The New Morality

The NY Times revisits the scientific approach to morality in a long Magazine piece this weekend.

You may recall my previous writing on this subject; if not, the short of it is that one Dr. Jonathan Haidt proposed extending our understanding of morality beyond "do no harm," and "do unto others," to include what he calls "traditional" categories of moral behavior, "loyalty," "respect for authority," and "purity."

This had the effect of redefining some things: Haidt claims that liberals only understand the first two categories, while conservatives understand "all five," thereby seeming to make conservatives more "moral" by 5-2.

As I said in my letter:

This of course ignores the fact the millions of individual secular liberals were raised with traditional values, and that the Western secular liberal society itself emerged from a traditional society. It ignores the fact that the secular liberal tradition consciously and purposefully limited the importance of these three "traditional" categories for moral, yes, moral, reasons: "loyalty" is also "toadying" and "sycophancy," and it makes people compromise their morality; "respect for authority" is also "cowardice" and the relinquishing of one's personal moral compass -- do we still remember the Milgram experiments?; "purity" is also "prejudice" -- the cause of innumerable purges, massacres, genocides.
I also connected this to Syrian "purity" killings -- the murdering of young girls who have been raped, to "wash away the shame" her being raped brought to her family.

I not only believe that my argument -- that these three "traditional" areas of "morality" are not only non-moral but also work against morality, cause people to be less moral -- is right, but I question the motives of someone whose goal seems to be to excuse the excuses people use for the evil deeds they do.

On the other hand, perhaps when he says "morality," he means something different from what I mean when I use the word.

The long Magazine story in today's Times is by Nicholas Wade, who sadly treats the question with even less scrutiny that the last reporter. His approach to the story seems to be to dutifully explain the theory slowly and using small words (and with lots of playful examples) to an incredulous and uncomprehending audience, rather than attempt to engage with the ideas or test them.

Even given that, though, it's a story worth reading (it's currently the most emailed, so I'm not alone in thinking so) -- because it does talk about the different ways in which people think about, and manifest, their morality.

One thing that occurred to me, while reading it, is that what these gentlemen are referring to as "morality" seems more, to me, like unreasoning visceral bias. Maybe that's what they mean, and maybe that's why I see them as being completely wrong -- because to me, morality is something you think about. A lot. Perhaps those five categories define what I would call biases, and Dr. Haidt would have another name for what I call morality -- "ethics," perhaps? -- and this has all been a big misunderstanding?
But consider these situations, originally devised by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt:

Julie is traveling in France on summer vacation from college with her brother Mark. One night they decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. Julie was already taking birth-control pills, but Mark uses a condom, too, just to be safe. They both enjoy the sex but decide not to do it again. They keep the night as a special secret, which makes them feel closer to each other. What do you think about that — was it O.K. for them to make love?


In the case of Julie and Mark, people raise the possibility of children with birth defects, but they are reminded that the couple were diligent about contraception. They suggest that the siblings will be emotionally hurt, but the story makes it clear that they weren’t. They submit that the act would offend the community, but then recall that it was kept a secret. Eventually many people admit, “I don’t know, I can’t explain it, I just know it’s wrong.” People don’t generally engage in moral reasoning, Haidt argues, but moral rationalization: they begin with the conclusion, coughed up by an unconscious emotion, and then work backward to a plausible justification.

See, a knee-jerk reaction coughed up like a wad of phlegm is not what I mean when I say "morality." Since the fictional siblings' improbable tale is written to render moot every reasonable objection (except that secret-keeping is bad for you, which I would argue), you more or less have to conclude that their actions are morally okay, but really implausible and unlikely. (Even if I try, I can't believe that they will actually be closer siblings because of this secret -- although I consider an aversion to secrets a moral good.)

Other moral "tests" include "how much money" would you have to be paid to do things like stick a pin in your friend's hand. Delightful. (The only reasonable answer is, "twice the amount I'd have to pay my friend to make him completely forget that I just stuck him with a pin, because after doing that, I'd of course have to split it with him -- probably about $10,000.)

What's your morality cost?

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