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f/k/a archives . . . real opinions & real haiku

September 20, 2007

how do Your Morals affect Your Politics?

Filed under: Haiku or Senryu,viewpoint — David Giacalone @ 9:37 am

  In an attempt to be a good citizen, I had planned to spend some serious time yesterday learning about the recently-released Hillary Clinton health care proposal and how it compares with those of other presidential candidates. [Starting with discussion by Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein, “A Healthy Dose of Hillary” and by David Brooks at the New York Times, “Hillary Clinton, From Revolution to Evolution” (Sept. 19, 2007).] I was even going to delve into the very useful Public Agenda Health Care Issue Guide.

I quickly found myself in agreement with Pearlstein’s conclusion in WaPo that:

“The rap on Hillary Clinton — the reason even Democrats haven’t warmed to her — is that everything she does seems driven by political calculation. Now with a well-crafted proposal on a signature issue, Clinton has the opportunity to prove that she can also be the leader who is willing to tell voters the hard truths they have suspected all along but don’t want to confront.”

But, alas (and, definitely, alack), both my flesh and spirit were weak, and I was rather easily led astray, when tempted by a subject that is simply a lot more interesting to my curious and optimistically-skeptical brain: Is ‘Do Unto Others’ Written Into Our Genes? (New York Times, by Nicholas Wade, Sept. 18, 2007) The NYT article focuses on the work of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia, a proponent of positive psychology, and author of “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom” (“a book about how to construct a life of virtue, happiness, fulfillment, and meaning.”). Haidt (pronouced like “height”) “has been constructing a broad evolutionary view of morality that traces its connections both to religion and to politics.” Looking at situations that cause almost universal disgust in human beings, Haidt became interested in the phenomenon of moral dumbfounding — “when people feel strongly that something is wrong but cannot explain why.”

Dumbfounding led him to view morality as driven by two separate mental systems, one ancient and one modern, though the mind is scarcely aware of the difference. The ancient system, which he calls moral intuition, is based on the emotion-laden moral behaviors that evolved before the development of language. The modern system — he calls it moral judgment — came after language, when people became able to articulate why something was right or wrong.”

According to the NYT Article, “Dr. Haidt combed the literature of anthropology and psychology for ideas about morality throughout the world. He identified five components of morality that were common to most cultures. Some concerned the protection of individuals, others the ties that bind a group together.” (emphasis added)

“Of the moral systems that protect individuals, one is concerned with preventing harm to the person and the other with reciprocity and fairness. Less familiar are the three systems that promote behaviors developed for strengthening the group. These are loyalty to the in-group, respect for authority and hierarchy, and a sense of purity or sanctity.”

Of particular interest to political pundits and junkies, “Dr. Haidt has detected a striking political dimension to morality.” Working with grad student Jesse Graham, he found that self-proclaimed:

  • “[L]iberals attached great weight to the two moral systems protective of individuals — those of not harming others and of doing as you would be done by. But liberals assigned much less importance to the three moral systems that protect the group, those of loyalty, respect for authority and purity.”
  • “Conservatives placed value on all five moral systems but they assigned less weight than liberals to the moralities protective of individuals.”

Haidt, who calls himself a moderate liberal, believes that “extreme liberals” attach almost no importance to the moral systems that protect the group. [Note: that sounds like Libertarians.] The article explains, that “Because conservatives do give some weight to individual protections, they often have a better understanding of liberal views than liberals do of conservative attitudes, in his view.” Dr. Haidt insists that societies need both kinds of personalities.

According to the Times, Haidt is “aware that many people — including ‘the politically homogeneous discipline of psychology’ — equate morality with justice, rights and the welfare of the individual, and dismiss everything else as mere social convention. But many societies around the world do in fact behave as if loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity are moral concepts, Dr. Haidt notes, and this justifies taking a wider view of the moral domain.” Haidt points out:

“Notions of disgust and purity are widespread outside Western cultures. ‘Educated liberals are the only group to say, “I find that disgusting but that doesn’t make it wrong”,’ Dr. Haidt said.” [An example given: a hungry third-world family eats its pet dog after it is injured and dies, basically reducing it to roadkill. Most of us would be disgusted by their diner entree, but why?]

Read the full article to hear from Haidt’s critics. [Note: I am not impressed by those who say Haidt misses the fact that liberals support social programs and government intervention. It seems rather obvious that they do so in order to protect individuals and promote their welfare.]

I think Dr. Haidt has given us an interesting additional perspective to help understand how our own or other people’s world-views emerged and affect their attitudes and politics. You might want to compare his approach to the insight offered by David Callahan in his The Moral Center – the public/electorate is not so much split between liberals and conservatives, as between “The Cares [about the fate of all Americans]” and “The Care Nots.”

As I wrote in the post towards a “democratic morality” and majority, on the night of George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004, liberals and Democrats need to acknowledge and emphasize the values that we share with a broad portion of the American public. To build a Democratic majority, we must maintain a conversation with people of good will and strong personal ethics, who are deeply committed to their social and family responsibilities, and then to “build a broad consensus on values and morality — social and personal — that can make America stronger and more united. Haidt’s analysis should assist the process of understanding each other.

If you are wondering how Haidt’s analysis might apply to yourself or your family and friends, I suggest you head over to the website, which offers several tests that allow you to Explore Your Morals — “where you can learn about your own morality while contributing to scientific research on moral psychology.” The website is a collaboration among several social psychologists who study morality and politics.
The main questionnaire at — the one that is the foundation of Haidt’s conclusions about the relationship between ideology or politics and morals, and that they hope you’ll start with — is its Moral Foundations Questionnaire. It should take about 20 minutes to complete, and helps you identify “What underlies the virtues and issues you care about? Why do you have the political orientation that you do?” It might be interesting and enjoyable to sit down with the test and a few friends some time soon, perhaps on a cold, rainy autumn weekend. Other tests offered from their Explore Your Morals page include:

  • Presidential Candidates and Morality Survey (Which candidates for President in 2008 do you prefer? What do you think about morality and politics?)
  • Sacredness Survey (What would you do for a million dollars/?)
  • Identification with Humanity Scale (What groups are you most loyal to? Whom do you identify with most?)
  • Moral Scenarios #1 (How would you judge people who face these dilemmas?
  • Preference for the Merit Principle (How do you believe rewards should be distributed in society?)

I’d love to know how Hillary Clinton (as well as Obama, Edwards and others) would score on YourMorals’ surveys, and what conclusions she would draw from the evaluation. [Would her morality lead her, as WaPo‘s Steven Pearlstein wonders, to share with voters “the hard truths they have suspected all along but don’t want to confront”?] Right now, though, I’m going to simply share some haiku from the person who comes to mind (without controversy or “negatives”) when the haijin community hears the word “Hilary” — Union College’s music professor and composer, Hilary Tann. Here’s a selection from the most recent edition of Upstate Dim Sum, a biannual anthology of the work of the four-member Route 9 Haiku Group:

downtime –
the contours of your face
by firelight

Valentine’s Day —
our first bluebird
at the feeder

All Saints Day —
the hay bale
sprouts green

quiet day
the leaves
where they fall

his shirts
in a line —
the urge to hug

………………… by Hilary Tann from Upstate Dim Sum 2007/1

p.s. On a mostly unrelated topic: I was surprised this morning to see that someone came to this website after Googling <most famous barrister of all time>, and clicking on the #1 result, which was our post “top twenty law review articles of all time” (April 11, 2007). [I had been discussing BabyBarista and getting rid of wigs in civil matters in the UK and said: “That reminds me of a question I’ve often wanted to ask UK lawyers: Do they mind that Horace Rumpole is the most famous barrister in America? Is he the most famous in Britain, too?”] Following that referral back to its source, I discovered that UK’s The Lawyer recently had an article proclaiming, “Revealed: UK’s most famous lawyer” (Sept. 12, 2007). They used the dubious measurement of “mentions in the press in 2006” (what took them so long compiling the results?, one might ask). Tony Blair’s wife Cherie Booth QC [347 mentions] and Heather Mills’ divorce solicitor Anthony Julius [195] “battled for the title of the UK’s most famous lawyer.” But note: Jack Straw, incoming Lord Chancellor and Justice Minister had 4616 mentions.

Rumpole No matter what those iffy numbers may tell you about current lawyer fame, I have the feeling that Horace Rumpole may in fact be the “most famous barrister of all time” (with Perry Mason the most famous U.S. lawyer?). Rumpole is surely a great role model.

  • Finally, also unrelated to Morals and Politics, but worth a mention: Hat tip to Anastasia at Lawsagna, for her helpful review of the latest edition of The Complete Lawyer magazine.

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