Discussions of morality often get rather touchy, and there seems to be a uncrossable gap between certain outlooks. I recently noticed an article in Science, the AAAS journal, the May 18th edition, that characterizes this gap rather nicely. The article, titled The New Synthesis in Moral Philosophy, discusses recent research in human morality. For a long time, there was a theory of the rational moral individual weighing the various choices and then making a moral decision. In the new synthesis there has been more emphasis on emotions and emotional responses. Data is not acquired objectively. It is received and given an emotional reaction, and it is the data and this visceral reaction that are used in moral decision making.
The authors describe a study of moral decision making in which there are five axes of morality, and people's sensitivities to these axes can be determined by asking them how much would you have to be paid to violate certain moral principles. For example, how much would it take to get you stick a pin in your hand? How about sticking a pin in the hand of a child you are unfamiliar with? This is a measurement along the harm/care axis. There is also an axis with regards to fairness and reciprocity. Another axis is concerned with in group loyalty. Will you stick up for the side? The fourth axis concerns authority and respect, how one acknowledges one's place in society. The fifth axis deals with purity and sanctity.
They discuss four major principles which I'll simply cite here, since the dicussions are rather lengthy and beyond the scope of this post:
- Intuitive Primacy (but Not Dictatorship)
- (Moral) Thinking Is for (Social) Doing
- Morality Binds and Builds
- Morality Is About More Than Harm and Fairness
You should be able to see where this is going by now. After all, this is a political, not a moral or philosophical, blog. There is one very nice clear that seems to sum up what so many of us have observed in dicussions of morality in political discourse. I am going to cite fair use in including a link to a copy of this chart which is at:
The vertical axis is sensitivity to a given axis of morality. The horizontal axis is politics, and the moral gap is quite visible. Liberals are concerned with harm and fairness. Conservatives are concerned with authority and sanctity. That is not an easy gap to bridge, especially since liberals are more likely to accept that there are things larger than in group solidarity, though even conservatives have some limits on this as well.
I doubt that very many readers are surprised by this. How else could the forces of darkness and oppression do so much harm and be so unfair and still survive for so long and with such power. As best I can tell, the 18th century European Enlightenment was a unique event, enabled by a very particular set of political, religious, technological and cultural circumstances. As a child of the Enlightenment, I'd hate to see the forces of darkness triumph.
The article itself is behind the Science/AAAS pay wall, I'll throw in a link for those who want to look it up online or elsewhere: