The 5 Moral Mechanisms of Jonathan Haidt

I ran across the interesting article titled What Makes People Vote Republican, dated September 2008, by Jonathan Haidt.

Haidt argues (with intriguing anecdotes) that morality is not merely about our relationships with each other, but that
morality is any system of interlocking values, practices, institutions, and psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible.
He further argues that:
  • there are five mechanisms humans have evolved for morality;
  • Democrats recognize and use only two of those mechanisms;
  • whereas Republicans recognize and use all five.
The five mechanisms are:
  1. Harm/care (Republicans, Democrats)
  2. Fairness/reciprocity (Republicans, Democrats)
  3. Ingroup/loyalty (Republicans)
  4. Authority/respect (Republicans)
  5. Purity/sanctity (Republicans
I highly recommend reading the article for a better understanding of the meaning behind these names.

According to my understanding and experience, I would refine Jonathan's claims as follows:
  • Democrats do actually care about ingroup/loyalty (mechanism #3), but define the ingroup differently than Republicans do. For Republicans, their ingroup are those who respect the same authority (mechanism #4) and who share their views on purity and sanctity (mechanism #5). For Democrats, their ingroup is the human race, and their compassion is for everyone.
  • Libertarians, however, are a group that tends not to care about ingroup/loyalty (even if the group is humanity as a whole). Libertarians, furthermore, place mechanism #1 (harm/care) strictly secondary to mechanism #2 (fairness/reciprocity).
Jonathan goes on to make the statement that Democrats, in order to be more politically successful, should co-opt the mechanisms currently used by Republicans.

I would argue that this would be a departure from what Democratic principles are all about.

Just as Libertarian principles are all about the refutation of mechanisms #3, #4, and #5 (ingroup, authority, purity), and about the subjugation of mechanism #1 (harm/care) to an all-important mechanism #2 (fairness/reciprocity); ...

... so Democratic principles are all about the refutation of mechanisms #4 and #5, and about emphasizing mechanisms #1, #2, and #3 (taking the view, for mechanism #3, that the ingroup is humanity as a whole).

Democrats and Libertarians are alike in that we condemn mechanisms #4 and #5 as harmful relics of our tribal past, and wish to do away with them. Republicans differ from us in that they fail to recognize the harmfulness of these mechanisms, and follow them blindly for their short-term rewards. To quote Haidt:
Such moralities make it easier for individuals to forget themselves and coalesce temporarily into hives, a process that is thrilling, as anyone who has ever "lost" him or herself in a choir, protest march, or religious ritual can attest.
Democrats and libertarians might agree that such "losing oneself" is tantamount to mindless drug use, and is harmful.

That having been said, we have certainly witnessed a fair amount of Democrats chanting "Yes We Can", quite apparently losing themselves in this way. This appears to have been a manifestation of the ingroup/loyalty mechanism (#3), and appears to have been instrumental in electing Barack as president.

As a libertarian, you know what my stand is. Mechanism #2 (fairness/reciprocity) is paramount, and mechanism #1 (harm/care) comes secondary to mechanism #2. This, in my opinion, is the optimum for a peaceful and happy co-existence, whereas exploitation of the additional mechanisms (#3, #4, and #5), or an over-emphasis on mechanism #1 (harm/care), leads to a less happy spot with increased pain and suffering.

I believe therefore that we should emphasize #2, with a little bit of #1, and condemn groups that employ #3,4,5 as exploitative and harmful.

Just because we have evolved sensibilities for certain ways of organizing our world, doesn't mean that exercising them is not harmful.

We have evolved mechanisms for accumulating copious amounts of body fat, too. It is because of this that we need to consciously regulate our calorie intake.

It is because we are susceptible to mechanisms #1,3,4,5, that we must consciously remain on guard so as not to fall for them.

And it is because many people are unable to do that, that we should seek out and punish those who exploit this fact for power, influence, and money.


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