The answer is that it depends on whom you ask. Below is a graph based on yourmorals data where participants were randomly assigned to answer whether they agreed that "XXX is immoral" about one of seven health behaviors.
As you can see, conservatives feel that ingesting all types of substances (cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine) are more moral issues, compared to liberals. Liberals appear to moralize driving while using a cellphone and eating unhealthy food a bit more than conservatives.
Interestingly, liberal visitors felt that distracted driving is about as immoral as using cocaine and much more immoral than smoking marijuana. Conservatives, on the other hand, felt that the use of illicit drugs (cocaine and marijuana) was more immoral than driving while using a cellphone. This is perhaps another way to show the robust moral foundations theory finding that liberals care more about issues of harm (e.g. distracted drivers might kill someone), while conservatives care more about issues of purity (e.g. taking drugs is unnatural) and authority (e.g. especially illegal drugs).
- Ravi Iyer
edit: I had a few request for the sample size. 1,538 liberals and 337 conservatives took this study for this analysis.
I have recently been following a discussion in my discipline about the peer review process, which led me to this very interesting paper about the history of and alternatives to the peer review process in psychology.
At the same time, I've been working with colleagues on a paper about experiential vs. material purchasing styles, for which we have found convergent correlations all suggesting that experiential purchasers are dispositionally motivated towards seeking new, stimulating experiences to promote positive emotion, while material purchasers often seek to avoid negative emotions. This is supported by the fact that, in the YourMorals.org dataset, experiential purchasers report higher levels of openness to experience, lower levels of neuroticism (both measured by the Big Five Personality Inventory), and lower levels of disgust (as measured by the Disgust Scale). The disgust finding does not necessarily fit with the idea that experiential purchasing is related to seeking new experiences, unless one looks at the literature on disgust. In particular, this study theorized about such a relationship and confirmed it by reporting correlations between disgust and big five personality dimensions.
It occurred to me that I could contribute to the original studies' findings, by examining the same correlations in our dataset, using a more diverse and far larger sample, and perhaps even including some internal cross-validation. The results are summarized in the table below.
The main hypothesis of the original study actually dealt with the two robust relationships found in our dataset, specifically that disgust is negatively related to openness to experience and positively related to neuroticism. In all, these two relationships stand out as robust across groups and in both studies. Interestingly, the correlation between openness to experience and disgust is weaker in the two most 'rational' groups, edge.org and libertarians, which might be worth pursuing later. Given the smaller sample size and restricted diversity of the original study, I'd be inclined to say that conscientiousness and agreeableness are not robust correlates of disgust, though this could be an effect of the fact that yourmorals.org uses a different measures of Big Five personality traits from the original study.
Can I publish this finding? It's only correlational and says nothing about causality. It really doesn't say much that is new, but rather confirms the original study, more or less. Still, the 26 papers which cited the original study would be slightly more improved if they could cite this finding as well, since it's the same basic study with a different (larger and more diverse) sample. This is where the discussion of the peer review system converges with this analysis. According to this paper, "many natural science fields operate on a norm that submissions should be accepted unless they are patently wrong." In contrast, psychology papers are often rejected, not because they are wrong, but because they are not interesting or novel enough.
The paper and the listserve discussion bring up many points related to this, but one relevant one to this finding is that it is hard to build a cumulative science when you don't reward replication, but instead reward novelty. The end result is that you end up with a series of slightly different perspectives on the same subjects, all named differently, where authors are constantly trying to come up with something new rather than building on something existing. This may help academics, but it makes it very difficult for these theories to be used in the real world. Any research on humans is likely flawed in some way. Can anybody do double-blind experiments on representative samples of people with behavioral measures? The public is wisely skeptical of any social science finding as are academics...but the solution might lie in publishing more replications rather than in restricting the publication process toward the mythical goal of the perfect, novel study. No single study proves anything when dealing with research on people. It's the convergence of lots of studies that might potentially be convincing enough to outsiders.
- Ravi Iyer
ps. if anyone wants to write this up and publish it traditionally, feel free to contact me
A fellow graduate student recently shared the below Sam Harris TED video with me and I was quite surprised at the premise of the talk. In it, Sam Harris gives a spirited defense of moral absolutism, the idea that there are objective truths about what we should and should not value. Below is the video.
Harris correctly observes that "the only people who seem to generally agree with me (Harris) and who think that there are right or wrong answers to moral questions are religious demagogues, of one form or another, and of course they think there are right and wrong answers to moral questions because they got these answers from a voice in a whirlwind, not because they made an intelligent analysis of the conditions of human and animal well-being...the demagogues are right about one thing, we need a universal conception of moral values."
His conception of morality is remarkably close to the construct of moral absolutism vs. moral relativism, measured on the YourMorals.org site using agreement to statements like "Different types of moralities cannot be compared as to 'rightness'" with agreement indicating more absolutism and disagreement indicating relativism. Harris also states that "It is possible for whole cultures to care about the wrong things....that reliably lead to human suffering." The graphs I show below show that he is correct that moral absolutism among these groups does lead to human suffering...but it also leads to suffering when moral absolutism is supported by liberals and atheists.
Harris then spends much of the rest of the talk detailing how terrible things occur as a result of cultures that do not share his values. I am generally liberal and likely agree with Harris' values, specifically the idea that morality is mostly about promoting the well-being of people. However, I do not believe that my values should be the values of other people as well. I have two main counters to this idea:
- Even the most liberal person can be made to consider ideas of morality outside of the idea of the greatest well-being possible. For example, liberals believe in equity too, such that some people deserve more well-being than others. Jon Haidt's brother-sister incest dilemma confounds both liberals and conservatives meaning that there is a universal ability to moralize disgust, even if it is less developed in some than others. Harm and well-being are not the only considerations.
- Moral absolutism generally leads to more human suffering, not less, as people fight great wars to enforce their vision of morality on others. Consider the below 2 graphs of yourmorals data relating moral relativism, the opposite of absolutism, and attitudes toward war.
Moral absolutism is not just dangerous for the groups that Harris dislikes, but also for the liberal and atheist groups that he likely subscribes to as the slope of the regression line is negative in all cases, indicating that moral absolutism is positively related to support for war for liberals and conservatives, atheists and christians.
It may be easier to think of groups that cause wars out of excessive group orientation (e.g. Hutus vs. Tutsis) or excessive authoritarianism (e.g. Nazis)...but there are also groups that caused harm out of excessive concern for others' well-being (e.g. The Weather Underground) or out of an excessive desire for social equality (e.g. the communist Khmer Rouge). Moral absolutism, believing that you are more right about morality than others, can be thought of as the first step toward hypermoralism, harming others in support of your moral principles. Human beings are already good at believing that our moral system is superior, with war sometimes as the consequence....instead or narrowing our conceptions of morality, we should be working to expand our moral imaginations.
- Ravi Iyer