The Moral Spectrum

20 01 2009

It appears as though Jonathan Haidt is getting some attention across the blogosphere, even on blogs with a religious tilt. This is good news. Haidt is breaking new ground in moral thinking – I don’t think he’s answered all the questions, nor that he’s entirely right – but he’s taken ethics in a new direction (and that’s better than no direction at all, which is where it was for much of the 20th century, thanks to G.E. Moore).

One of the most important revelations that emerges from Haidt’s work is that morality, unlike the Model T, comes in a range of colours. And that’s no accident.

Evolution has endowed us with a range of moral intuitions and moral emotions, and they trigger in differing degrees in different people. Some people are more trusting, communitarian and more concerned about fairness; others are less trusting, more prone to forming close knit groups and don’t mind bowing to authority if it improves social cohesion. And everything in between. Thus is a healthy equilibrium formed – one that can respond effectively to a wide range of environments.

Sure, it feels like our moral prescriptions are universal, non-negotiable etc, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are. They just need to feel that way if we’re to be more inclined to obey moral prescriptions over subjective preferences.

The power of this theory is not to be understated. For the first time we not only have a theory that explains why morals feel non-negotiable, but why they in reality aren’t; why each culture or religion feels its moral system is the only right one, but why there are so many on this broad Earth. Then, perhaps, moral philosophers can stop their vain search for the One True Moral System and start mapping the moral landscape.

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