Monday, September 29, 2014

Expanding the moral paradigm


Johnathan Haidt in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon, 2012), argues for expanding moral paradigms. Ethics consists of three broad approaches: deontology, utilitarianism, and virtue. He focuses on the first two. Deontological ethics emphasize duty or rules. The best known philosophical approach to deontology is Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative, which enjoins one to do only that which everyone should do in that same situation. Theological ethics are another form of deontology: it is the believer's duty to act in accordance with God's instructions. Utilitarianism, in its several forms, emphasizes doing that which will result in the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Haidt contends that deontology and utilitarianism are both incomplete and that neither accords with how the human mind actually functions. Citing multiple studies, Haidt insists that humans form reasons post hoc (i.e., after acting) to justify what they have already done.

Instead, Haidt identifies six pairs of constructs that he believes shape human morality:

  • Care/Harm;
  • Fairness (has two components, equality and proportionality)/Cheating;
  • Loyalty/Betrayal;
  • Authority/Subversion;
  • Sanctity/Degradation;
  • Liberty/Oppression.
Haidt then explores how people who weight these values (another term for virtue) differently hold divergent political views. Liberals emphasize Care/Harm and to a substantially lesser degree Fairness (understood in terms of equality)/Cheating and Loyalty/Betrayal. Intriguingly, Conservatives generally place an approximately equal emphasis on all six pairs (they understand Fairness more in terms of proportionality than equality).

The six pairs of virtues/harms Haidt identified represent an interesting candidate for a catalogue of the virtues, a catalogue with a strong neurological, sociological, and psychological basis. Is the catalogue comprehensive?

The six pairs of virtues/harms Haidt identified also provide a useful paradigm for conversing with people who hold different political, religious, or ethical views, a framework that invites conversation about common ground, disagreements, and why one weights the virtues/harms in a particular manner.

Most importantly, when used as a checklist to shape thinking and comments about ethics, the six pairs of virtues/harms Haidt identified can helpfully and intentionally expand one's thinking about morality. Moral issues often have a complexity lost in the oversimplification that characterizes much contemporary discourse (this unfortunately includes much preaching and biblical exegesis!).

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