The meaning of morality

The May 18 issue of Science has an article by Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia that looks at the foundations of morality in light of our knowledge of neuroscience, social psychology, and evolution. (Looks like there are a couple of other articles about behavioral science in there too.) I haven’t read the article yet, but this press release from EurekAlert gives a brief overview of what it covers. It looks like it should be very interesting.

The press release links to YourMorals.Org, a web site run by a small group of social psychologists (including Haidt) who are interested in morality and politics. You can participate in several research studies there, completing online questionnaires and learning a bit about the psychologists’ framework for understanding morality as well as your own moral sense. The site describes five different facets of moral thinking: “1) harm/care, 2) fairness/reciprocity (including issues of rights), 3) ingroup/loyalty, 4) authority/respect, and 5) purity/sanctity”. The first two areas, which have to do with how we treat other people, are of prime importance to liberals; for conservatives, those two are important, but not generally as important as they are to liberals, and conservatives tend to place more weight on the other three factors, which have to do with being a good member of whatever social groups you belong to. The site says that one of the goals for this research is increased understanding of others who occupy other niches on the political spectrum, which strikes me as highly useful.

One of the online questionnaires tells you how you score in each of the five areas. I scored at the top of the scale on the “harm/care” scale and came close to maxing out on “fairness” (no surprise there; those are the two “liberal” scales) but I also scored higher than average on two of the other three (the average being that of other visitors to the site). Make of it what you will.

Another questionnaire rates you on ten basic values that have been observed across cultures (e.g., benevolence, security, power, achievement, conformity). The values are shown grouped in a circle, with similar or related values adjacent to each other and opposing values across from each other. This questionnaire is on the site to see how the ten values are related to the five facets of morality. There’s a link to a paper that explains the values and their relationships; I’ll have to go back and look at that. Right now I’m still trying to puzzle out my own results. My highest score was for self-direction, which I’m sure is no surprise to those close to me. (My mother used to say that when I was a very little girl and trying to do something, even if it looked like I needed help, I would insist “I do it by self!”) My lowest score (an absolute zero, in fact) is for the adjacent value of stimulation (“Excitement, novelty, and challenge in life”). Hmmmm. I wonder why those two are adjacent. At any rate, if you have some time, you might enjoy visiting the YourMorals.org site and contributing your data points to the research.