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Morals and Selfishness

Jonathan Haidt says that people don’t reason about moral issues, they make snap decisions, based on six factors he calls “moral foundations”. He downplays the role of reason in making decisions, and indeed there are a number of studies that say that people cling to beliefs about moral issues and factual issues in the face of powerful reasons to change their minds. Haidt’s views of morality support the selfishness of the rich, which lends them great weight in the media.

Haidt’s current list of foundations is here. Let’s look at the second one:

2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]

Haidt wrote an article for Time Magazine explaining this one through the lens of the last election. He describes three kinds of fairness: proportionality, equality and procedural fairness. Proportionality means that rewards are handed out on the basis of contributions. Equality means that “everybody gets the same”. Procedural fairness means that “honest, open and impartial rules are used to determine who gets what”. At different times, and for different reasons, each of these may be the important factor. The chart shows Haidt’s view of the differences between liberals and conservatives on these issues.

Haidt explains that the red line shows the strength of agreement with this statement: “Employees who work the hardest should be paid the most”. I took the self-assessment on moral foundations, and I believe I qualify as “very liberal”. Then I took the moral foundations questionnaire, where this question appears. I certainly agree that hard work should be rewarded, and I agree that rewards should be commensurate with the value added by the worker. On this question, I could have fairly answered “strongly agree”, just like any strong conservative. I doubt that my answer would have the same moral foundation as the conservatives in Mitt Romney’s 53%, though.

Conservatives believe that they are the hardest workers, and that the rewards they receive are justly proportional to how hard they work. Haidt discusses this audience question from the transcript of Romney’s 47% speech.

Audience member: My question to you is, Why don’t you stick up for yourself? To me, you should be so proud of your wealth. That’s what we all aspire to be—we kill ourselves, we don’t work a nine to five. We’re away from our families five days a week. I’m away from my four girls five days a week and my wife. Why not stick up for yourself and say, “Why is it bad to be, to aspire to be wealthy and successful? You know, why is it bad to kill yourself?

This patron obviously believes that he is doing the hard work. He has no idea of the level of effort of the 47% Romney dismisses so casually. They aren’t working hard, he thinks, or at least not as hard as he is. I doubt he has ever loaded sewer pipe onto a truck, or operated a jackhammer in 95 degree heat in Miami. He thinks that what Romney does for money is hard. I don’t think making phone calls asking for money, smiling insincerely at rich people, and wrecking pension plans is hard work.

Suppose a nursing home aide were asked this question. She probably would think, I work really hard, changing adult diapers, lifting and bathing the helpless aged, talking to Alzheimer’s patients, for hours a day, and then I go home and take care of my own family with whatever energy and money I have left. I work really hard, a lot harder than that administrative assistant who answers the phone. I agree that the people who work hardest deserve more, and I should get a big raise.

Romney’s next questioner says that Obama only talks about taking care of people, setting up the “coddled” quote from Romney. Here’s what Haidt says: “These two questioners set up a clear moral vision of America: rich people work hard, and everyone else wants to be coddled.”

I’d say that these two questioners are coddled by the government. They don’t pay their fair share of taxes, they refuse to pay enough to restore the infrastructure that they are using, they refuse to recognize that they are members of the lucky sperm club, they don’t have a clue about other people, and think only of justifying themselves. I think they are morally deficient, because they don’t recognize the complexity of society, and the comparatively tiny role they play in it. So, how exactly is a liberal supposed to respond to Haidt’s question about compensation for hard work?

Haidt’s conservatives think about moral issues solely from their own personal perspective. They have no insight into how they fit into society, and no real sense of justice as liberals think of it. They are, in a word, selfish. It is nice of Haidt to provide a moral foundation for their selfishness.

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