Philosopher Tamler Sommers recently published a book that consists of nine interviews with psychologists and philosophers, all of them centering upon issues related to human moral psychology. I find his conversation with psychologist Jonathan Haidt especially interesting. For one thing, Haidt suggests that there are at least four foundations of our moral intuitions–i.e., four “modules” of our moral psychology. All of our moral intuitions rest upon at least one of these psychological bases: (1) aversion to harm and suffering, (2) desire for fairness and equality, (3) concern for respect, authority, and social hierarchy, and (4) love of purity and sanctity, and aversion to pollution. (For the record, Haidt’s “Moral Foundations Theory” website adds a fifth: (5) loyalty to social in-groups. I’ll ignore it here.)
I’m not yet sure what I think about Haidt’s moral foundations theory, but what he goes on to say about it is fascinating. American liberals, he thinks, have pared things down to just two moral foundations for their intuitions about good and evil, right and wrong, and those foundations are (1) and (2)–an aversion to harm and suffering, and a desire for fairness and equality. Conservatives, on the other hand, make use of all four modules. This, for instance, is why conservatives think gay marriage is wrong, but liberals don’t–i.e., the idea of gay marriage engages a purity module in conservatives that liberals lack. Conservatives find gay marriage impure, and so they judge it wrong. Liberals, however, don’t see that anyone’s being harmed, and think that extending marriage rights to homosexuals would advance the cause of equality.
Again, I’m not yet sure what I think about all of this. But it’s right after this that Haidt goes on to say one of the most uncrazy things I’ve read in a long time:
Tamler Sommers: You tend to sound quite pessimistic about the state of affairs in America. What are the prospects of discussion between conservatives and liberals, given that conservatives make use of two modules–purity and hierarchy–that we liberals care little about? Are we speaking different languages? How can we get past this?
Jonathan Haidt: First, it would help if liberals understood conservatives better. If I have a mission in life, it is to convince people that everyone is morally motivated–everyone except for psychopaths. Everyone else is morally motivated. Liberals need to understand that conservatives are motivated by more than greed and hatred. And Americans … need to understand that even terrorists are pursuing moral goods. One of the most psychologically stupid things anyone ever said is that the 9/11 terrorists did what they did because they hate our freedom. … They did this because they hate us, they’re angry at us for many reasons, and terrorism and violence are “moral” actions, by which I don’t mean morally right, I mean morally motivated.
TS: And at the same time you want liberals to understand that we didn’t go into Iraq just for oil and Halliburton.
JH: Of course not. Bush is Manichaean. He really believes that we are in a battle of good versus evil. Now I think that strategically he led us into disaster. But I never believed for a moment that this was about oil.
TS: As an aside, I completely agree with you on this. Being in an academic environment, I’m very frustrated with how people view conservatives–as moral monsters whose only goal is to pursue evil. It’s a little like the pro-choice, pro-life debate, where the pro-choice faction looks at the other side as though all it wants to do is oppress women.
JH: Exactly, exactly. … Liberals want to understand conservatives as motivated only be greed and racism. They think that conservatives just want to hurt minorities and get money. And that completely misses the point.
TS: So what would be the consequences of everyone understanding that the other side is morally motivated?
JH: We would become much more tolerant, and some compromise might be possible …