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How intuitive morality has challenged the rationalists

<em>Illustration: Kerrie Leishman</em>

Illustration: Kerrie Leishman

Paul Keating still quotes his early mentor, Jack Lang: ''In the race of life, always back self-interest - at least you know it's trying''. This may be why, as treasurer, Keating so readily embraced economic rationalism. The economists' working model assumes the self-interest of the individual is the sole force that makes the world turn.

Fortunately, the latest research tells us it's not that simple.

I can't go on a sight-seeing holiday without taking a few good books for a little intellectual sustenance at the end of the day. One book I took this time was a ripper, The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion, by Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist at the University of Virginia.

Haidt (pronounced Height) says decades of research by political scientists have concluded that self-interest is a weak predictor of voters' policy preferences.

Why? Because people care about the groups they belong to - whether they be racial, regional, religious or political. They seem to be asking themselves not ''what's in it for me?'' but ''what's in it for my group?''. Political opinions function as ''badges of social membership''.

Whereas the old view was that natural selection had caused us to evolve into self-seeking competitors, Haidt argues we're more accurately thought of as ''homo duplex'' - a creature who exists at two levels: as an individual and as part of the larger society.

Human nature is mostly selfish: our minds contain a variety of mental mechanisms that make us adept at promoting our own interests, in competition with our peers, he says. But human nature is also ''groupish'': our minds contain a variety of mental mechanisms that make us adept at promoting our group's interests, in competition with other groups.

''We evolved to live in groups. Our minds were designed not only to help us win the competition within our groups, but also to help us unite with those in our group to win competitions across groups,'' he says. ''We are not saints, but we are sometimes good team players.''

All this goes a long way towards explaining the psychological roots of morality. Haidt defines moral systems as interlocking sets of values, norms, practices and institutions that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make co-operative societies possible.

His research leads him to believe moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously in our minds, long before moral reasoning has a chance to get started. Moral reasoning is not something we do to figure out the truth. Rather, it's a skill we evolved to further our social agendas - to justify our own actions and defend the teams we belong to.

Human nature is intrinsically moral, but it's also intrinsically moralistic, critical and judgmental.

''Our righteous minds made it possible for human beings - but no other animals - to produce large co-operative groups, tribes and nations without the glue of kinship,'' he says. ''But at the same time, our righteous minds guarantee that our co-operative groups will always be cursed by moralistic strife.''

We're much more aware of other people's moral shortcomings than our own, often making us ''selfish hypocrites so skilled at putting on a show of virtue that we fool even ourselves''.

Haidt says one of the hardest problems humans face is co-operation without kinship. We instinctively co-operate with people to whom we're directly related, but co-operation within wider groups carries the ever-present temptation to ''free-ride'' - to enjoy the benefits co-operation brings while avoiding pulling our weight.

The more people free-ride, and the more we see others failing to pull their weight, the more co-operation breaks down and we all forgo the benefits it could bring.

Haidt argues morality is, in large part, an evolved solution to the free-rider problem. We develop norms of acceptable, co-operative behaviour and find ways to sanction people who aren't co-operating.

His empirical research into the moral sentiments of people from around the world leads him to identify six dimensions to people's moral concerns. First is care/harm; we are sensitive to signs of suffering and need, and despise cruelty. Second is liberty/oppression; we resent attempts to dominate us. Third is fairness/cheating; people should be rewarded or punished in proportion to their deeds.

Then there's loyalty/betrayal; we trust and reward team players, but want to sanction those who betray the group. Next is authority/subversion; we recognise rank or status and disapprove of those not behaving properly, given their position. Finally there's sanctity/degradation; we care about what we do with our bodies and what we put into them.

Haidt believes these moral concerns are shared by people regardless of their culture, nationality or wealth. But, of course, people interpret them differently and put more weight on some than others.

Our differing moral emphases are reflected in our differing political sympathies. So the unending battle between small-L liberal and conservative policies is a manifestation of ''deeply conflicting but equally heartfelt visions of the good society''.

Haidt finds that small-L liberals' moral concerns are limited to just the first three dimensions: they care deeply about the harm suffered by minorities and the needs of the poor, about oppression and about fairness.

Conservatives, on the other hand, care about all six dimensions. Their most sacred value is to ''preserve the institutions and traditions that sustain a moral community''. So they worry also about maintaining loyalty, acceptance of authority and the sanctity of our bodies.

The conservatives' broader range of moral concerns means they understand the motivations of liberals better than liberals understand the motives of conservatives.

Haidt argues the community benefits from the ever-present tension between the two sides - each emphasises important aspects of maintaining a good society - if only we could restore a greater degree of civility between the contending parties.

Ross Gittins is the Sydney Morning Herald's economics editor.

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169 comments

  • Ross, I can't say that I agree. Human kind's self-interest will always override the "group-good" drive suggested by Haidt. This is why communist revolutions whose roots are about equality and greater good for their society, have ended up with corrupt individuals running the show, and also why the "free-market" and capitalism, left to its own devices, does work either (note the GFC, banks raising fees despite ridiculous profits). If the group-good drive was as strong as suggested, then you could argue that there would be no backlash to the austerity measures in France, Spain, Greece.... The reality is that human kind needs some sort of oversight/control, as we are all prone to the "Lucifer-effect" (Zimbardo et al). In the end, man/woman will invariably seek self-profit/gain over the good of the group.

    Commenter
    OMG
    Location
    sydney
    Date and time
    October 03, 2012, 7:26AM
    • Haidt anchors much of his theory on a controversial theory in a discipline that is outside own. The overwhelming majority of evolutionists believe in individual selection, rather than group selection (at the gene level, not the organism level) because in any society where a gene complex evolves to give the organism a predisposition to sacrificing itself for the good of the group, while this might give the group a short term advantage, in the long term “free riders” will evolve to take advantage of the self-sacrificers, they will be more successful and their genes will come to predominate. Haidt thinks he has found a solution to the free rider problem in human societies, via his six pillars, particularly the sacredness pillar (and it’s religious component.

      I find Haidt’s take a bit hard to swallow, not least because we see free riders all around us, some of them even use religion as a means of gaining personal advantage over others. They are manipulative and good at hiding it. That’s not to throw the baby out with the bath water, as the five pillars do map very well to left-right spectrum (the sixth pillar was added to improve the model to map libertarian values). Also Haidt points out that these traits are probably no the exclusive set, only the ones he’s modelled.

      Of course, my opinion has no value, and neither does anyone else’s, as in the early part of the book he makes it clear that all such critiques are merely post hoc rationalisations. Basically we make it up as we go along. His whole thesis is pretty fatalistic really.

      You can take his test at the following site, and see what you think, but you have to register:

      http://www.yourmorals.org/

      Commenter
      NME
      Date and time
      October 03, 2012, 11:13AM
    • OMG: I think there is a contingent dimension to this that you aren't adequately considering. If you are a bureaucrat in the IMF, then you may well think that people in Spain ought to put the common good of the country above self interest, while an individual who can't see how he will put food on the table for his family may have more immediate concerns than when his country will move out of budget deficit. In a communist society with limited wealth and resources, self-interest will become emergent and reward those who put themselves first.

      We trade off self interest in varying ways, to varying degrees, every day. For example, we see a movie that we don't care for on the basis that our partner does, or we resist the temptation to have an affair because we fear the consequences if it is exposed. Studies, such as the infamous Stanford prisoner/guard experiment and the Milgram experiment, show that role and authority can have a profound influence on our behaviour, and take us well away from the moral limits we would expect of ourselves.

      Ultimately, there are no absolutes in this: people will act in accordance with their own values, and in response to their circumstances. I might sit through Tinkerbell with my daughter, but refuse to see The Watch with my son...such a decision will be contingent on a number of factors, which will vary for everyone. But if self interest won out every time, then we may have Paul Keating's backing, but we will also be less engaged with those around us.

      Commenter
      Richard
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      October 03, 2012, 11:36AM
    • Couldn't disagree with you more OMG.
      communism isnt group good..its group fail. as it isnt balanced by personal good.
      socialism is group good and personal good...just like the article states...and it is the system that works the best (and the one we in the west have in some form).
      I know I don't seek self profit and gain over the good of the group...or i would vote differently and for the party that explicitly benefits me. They were talking about our political leanings and this is evident by the high proportion of wealthy people who vote for social policy (that obviously doesnt benefit them)

      Commenter
      Cheshire Cat
      Date and time
      October 03, 2012, 11:46AM
    • A couple of other books in this area worth reading are "The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science- and Reality" and Richard Dawkin's 'The Selfish Gene'.

      The Republican Brain talks agrees that conservatives do look to keeping the status quo of traditions and institutions and have evolved 'self deception' abilities to deny any evidence that contradicts their view of the world. It is useful to have conservatives in a society cos they are better decision makers as they only see black and white. Maybe the trouble comes when they dominate the media and big business and distort the decision making process with outdated views that can't be swayed reason?

      The Selfish Gene goes into great detail about how traits like altruism and selfishness gain favour in the gene pool and change over time as a percentage in a society. Some percentage of people can be selfish, or freeload, but at some point that society falls over and the balance needs to go the other way.

      Commenter
      QED
      Date and time
      October 03, 2012, 12:15PM
    • No the real difference is the Left only see what's directly in front of them and never consider flow on consequences.

      Examples:
      - The Left see a desperate refugee, but fail to see that helping one boat person entices hundreds to their death.
      - The Left want government spending to solve everyones problem, without understanding the consequences of continually racking up debt and deficits (ask Europe)
      - The Left think increasing taxes on the successful can pay for everything, without understanding this drives investment and talent offshore (meaning no jobs, growth, govt revenue)
      - The Left want to save Tasmania's trees, without understanding they're turning Tasmania into a rustbucket where all the kids leave and no-one's left to pay for anything

      Commenter
      Gatsby
      Date and time
      October 03, 2012, 1:36PM
    • Cheshire Cat...apologies..:"socialism" (as in USSR = communism).... That you don't act in self-interest does not discredit the tendency that we have as a species. Zimbardo has shown, time and time again, that we will behave in ways that are contrary to our normally held ethical/moral standards, if the circumstances push us. That is, we will seek to dominate given the right circumstances. Domination is expressed in many ways.

      Commenter
      OMG
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      October 03, 2012, 1:47PM
    • @ QED

      While in fairly general agreement with your remarks, I did a double-take over your claim that conservatives are better decision makers than progressives.
      There are two aspects to my questioning of that assumption - do you mean they are better at making decisions or that they are better at making better decisions?
      The two aspects can be encompassed in one answer.

      While conservatives do tend to see things in more black-and-white terms, even the theory would have it that they would tend in that case, to make lower evaluations of what the progressives would consider more important - how will it actually play out practically among the people who have to implement those decisions, rather than just the "factual" imperatives of economic and other "dry" arguments?
      Result, one of the reasons Australian management tends to be poor by world standards - poor implementation.

      I give you a case in point - my own experiences at the only times for decades I've been subjected to "suitability" psychological profiling - one for the public service ( no I didn't take it up ) and one in private recruitment.

      Both evaluations placed me in the top 5% of decision-makers in the country - to quote one - the type of mind needed to be a CEO, which astounded me as I thought all CEOs by definition would have to be conservative. Reflection shows that to be erroneous - the type of mind needed is one which is flexible, able to evaluate all factors, not just those deemed popular, to give each factor its due attention and to synthesise.
      And I ain't no conservative. And I do realise the trolls may well have a field day, but it's the only example I know personally.

      Commenter
      BillR
      Date and time
      October 03, 2012, 2:52PM
    • @ Gatsby

      What your list of "left" attributes shows is more your own inabilty to see anything as other than black and white.

      Commenter
      BillR
      Date and time
      October 03, 2012, 2:54PM
  • g'day ross,
    you have to be careful not to believe everything you read mate.
    the claim that lefties are missing half of their moral compass is just as dumb as this:
    http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/genius-and-madness/200809/is-political-conservatism-mild-form-insanity

    Here's a general rule: if somebody explains a complex phenomenon in a way you can understand, the explanation will be bullshit.

    Commenter
    dropBear
    Location
    up a gum tree
    Date and time
    October 03, 2012, 7:28AM

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