Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Φ's Morality

Any excuse to post that picture!

Many of you may remember Jonathan Haidt's revelation last year that conservatives evenly distribute their ethics among five dimensions -- care, reciprocity, loyalty, authority, and purity -- while liberals conern themselves only with the first two of these. Haidt's morality test, and much else, is now online.

Here are my results compared with liberals and conservatives:

VirtueConservativesLiberalsΦ
Harm:3.03.62.3
Fairness:3.03.72.5
Loyalty:3.12.13.5
Authority:3.32.14.0
Purity:2.91.33.8

Holy moly! Φ is even more right wing than the right wing! Indeed, he is the moral inverse of liberals: neglecting the first two categories in favor of the last three.

And yet . . . consider some of the questions, wherein we are asked to express our level of agreement with the following statements:

One of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal. [Emphasis added here and elsewhere.]

Uh . . . no? I would say one of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless human being. Sure, we shouldn't cause animal suffering for no good purpose, and a sadistic delight in the suffering of an animal is likely a leading indicator of some deep psychological problems. On the other hand, the little boys who throw rocks at squirrels have committed something less than a war crime.

Respect for authority is something all children need to learn.

Is there really any debate about this? I'm guessing the only people who answer NO have never spent any time in the company of children. Which may, come to think of it, describe most liberals.

It can never be right to kill a human being.

I doubt anyone really thinks this. I suspect the people answering YES suffer from a momentary poverty of imagination. I know for a fact that many good liberals, confronted by someone harming a child, would in fact be willing to push the button on him.

Chastity is an important and valuable virtue.

Again, does anyone really doubt this? Granted, the short-term opportunity costs of chastity, particularly for men, may be higher than most people are prepared to pay. Granted as well that we think differently of what chastity means for the young versus the old, for men versus women, for those who choose it versus those who have it thrust upon them. But again I would argue that anyone who doesn't think it "valuable and important" is either morally insensate or has never had a teenage daughter.

But notice the asymmetry in the questions. To get a "conservative" score, the test-taker has only to acknowledge that purity, authority, and loyalty are, in fact, virtues at all. To get a "liberal" score, in contrast, the test-taker must elevate harm and reciprocity to paramount status. Notice the absolutist words like never and worst in the "liberal" questions, and their absence in the "conservative" ones.

Sad. Given this imbalance, I would have expected that more conservatives would have scores like mine, and the liberals to have more evenly distributed scores. The fact that they are not says something disappointing about conservatives and liberals both.

5 comments:

trumwill said...

I doubt anyone really thinks [it's never right to kill a human being]. I suspect the people answering YES suffer from a momentary poverty of imagination. I know for a fact that many good liberals, confronted by someone harming a child, would in fact be willing to push the button on him.

I think that you're taking the question a little too literally here. Sometimes when you read questions like this, you have to make assumptions as to what the question is actually getting at. Most people would agree that to kill someone that you had absolute knowledge was about to kill someone else is justified, but what about killing on the basis that they have killed before and might kill again? Killing on the basis of justice? Retribution? The protection of property? The protection of your honor? Your family's honor? Your ancestry's honor? The potential saving of life down the road? The potential saving of many lives down the road? The near-certain saving of life? The maybe-certain? The plausible? This question can be parsed countless ways. By expressing a general answer, you're giving an answer to a hundred specific questions.

The question is perhaps poorly worded. It probably would have been better to hedge the wording a little bit to say "almost always wrong" or the inverse "is sometimes right". Or maybe they chose the wording that they did because it properly calibrated the answers and hedging would have created too strong a curve on the agree side of things. I couldn't say.

Again, does anyone really doubt [that chastity is a virtue]?

Yes. Many people believe that chastity has no particular moral virtue. There was a time in my life when I believed firmly that there was no moral component to sex (and thus no moral virtue to the withholding of it). Indeed, as we've discussed, some people view chastity as grounds for suspicion. Like vegetarianism.

Is there really any debate about [children needing to be taught to respect authority?]

To me, your reaction here is inverse to your reaction to the killing question. Just as with the killing question I zeroed in on the word "never" before determining that's not exactly what was meant, here my question was "authority"? Whose authority? All authority all the time? All adult authority? All parental authority? Authority that happens to be right? Authority that has power over you? What about authority that's wrong?

In the end, as with the killing question, I would answer "moderately agree".

Notice the absolutist words like never and worst in the "liberal" questions, and their absence in the "conservative" ones.

I have to wonder if that's part of the calibration I mentioned before. Maybe without that absolutist language, the answers were too skewed?

Φ said...

Trumwill:

You hit the nail on the head by raising the calibration issue. The point of the test is to measure the difference between self-identified "liberals" and "conservatives", and these questions obviously succeed at this. Therefore, I don't object to the questions per se; my point is that, by my reading, conservatives . . . aren't really.

But my reading may be wrong; you are correct that I may be interpreting the questions too literally, and that this cratered my harm and reciprocity scores. Indeed, in the abstract, I would certainly rank "purity" as less important that the other four virtues, and the trade-offs I would make among the other four would be highly situation-dependent. I can imagine a much-more-lengthly Myers-Briggs style test that asks participant to make choices between courses of action in response to a variety of hypothetical situations. These questions might try to tease out the participant's violence-provocation curve, much as you list different circumstances in which someone might consider taking a life. These questions might show liberal and conservative morality to be much closer in practical situations that Haidt's button-pushing implies, or at least allow Φ to express a better balance between the five dimensions than his present results.

Many people believe that chastity has no particular moral virtue.

I'm still pushing back on this. How many liberals wouldn't flinch if their their teenage daughter asked a boy in for a sleep-over? How many liberal men would suddenly discover the "moral component to sex" if they walked in on their wife and another man? The ball is really only in play when the subject is the behavior of sober, lawfully consenting, responsible, of-age, unmarried adults. That's not really the same as saying that chasity is or isn't a virtue.

trumwill said...

I'm still pushing back on this. How many liberals wouldn't flinch if their their teenage daughter asked a boy in for a sleep-over?

Maybe, but it also seems to me that much of their concern would at least ostensibly be related to practical and emotional issues rather than moral issues. What happens if my little girl becomes pregnant? Gets an STD? Has her heart broken by a boy that's using her?

That could still be considered a virtue in the same sense that caution is a virtue and discretion is valor. But "virtue" is read by many as more strictly moral and so it could easily be read as "No, I don't see virtue there."

I would prefer any daughter or son of mine not be having sex in high school, but mostly because I don't think that they're really ready for it at that point in their lives and don't have a clear view of the potential consequences and their relevance.

Then again, I have no teenage daughter. This is all subject to change. Then again, son or daughter, if they're anything like their parents I doubt that they will even have the opportunity!

Brandon Berg said...

Φ:
You are, to your credit, not thinking like a lefty. The point of this exercise is not to deliberate about the precise meaning of a question, but rather to choose the answer that best signals how you would like others to view you.

"One of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal" is intended to be read as "I care about defenseless animals," or, more concisely, "I'm a good person."

"Respect for authority is something all children need to learn" is intended to be read as "I am a fascist." Read through a lefty lens, "Chastity is an important and valuable virtue" becomes "I'm one of those uptight Christians."

Notice the absolutist words like never and worst in the "liberal" questions, and their absence in the "conservative" ones.

So much for the fabled "liberal" capacity for nuance, eh?

David said...

I took the test and had a similiar prioritization of virtues. Of course, I openly proclaim myself to be a reactionary. Perhaps you are as well. I've heard modern conservatism described as the trailing edge of the shadow of the great beast of liberalism.