Saturday, November 03, 2007

What makes an action "moral" or "immoral"?

It's whether or not somebody gets hurt, right? And whether there's fairness and reciprocity ("The Golden Rule", in more recent centuries formulated as Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative, and personified in Charles Kingsley's 19th century novel The Water-Babies as Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby) - that's what counts, don't you think?

Well, yes, I agree with you on this, but a lot of people regard some other considerations as very important in evaluating whether something is right or wrong.

Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist on the faculty of the University of Virginia, has found that liberals tend to rely mostly on the two questions I first stated - the first is "consequentialist", the second "deontological". However, conservatives also use other "innate, intuitive ethical systems" to decide if something is "immoral" or not. At "The Moral Foundations Home Page" it is put this way:

Moral Foundations Theory proposes that five innate psychological systems form the foundation of "intuitive ethics." Each culture constructs its particular morality as a set of virtues, values, and ideas based on or related to these five foundations (as well as to many other non-moral aspects of the evolved mind). The current American culture war can be seen as arising from the fact that liberals try to create a morality relying almost exclusively on the Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity foundations; conservatives, especially religious conservatives, use all five foundations, including Ingroup/Loyalty, Authority/Respect, and Purity/Sanctity. In every sample we have examined (including samples in the US, UK and Western Europe), political conservatism correlates negatively with endorsement of the Harm and Fairness foundations, and positively with endorsement of the Ingroup, Authority, and Purity foundations.

I've just started reading Haidt's book The Happiness Hypothesis (a few chapters of which are available for free download on the web) and am finding it very interesting.


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