From last Sunday’s NY Times Magazine, an article arguing that there are five moral themes, biologically programmed, that all other moralities are built on:
The exact number of themes depends on whether you’re a lumper or a splitter, but Haidt counts five — harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity — and suggests that they are the primary colors of our moral sense. Not only do they keep reappearing in cross-cultural surveys, but each one tugs on the moral intuitions of people in our own culture. Haidt asks us to consider how much money someone would have to pay us to do hypothetical acts like the following:
Stick a pin into your palm.
Stick a pin into the palm of a child you don’t know. (Harm.)
Accept a wide-screen TV from a friend who received it at no charge because of a computer error.
Accept a wide-screen TV from a friend who received it from a thief who had stolen it from a wealthy family. (Fairness.)
Say something bad about your nation (which you don’t believe) on a talk-radio show in your nation.
Say something bad about your nation (which you don’t believe) on a talk-radio show in a foreign nation. (Community.)
Slap a friend in the face, with his permission, as part of a comedy skit.
Slap your minister in the face, with his permission, as part of a comedy skit. (Authority.)
Attend a performance-art piece in which the actors act like idiots for 30 minutes, including flubbing simple problems and falling down on stage.
Attend a performance-art piece in which the actors act like animals for 30 minutes, including crawling around naked and urinating on stage. (Purity.)
In each pair, the second action feels far more repugnant.
Umn… no, not for me.
To be sure, the thought of sticking myself with a pin sounds less repugnant than sticking a child. But keeping the TV stolen from a rich person’s house seems only marginally more repugnant to me.1
As for the other three, I don’t find the second action at all more repugnant, in any of them. And in the last one, I’d rather see a piece in which actors acted like animals than one in which they acted “like idiots.”
This doesn’t show that the “5 morals” theory is wrong. What it shows is that even if these five moral “ingredients” are universal, the application of them still varies enormously by culture, by subculture, and by individual. Even within as narrow and selected a group as “people who read the New York Times Sunday Magazine,” the writer is mistaken to assume that readers will share a common moral understanding.
Later on, however, the article does say:
In a large Web survey, Haidt found that liberals put a lopsided moral weight on harm and fairness while playing down group loyalty, authority and purity. Conservatives instead place a moderately high weight on all five.
So perhaps my reaction is just typical of a liberal.
- I’d have other objections to keeping the TV — for instance, not wanting to encourage housebreaking, which can lead to injury or death if things go wrong — but that’s an intellectual response, not a felt response. [↩]