Dimensions of Morality

Jonathan Haidt believes he can bring people of different political approaches together. It is an admirable goal and he is surely right when he notes that differences are not simply because “some people are good and others evil” (Haidt, 2012, page 370).

He has developed a new way of looking at the way people think about morality. This makes his work important for those, like me, who are interested in decision making. He suggests that liberals (in the US sense) use a smaller number of dimensions for moral judgments than conservatives.

The six dimensions his extensive research has identified are:

1) Care/Harm

2) Liberty/Oppression

3) Fairness/Cheating

4) Loyalty/Betrayal

5) Authority/Subversion

6) Sanctity/Degradation

The slight confusion I have with his work, and why I’m not sure he can succeeed in his quest to bring people together, is that I’m not sure what the relationship between the dimensions is supposed to be.

Haidt seems to suggest that conservatives see all six dimensions as worthy goals in themselves. If this is the case it is hard to see how the different political approaches can be united. The conservatives will say authority is an important goal in itself, the liberals will say it isn’t. There isn’t much to discuss. “Preserving those instutions and traditions is their [Conservatives] most sacred value”, (Haidt, 2012, page 357). If a tradition seems to harm people liberals will want to get rid of it, the conservatives may believe it is worth preserving.

At other times it seemed possible that Haidt is suggesting something different. Conservatives worry that when traditions are abandoned this can “…even hurt the very victims liberals were trying to help”, (Haidt 2012, page 361). In this view defending traditions is not a good in itself but it is a way of helping people given that traditions help to effectively run society. Conservatives might not totally understand how traditions help people, but they believe they do and that is why they should be preserved. This view is more hopeful for bringing people together. If we can improve our knowledge of how the world works we can explain to liberals which traditions really do help, and so should be preserved. We can then explain to conservatives which traditions don’t work, and hence which we can get rid of them.

Haidt’s work is interesting. I’m still confused but I’m looking forward to hearing more.

Read: Jonathan Haidt (2012) The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Poltics and Religion, Vintage Books