I’m sure of, most people, most average people, whether liberal or conservative, religious or not, will state they are moral. And they will say so without giving any particular thought why they believe themselves to be moral individuals.

I stated in the first post of this series that morality concerns itself with distinguishing among human behaviors that are right and wrong and good and bad. Virtue is excellent moral conduct or behavior that exhibits high moral standards. What matters is what one does.

Being liberal or conservative doesn’t matter. Being gay or straight doesn’t matter. Being American or Iranian doesn’t matter. Being Christian or Jewish or Mormon or atheist or Muslim or Hindu doesn’t matter. But one’s actions, now they matter.

Oh, yeah, I know. The argument about faith versus works is an old one. There are those who believe that all one needs is faith—meaning faith in Jesus, of course; nothing else will do—to be “saved.” A person who believes this may also believe that negative and harmful actions are irrelevant. They may also insist that, no matter how good a person is and how many good works he performs, unless he has faith in the proper form, he is doomed to hell for eternity. OK, fine. But I say again: Actions matter.

I do agree that what one believes is the basis for one’s actions. No doubt about it. If one believes that actions do matter, then one is more likely to be heedful of what one does. If one believes that faith is all that matters but does not take care with actions, then less consideration may be given to possible harm to others.

Actions can fit into two broad categories: those that are beneficial and those that are harmful. Actions can have short-term benefit but may be harmful in the longterm. Or actions may appear harmful in the short term, but have lasting benefit later on. Sometimes it’s hard to know. But it stands to reason that longterm benefits are more desirable than immediate gratification.

Another important aspect here is: harmful or beneficial to whom? Actions that benefit the individual may be harmful to others. So the best actions, meaning actions that are the most skillful, are those that lead to the long-lasting benefit of oneself and others. This is virtuous behavior based on high moral standards.

Revisiting Haidt for a moment, we can see he’s on to something with his harm/care foundation. I would say that the other four are relative to, and dependent upon, harm/care because they form the basis for how we treat others.

I like the idea of being skillful with one’s actions. There are skillful doctors, mechanics, baseball players. We can be skillful at being people, too. Virtue—good moral conduct—is a skill that can be sharpened with practice.

Next: Determining what is skillful and what isn’t.

Getting to the Source of Conflict between Liberals and Conservatives

The proposition—presented in my earlier post—is that people with a liberal mindset base much of what they think and do mostly on only two of five moral imperatives as defined by researchers at the University of Virginia.

For a liberal, matters of fairness and the well-being of others have high moral value, much higher that matters of group loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity (e.g., cleanliness is next to godliness).

For a conservative, these three things (loyalty, respect, and sanctity), together with the other two (fairness and protection from harm), also have high moral value and form a solid foundation of morality.

A careful look at the five moral foundations reveals that the first two are directed toward others—even to those outside the group. Loyalty to the group, authority, and purity are directed inwardly, toward the group itself. They keep the group strong. Although in many respects values derived from these areas are positive and good (who would argue that loyalty, respect, and cleanliness are inherently bad?) they may effectively build a wall around the group, separating the group from others. Under this condition, the in-group is pure and righteous, and the out-group can easily be viewed as evil and the enemy. There is no reason to care for the harm an enemy may endure, nor can there be any but one kind of justice for the enemy. To care for and insist on fairness for an enemy would be unpatriotic. Morality, instead of being a universal good, becomes relative only to the group. We are moral. They are not. Therefore…

To a liberal person, the three “conservative” values are often taken to extremes that harm the greater society: walling off and oppressing outsiders, autocratically dictating the way things should be, enforcing racial and sexual purity.

Because liberals may instinctively reach out to the oppressed, conservatives may see liberals as disloyal and unpatriotic, disrespectful of authority, and supportive of “abominations” like homosexuality and desegregation.

Liberals fume when people who talk about how moral they are (e.g., “moral majority,” “party of family values”) will support a war started under false pretenses, overlook the lies told to get us there, condone the torture of prisoners and the exposure of a CIA operative, shrug off the outright stealing of an election, and overlook a long list of sexual and marital transgressions by conservative politicians and clergy alike.

For a conservative, events like these are easy to condone or overlook because they take place within the group. (The same can be said about a liberal’s acceptance of Bill Clinton’s transgressions.) But to a liberal, the harm created by such unfairness is nearly unbearable.

Remember, though, that fairness and justice are also part of the conservative make-up. And this gets closer to the core of the problem, because each group has its own idea of what “fair” means and as a result will act accordingly.

Once again, I turn to researcher Jonathan Haidt, who in “What the Tea Partiers Really Want,” published in the Wall Street Journal in October 2010, points to the Roosevelt era and the establishment of “social programs” to help the disadvantaged as the root of the current political divide. On the one hand are the conservatives who believe that hard work yields reward, and hard work is all that’s necessary for society to thrive. Fairness means, “I get what I work hard for, and if you don’t get ahead it’s only because you’re lazy. Each of us gets what we deserve.”

On the other hand are liberals who see fairness as equality. Liberals use phrases like “level playing field” and “safety net” to express concepts that are supportive of the disadvantaged. Safety nets and level fields come in the form of social programs that cost money, “my money!”

It is unconscionable, to a conservative, that someone else would 1) get rewarded for doing nothing, and 2) that he, the conservative, would have to pay for it.

My father is a conservative, and we sometimes get into discussions around these topics. They go nowhere, of course, because each of us is a product of our own moral intuitions. But one day, while over at his house, I got a jolt of understanding about just how strong the current political impasse is. Sitting on a table was a copy of Michael Savage’s Liberalism is a Mental Disorder. Instead of asking what it was about, when I got home I did a Google search for “liberalism is a disease.” Try it yourself to see how pervasive this idea is (if you’re a conservative, you already know).

But it explains a lot: If liberalism is a disease which must be eradicated then there is no way forward if it involves compromise. Imagine, after being diagnosed with cancer, your doctor suggests compromise instead of surgery.

It also explains why, during the Republican debates, there is little substance other than who’s the best candidate to get Obama out of the White House. Because not only is Barack Obama the consummate liberal who represents all that is bad with this country, he’s the consummate outsider. Only when he’s gone will we “get our America back.”

Next, I will explore a different perspective on morality, one that has to do with action rather than political persuasion. It will focus on a much different concept of “hard work.”

Meanwhile, why not explore your own morals and even contribute to the research?

Why Liberals and Conservatives Have Different Moral Concerns

Two pillars of morality

In my last post I presented five innate foundations, or “intuitions,” on which people build their own sense of morality. They are:

• Harm/care
• Fairness/reciprocity
• Ingroup/loyalty
• Authority/respect
• Purity/sanctity

The list was assembled and defined by Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham of the University of Virginia. In their paper “When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions that Liberals may not Recognize” (Social Justice Research, 2007), Haidt and Graham explain how and why social and political conservatives differ from liberals.

Through their research, the pair discovered that these five factors are at work in all cultures and throughout history. But that does not mean that individually people have these traits in equal doses and form moral values in the same way.

The two foundations of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity (concern for the wellbeing of and justice for others) are prevalent factors in almost everyone’s moral development. In other words, in most people these traits are strong.

But as it turns out, however, social and political liberals develop a morality based almost exclusively on these two.

To liberal-minded people, justice and care for others are all they need to make moral judgements and take virtuous action. Whereas the other three may be important aspects of living within a community, to a liberal they have little or nothing to do with morality. For liberals, fairness/justice forms one half of their moral values and concern for those in the face of harm the other half.

Conservatives, however, develop all five in more-or-less equal doses. What’s striking, however, is that the three intuitions of ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity have everything to do with morality, even at the expense of care and fairness. Things like patriotism, obedience to authority, and disgust for the disease-ridden often will trump concerns for justice and care for “others” outside of the group.

Next: Getting to the Source of Conflict between Liberals and Conservatives

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