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
One of the main ideas behind the moral foundation theory is that greater understanding of the differences between liberals and conservatives will lead to less demonization of the other side. This is a goal that is shared by liberals and conservatives alike. However, most of the people who work on this theory are liberal and most of our friends are liberal, so when we see this theory in action, we are possibly getting only one side of the picture.
For example, one of the ideas is to help liberals realize that conservatives do care about the harm and fairness foundation and so we should stop thinking of them as 'heartless'. Conservatives simply care about other things as well. Anecdotally, this seems like it works as I have a few liberal friends who have softened their attitudes toward conservatives through greater understanding.
Does the opposite work? Are conservatives less likely to demonize liberals upon hearing that liberals have fewer moral foundations they care about? I blogged about this anecdotally here, but there is a more objective way to test this, specifically to see if there is a difference between liberals and conservatives in terms of endorsing moral relativism (or it's opposite, moral absolutism). The idea is that some people feel that there is one system of morals that one should go by, while others are more willing to accept the idea that some people live by one moral system and others live by another. We have a survey on yourmorals.org which deals with this issue and below are the results (green=me).
So liberals do score higher on moral relativism than conservatives. BTW, moral idealism is the idea that it is sometimes necessary to make moral tradeoffs (ie. kill 1 person to save 10).
For further confirmation, let's take a look at conservatives and see how 'very conservative' individuals rate on moral relativism vs. 'slightly conservative' individuals.
It looks like there is a pretty clear trend that the more conservative you are, the less of a moral relativist you are. Indeed, in my opinion, this is one reason why people like Ann Coulter see liberals as 'immoral'. If you believe that loyalty is an objective absolute moral, then people who don't believe in loyalty are immoral.
So where does this leave those of us who research moral foundations? Perhaps we need to collect data on actual reactions to our theories so as to see if understanding really does bring people together. And perhaps we need to further refine our take home messages if we really do want to achieve the goal of reduced demonization of the 'other' in American politics.