Here’s one way to make a buck in during the global economic downturn:
If anyone can demonstrate the existence of an additional [moral] foundation, or show that any of the current 5 foundations should be merged or eliminated, Jon Haidt will pay that person $1,000.
This comes from MoralFoundations.org, the home of Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory. This posits that there are “five innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of ‘intuitive ethics.’ Each culture then constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world, and conflicting within nations too.”
The five existing moral foundations are:
1) Harm/care, related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. This foundation underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
2) Fairness/reciprocity, related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. This foundation generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.
3) Ingroup/loyalty, related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. This foundation underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”
4) Authority/respect, shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. This foundation underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
5) Purity/sanctity, shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. This foundation underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).
I find the theory compelling. Not least for the reason that philosophers have been toiling over morality for millennia, yet no-one ever thought to test whether there were discrete facets of our moral faculty rather than it being one big homogenous mess. It certainly casts doubt on Kantian ethics and the notion that morality is based on categorical imperatives that are the product of reason rather than intuition.
But the point of this post isn’t to review intuitive ethics – you can read much more about it at the MoralFoundations.org site. Instead, the point of this post is to have a crack at the challenge.
Sixth Moral Foundation
There have already been a number of proposed additions or revisions to the Moral Foundations Theory. But there’s one that I don’t think has received sufficient attention:
6) Truth/honesty, shaped by the psychology of cheater detection and modules that determine the trustworthiness of other individuals in situations social exchange. It is the root of notions such as ‘honesty is the best policy.’
Craig Anderson, psychologist from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has already suggested a similar idea that truth be considered as a Moral Foundation. He speaks of ‘right-thinking’, which I think is pertinent, but I don’t think that captures the full scope of truth/honesty (although I haven’t managed to find a copy of Anderson’s full paper yet to confirm this).
Where I think truth/honesty is interesting is that many cultures have references to honesty and truthfulness, and these appear to be separate from other moral consideration – almost like honesty is an enabler for other Moral Foundations. We already know that trust crucial to social exchange, so it’s plausible that we would have evolved a faculty that would measure and judge the trustworthiness of other individuals before engaging in social exchange.
So, in order to establish truth/honesty as a sixth Moral Foundation we need to do a few things. First is make sure it’s a discrete entity and not just another aspect of an existing Moral Foundation. It seems to me the closest Moral Foundation to truth/honesty would be reciprocity/fairness. But I don’t think truth/honesty is identical – or even a sub-set of – reciprocity/fairness.
Why? Because I can imagine scenarios where an individual might judge a situation to be fair, even when there has been deception. Or unfair when there’s no sign of deception. An example of the former might be a union rep who bluffs about the workers’ intention to strike or resign in order to secure more fair working conditions. An example of the latter might be feelings of unfairness or injustice when someone reneges on a social exchange, where all the details of the exchange are entirely transparent to both parties. Even so, the feeling of betrayal might often be more potent than the feelings of unfairness.
However, no amount of armchair speculation (which, as a philosopher, is my specialty) will confirm whether truth/deception ends up merging with another Moral Foundation. For that we need empirical testing. I would propose a questionnaire that presented scenarios where the only issue at hand was honesty, and see whether actions that breached honesty while breaching no other Moral Foundations were found to be impermissible.
Additional questions could offer a range of situations that involve two or more Moral Foundations, one of which could be truth/honesty. These scenarios could attempt to find situations in which individuals would judge an action permissible even in the event of dishonesty, or impermissible even when the agents are being truthful.
If it was found that an overwhelming proportion of respondents judged dishonesty alone as being impermissible, and truthfulness praiseworthy, regardless of the other Moral Foundations at play, then it’s plausible that truth/honesty could be a sixth foundation.
Another interesting test would be to see how self declared liberals and conservatives respond to issues of truth/honesty. My guess would be that conservatives would rate truth/honesty as being more important than liberals.
Whether Haidt et al will consider this challenge sufficiently different from Anderson’s, I don’t know. In fact, it’s not the prize money that’s motivating this challenge. It’s a desire to see this already remarkable theory developed and polished so it can help inform other disciplines that are badly in need of an empirical injection. That would be worth a lot more to me than a thousand bucks.