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The Cultural Divide on Authority

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin, photo by Mary Harrsch via Flickr

Recent research suggests that there are significant differences in the value structures of liberals and conservatives. One of these researchers is Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, and a number of shorter pieces available online. He argues that all of us rely on snap intuitions to make decisions about moral questions, and use reason only to find justifications for our intuitions. I’m sure that resonates well with our own introspection. We do rely heavily on intuition to get a first response not just to moral issues but to a wide range of situations. That isn’t surprising. We don’t often have time to work out the precise logical basis for a decision, and even more rarely do we really need to work out the rationale.

Haidt says that people evaluate moral situations along six moral foundations: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. He claims that conservatives give much more weight to authority in making moral decisions than liberals. Here’s his description of authority/subversion:

Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

You can get a pretty good idea of what Haidt means by authority by looking at the instruments he uses in his research, available here. One of the questionnaires is designed to test the importance to you of the six foundations. It consists of 30 items, with six designed to measure the importance of each of the foundations. The key tells us that these six questions relate to authority. The first three require you to rate the relevance of the issue on a six point schedule from “not at all relevant” to “extremely relevant (This is one of the most important factors when I judge right and wrong)”

Whether or not someone showed a lack of respect for authority

Whether or not someone conformed to the traditions of society

Whether or not an action caused chaos or disorder.

The next three ask the taker to state the level of their disagreement or agreement on a six point scale:

Respect for authority is something all children need to learn.

Men and women each have different roles to play in society.

If I were a soldier and disagreed with my commanding officer’s orders, I would obey anyway because that is my duty.

Taken together, we get a clear idea of what Haidt means by “authority”. He’s talking about standard hierarchical authority structures, like the command structures in the military, or the control structures of the Catholic Church, or the traditional family with the father at the head. No one, liberal or conservative, doubts the importance of this kind of authority in maintaining a decent society. Perhaps that explains the screaming hostility to letting banksters get out of jail free, one of a tiny number of unifying issues in an otherwise fractured nation.

Here is a typical moral dilemma from the same site:

Doug is on a cruise ship when there is a fire on board, and the ship has to be abandoned. The lifeboats are carrying many more people than they were designed to carry. The lifeboat he’s in is sitting dangerously low in the water – a few inches lower and it will sink.

The seas start to get rough, and the boat begins to fill with water. A group of old people are in the water and ask Doug to throw them a rope so they can come aboard the lifeboat. It seems to Doug that the boat will sink if it takes on any more passengers.

Is it morally appropriate for Doug to refuse to throw the rope in order to save himself and the other lifeboat passengers?


How sure are you about your response?

Extremely Certain
Somewhat Certain
Slightly Certain
Slightly Uncertain
Somewhat Uncertain
Extremely Uncertain

I don’t see the relevance of authority in the sense used by Haidt to intuit a response to this dilemma, which reminds me of the ticking time bomb scenario conservatives use to decide about torture. Perhaps we would want to consult St. Thomas Aquinas or Immanuel Kant or Hannah Arendt or our Pastor. I’d be interested in Peterr’s take; perhaps he would agree with me that this is a silly hypothetical, but would have a lot to say about moral philosophy that would be helpful in sorting out the various considerations. On the other hand, I don’t imagine any of us would consult our company commander or our President or a Republican representative. The kinds of authority wielded by Arendt and Peterr have nothing to do with traditional authority, and everything to do with the way people’s intuitions are formed and supported.

Here’s another dilemma, this one used by Lawrence Kohlberg in his research on moral reasoning. The point of this research is not the answer. The important thing is the way the person explains the thinking behind the answer.

In Europe, a woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to make. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $ 1,000 which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said: “No, I discovered the drug and I’m going to make money from it.” So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man’s store to steal the drug-for his wife. Should the husband have done that?

This seems to me to be much more realistic than Haidt’s; it actually occurs every day. It directly implicates authority in the form of the rule of law and moral injunctions against theft.

Haidt thinks that our moral intuitions are evolutionary in some sense I don’t quite get. They certainly are not genetic, so it must be that they are passed on through our culture. If so, we learn how to intuit answers from our families, churches, schools and other people, including our ancestors, again including St. Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant and Hannah Arendt.

If these intuitions are cultural, then it seems to me that we have the ability to change the way our moral intuitions work, in the same way a cook gets better at judging the amount of salt to add to a dish. Hopefully, that change is for the better. We know people’s intuitions do change, we see the evidence in our own society. Kohlberg’s theory of moral development seems to me to be a better way of getting at the problem than simply asserting that we have intuitions and only rarely do we change, which seems to be Haidt’s view.

There is a good description of Kohlberg’s views here. Conservatives may not like it; and liberals may not like the criticisms at the end.

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin, photo by Mary Harrsch under Creative Commons license

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