About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

What set of moral criteria?

By Massimo Pigliucci

In the course of my research for a new book I am writing (tentatively entitled “The Intelligent Person’s Guide to the Meaning of Life” — an obvious dig at “The Idiot’s Guide” series), I again ran across the work of Jonathan Haidt, at the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia (he is the author of The Happiness Hypothesis, about “finding modern truth in ancient wisdom — a concept, I confess, about which I am somewhat skeptical).
In an article published in Science on 18 May 2007 (volume 316, pp. 998-1002) Haidt goes over his research on the different moral conceptions of people who consider themselves politically conservative or progressive. In particular, he identifies five types of moral concerns, and asks people of various political ideologies how they rank each of the types of concern when it comes to exercising moral judgment.
The five types are: 1) Harm (to others); 2) Fairness; 3) In-group loyalty; 4) Respect for authority; and 5) “Purity,” meaning respect for the sacred or the proper. Two interesting findings emerge from this research. First, both conservatives and progressives recognize and respond to all five criteria of moral judgment. For instance, even a good number of liberals are disturbed by situations like “attending a performance art piece in which the actors act like animals, including crawling around naked and urinating on stage (this one falls under the category of purity / sanctity); or by being told to “slap your father in the face — with his permission — as part of a comedy skit” (respect for authority); or by “saying something slightly bad about your nation while calling into a talk-radio show in a foreign nation” (in-group loyalty).
[If you are wondering, situations of the first two types of moral concerns include scenarios like “stick a pin into the palm of a child” (harm / care); and “accept a plasma TV that a friend of yours gives you, even though your friend bought it from a thief who had stolen it” (fairness).]
The second, more interesting, outcome of the research is that there is nonetheless a sharp difference between conservatives and progressives: the more one moves from “very liberal” to “very conservative” (going through seven gradations) the more in-group loyalty, respect for authority and concerns with purity become important, while at the same time concerns for harm and fairness become less important.
In other words, though the researchers showed the existence of a continuous spectrum (once again defying the simplistic, media-trumpeted “red vs. blue” narrative), the fact is that conservatives really do have a significantly different concept of morality than progressives. Big surprise, you might say, but please pay attention to the fact that the difference is not (just) about one’s opinion on a range of specific issues — more fundamentally it is about which categories of moral concern are or are not important.
This distinction between people concerned mostly with harm and fairness and people concerned more with in-group loyalty, respect for authority and purity may find an interesting parallel in the difference between two of the three major philosophical conceptions of morality: consequentialism and deontology (the third one is the one I actually find more congenial: virtue ethics). Broadly speaking, an argument can be made that consequentialists (such as utilitarians) put a premium on issues of harm (they wish to reduce it) and fairness (which they wish to maximize), but are not really concerned with the other three. A deontologist — a la Kant, for instance — bases his moral precepts on a set of rules, which is more likely to include some that directly address in-group loyalty, respect for authority and purity (just think of the most famous non-secular deontological system, the Ten Commandments).
Needless to say, I place myself at the very extreme liberal side of Haidt’s axis, and accordingly I am usually little concerned with authority, country and purity, and very much disturbed by what I perceive as harm and unfairness in human affairs. Haidt, however, has argued (elsewhere, not in the Science paper) that conservatives have an “enlarged” view of morality, almost implying (though of this I cannot be sure) that in some sense liberals are morally deficient. Setting aside debates about meta-ethics (we have done that recently at Rationally Speaking, here and here!), can one make an argument for or against a given moral criterion to be considered, well, moral at all?
I think that argument has best been made by thinkers of the Enlightenment and by John Stuart Mill (particularly in his On Liberty). That is, precisely by the sort of intellectuals that have shaped the American Constitution and the modern Western conception of democracy, respectively. I don’t think one needs to mount a sustained defense of the moral importance of fairness and concern for harm, since even very conservative people share them (though to a significantly lesser degree than very liberal ones). The problem, then, rests with the remaining three criteria.
It seems to me that the root of this dichotomy is that the three conservative criteria for moral judgment are either not intrinsically good (unlike concern for harm and fairness), or too often run into logical opposition with the other two criteria. Take respect for authority, for instance. Notice that we are not talking about the sensible idea of provisionally deferring to people who have more experience or knowledge, especially in case of emergencies, if we ourselves lack that experience or knowledge. In the midst of a medical crisis affecting a loved one, your best bet is to stay on the sideline and let the pros do what they can to stabilize the situation. That is not what we are talking about here. The concern instead is with respect of authority for authority’s sake, as in “Honor your father and your mother,” or “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God,” that sort of thing.
But respect, from a rational point of view, is something that makes sense to bestow only provisionally and in proportion to whether it has been earned. If my father beats me regularly, or if my god indulges in genocide (think Noah’s ark), then they ought (moral ought) to lose my respect. (My father disagreed, for the record; I haven’t heard from god.)
The same goes for in-group loyalty. Some Americans are fond of sound bite patriotism, such as “my country, right or wrong,” but in fact my country can (and has, in the case of the United States) engaged in horrific moral deeds, and I would argue that love for my country actually imposes on me a moral duty to criticize it in order to make it better.
As for purity, the problem there of course is that it is pretty much an arbitrary concept. What is sacred to you may not be sacred (or, indeed, may even be despised) to others, which means that the only rational thing to do is to allow people to practice their own rituals while not obliging others to follow them. When I lived in Tennessee I was confronted by an endless number of people who kept saying that my atheism “offended” them (apparently without even considering that their fundamentalism might, just might, offend me), and that they had a Constitutional right not to be offended! Of course they didn’t; if anything, the American Constitution (based as it is on Enlightenment principles, and interpreted through a view of democracy that is impregnated with Mill) guarantees my (and anyone else’s) right to offend (which I try to exercise wisely and sparsely).
So, far from having a “broader” conception of morality, I think the conservative mind is a leftover of a pre-Enlightenment, Medieval period when authority (usually of the government or the church) and religion dominated human affairs. It is the legacy of thinkers like Hume, Voltaire and Mill that morality is concerned with fairness and harm, and for the rest, let people worship whoever or whatever they wish, as long as they don’t intrude on our right not to follow them.


  1. A deontologist — a la Kant, for instance — would be more likely to include in his list of moral rules some that directly address in-group loyalty, respect for authority and purity (just think of the most famous non-secular deontological system, the Ten Commandments).

    Just to be clear, here: fairness is most clearly aligned with deontology, especially in its Kantian/Rawlsian form. I don't think you could be more mistaken about Kant, here. There is no way a deontologist could accept the validity of "in-group loyalty" or "respect for authority" as sources of moral concern.

    Just something you may want to keep in mind when writing the book. If you wish to align conservatism (in Haidt's sense) with deontology, or theology with deontology, that's not going to work.

    I'd also be careful with how you characterize Hume... you make him sound like some sort of moral rationalist who is concerned with moral principles like beneficence and fairness. In fact, for Hume, there are no rational moral "oughts" in that sense. Rather, morality seems to be a kind of social construction based on sentiment and a general human nature.

    Kant and Hume, kind of important. Just sayin'.

  2. I share your position, Massimo, on the liberal end of the value spectrum, but I wonder if the spectrum itself needs to be extended for we humans to enjoy a sustainable future on the earth. Let me explain.

    In my "layered values hypothesis" I propose that our modern culture is the result of layers of cultural norms that have themselves evolved through different stages of societal development. As society has increased in complexity, so the "in-group loyalty" you discuss has permitted identification with increasingly larger groups. For hunter-gatherers, the "in-group loyalty" extended to the band; with the advent of farming and complex civilizations, the circle of loyalty extended to the village, tribe, city or chiefdom. With the rise of monotheism, the group identification could extend worldwide (but only to others professing faith in the same God). Finally, the advent of enlightenment thinking permitted identification with all humanity through revolutionary new concepts such as liberty and human rights.

    I call these "layered values" because each new set of values doesn't replace the older sets, it layers over them. Each of us, as we grow up, chooses which layer to emphasize in our unique moral universe.

    But in today's world, where the human impact on the natural world is reaching unsustainable levels, I think it may be time to extend the circle of identification even further, to incorporate all living things on the earth, both human and non-human. The vanguard of this extension of values can be seen in areas like animal rights and some environmental philosophies. I wonder if you may regard this view as a little too "New Agey" for your taste, but I wanted to put it out there for you to consider.

    PS: My "layered values" hypothesis is described at:

  3. I think a more interesting model is that of psychologist Clare Graves. He has an emergentist psychology that implies changes in morals. The most easily accessed work on Gravesean psychology is Don Beck and Christopher Cowan's "Spiral Dynamics." (Don't let the title turn you off from what is a very interesting theory -- one which desperately needs to be developed more.)

  4. Nick, thanks for the quick lesson in philosophy. It is Haidt who makes the comparison between deontology and conservative values. Still, there is a difference between Rawls and Kant, and although Kant was certainly concerned with fairness, I'm not sure the rest of your comment clearly follows. Besides, the problem with deontology of course is that there are multiple, very diverse, systems of it, which is why I mentioned Kant and the Ten C's in the same sentence.

    As for Hume, I'm not sure why you got the impression you did, I'm aware of his thinking about the roots of morality, though I wouldn't call him a social constructivist. Just sayin'.

  5. The liberal pursuit of "maximum fairness" leads to authoritarian restrictions on expression and association, accompanied by unceasing indoctrination. Expression transgressing liberal "purity” concerns produces a savage reaction, and severe social sanction (just ask James Watson). Nearly all, if not all, countries more “progressive” than the U.S. criminally sanction speech liberals find morally offensive.

    The most entertaining evisceration of Mill’s “On Liberty” is James Fitzjames Stephen’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. As the philosopher David Stove observed: “The contest was very unequal intellectually: Stephen made mincemeat of Mill. But, historically, his book soon vanished without a trace, while Mill’s essay continued its all-conquering career.”

  6. hmm, my wild guess is that you are likely a libertarian...

  7. Well, then we just found something we agree on. A good start.

  8. Excellent article, and luckily came just a little while after I finished reading "The Happiness Hypothesis."

    So first of all, one factual criticism: I don't have the Haidt book here, but I'm 90% sure he says that conservatives are about even with liberals on the fairness & harm axes; maybe a little lower, but not much.

    I actually agree with most of your article, but our species of contrarian never can leave it at that, can we?

    So: although I'm a social liberal, I do think there are some things wrong with liberalism as practiced today.

    The meta-problem with liberalism is that it tends to be naive about human nature (usually in a positive direction).

    Some sundry examples:
    -Punishment of criminals is corrective.
    -Gender is purely cultural.
    -Free-rider problem is not a significant worry.
    -Not much need for threat of force in foreign policy or law enforcement.
    -Incentive structures created by various social safety nets will not generally be abused.

    Hopefully these corrections will one day be taken on board.

  9. There is another way to look at this, although one that is much less respectful towards conservatives, and that is probably why Haidt puts his inferences into the framework he does. It is the view that there is a certain sequence of moral stances that follow each other as we become emotionally and morally mature:

    1. absolute egoism as a baby
    2. following clear rules because of fear of sanctions, but not because of any understanding of why they exist
    3. understanding of what values the rules are supposed to protect, thus pursuing the values directly even if that means that some minor laws or commandments have to be broken
    4. understanding that even those values were only invented to promote human welfare itself, that other people may have other values for the same purpose, and that thus human welfare is the real goal, even if that means a traditional value of your own society will have to be discarded

    I may have left some steps out, but the point should be clear. Now from that perspective, the not so nice argument would be that conservatives have stopped with their moral development at some childish to youthful stage, while liberals have grown up.

    Apart from that, I cannot help but feel that Haidt's framework of interpretation is severely biased from a US perspective, and that a European or Chinese scientist asking the same questions may have ended up with very different categories and terms to describe the situation. It worries me how blindly many people seem to accept his results in the face of the very obviously not global conservative-liberal dichotomy underpinning them.

  10. Wasn't there a similar study that investigated people's beliefs according to harm, fairness, sympathy, respect for reason, and compassion, that found an "enlarged" morality among progressives? Oh wait, no. I just made that up. Bad me.

    Arbitrary (if not biased) categories.

  11. ian, yes, some progressive liberals do have a naive view of human nature (though, frankly, so do some conservatives). But of course my point is about what should count as dimensions of morality, I am not defending specific notions such as, for instance, that gender is purely neutral (I am convinced it isn't, but I am also convinced that biological differences shouldn't enter into ethical considerations, or be used for discriminatory purposes).

    As for the actual data, they show that extreme conservatives put less emphasis on fairness and harm than liberals, though the difference is not as marked as the rejection of purity, ingroupness and authority by extreme liberals.

    Alex, yes, the developmental angle is interesting too in this respect. btw, Haidt claims that the five dimensions are cross-cultural.

  12. I know, but the thing is, how did he define or assign them? Now I am not a fan of postmodernism or deconstructivism, and I do actually think that his results are useful and legitimate, no problem, but it cannot hurt to be aware that things may look different the second you use a different language to describe the results or come from a different cultural background.

    I mean, this is not about something simple like describing gravity, how to avoid erosion or what is the molecular structure of sucrose. These are very complex issues where we have to be careful if our definitions differ in nuances, and what baggage our words are carrying, and that makes the interpretation much less straightforward.

    Just for starters, I would define morality as being about how humans should treat each other, and so I immediately take issue with having purity as a category at all. Where it makes sense, it is hygiene; where it does not, it is somebody arbitrarily forcing their neuroses onto others (Mohamed's hadith about how precisely to swipe your posterior orifice, anybody?). Now if we define something technical like hygiene as a moral issue, then we can extend that viewpoint and consider an IKEA assembly manual to be a moral document. It is also about getting things right, after all.

    But that is just my opinion. The thing is, I have seen others receive these results and use them straightaway to bolster their own feeling of moral superiority.

  13. That first sentence was probably poorly phrased. I meant to say something like: how did he and his collaborators decide to make it five dimensions, and not four or six? And why these, and not, e.g., the axis of maximum welfare for those alive today vs. sustainability?

  14. Massimo: "Setting aside debates about meta-ethics, can one make an argument for or against a given moral criterion to be considered, well, moral at all?"

    Absolutely not. Arguments over fundamental moral principles are debates in meta-ethics, and an attempt to establish the validity of certain moral axioms over others is a meta-ethical matter. This is something I learned in Intro. to Philosophy!

  15. You demonstrate clear and persuasive reasoning, as always. However, I worry that much of this is arguing against strawmen.

    My impression is that liberals are generally not good authorities on the opinions of conservatives. Being a skeptic, my guess is that it is more likely that not that conservatives would deny that they hold the beliefs you ascribe to them (and then argue against).

    So I'm not sure how much use one can get out of this sort of exercise.

  16. Alex,

    I agree that this sort of results needs to be taken with a grain of salt. However, your objection to treating purity as a moral issue at all (with which, by the way, I agree) is precisely the sort of thing Haidt is talking about.


    I took intro philosophy too. Maybe I wasn't clear. I was asking whether one can give an argument for, say, purity being or not being a moral dimension. I think one can, and I think that the arguments are more convincing on the side of it not being a valid moral category (because of no harm). Yes, that does bring about a metaethical discussion, at some point, but I think there is quite a bit that can be said before we get to that point.


    no, conservatives can argue about values, but this is empirical research about what they actually believe. You can't argue that, unless you are willing to challenge the methodology of the study itself.

  17. Massimo--

    It sounds like it's a meta-ethical discussion from the start, since you're arguing against the validity of a moral dimension from the get-go. If this is not a meta-ethical discussion, why is it not, and at what point would it become one?

  18. " let people worship whoever or whatever they wish, as long as they don’t intrude on our right not to follow them."

    So Massimo do you, like the Good Doctor Dawkins think that children have a 'right' to critical thinking and are thus deserving of intellectual protection against their parents who will, if undeterred, doubtlessly indoctrinate them into their religion of choice thus clearly violating their 'right' not to follow them?

    I am always somewhat amused by talk of 'rights' as if they were somehow as inviolate as the charge of the electron. Rights are given (and taken) by states and states are nothing more or less than a collective delusions that have existence only so long as we all believe in them except of course that this delusion is enforced by people with very non-delusional weapons. So you have rights only so long as the deluded people with guns say you do or at the very least refrain from saying you don't.

    As for morality it is simply a set of rules which really only make sense in terms of a goal. I think for most people the goal is to live in the world they wish to live in and the morality is adjusted accordingly. The problem comes of course when people's visions of the world conflict, either with other people's visions or with some of the laws of reality, which are not constrained by any kind of morality. Physics doesn't recognize 'ought'.

    I think the only absolute morality is racial survival because without humans there would be no morality at all, and that has to be immoral right?

  19. Wasn't Maximilien Robespierre and advocate of virtue ethics?

  20. Ritchie,

    I guess I have a more restricted view of metaethics. To me that discussion as to do with the foundations of ethics per se, not with the merits of a particular ethical system.

    Pure Luck,

    I have actually written elsewhere that I don't think there are "rights." Rights are a result of a human agreement, not a natural entity. But I am weary of people saying things like "morality is simply..." There is nothing simple about morality, and its nature is far from be understood, either scientifically or philosophically.


    have no idea what Robespierre thought, but be careful not to commit the fallacy of dismissing an idea because someone of questionable attributes endorsed it. If you go that route, pretty much anything that humanity has thought of should be dismissed, since at least one bad guy liked it.

  21. "...as long as they don’t intrude on our right not to follow them," thats the problem/solution/fact, Prof.;
    follow or not.....we all end in the same place as shown in me wee video
    "Hey! Hey! We're The Humans."

    Stay on groovin' safari,

  22. Massimo

    I think you re misunderstanding Heidt's points and you re being too quick to dismiss some very insightful ideas. First of all none of his points have anything to do with whether there are moral truths or not and what those might be. He is simply describing the overarching theme of human behavior which we call morality. This is no different than what narrators on science documentaries do when describing say the social structure or the mating habits of a pack of chimps. This is the domain of science and not philosophy. You cannot attack Heidt or the conservatives on the basis that the 3 "conservative" criteria are not "intrinsically good" (my emphasis, obviously) as you put it (a fascinating statement if you ask me since it presupposes that you ve got it all figured out and that your morality is correct and theirs is wrong. I dont know if that attitude sounds familiar) simply because he is just making a statement of fact which you can only disprove based on empirical grounds. Right or wrong, good or bad has no bearing on this discussion.

    Of course i understand that this is your article and the points you re making are yours and yours alone but after describing Heidt's position you move on to essentially attack something which is entirely unrelated to it. Morality can be what you are describing as what makes something right or wrong or what Heidt is describing as simply the rules by which humans interact with each other, how they form groups and how these groups interact with each other. The exploration of your definition falls in the realm of philosophy and the other in the realm of science. Heidt's morality is not concerned with right or wrong.

  23. As you continue to further analyse your position you keep showing the same bias over and over again. You say that "respect from a rational point of view, is something that makes sense to bestow only provisionally and in proportion to whether it has been earned". But there is no point of view here and certainly no rational and irrational point of view. Respect is a parameter that affects the way humans interact with each other and as such it can only be seen in one way. The way it is. The technical definition of respect is debatable but the way in which it is earned and lost and the way it affects human interaction are not(even though they depend on the exact definition). These are observables. Showing respect or losing respect cannot be bad or good. These are just examples of the rules by which humans treat each other. You are also attacking the notion of purity on the grounds that it is arbitrary. First of all it most cerntainly is! This is not important though. Paying deference to the sacred, whatever that may be, is a symbolic statement of accepting the rules of the group and pledging allegiance to its members. You do it, they do it, everybody does it. Its a part of human nature. The problem is that the sacred can only be seen for what it is only when looking from outside the group. From the inside the sacred is simply a self evident truth. Democracy, god, nation, you name it. For you for example and many skeptics and free thinkers and atheists (groups to which btw i happen to subscribe) reason and rationallity are sacred. I asked you and Julia on the first open mic night what was sacred to you and more or less you said nothing.Then (both of you,mind you) went on to admit more or less that you do find reason to be sacred but you couldnt phrase it that way. Because if you did it wouldnt be sacred anymore. Julia's example was quite telling in my opinion. I think what she was describing is the standard reaction to someone who is acknowledging and practicing the rituals of the group. This is probably how christians respond to someone who is pious or overly patriotic people respond to someone who for example protects a flag from desecration. If you ask them they will probably say that its just better for people to act this way but they wouldnt be able to defend it either.

    So to conclude (its about time) I dont think Heidt is making any value judgments at all and certainly not regarding the liberals vs conservatives debate.I didnt know the guy until today but i think his ideas are definitely worth of attention and study. In general i agree with him even though we might part ways when it comes to how fundemental the divide between those two groups is. I would also urge you not to moralize the issue too much and maybe give a second thought to the the whole idea of the sacred and how it functions within a given group

    Friendly, as always


  24. Kostas,

    thanks for the thoughtful comments. I do not question the facts of Haidt's research, but I am interested in their philosophical implications - hence this post. Also, in comments published in the NYT article linked above, Haidt does seem to imply that liberals have a "narrow" view of morality, a comment that borders on judgment, not just a statement of fact.

    Regardless, I am not criticizing Haidt's research, I am just using it to explore the philosophical aspects of having systems of morals that are based on a different number of relevant dimensions.

  25. As a frequent critic, it gives me great pleasure to say "Great post!" I was familiar with Haidt's work and found it fascinating, so I really enjoyed your excellent discussion of it. However, I'm a contrarian and not shy, so I'll make two cases against two specific points.

    First, support for your country should not be taken as a substitute for in-group loyalty. They are certainly not the same thing, especially in America. For instance, it is standard conservative practice to describe liberals as not real Americans - that is, they are an out-group. Racial, ethnic, class, and religious are categories that in-group applies to better.

    Second, Haidt uses purity to be the opposite of disgust, as in the evolutionary emotional response to stimuli that could be bad for us. Putrid food, sewage, open sores, germs, etc. The sample question I remember from a Haidt survey is about washing your hands after using the bathroom or touching a public sink. It's not about sacredness, belief, or any ritual per se.

    Let me also say that I appreciate your willingness to tolerate disagreement. I made a few slightly disparaging comments at WEIT and Jerry banned me. (The last was actually on a point that Jerry later conceded.) So, while I still agree with him more than you on the relevant points, you deserve praise for your intellectual honesty.

  26. No problem. I agree with Kostas that Haidt isn't talking about moral = ethical, but the underlying psychology of human behavior.

    Is this the NYT article you're referring to and where is Haidt's comment?

  27. No, it's an article by Nicholas Wade published on 18 September 2007:


    I just re-read it, and it's hard to say what Haidt's take on the issue is. He does make some comment to the effect that the liberal view of morality is restricted compared not just to conservatives, but to most societies in the world. He also says that while he is glad of having San Francisco and new York (liberal bastions), he thinks a society would not survive without conservative elements such as those found in the American heartland. That sounds like a (slight) judgment to me.

  28. Kostas,

    I didn't address your second post. Well, I do think that it makes sense to talk about when it makes sense to respect someone or not, but in general I see these issues as matters of logic and rational discourse, not of evidence.

    As for "the sacred," I stand by what I said in the podcast (can't talk for Julia): I don't hold anything sacred. Everything can be debated, and if there are reasons and/or evidence that bear on it, it can be changed. Reason itself is not sacred to me, it is simply what works far better than anything else we've tried.

  29. Massimo said: ...he thinks a society would not survive without conservative elements such as those found in the American heartland. That sounds like a (slight) judgment to me.

    At least in theory, it strikes me as an empirical question; i.e. if one could comparatively test two societies - one with conservative elements vs. one without - against some definition of "survival" (e.g. societal stability over some sufficiently long timespan). But, lacking such evidence, I would agree that it's more of a prejudice (and a distinctly conservative one at that) than a fact.

  30. PS: I realize that two is an extremely small sample size (statistically speaking), and perhaps an historian could do better. But the first challenge is to agree upon the identity of even one society that lacks the conservative elements that Haidt to which referred.

  31. Massimo:

    Good point, but I think it is legitimate to argue with both the study and your interpretation of it. So let me do both.

    Recall my complaint is that different people can mean different things by "fairness" etc., and so it is not useful for a liberal to say that conservatives don't think "fairness" is important since they may have different things in mind when discussing its importance. A classic example is whether or not "fairness" includes inequality of outcomes (more liberal) or only inequality of rules (more conservative).

    The study does little to address this potential problem. One of the questions is literally how important is "whether or not someone acted unfairly". This leaves the interpretation of what is "unfair" entirely up to you. There are similar questions for "loyalty" and "respect for authority".

    There are also questions that, while not quite that bad, are pretty close. For example, one asks how important it is "whether to not some people were treated differently than others". Treated differently in what way? Does that mean that there were different rules/laws for different people or merely that some people treated them differently in social interactions? It doesn't say. There are similar questions regarding "loyalty", "rights" (right to what?), etc.

    I find similar problems with your interpretation.

    For example, you say: "Notice that we are not talking about the sensible idea of provisionally deferring to people who have more experience.... That is not what we are talking about." Who says that is not what we are talking about? I understand that is not what YOU are talking about. But how do you know that isn't exactly what conservatives are talking about when they say "respect for authority" is important?

    Similarly, you say "I would argue that love for my country actually imposes on me a moral duty to criticize in order to make it better". I agree. But does that mean "loyalty" is important or not? You said it was not important above, but here you say it is so important that it actually imposes a moral duty on me!

    This last example highlights another possible problem. Rather than interpreting the question differently, two people could interpret it in exactly the same way but interpret their answer differently. In this case, I might say "loyalty to country" is so important that I have a moral duty to criticize it to make it better, whereas you might say "loyalty to country" is so unimportant that I have a moral duty to criticize it to make it better.

    Again, my feeling is that neither the study nor your interpretation of it is necessarily telling us anything useful about what various people think about these issues.

  32. Kostas,

    It is rather hard to discuss results like those in any meaningful manner without implicitly passing judgment. That is part of the problem I was writing about above.

    If you say that this species has a higher genetic diversity than its sister species, this is a simple scientific fact, and it comes without a lot of complicated baggage. If you discuss Haidt's results, it is much less simple. You can interpret them to say that conservatives have more moral dimensions than liberals, which very much sounds like praise. Or you can (as Greta Christina did in an essay, if memory serves) interpret them to say that liberals are more sensible because the conservative's additional three dimensions are not about morals at all.

    Even just stating facts is loaded when you are discussing humans, because words have certain connotations, and because we try to use data to increase our understanding.

  33. Massimo

    I see what you re saying but coming back to the idea of something being sacred i dont think of it necessarily as something that cannot be questioned but as something that you assume to be true without feeling that theres a particular need to prove it. Something akin to an axiom in mathematics. Just like an axiom isnt the kind of thing that can be right or wrong and you cannot attack a theorem based on the axioms on which it is based, so it is with sacred items in a culture. Can you imagine someone attacking the Pythagorean theorem saying that the idea that only one straight line can pass from 2 points is unacceptable? Thats just silly. Yet when you learn Euclidean geometry you never for a moment pause to think whether you should have assumed those axioms. So it is for some people with god and so it is (i think) for some people with reason.

  34. Kostas,

    What you just wrote touches an interesting question. How can you not assume reason as an axiom? Not doing so would be self-defeating, as any argument you make whatsoever is based on reason, even an argument for the non-applicability of reason to the god question or something like that.

    This is the big problem with faith, after all - once you accept that propositions can validly be held as true that are not based on reason and/or evidence (as applicable to the topic under discussion), how two humans still agree on anything - except by accident or force? Accepting reason as an axiom is the only way not to atomize humanity into seven billion completely isolated epistemic islands, the only way to have any meaningful communication at all.

  35. Z,

    one can certainly question both the study's methodology and my ruminations on its philosophical implications, but I am a bit weary of sweeping statements like "[the study is not] necessarily telling us anything useful."

    Anyway, concerning my comments, when I said that we are not talking about respect of expertise, I was simply reflecting the content of the survey. People were asked questions about authority figures, like their father, not about experts, and in a context that had nothing to do with expertise.

    As for loving one's own country, I can see why you see a contradiction in what I said, but again if one reads the survey's questions one can see that my scenario (criticize your country if you really love it) is not at all what was being tested. If pushed, however, I would have to admit that loving one's country above others makes no sense, and it is simply a leftover of cultural conditioning. The moral thing to do is to praise a country when it does the right thing, and criticize it when it doesn't - which is what I tend to do anyway, be the country my own or not.


    I think Alex above addressed some of your point. However, as it turns out mathematicians can and do critically examine their axioms, in certain contexts. Indeed, the axiom of parallelism is considered one of the most doubtful in geometry, I understand. Just like in logic, premises do not have to be accepted, and when they are, that acceptance is only provisional and subject to revision.

  36. Massimo -

    Well I do understand that since you have a vested financial interest in making simple things complex you might not wish to do that. Personally I like to start at the foundation and work upward from there when possible.

    In a only peripherally realted subject I was somewhat struck by the title you gave for your forthcoming book, specifically the phrase 'Meaning of Life'. Meaning of Life? Really? You are either biting off way more than you can chew or being wildly inaccurate in your title. There is quite a lot of life on our planet despite our ongoing Anthropocene extinction progress. Will you be covering the meaning for all the Bacteria, Archaea and Eucaryota? Perhaps you mean just the meaning of human lives in which case that will leave you with the current nearly seven billion and all previous human lives to cover. Regardless the 'what is the meaning of life?' has been inherently unanswerable due to scope problems whereas a much more practical and answerable question is 'where is the meaning in life? But the answer to that question i.e. 'wherever you find it'. Wouldn't make a very long book and you might be motivated to make it more complicated.

  37. Pure Luck,

    "vested financial interest"? Uh?

    As for my book, I'm amazed at how you can so confidently comment about something concerning which you only know the (tentative) title. Are you a psychic?

  38. Here's more material on Haidt's thoughts. His moral quiz is at YourMorals.org. He clarifies that sanctity means spiritual sanctity, the belief that things have invisible spiritual essences. Seems a problematic category to describe as "moral".

  39. Survival is measured in the long-term, thus not many parameters are left free. Different climates require different races.
    Morality does account though for the successful mathematical measure against real-estate bubbles, of 10 years-length 50% at valuation 'Betterment' tax i.e. speculators tax:
    1. http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Privates_Veräußerungsgeschäft
    2. http://essential-intelligence-network.blogspot.com/2012/08/long-wave-economics.html


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