Posts tagged with " individuality"

Everybody thinks they’re an expert on morality

Sunday, 26/09/2010 ≅01:49 ©brainycat

I read with some interest the guest column about the study of morality at The Thoughtful Animal. In this article, researcher Ravi Iyer describes a methodology for reducing "moral foundations" into five quantifiable axes: Harm/care, Fairness/reciprocity, Ingroup/loyalty, Authority/respect and Purity/sanctity. A quick glance at this list shows the clear bias in this methodology, as all but two are only relevant within social settings. Apparently, according to Ravi's working definition, morality cannot exist in an individual without a group to judge it by. I disagree with this view. I believe that an individual's morality is an internal compass that relates to the decision making process, but the actual behavior is mediated by societal concerns. How much someone is concerned about how the tribe feels about their behavior is a personality trait (perhaps "vanity"), not a moral virtue.

Ravi is part of a group of moralists (sorry, couldn't help it) who are trying to collect data in several experiments. If you have a few minutes to kill, you can do a lot worse for yourself than getting yourself over to and taking any of the nearly thirty quizzes. The quiz wherein they look for a basis for the axes described above is the "Moral Foundations Questionnaire". Registration is quick and painless, and asks you which of a handful of too-large-and-vague buckets you want to define yourself within (eg "liberal or conservative") and allows you to take the quizzes and review your results later.

Of course I took the test, thanks for asking. No surprise to anyone who's spent any time around me: I'm the odd duck out of the (self-selected) crowd that's participated. What's interesting about the questionnaire is that each scenario they post assumes no audience. In my own mind, that's the most important question related to the entire concept of morality - in what ways do people actually behave when people are watching versus what they say they'd do in a hypothetical situation. I answered the questions literally; since they didn't define the scenarios with any sort of possible legal ramification, I answered as though there couldn't be any. In reality, those are considerations that guide my behavior.

My results show that I place fairness as the most important "moral virtue". I agree with this, the words of Stephen Jay Gould ring true for me (paraphrased from The Mismeasure of Man "...a world where everyone is free to succeed or fail based only on their own merits, and not of any preconceived biases or bigotry...".

Absolutely unsurprisingly, I scored "0.0" in the purity axis. WTF is that about, anyway? I believe in clean drinking water. I believe in being the most Brainycat I can be. I believe in saying what I mean and meaning what I say. The bias in that axis is so tilted towards some nebulous cultural artifact related to superstitions inherited from middle-eastern goat-herders thousands of years ago. "Purity" is an attribute best suited for chemistry and materials science, and has no basis in any kind of rational thought about the fundamental pillars of the human mind.

Also not surprisingly, if due to some hypothetical circumstance you to hurt or die for the benefit of the majority - I hope your affairs are in order, because I'm not going to hesitate to ensure the greatest chance of survival for the greatest number of people. And I expect each of you to do the same for me, thank you very much. A more interesting way of posing the questions, I believe, would be to frame the scenarios that ask the value of a single life against the survival of a group with caveats like "there's no way to kill them painlessly" or "Their families are watching you". Again, the difference between what we believe internally and what we actually do in the world is the interesting question.

The loyalty axis I think is the most misleading. There is absolutely no room in the questionnaire for loyalty to yourself. If you are loyal to yourself and your beliefs, you score lower than even the "wishy-washy liberals". I think "loyalty" is a very poor choice of words, perhaps "obedience" would be better. The authority axis made no room for the difference between leading and following - and for someone who believes being loyal to one's true nature is a higher virtue than giving a damn what the Jones's think, and also believes that doing one's part for the (team, tribe, community) is a virtue, the axis gets totally screwed.

Skeptifem totally nailed the methodology to the wall, in the polite but scathing way that academicians have perfected to an art in online forums:

Not to mention how the lack of political systems outside of our species makes it pretty impossible to decide how such things evolved. Not only that, but this comparison is much too generous. It is a bit more like studying the evolution of sight while having no clue how eyes work, and making no inquiry into it, rather opting to give people quizzes about
their sight and pontificating about the unknown inner workings of other species eyes. All of the stuff listed (behavior and thought) has to do with happenings in the brain, and without the mechanisms or some kind of CLUE in that regard I cannot conclude ANYTHING from the work presented.

Ultimately, I have fun with these types of quizzes - I think they don't really say anything about how I relate to the world, or tell me anything new about myself, but they do help me explore my feelings about various topics that seem important to other people, as witnessed by some recent comments on a book review I did.

Moral Foundations Questionnaire results

Moral Foundations Questionnaire results