Friday, June 8, 2012

moral psychologies


I finally picked up Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Like many books of this scope, there are a few over-extensions of explanatory reach, but that’s been covered by many good book reviews in print.

Despite the overgeneralizations, there are many suggestive lines of thought concerning moral psychology.

For instance, consider the following hypothetical scenario:

A family suffers the tragic loss of the family pet, in this case, a dog that is hit by a car. Rather than allow a perfectly good meat go to waste, the family decides to cook the dog for supper.

Personally I hear this scenario and find it distasteful, if not disgusting. However, I would be hard pressed to say that it was morally wrong, and in fact I do not think it is.

Scenarios like this are meant to illustrate an instinctive distinction that many make between a taboo and a morally wrong action.

Here’s the interesting thing: In some cultures outside of America and the west in general, respondents would claim that the action was actually morally wrong, not merely a taboo.

Even though most cultures distinguish between taboos and actions that are morally wrong, the precise activities that fall into each or overlap are different depending on several factors.

One such factor tracks with the emergence of newer conceptions of autonomy and individualism. One might call philosophies that are inspired by autonomy, liberty, and individualism (e.g., the “west” generally) egocentric. The moral “bottom line” revolves around the harm principle (i.e., “One can do what one pleases as long as one does not harm another.”). So… in this more egocentric moral psychology, taboos (such as eating the family pet) are avoided because our culture or society judges that as grotesque or impolite, but not because there is any morally wrong content in the action.

In many parts of the world, however, the moral bottom line has a different focus. It’s not that a harm principle is lacking. Rather, it’s that the harm principle is differently articulated by an interpretation of the harm. Such philosophies of life are more sociocentric, where the concepts of duty, loyalty, and fidelity to tribe are paramount. As such, sociocultural taboos are group markers of inclusion (or exclusion), and the tendency to see the world in moral terms is extended much wider to include more types of behaviors into moral classification than what one may see in a more egocentric moral psychology.

Hence, what an egocentric moral psyche may see as a mere taboo may be interpreted as a morally charged issue for someone who is more sociocentric in their moral psychology.

Furthermore, it’s not the case that the sociocentric psyche sees these taboos as contingently possessing moral content (i.e., having moral evaluative properties because of their particular cultural evolution, etc.), but rather the tendency is to universalize their moral outlook, believing that their moral demarcations are normative for everyone else including those outside of their tribal affiliations, no matter their distinct cultural histories.

Now, you can probably already see the dangers lurking for overgeneralization and over-reaching explanations with this distinction in moral psychological outlook, and those dangers are real.

But as a research project into moral psychology, this is still a promising heuristic.

For example, it helps me make sense of why early forms of Judaism include so many taboos within their religious and moral laws, with no sharp distinction between these ceremonial forms of life and the moral point of view. Various “abominations” related to food choices, inter-racial marriage, fashion accutremonts, and human sexuality are lined up side by side. These all make more sense in the context of the sociocentric pressures at a pre-pluralistic time to reinforce and police tribal affiliations and “the Other.”

With the rise of egocentric moral psychologies, which personally I take to be a real advance in our moral outlook (I would say that, wouldn’t I?), the category of “mere taboo” has grown to encompass more of these types of tribal affiliations. The evolutionary arch then takes over and shaves away even many of these old taboos, resulting in a more tolerant, morally minimalist society – or at any rate, more tolerant if still few oasis zones.

I see some of the religious culture wars recapitulating this dynamic with patterns of retrenchment of liberty on the side of the sociocentric moral psyches and the extension of liberty on the side of the egocentrics. Yes, that sounds like the gross oversimplification of a classical liberal, but when empirical data points plot overall in a curve shape …
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