Democracy: Of Freedom and Fairness - Jonathan Haidt
Someday I'm actually going to finish reading Haidt's book but in the meantime I found this article fascinating. I think it fits well as I try to listen to the narratives and values underlying confrontation over controversial issues.
... I conducted interviews to find out how people feel about harmless taboo violations—for example, a family that eats its pet dog after the dog was killed by a car, or a woman who cuts up her nation’s flag to make rags to clean her toilet. In all cases the actions are performed in private and nobody is harmed; yet the actions feel wrong to many people—they found them disgusting or disrespectful. In my interviews, only one group of research subjects—college students in the United States—fully embraced the principle of harmlessness and said that people have a right to do whatever they want as long as they don’t hurt anyone else. People in Brazil and India, in contrast, had a broader moral domain—they were willing to condemn even actions that they admitted were harmless. Disgust and disrespect were sufficient grounds for moral condemnation.
I had predicted those cross-national differences. What I hadn’t predicted was that differences across social classes within each nation would be larger than differences across nations. In other words, college students at the University of Pennsylvania were more similar to college students in Recife, Brazil, than they were to the working-class adults I interviewed in West Philadelphia, a few blocks from campus. There’s something about the process of becoming comparatively well-off and educated that seems to shrink the moral domain down to its bare minimum—I won’t hurt you, you don’t hurt me, and beyond that, to each her own. ...
... Drawing on the work of many anthropologists (particularly Richard Shweder at the University of Chicago) and many evolutionary biologists and psychologists, my colleagues and I came to the conclusion that there are six best candidates for being the taste buds of the moral mind: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Liberty/Oppression, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation.
Moral foundations theory helped to explain the differing responses to those harmless taboo violations (the dog-eating and flag-shredding). Those stories always violated the Loyalty, Authority, or Sanctity foundations in ways that were harmless. My educated American subjects (who, in retrospect, I realize were mostly liberal) generally rejected those three foundations and had a moral “cuisine” built entirely on the first three foundations; so if an action doesn’t harm anyone (Care/Harm), cheat anyone (Fairness/Cheating), or violate anyone’s freedom (Liberty/Oppression), then you can’t condemn someone for doing it. But in more traditional societies, the moral domain is broader. Moral “cuisines” are typically based on all six foundations (though often with much less reliance on Liberty), and it is perfectly sensible to condemn people for homosexual behavior among consenting adults, or other behaviors that challenge traditions or question authority.
Everyone values the first three foundations, although liberals value the Care foundation more strongly. For example, they show the strongest agreement with assertions such as “Compassion for those who are suffering is the most crucial virtue.” But this difference on Care is small compared to the enormous difference on items such as these: “People should be loyal to their family members, even when they have done something wrong.” “Respect for authority is something all children need to learn.” “People should not do things that are disgusting, even if no one is harmed.” Those three items come from the scales we use to measure the Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity foundations, respectively. You can see how social conservatives, whose morality rests in large part on those foundations, don’t see eye to eye with liberals. Basically, liberals want to loosen things up, especially in ways that they believe will make more room for women, African Americans, gay people, and other oppressed groups to escape from traditional strictures, express themselves, and succeed. Conservatives want to tighten things up, especially in ways that they perceive will help parents to raise more respectful and self-controlled kids, and will assist the police and other authorities in maintaining order. You can see how those disagreements led to battle after battle on issues related to sexuality, drug use, religion, family life, and patriotism. You can see why liberals sometimes say that conservatives are racist, sexist, and otherwise intolerant. You can see why social conservatives sometimes say that liberals are libertine anarchists. ...