Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Moral categories and political alignment

I have finished reading Stephen Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature:  Why Violence has Declined.  You might question why I wrote my first post about it before completing it; some questions must remain unanswered.  Near the end of the book Pinker talks about the ways in which moral imperatives can be organized and how that causes partisan politics.  There are a few ways to arrange this moral organization but the one I liked the best divided things into five parts:  Purity/Sanctity, In-group Loyalty, Authority/Respect, Harm/Care, and Fairness/Reciprocity.

It has been discovered that conservatives tend to draw from all five categories when making moral decisions and coming up with guidelines but that liberals tend to draw only from Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity.   Liberals have no respect for the idea that certain objects or ideas are sacrosanct, that it is inherently moral to favour those people in your tribe, nor that doing what you are told has some innate value.  This certainly describes my position!  Orders from authority figures and taboos are only useful so long as their objective and results are forwarding real goals such as helping people or promoting liberty and freedom.  I have no use at all for the idea that it is more moral to help people in your own group - patriotism is a curse word in my vocabulary, not a shining ideal.

I read an analysis of this work by one of my favourite bloggers awhile ago.  He took it as a point of pride that conservatives, of which he is one, draw from all five categories and saw it as a weakness of liberal ideals that Sanctity, Authority, and In-group Loyalty were ignored.  I think he is completely off his trolley in this case, but it is fascinating to me to read the alternative viewpoint and to try to get my mind around how the other side thinks.  It certainly helped me make sense of how conservatives make the decisions they do; when you really feel like obeying orders is intrinsically as valuable as doing something that helps people you are going to support all kinds of decisions that I find abhorrent.

When I argue politics I have always approached from the standpoint that human flourishing is the end goal of morality and assumed that everyone else believed that too.  My assumption was that once I convinced them that religion held no value in terms of promoting well being that it would be safely discredited and could be ignored along with many other conservative values.  Clearly that isn't going to work as it ignores the reality that a lot of people think that Sanctity, Respect, and Loyalty are ends in and of themselves rather than simply means.  This also explains why partisan politics gets so incredibly heated; we don't just disagree on the best way to accomplish things but rather we disagree on what sorts of things are even worth aiming for.

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