Sunday, April 15, 2012

Ethical Elephants: Moral Intuitions Across Cultures

Imagine that the family next door gets a Vietnamese Pot-Bellied Pig.  They name him Bubba.  Bubba grows up into a delightful animal; as charming as a Golden Retriever.  Everyone in the family loves him.  Sadly, one day they back the car over him, and he dies.  Heartbroken, the family decides they can best honor Bubba's memory by cooking and eating him.

Is this wrong? If so, why?

I'm guessing your knee-jerk answer to the first question is, "Well, yeah, it's wrong!!"  But your second answer is probably more like "Umm, because...well....".

If you thought it's wrong to eat Bubba, but found it tough to say exactly why, then you've been "morally dumbfounded".  This is the term used by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, whose research I'm going to discuss in this post.  By asking people questions like the one above, Dr. Haidt has gained some fascinating insights about human morality, how it might have evolved, and how it varies between groups of people.

In the story above, the point is not whether eating a pet pig is wrong or not.  The point is that many people have the gut reaction that it is, but then have trouble saying exactly why they think so.  That's moral dumbfounding.  The gut reaction comes first.  More often than not, when the person finally articulates why they think it was wrong to eat Bubba, their reasoned response will match their gut reaction.  Most people don't respond to moral conundrums by reasoning through the arguments on each side, and then making an impartial decision.  They think, "How awful!", or "How nice!", and then the reasoning part of their brain kicks in.  Sometimes the reasoning part will decide, "Well, maybe I don't really have good reasons for that gut reaction".  But really, how often does that happen?  Mostly, people use their "higher order" thinking skills to find ways to justify their initial impulses.

Dr. Haidt sees the mind as having two levels, which he compares to an elephant and a rider on its back.  The elephant is the older, more intuitive and emotional part of the mind, shaped by evolution over tens of millions of years.  The rider is the biologically newer part of the mind, which is able to formulate thoughts in higher order concepts and words.  The elephant is far more powerful than the rider, and its reactions are automatic, visceral, and fast.  The rider knows he's capable of thinking deeper thoughts than the elephant.  He also imagines he's the boss, but he's usually wrong.  Most of the time the elephant decides to move, and then the rider thinks, "I told him to do that".

In the case of moral dumbfounding, the elephant encounters a moral shock, and bolts righteously in the opposite direction.  This happens before the rider can even articulate the situation.  Most of the time, the rider acts more like the elephant's PR person than its master.  The rider says "The bushes were rustling.  It was probably a cobra. They're common around here. Yeah, it's a good thing I decided to stay away".  Occasionally, though, the rider tries to change the elephant's behavior.  He reins the beast in and says, "Wait, let's think about whether there was really anything bad in those bushes".  Sometimes, the rider can even exert his will, convincing the elephant--against its will--that it's all clear.  Dropping the metaphor of elephant and rider, the higher-order part of the mind convinces the lower order part to reconsider its reactions, and perhaps even change them.  But it's not easy, and it's not common.

Another important insight from Haidt's research is the suggestion that, for most people throughout history, morality is a far more complex thing than modern westerners may realize.  Haidt's thinking about morality was transformed when he spent time in India, where he had to learn to navigate a more complex moral world than he was used to in the United States.  People in India have an elaborate mental geography, mapping out what is clean and unclean, and go to great lengths to ensure that the two don't mix.  They eat with their right hand, not their unclean left hand.  They walk on unclean streets, so when they get home they remove their shoes to keep from polluting their household.  Traditional Hindus, of course, also have a deep sense of social hierarchy.  They believe it is only right that some different people are born at different places on the social scale, and that those near the bottom should treat those near the top with proper respect.  Even the low-status people are likely to think this way.  Haidt talks about trying to engage household servants in a friendly conversation, and discovering that it made both them and their bosses deeply uncomfortable.

Based on these sorts of insights, and a lot of empirical research, Haidt and his colleagues have come up with what is known as Moral Foundations Theory.  According to this theory, evolution has given the human mind not just a single moral sense, but a suite of at least 6 moral foundations, which evolved to help us function as social animals.  We don't just have one moral elephant--we have six, at least.  Rather than try to explain them and get them wrong, I'm going to take the liberty of quoting at length from, a website run by Haidt and his colleagues.  The six moral foundations of the theory are:
"1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]
3) Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor. 
4) Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it's "one for all, and all for one." 
5) Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
6) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions)."
According to Moral Foundations Theory, most psychologically-normal humans are born with a basic moral sense, which predisposes them to have preferences along each of these six dimensions.  Depending on their personality, upbringing, and culture, some dimensions may be valued more than others.  Haidt compares our six-dimensional, adjustable moral sense to a stereo equalizer with six sliding knobs.  The setting for each knob is determined by who you are, and how and where you were raised.

One of Haidt's most interesting ideas is that westerners, especially educated, affluent, and liberal westerners, have dialed some of the knobs way down compared to most people in traditional societies.  Western liberals tend to value the first three foundations far more than the second three.  Western conservatives, however, view all six as important aspects of morality, and in this they're more like people in traditional societies around the world.  They value in-group loyalty, which helps explain why are much more comfortable than liberals with patriotic displays, and far less comfortable with suggesting that their country might be in the wrong.  They value authority, which explains why they are more likely to embrace tradition, and traditional authority figures.  Their heightened sense of sanctity and degradation explains why they are more likely to think some sexual practices are wrong, even if they take place between consenting adults who both enjoy it.  In contrast to conservatives, liberals generally think that if you are being fair, and not hurting or oppressing anyone, you should be able to do what you want.

So, liberals and conservatives have the knobs on their moral equalizers set at different levels.  But it's actually more complicated than that.  For each dimension of morality, liberals and conservatives seem to have different ideas about what is required to be moral.  It's as though each knob could slide sideways, as well as up and down.  For example, liberals tend to value fairness in the sense of equality of outcome, so they're far more likely to think it's OK for wealth to be redistributed than conservatives.  Conservatives think of fairness as proportionality and just desert--you get what you deserve (whether you deserve reward or punishment), and you shouldn't get what you haven't earned.  On the liberty/oppression dimension, liberals and conservatives are both likely to feel oppressed and think their liberties are threatened.  But liberals are more likely to feel oppressed when freedom of expression, sexuality, or choice is threatened, while conservatives feel oppressed when they feel their economic freedom or religiosity is threatened.  Both sides are concerned with liberty and oppression--they just have a different idea of what those things mean.

Haidt and his colleagues are unusual in that they're willing to admit that their theory is probably incomplete, and sure to be revised.  On their website, they even invited people to challenge their theory, and suggest other foundations of morality that they may have missed.  One of these suggestions led to the expansion of the theory to include Liberty/Oppression as one of its foundations.  Other people's suggestions for universal dimensions of human morality seem pretty plausible to me, including truthfulness, wisdom, and self-control.

I can think of a couple of suggestions, myself.  I notice that conservatives place a very high value on responsibility/accountability, and I'm not sure how well that fits into any of the six current foundations of the theory.  I also think courage is important, and probably needs to be accounted for.  This morning, I asked some friends on Facebook to list qualities they see as characteristic of a moral person.  They listed some that don't fit into Moral Foundations Theory in an obvious way, including: genuineness/authenticity, simplicity, faithfulness to one's belief system, modesty/humility/awareness of our fallibility, and tolerance.  Tolerance is an especially interesting one, because I doubt very much that it's innate.  Cultures throughout history have not been especially tolerant of each other.  The modern liberal idea of tolerance as a virtue is a recent thing; a product of culture, not nature.

I suspect that as the theory is refined, its founders will come to realize that liberals value the last three dimensions more than they thought, but in different ways.  Many liberals, for example, have a clear sense of loyalty/betrayal, when it comes to their own liberal ideology.  Try showing up at a Sierra Club meeting with a big greasy hamburger in a styrofoam box.  You will likely be treated as a bit of a turncoat.  Almost all humans seem to have a sense of tribal loyalty, and they wear the badges of their tribe with pride, whether that badge is "Celebrate Diversity", or "National Rifle Association".  The subconscious elephant of tribal morality is an especially powerful one. How many people embrace a belief because they belong to a certain group, instead of the other way around?

Haidt has also pointed out that liberals do have a sense of the sanctity/degradation dimension.  Whereas conservatives are concerned with the sanctity of sex and marriage, liberals are often concerned with the sanctity of nature, and many of them have a vision of nature as pure and harmonious. This extends to the food they choose to eat, which must be free of "unnatural" ingredients, as well as any other taint of ecological or social impropriety.  Many liberals are developing dietary restrictions that are nearly as moralized and strict as those of Hindus or Orthodox Jews.

The theories I've described here seem extremely important to me, especially in such divisive times.  First, I think they give us a clearer picture of ourselves and the world we live in, and that's good in and of itself (I'm one of those people who thinks truth is a moral issue).  But they're also important because they make us stop and think about our own morality.  If most moral reactions are based more on gut-level emotion than careful reasoning, then we should stop and consider whether we've really thought through our beliefs, or just rationalized the ones we preferred in the first place.

Liberals and conservatives are constantly accusing each other of immorality, but Moral Foundations Theory reminds us that almost everyone thinks morality (or ethics, if you prefer that term) is important.  Of course, some people on each side are immoral (with slick and powerful politicians, maybe it's more than some).  This is a problem, but the bigger issue is that each side conceives morality differently.  If we acknowledge that the other side is just as concerned with morality as we are, it's easier to break the mutually destructive cycle of demonization.  Then we might start trying to understand each other, and at least agree to disagree.

I'm not saying we should be relativists.  We can try to understand the other side without agreeing with them, and we can be civil while resisting an agenda we see as harmful.  Also, just because nature has given most people a moral sense, that doesn't mean their moral sense is right.  Nature may predispose us to treat those who look, act, and talk like we do better than we treat outsiders.  But that doesn't mean it's right to do so.  Similarly, just because people in some cultures think some people are born inferior to others doesn't mean they are right.  I believe some settings on the moral equalizer are better than others.  As a secular, relatively liberal westerner, I distrust automatic in-group loyalty, respect for authority, and traditional ideas of purity...and I think I'm right to do so.  But I still think it's important for me to understand that most people on Earth live in a more complex moral world than I do.  Besides, I could be wrong.


Haidt, J. (2007). The new synthesis in moral psychology. Science, 316, 998-1002.

Is "Do Unto Others" Written Into Our Genes?  Nicolas Wade.  New York Times 

Jonathan Haidt on the moral roots of liberals and conservatives (TED video)

The Moral Instinct.  Steven Pinker.  New York Times 

The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.  Jonathan Haidt

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Backbone and the Benefit of the Doubt: Things I Learned From My Dad

I've just been engaged in a polite Facebook debate about whether a certain politician is the sort of hateful racist who throws the n-word around. The man's politics absolutely repel me, but I defended him on this issue, saying I don't think the evidence is strong enough to accuse him of something that nasty. Part of the response was, "I'm a little surprised that you're willing to give him the benefit of the doubt."

I was a little surprised myself.  Not so much that I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but that I spoke up and defended him in the first place. I normally would have held my peace. The reason I spoke up, I realized, is that it was my Dad's birthday.

Let me explain. I had been feeling especially appreciative of Dad all week. Last weekend, I had the privilege of meeting Rick Bragg, who wrote the brilliant, bestselling book All Over But the Shoutin'. In the book, he describes--with love and awe--how his mother was able to raise him despite being abandoned by his drunk, violent father.  In one passage, he tells about a time when he was a small boy, and watched his father "beat the mortal hell" out of another man in a parking lot.

I can't imagine seeing a thing like that.  I grew in the same sort of hill-country southern town Rick Bragg did (the Ozarks, not the Appalachians, but the cultures are practically identical), but my dad is everything his wasn't: kind, responsible, and principled. He's one of the greatest men I know, and I could go on and on about why that's true. I won't because we don't usually gush in my family, and it would embarrass him even more than this essay will.  So I'll focus on why, because it was Dad's birthday, I felt moved to give a politician--a politician with views that are hateful to me--the benefit of the doubt.  Not only that, but to do what comes even less naturally to me, and speak up in his defense. The answer is, that's what Dad taught me to do.

In fact, both my Mom and my Dad always taught me to be try to be relentlessly fair-minded. As a child, when I came home talking about how mean some kid had been at school, they would say, "Well, he might be having a pretty rough time at home." And he probably was. If a grownup was raising his voice, getting out of line, they would mention it later. "He must have been having a bad day. I doubt he acts like that all the time". I didn't start to realize how rare this attitude was until I was a young teenager. I would go to high school basketball games (as a spectator--I can barely dribble a basketball), and watch other dads get all red-faced and hoarse yelling at the referees. They always thought the refs were favoring the other team. Once, driving me home from a game, Dad said, "Well, we won, but those refs wanted us to win awfully bad". I couldn't imagine any of those other dads--the hollerin' dads--saying a thing like that. They would have looked at him like he was Benedict Arnold. In fact, they did, because he wasn't afraid to say so when the refs were favoring us, or when the other team beat us fair and square. I suspect he was especially likely to speak up if one of his kids was in earshot. When I was a kid, one of the surest ways to get in trouble was to be a poor sport. It was one of the THINGS YOU DO NOT DO.

Growing up, Mom and Dad gave me the impression that all adults were basically sensible, level-headed, and least deep down.  In short, I thought grownups generally acted like grownups, and if they didn't, they were probably having a bad day. If they never seemed to act right, well, they probably had other good qualities, or "they had a pretty rough childhood...never had much of a chance".

When I got older, Mom and Dad would let their guard down more. In my family, when someone is acting like a stinker, they are "being a toad". Once, when I was about 17, Dad and I got into a debate with a man whose anger and racism always hovered over him like a repellent cloud. I had been around this person all my life, and never heard Dad say anything bad about him. On the way home, Dad said, "Well, he's just kind of an old toad". Later, I heard my Mom talking about the same guy, "You know, he's always been so good to his wife and kids."  Let me be clear: they weren't excusing his racism.  I've seen them both argue with him over it.  It's just that they didn't want to write him off as a worthless human being.  Because he wasn't.  He was good to his wife and kids, and he probably has several other redeeming qualities. One rotten part of an apple doesn't make the whole thing poisonous.

Looking back, I realize that Dad's unbending fair-mindedness and diplomacy was partly for the benefit of his kids. He was setting an example. Dad's a passionate man, and when he gets heated up about an issue, he might raise his voice a little. He's been known to reject arguments he doesn't like without giving them a fair hearing. We all do that, if we have any soul. And Dad has a lot. He didn't teach his kids to be fair and forgiving because he was afraid of conflict. He doesn't generally like conflict, but when it comes to something he thinks is important, he's not afraid of anybody.

Over the last few years, he's grown notorious among the sports fans of Arkansas for saying schools spend too much of the taxpayers' money on gyms and football fields, and not enough on teaching kids to read and write. Half the thick-necked football coaches in the state are mad at him, and so are most of the superintendents (they generally started out as coaches themselves). Dad doesn't relish that fact, but he accepts it as unavoidable. When they yell and bluster at him for daring to question the sacredness of the gym floor and the gridiron, he almost always keeps his cool. Because he knows that the cool-headed person is most likely to win an argument. And because that's how grownups are supposed to act.

When I went to college and majored in psychology, I realized how right Mom and Dad in giving people the benefit of the doubt. I learned about ideas like the Fundamental Attribution Error:  the tendency people have to attribute their own mistakes to external factors, and other people's mistakes to personal failings. This tendency explains why it is that when I cut someone off in traffic, it's because I was distracted, but when someone cuts me off, it's because he's a road-raging idiot. Psychology is full of similar insights. Our brains tie themselves in knots trying to convince themselves that we are good and in the right, and that our opponents are sinister and wrong. We're the good guys; they're the bad guys. When Mom and Dad taught me to remember that I might be wrong, and that other people might not be as bad as they seem, they were unknowingly offering sound, lab-tested psychological advice.

The funny thing is, I don't really know where their attitude came from. I believe Dad got his sense of sportsmanship partly from his high school coach. I never met the man, but I'm grateful to him for sending that lesson into the future.  As for the fairness and charity of judgement my parents display, I know they learned it from their parents, but I'm not sure where to trace it beyond that. It may be an aspect of that tendency among some southerners to be polite right up to the point where they're ready to strangle someone. Not all southerners act that way, by any means, but that is one thing about the south I would like to see exported to other parts of the country (there are other things about the south, like the racism and small-mindedness that are still all too common, that should die quickly and have a dance floor built over their graves).

Wherever my parent's fair-mindedness came from, I think we need their attitude now more than ever. American politics has always been divisive, but both sides seem to demonize each other more now than they ever did before. Every day I hear people suggesting that liberals are all idiotic, traitorous socialists; or that conservatives are all mean-spirited, racist fear mongers.  As the two sides' mutual contempt grows, their ideologies grow more starkly opposed, and extremism grows more common.

I'm not saying we should all be political centrists. As an independent who leans more left than right, I've never been so concerned about the fear, callousness, and xenophobia I see in some parts of the Republican party. I'm realizing I need to have the backbone my Dad does, and push back against these hurtful undercurrents threatening my country. At the same time, though, I think it's important to remember the other lesson he taught me. However badly people seem to be acting, and as repellent as I may find their views, many of them are very good people in other ways. They take care of their kids and parents. They donate to charities. They try to do the right thing, as they see it. Sure, some of them are hateful sorts with few redeeming qualities.  But most of them aren't, and the ones that are can be found on both sides of the political divide. This means if you give someone the benefit of the doubt and assume that they're a decent person in many ways, you'll be right most of the time. We shouldn't demonize each other, because very, very few of us really are demons.

Sadly though, the impression I got from my parents--that adult humans almost always act like grownups--turned out to be false. I just turned forty, and somehow I'm still surprised when I see adults being petty, calling each other names, and losing control of their temper as if doing so is a thing to be proud of. I'm surprised at myself when I do those things. But I'm glad my parents' example gave me unrealistic expectations for how grown-ups should act. Maybe if more of us start believing we should act like grownups, one day we actually will.

Thursday, April 5, 2012