Moral Dimensions

Without going into a lot of detail about it (no time!) I wanted to quote from this article discussing the ideas of Jonathan Haidt. It’s actually supposed to be a review of George Lakoff’s writing on political language, but it gets further into Haidt’s ideas and research as a better alternative. He’s not so kind to dear Lakoff (whose earlier work is very influential among many of my IA friends).

Essentially, the article draws a distinction between Lakoff’s idea that people act based on their metaphorical-linguistic interpretation of the world and Haidt’s psycho-evolutionary (?) view that there are deeper things than what we think of as language that guide us individually and socially. And Haidt is working to name those things, and figure out how they function.

Oddly enough, I remembered once I’d gotten a paragraph into this post that I linked to and wrote about Haidt a couple of years before. But I hadn’t really looked into it much further. Now I’m really wanting to read more of his work.

Haidt maps five major scales against which we can categorize (or measure) our moral responses. One of those is the one that seems least changeable or approachable by reason, the one that describes our visceral reaction of elevation or disgust in the presence of certain things we find taboo, without necessarily being able to explain why in a purely rational or utilitarian way.

Will Wilkinson — What’s the Frequency Lakoff?

Most intriguing is the possibility of systematic left-right differences on the purity dimension, which Haidt pegs as the source of religious emotion. In a fascinating chapter in his illuminating recent book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt explains how a primal biological system—the disgust system—designed to keep us clear of rotten meat, expanded over our evolutionary history to encompass sexual norms, physical deformations, and much more. …

The flipside of disgust is the emotion Haidt calls “elevation,” based in a sense of purification and transcendence of our animal incarnation. Cultures the world over picture humanity as midway on a ladder of being between the demonically disgusting and the divinely pure. Most world religions express it through taboos of food, body, and sex, and in rituals of de-animalizing purification and sacralization. The warm, open sense of elevation and the shivering nausea of disgust are high and low notes in the same emotional key.

Haidt’s suggestion is partly that morally broad-band conservatives are better able to exploit the emotional logic of religiosity by deploying rhetoric and imagery that calls on powerful sentiments of elevation and disgust. A bit deaf to the divine, narrow-band liberals are at a disadvantage to stir religious Americans. And there are a lot of religious Americans out there.

I like this approach because it doesn’t refute the linguistic approach so much as explain it in a larger context. (Lakoff has come under criticism for his possibly over-simplification about how people live by metaphor — I”ll leave that debate to the experts.)

And it explains how people can have a real change of heart in their lives, how their morals can shift. Just this week, the mayor of San Diego decided to reverse a view he’d held for years, both personally and as a campaign promise, to veto any marriage-equality bill. Evidently one of his scales changed the other — he was caught in a classic Euthyphro conundrum between loyalty to his party and loyalty to the reality of his daughter. Unlike with Euthyphro, family won out. Or perhaps the particular experience of his daughter convinced him that the general assumption of homosexuality as evil is flawed? Who knows.

Whatever the cause, once you get a bit of a handle on Haidt’s model, you can almost see the bars in the chart shifting in front of you when you hear of such a change in someone.

And you can see very plainly how Karl Rove and others have masterfully manipulated this tendency. They have an intuitive grasp of this gut-level “digust/elevation” complex, and how to use it to get voters to act. I wonder, too, if it helps explain the weird fixation “socially conservative” people of all stripes had with the “Passion of Christ” film? Just think — that extreme level of detailed violence to a human being ramping up the digust meter, with the elevation meter being cranked just as high from the sense of transcendent salvation and martyr’s love that the gruesome ritual killing represented. What a combination.

The downside to Democrats here is that they can’t fake it. According to Wilkinson, there’s no way to just word-massage their way into this emotional dynamic with the public on the current dominant issues that tap into it. In his words, “Their best long-term hopes rest in moving the fight to a battlefield with more favorable terrain.”

(PS: I dig Wilkinson’s blog name too — a nice oblique reference to Wittgenstein, who said the aim of Philosophy is to “shew the fly the way out of the bottle.” )

Edited to Add: There’s a nice writeup on Haidt in the Times here.

Author: Andrew Hinton

I use information to architect better places for humans. More at andrewhinton.com.

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