A Sixth Moral Foundation?

25 02 2009

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.

todd_oathThis 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.

Testing it

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.



13 responses

26 02 2009
Honesty and the Moral Foundations « Ockham’s Beard

[…] and the Moral Foundations 26 02 2009 Further to yesterday’s post is a fascinating story that’s all over the news here in Australia – a story that illustrates […]

8 03 2009

Jon Haidt has fixed the broken link to Craig Anderson’s paper. I have not yet read it carefully enough to compare his proposal with yours, but I do have a strong intuition that truth/honesty in some form is a separate moral foundation. It was the one that I puzzled over finding when I first read the Moral Foundations theory. I will try to express this intuition more carefully in a way that might be useful to this project, but I have to think about it some more, first.

17 03 2009
Right-thinking as a Moral Foundation « Ockham’s Beard

[…] Right-thinking as a Moral Foundation 17 03 2009 I’ve finally had an opportunity to read through the challenge to Jon Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory by Craig Anderson, of the University of Wisconsin, and I’ve found there are differences with my own similar challenge. […]

13 05 2009

These moral foundations are fine, but many a time they do not work. People are fundamentally ‘selfish’; they value their own beliefs and interests more than those of others. So you can find many people throwing morals to the winds when it is a question of survival of self / those who are close to the self.

A better idea is to teach them about the ‘Self’. Let them go into the thinking mode of Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going etc?
It woul soon be realized that the ‘Self’ in me and the ‘Self’ in the other person or object is one and the same. Who would want to harm himself? What ever one sees around him is the self. When this truth dawns on the people, they will be careful of how they think and behave. They will automatically and unconsiously adopt the moral standard which we are now coaxing people to adopt.
Who will want to harm himself or herself?

1 06 2009
Karen McKim

I agree that honesty is almost certainly a separate, discrete foundation of morality and I am eager to see someone develop test questions. The aversion we feel for hypocrisy (raised very well by the Australian-speeding-and-lying-judge link) goes right to the heart of it.

I was bothered by its omission in the list of five and followed links to here from yourmorals.org in a deliberate quest for this discussion. For myself, I realized ‘honesty’ was separate when I thought through the American debate about torture. It’s not only that Dick Cheney and his followers violated the values of ‘harm’ and ‘fairness’ and in my opinion, ‘loyalty;’ it bothers me as an entirely separate offense that they insist on calling what they did ‘enhanced interrogation technique.’ What is the basis for that final revulsion? A violation of Honesty.

A natural foundation for a basic moral construct of honesty exists, I think, in the extent to which human society must rely on communication, and communication is impossible without trust. Lying undermines trust; therefore, lying undermines society. In much the same way that we would all get sick if we did not value ‘purity,’ our ability to cooperate and collaborate would rapidly fall apart if we could not trust each other to tell the truth.

The questions that might reveal whether honesty is a separate construct would need to distinguish it from fairness, as pointed out above. Lying to gain unfair advantage violates both fairness and honesty.

I think honesty also needs to be discriminated from purity. Telling the truth is often recommended as a kind of purity or integrity-of-character, in a way that ‘respect for authority,’ for example, does not seem to be.

I do not sense that liberals and conservatives value honesty differently. ‘Hypocrite’ is a strong epithet in both camps. And while conservatives are sometimes willing to confess to doing harm and liberals are sometimes proud to challenge authority, no one wants ever to get caught in a lie.

15 09 2009

I guess that you have never heard of suicide?

11 02 2010
James Gray

I don’t think this is a serious challenge to Kant. He was well aware of this big mess before he proposed his ideas. If anything, you could take it to be a challenge to moral realism in general: If we are made to behave morally, then what’s the point of trying to behave in a truly moral way based on intrinsic values?

Hume’s sentimentalism and the anti-realism that was proposed by others transformed morality into a kind of psychology. Anti-realism isn’t a satisfying account of our moral experiences. Kant wanted to point that out through his alternative, which was sensitive to certain moral experiences.

11 02 2010
Tim Dean

Hi James. I agree I was a little rash in declaring this “casts doubt on Kantian ethics”. I had my descriptive and normative wires crossed. However, it does cast doubt on whether Kantian ethics is compatible with human psychology.

As for the issue of us being made to behave morally, well, we’re also made to behave immorally. Incest avoidance is a good example of this phenomenon in action. According to evolutionary psychologists Lieberman, Cosmides and Tooby, humans have evolved an ‘incest avoidance’ mechanism. Yet, if we have an innate incest avoidance mechanism, why do we also have moral norms and laws prohibiting incest? Surely the innate mechanism should be sufficient without the norms and laws?

However, we have also evolved very powerful ‘pro-sex’ mechanisms. Mating is central to passing ones genes to the next generation, so our sexual drive is understandably potent in directing behaviour. And in some cases it’s better (for your genes) to mate in less than optimum circumstances than to not mate at all.

The incest avoidance mechanism is one heuristic to avoid the deleterious effects of in-breeding, but it’s only a heuristic. It’s not perfect (in fact, it’s not ‘incest’ avoidance at all, it’s ‘people I’ve lived with as a child’ avoidance). It’s also running head-to-head with our very powerful sex drive. Also, for some ‘defectors’, there might be a reason to commit incest – like there might be a reason to commit rape. If an individual can find no other mate, that’s the end of the line for their genes, unless they can pass them on through coercion rather than compliance. (I hasten to add that just because it’s natural, it doesn’t mean it’s good – rape is morally prohibited in every society in the world, although it does occur in every society in the world.)

So the incest avoidance mechanism isn’t perfect. But the incest avoidance mechanism has led us to reflect on it, perhaps recognising the dangers of in-breeding, and led to the development of norms prohibiting it. That’s because we have another innate faculty that also contributes to our moral behaviour: reason.

Lots more can be said on this. This is only a cursory glance. But it shows that an innate moral faculty that yields moral intuitions gets us a long way, but not all the way to what we call morality today.

11 02 2010
James Gray

That makes sense. Thank you for the clarification.

15 03 2010
Asymptosis » Is Honesty a Conservative Moral Value?

[…] Haidt’s $1,000 challenge for people to come up with additions to his five spheres, Tim Dean proposes the one that also came immediately to my mind when I first saw the challenge: […]

15 03 2010
Steve Roth

Just signing up for follow-up comments…

18 04 2011

Very late to the conversation but I also think a point can be made on purity in regards to scope. The group will often allow something not given to the “other” that is understanding. This is shown by rationalizing “weak moments” or “lapses” verses evil intent or outright disregard. Where understanding would be shown to the group…dishonesty and immorality would be attributed to the “outsiders” even using the same “purity” litmus test as their motivation for infractions . The other part is in the scope of said purity. Does purity mean pure in the sense of pureness reflected by one small group or groups or can it represent a form of purity that is equal across many or the whole? Can it be argued that the taint of the groups or individuals perception, self and of others, be an impurity to an attempt at a universal ideal? Some might say this sounds like fairness but not necessarily as fairness need not inclusive. One can simply state that if the moral is too narrow in scope and cannot address similar but different ideals then it is not itself “pure” but corrupted by the ego of the individual or the group (ie mob mentality).

3 04 2012

That may end up being difficult to classify. For example

1) Truthfulness about sin / crime.
2) Truthfulness in competition.
3) Truthfulness with enemies. (opponents would be #2)
4) Truthfulness about fact.
5) Truthfulness to help others.

etc… It might just be that truthfulness is like most other positive acts and is tied closely regarding to whom and about what.

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