I bought Sarah Palin's new book, Going Rogue. As someone interested in moral confabulation, Sarah Palin is an a great case study. She has a very visceral intuitive sense of her own moral opinions (e.g. her opinion on Israeli settlements)...yet she often seems to have no preconceived notion of the source of those opinions. So when the press asks her for the reason for her opinions, she is bound to confabulate a reason more than most. A supporter of her might say that we all use intuitions to reason morally and so her gut level analysis is refreshingly honest. A detractor might say that this is evidence that she doesn't have well reasoned opinions and that our gut is not always correct.
Robert Wright wrote a recent book about zero sum situations, of which politics definitely is one. One side wins and the other loses in every election. In these situations, our gut is going to lead us to demonize the other side, which often is a strategically bad thing to do. To combat this, he (and others like John Lederach) advocates actively exercising our moral imaginations. The idea is that we need to consider other viewpoints to combat our gut reactions to demonize the other side. That takes effort and willpower as our minds are wired to discount the opposing view on any issue. But sometimes understanding the other side is the only way to compromise and peace.
So I am going to try to read Palin's book with an open mind and expand my liberal moral imagination. Maybe there are things we can agree upon or at least maybe I'll learn something about conservative views that I can use. For example, 10 pages into it, I can certainly agree about the need to keep special interests (big oil) out of politics and it seems that will be a recurrent theme in the book. My partisan bias is to point out the special interests she caters to, but perhaps the more adaptive strategy is to take her words at face value. If I really expect conservatives to expand their moral imaginations to consider the perspective of the Muslim world, it would seem hypocritical to be equally unwilling to expand my own moral imagination.
For more on expanding the moral imagination, you can watch the below video, specifically around the 14 minute mark where Robert Wright talks about moral imagination.
Sarah Palin, in contrast to the Obama administration, believes that Jewish settlements in disputed territory should be allowed to expand. She is very clear about this belief in her recent interview with Barbara Walters. But does she understand the reason for these beliefs? Consider the below statement...
"I believe that the Jewish settlements should be allowed to be expanded upon, because that population of Israel is, is going to grow. More and more Jewish people will be flocking to Israel in the days and weeks and months ahead."
In contrast, here is the view of the Prime Minister of Israel from this article:
"We do not intend to build any new settlements, but it wouldn't be fair to ban construction to meet the needs of natural growth or for there to be an outright construction ban," Netanyahu said.
"Natural growth" is the term Israel uses for expansion to accommodate population growth inside the boundaries of existing settlements.
Perhaps a minor point, as Palin has part of the story about population growth right, but her opinion about a mass immigration into Israel causing a need for settlement is at odds with the official government position, which stresses that the population which needs to be accommodated is growth from within. It's possible that there is some immigration pressure, but it isn't an opinion that is generally put forth by supporters of settlers and if population growth were the real "because" in her stated opinion, then one might think she would be equally concerned about the population growth of the Arab population, which is growing at a far faster rate, and where those people will live.
The moral intuitionist perspective would hypothesize that she has a really strong intuitive support for Israeli settlers and that when pressed, she may have to confabulate logical reasons for this support. If you want to see moral confabulation in action, fast forward to 4:20 in the below video.
For the sake of balance, Palin's detractors are certainly capable of motivated reasoning (see this article by Andrew Sullivan) and moral judgment and I have to admit that I doubt my own immunity to such processes. So maybe there really is lots of flocking going on and I'm just unaware of the validity of that argument. Or maybe not...;)
A few years ago, I was fortunate to catch a talk by Jon Haidt at the Gallup Positive Psychology Summit where he gave a wonderful talk about moral foundation theory, which seeks to determine the fundamental systems of morality. I sought to use his scale in my work and using that scale eventually grew into our current collaboration (along with Jesse Graham, Pete Ditto, and Sena Koleva) of yourmorals.org, where the main instrument used in moral foundation theory, the moral foundations questionnaire, is available.
The moral foundations questionnaire measures 5 foundations. The below descriptions are taken from the moral foundations theory webpage.
1) Harm/care, related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. This foundation underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
2) Fairness/reciprocity, related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. This foundation generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.
3) Ingroup/loyalty, related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. This foundation 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/respect, shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. This foundaiton underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
5) Purity/sanctity, shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. This foundation 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).
According to Jon Haidt, "Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible."
Perhaps one of the most compelling parts of the theory is that it invites people to try and posit a 6th foundation. There was even a prize offered by Jon to those who succeeded and a number of possible candidates are listed here.
How can we determine what is or is not a foundation? Some of the criteria are listed on the above webpage. Borrowing from a recent lecture I attended on approaches to develop foundations of 'personality', I would list the below criteria as important.
- Factor analysis/Conceptual Distinction - Factor analysis is the most common way that people empirically determine distinct constructs. The idea is that if two constructs are distinct, questions about these constructs should inter-correlate to form a separate factor from questions about a separate construct. So if questions about Harm load on a separate factor versus questions about Fairness, we can conclude they are separate constructs. I would argue that this is a necessary, but not sufficient test of any new foundation. It is possible to ask questions with enough specificity that anything can be a separate factor. Five questions about harm using a knife will likely load on a separate factor versus five questions about harm by drowning, yet does that mean they are separate foundations. Furthermore, work on moral confabulation and moral intuition leads many researchers to believe that individuals are fundamentally naive about what drives their moral reasoning. As such, direct questions may not be able to illuminate all possible moral systems.
- Cluster analysis - One of the most important applications of moral foundations theory is that it successfully describes the differences between liberals and conservatives in a fairly robust manner. Some personality scale developers take the notion that if a question successfully differentiates classes of people, it's a good question. This is true for the moral foundation questionnaire to a point, but more work could certainly be done. 5 foundations should conceivably posit 5 classes of people (individuals who value each foundation over the other four) and the co-occurrence of many of these foundations is evidence that some current foundations may share a moral system or that these clusters have yet to be identified.
- Evolutionary explanation - One of the most important aspects of moral foundation theory is that it contains a plausible evolutionary explanation of all systems. Evolutionary evidence should include both cross-cultural universality and a coherent evolutionary explanation. The current foundations are well described in terms of their evolutionary roots, having grown out of anthropological field work, and future foundation candidates should be equally well described in terms of evolutionary theory and equally universal cross-culturally.
- Beyond Self Interest - I often think that people who are in front of me in traffic are jerks. Why don't they just get out of the way? If you catch me on a particularly bad day, I may even consider them to be immoral people. But is 'getting out of my way' a moral system? Human beings are notoriously clever at moralizing their self-interest and any candidate foundation needs to go beyond self interest. The relevant question would be whether I would judge the other people to be at fault from the perspective of a neutral third party. Given that I don't routinely chastise drivers for being in the way of other drivers, I would say that my beliefs in this example are not the result of a moral system, but rather my personal self-interest.
- Beyond Harm - There are lots of different ways to harm another person. Some would argue that Harm is too broad a moral category, but as long as Harm is included as a moral foundation, any subsequent candidate foundation will necessarily be forced to answer the question "Is this reducible to harm?". The question which would need to empirically be asked is whether individuals would judge an act to be wrong even if nobody were harmed. This may seem like an easy test, but consider the case of liberty, which is an often brought up criticism of moral foundation theory as something that has been left out. Most people would think that it is wrong for someone to deprive somebody else of their freedom. It's conceptually distinct from physical harm, potentially describes a class of people (libertarians), has an evolutionary explanation (the need for groups to encourage explorers?), and is not just self-interest as I care about other people's liberty, not just my own. However, would I care about somebody else's liberty if they didn't want to be free? It's a difficult question as I think the intuitive reaction is to assume that the person doesn't know any better and really would be better off being free. But what if I was absolutely convinced that they enjoyed captivity...or what if I thought that they actually benefited from captivity. Should they be free? It's a more complex question than one initially might think and shows some of the complexity of developing foundations. Ideally, we should be able to find cases where any foundation is generally used, even in cases where the use of that foundation causes harm.
With that in mind, I would offer these potential modifications of our initial foundations.
- Fairness is a notoriously ambiguous word and can mean many things to many people. Current questions focus too much on fairness as equality, which is possibly motivated concern for the harm experienced by those who experience less equal outcomes. In order to separate it further from harm, I would focus this foundation more on the principle of equity, where people get what they deserve. Equity is motivationally tied to the desire for productivity and so this foundation would then possibly encompass ideas of property rights, sloth and waste, which have been missing from the current taxonomy.
- Concerns about liberty, equality and rights would be moved to the Harm foundation. All of these constructs are things which could relate to the harm caused to another individual, whether it is the psychological harm due to being controlled, the emotional harm due to receiving an unequal share, or the harm to self-esteem when one does not feel like one has any rights.
- Ingroup and authority foundations have tended to predict similar things and co-occur in individuals such that one might doubt the independence of these two factors. As they are currently measured, respecting authority and being loyal could both be considered subsets of a system that might be labelled "being a good group member". Some items which measure authority concern the desire for things to stay the same and a resistance to change, which has been shown to be indicative of conservative thought. Changing authority to this conception and labeling it 'conservation' while allowing ingroup loyalty to encompass other aspects of being a good group member might improve the discriminant validity of the authority and ingroup foundations.
- Many of the other candidate foundations that have been proposed deal with truth, wisdom, honesty, and authenticity. Telling the truth is a moral principle which might survive all of the above tests as it is conceptually distinct, describes a class of people (see The Dignity of Working Men), has an evolutionary explanation (trustworthiness), and is observed when it is contradictory to self-interest and causes harm to others. In conceptualizing this foundation, I might consider including things like simplicity, directness, and being a stand-up guy. This might explain why conservatives have a disdain for liberal academics who are too complex to be trusted and lack practical intelligence that is indicative of being a 'stand-up' guy.
These are merely hypotheses and opinions, so take them for what it's worth. It is also important to note that the fact that it is possible to refine a theory doesn't reduce the importance or contribution of the theory. In fact, the fact that I (and many others) posted about refining it means that this theory has had a significant impact on public discourse and is worthy of refining.