Friday, September 24, 2010

Moral Foundations and Emotional Geometry

Ravi Iyer has some graphs that show some pretty interesting delineations between liberalism and conservatism.  They're based on the five pillars of Jon Haidt's "Moral Foundations Theory" :
 1) Harm/care, related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. This foundation underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

2) Fairness/reciprocity, related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. This foundation generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.

3) Ingroup/loyalty, related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. This foundation 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."

4) Authority/respect, shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. This foundation underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

5) Purity/sanctity, shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. This foundation 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
Ravi's been collaborating on the web site, where they've been collecting data on liberal and conservative self-reporting in regard to the pillars of each domain.  He writes,
The central finding of Moral Foundations theory to date is the split between what liberals and conservatives report caring about.


A comment on his post asks whether it isn't too early to claim any innate, or evolutionary evidence for such a construct.  I think that's a very fair point.  The pillars seem very universal, but so are a lot of human behaviors that would seem better explained as a function of simply being really smart people with culture. I can't remember the proper term but it's essentially the unintended consequence of another adaptation.

Something I find crucial to the liberal/conservative vision is determinism/free will. This is a complex subject, as it is philosophical, political, scientific, as well as intuitive.

We all obviously intuit that we have free will. Yet the argument against it says this is merely a mistake. Which then raises the question of how much our intuitions are culturally based. Or maybe simply too intellectually taxing. It is obviously advantageous to live our lives as if we were not determined, or at least not live in a perpetual state of laborious self-analysis of our every decision's causal impulse. (Although being more reflective can be ultimately quite beneficial both to ourselves and society).

But it is political in the sense that there are many political concepts wrapped up not only in the question itself but in the resulting implications. It is scientific in that we are getting better and better at being able to test consciousness and narrow down precisely the the physical structures involved in thought.

In a sense the question of determinism ties directly into a all of the pillars mentioned. Harm, loyalty, authority, fairness and purity are all directly affected by one's feelings on determinism. Or if not ones own actions, at least how one views the actions of others is affected. If the essential question is: from where comes the experience of the mind?, then each pillar takes on new meaning.

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