How Do We Decide What’s Wrong?

Richard Beck at Experimental Theology offers some food for thought concerning how we determine the rightness or wrongness of an action. He quotes psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has suggested four ‘moral grammars’ that humans use to make judgments of ‘wrongness.’

They are (with his descriptions verbatim):

Fairness/Justice: Things are deemed ‘wrong’ when they are unfair or unjust (given cultural criteria).

Harm: Things are deemed ‘wrong’ when harm is done. This can be all sorts of harm: Bodily harm, economic harm, status harm, emotional harm, etc.

Hierarchy Violation: Things are deemed ‘wrong’ because a hierarchical relationship has been violated. Examples include issues of respect or deference or the differential rights/privileges of social groups of different standing.

Purity Violation: Things are deemed ‘wrong’ when a previously ‘pure’ state is contaminated by either a group or a behavior.

Some cultures use all of these moral grammars, while others may use fewer. He then applies these grammars to the question of homosexuality from a conservative and a liberal viewpoint, assuming, as Haidt does, that liberals use only the first two moral grammars, while conservatives use all four. (From the excellent Haidt interview at The Believer: “Most human cultures use all four of these bases to ground their moral worldviews. We in the West, in modern times especially, have to some extent discarded the last two. We have built our morality entirely on issues about harm (the first pillar), and rights, and justice (the second).”)

This is a new concept for me, and I am going just on what I’ve read here, so please forgive me if I miss the point entirely. It seems to me that liberals and Westerners (speaking in broad generalisations here) do apply the last two grammars, as for instance when perceived victims are given hierarchical priority and deference, or when a woman’s body or a sovereign country is considered off-limits (as in the slogans Hands Off My Body, or US out of Iraq). In the first case, victims, the marginalised, and similar are considered ‘higher’ or more noble and worthy of respect and homage in some way than others. In the second case, external intervention is seen as defiling and disrupting a previously pure or intact state. Some things are considered inviolate by ‘liberals,’ as they are by ‘conservatives’ — but they may be different things.

I would argue that liberals and conservatives alike, and all the other flavours of partisanship and politics, use all four moral grammars to make decisions about moral rightness or wrongness of actions; they may apply them very differently to actual situations, and the grammars may variously combine into a big grammar stew where all four are operating at once, or they may remain in separate boxes, depending on who is applying them and how complex the situation seems … but I think that to argue that ‘liberals’ use two grammars and ‘conservatives’ four, or that we in the West use only two grammars, seems a bit simplistic.

In the interview cited, Haidt has some provocative things to say about how we make moral judgments. Basically, he says that moral judgments are intuitive and emotional assessments that we try desperately to back up with rational arguments. He goes so far as to say that “I think whatever is true of aesthetic judgment is true of moral judgment, except that in our moral lives we do need to justify, whereas we don’t generally ask others for justifications of aesthetic judgments.” He believes we come by moral judgments through intuition and emotion, but that reason plays a part when we are asked to justify our judgments: “Reason is still a part of the process. It just doesn’t play the role that we think it does. We use reason, for example, to persuade someone to share our beliefs. There are different questions: there’s the psychological question of how you came by your beliefs. And then there’s the practical question of how you’re going to convince others to agree with you. Functionally, these two may have nothing to do with one another. If I believe that abortion is wrong, and I want to convince you that it’s wrong, there’s no reason I should recount to you my personal narrative of how I came to believe this. Rather, I should think up the best arguments I can come up with and give them to you.”

Later, the interviewer for The Believer says: “Most would think that maybe he [someone who doesn’t think a particular celebrity is beautiful] just has different tastes. Maybe he likes blondes, he likes men, he hates Australians, or whatever. But now take a moral judgment like ‘it’s wrong to torture people.’ If someone says, ‘no, it’s not wrong at all… it’s fun, actually, you should try it,’ you don’t just think: to each his own. You think he’s wrong, that he’s made a mistake. And that’s where you want justifications — you want to be able to convince people that they’re wrong in a way that has nothing to do with their individual preferences on the matter.”

Haidt responds: “That’s right, so we need justifications for our moral beliefs; we don’t need them for our aesthetic beliefs. We can tolerate great diversity in our aesthetic beliefs, but we can’t tolerate much diversity in our moral beliefs. We tend to split and dislike each other.”

Finally, Haidt on his ‘mission in life’: “It is to convince people that everyone is morally motivated — everyone except for psychopaths. Everyone else is morally motivated. Liberals need to understand that conservatives are motivated by more than greed and hatred. And Americans and George Bush in particular need to understand that even terrorists are pursuing moral goods.”


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