Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Cat herders and the Five Axis of moral development

I was struck by this article by Jonathan Haidt. He writes about his research into moral reasoning:
  • I told people short stories in which a person does something disgusting or disrespectful that was perfectly harmless (for example, a family cooks and eats its dog, after the dog was killed by a car). I was trying to pit the emotion of disgust against reasoning about harm and individual rights.

    I found that disgust won in nearly all groups I studied (in Brazil, India, and the United States), except for groups of politically liberal college students, particularly Americans, who overrode their disgust and said that people have a right to do whatever they want, as long as they don't hurt anyone else.

  • OK, [academic moral theory holds that] there are two psychological systems, one about fairness/justice, and one about care and protection of the vulnerable. [...] There were three best candidates for being additional psychological foundations of morality, beyond harm/care and fairness/justice. These three we label as ingroup/loyalty (which may have evolved from the long history of cross-group or sub-group competition, related to what Joe Henrich calls "coalitional psychology"); authority/respect (which may have evolved from the long history of primate hierarchy, modified by cultural limitations on power and bullying, as documented by Christopher Boehm), and purity/sanctity, which may be a much more recent system, growing out of the uniquely human emotion of disgust, which seems to give people feelings that some ways of living and acting are higher, more noble, and less carnal than others.

  • In every sample we've looked at, in the United States and in other Western countries, we find that people who self-identify as liberals endorse moral values and statements related to the two individualizing foundations primarily, whereas self-described conservatives endorse values and statements related to all five foundations. It seems that the moral domain encompasses more for conservatives—it's not just about Gilligan's care and Kohlberg's justice. It's also about Durkheim's issues of loyalty to the group, respect for authority, and sacredness.
Our UU congregations are way about care and justice. We cast a wary eye, though, on ingroup/loyalty, on authority/respect and certainly on purity/sanctity. Or so I surmise, by the all the cars with Question Authority bumper stickers in our parking lots. We welcome transgressive behavior – especially transgressive behavior that doesn't directly harm anybody – much more than most churches. We don't just ignore the other axis. We dis them as superstitious. We deconstruct them as part of our Sunday morning worship.

There's a great market – a huge cultural appetite – for that stance. My own congregation is growing steadily with it.

If Haidt is right though – if these other three morality axis are about group solidarity – it explains something about the 'herding cats' experience of trying to lead in a UU church. I mean, any church is likely to draw some strong personalities and unbalanced people who make it hard to organize and get work done. I could name some other denominations that draw in an even larger percentage of truly odd visitors than we do. But most churches valorize group loyalty, respect for authority, purity standards. We valorize freedom, which is exhilarating. But it explains why all these UUs don't want to, like, pledge regularly or maintain a commitment to show up. It explains why all these Covenant Group leaders want to keep having their groups but not actually follow any rules.


Ron said...

Nice, provocative post, Red! I've been wrestling with this as well, at my little UU message board. I see that "freedom over connection/ discipline/ responsibility/ obligation" paradigm a lot, even in our advertisements. Davidson Loehr has also written about that shallow sort of "liberalism without context" which has arguably dragged down and undermined our UU movement over the years. Anyway, thanks for the post.

I've done talks about the "herding cats" theme, by the way. I equate it with a radical-protestant stubbornness that still lies at the heart of our liberal tradition and legacy in religion. I usually tie it in with the "context part"...and about the Universalist part of our heritage that focuses on our ultimate "connectedness and kinship." Makes a good "flower communion" service talk, about our "e pluribus unum" (of many, one) UU approach to spirituality, which, by the way, also lies at the heart of the "water communion" service as well.

(long-time UU surrounded by five cats)


Red Sphynx said...

Thanks for dropping by, Ron. I'll have more to say on Haidt's thesis.