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The Structures of Moral Thought

Submitted by Ken Watts on Sat, 09/22/2007 - 16:29

If you want to understand yourself a little better, you can go over to and take one or more surveys that are part of actual academic studies on morality.

There are several surveys at the site. I just got through taking the first one, and I found the experience fascinating. It doesn't take long, but be prepared to have some trouble answering the questions as you enter into a dialog with yourself about what you really believe. Consider it a spiritual exercise.

You'll also find the results, which they give you at the end of the survey, interesting. Here are mine:


The study is based on five different foundations used by humans to build a moral view: harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity.  Everyone values each of these areas differently, and at the end of the survey you get to see which of these you emphasize, and how much.

There seems to be a universal human agreement on the first two—care for others and fairness. Everyone, liberal and conservative alike, tends to value those. The last three are more or less peculiar to conservatives—ingroup loyalty, respect for authority, and purity.

So, for example, liberals tend to view gay marriage as a fairness and caring issue, while conservatives tend to view it through the lenses of ingroup loyalty (gays are not part of their culture), respect for authority (the authority of the Bible, the church, or just traditional culture), and purity (they perceive homosexuality as impure). The same distinctions can be made on a variety of issues.

While all five foundations get defined by culture—what acts, for example, count as "harm", or what rules define "fairness"—the last three are particularly arbitrary. There are a great many ways to harm another person which are so clear as to be recognized in any culture. But ideas like purity are almost entirely culturally dependent (once you get past simple hygiene). Thus purity is, in a sense, tied to ingroup loyalty. I accept this definition of purity because the group I am loyal to does. And defending that definition is synonymous with defending my group.

The same can be said of authority. If I accept a given authority, religious or political or economic, I become a member of an ingroup, which I am loyal to by virtue of our acceptance of a common authority.

So these three foundations, working together, can effectively overrule the other two. We see this in the way the Bush administration conflates patriotism, authority, and purity over against fairness, and considerations of harm, to both US citizens and others. It's also clear in the rhetoric of the war on terror—for example, the idea that it's justified to suspend civil rights because a) it's a matter of protecting us from them, b) we should trust the authorities not to abuse their power, and c) the people who will suffer the harm are not Americans (not us) and consequently not quite so pure.

The problem is made even thornier because the combination of those three foundations resists self-criticism. When a person accepts the triumvirate of conservative values, any questioning of any specific stance is guilt-laden. To even think about the possibility of questioning a specific value is to feel impure, to feel disloyal, and to feel subversive. I know, I once lived there.

On the other hand, self-criticism—questioning one's own stance—comes naturally, if not easily, on the other end of the spectrum. The desire to be caring, to be fair, leads naturally to a willingness to consider the other side's point of view. This goes a long way toward explaining why liberal politicians are often perceived as weaker than conservatives. Of course, if you think that the ability to question and listen openly to your opponent's point of view—even to compromise—is a sign of psychological strength and of character, then you may perceive things differently.

But on that theme, I'd like to point out that taking a survey to learn about one's moral inclinations is more risky when you are afraid to examine your stance. And I find it suggestive (though not conclusive, by any means) that the  liberals who had taken the survey at the time I took it outnumbered the conservatives by four to one.