Comments and observations on social and political trends and events.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Clashes of Morality: A different view

I’m mentioned Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis as one of my favorite books. He has written a thought provoking artile titled Obama’s moral majority. Haidt, a self-avowed political liberal, does something you rarely see on either side of the fence: admit the other side has some merit. In his article Haidt offers Obama advice on bridging the divide between Left and Right. He makes the following point:

First idea: use all five moral senses. A scientific consensus is emerging that human moral psychology was shaped by multiple evolutionary forces and that our minds therefore detect many—sometimes conflicting—properties of social situations. The two best studied moral senses pertain to harm (including our capacities for sympathy and nurturing) and fairness (including anger at injustice). You can travel the world but you won't find a human culture that doesn't notice and care about harm and fairness.

Political conservatives in the US, Britain and many other nations value three additional sets of moral concerns. Like liberals, they care about harm and fairness, but they care more than liberals about loyalty to the in-group (which political party cares most about flags and borders?), authority (which side demands respect for parents and teachers?) and spiritual purity (which side most wants to restrict homosexuality and drug use?). It's as though conservatives can hear five octaves of music, but liberals respond to just two, within which they have become particularly discerning. (My research colleagues and I have not just plucked these "senses" from the air; they emerged from a review of both evolutionary and anthropological theory, and were tested in internet surveys, face-to-face interviews and even in the decoding of religious sermons.)

This hypothesis doesn't mean that liberals are wrong or defective, but it does mean that they often have more trouble understanding conservatives than vice versa. Liberals tend to relate most moral issues to potential harms and injustices. They therefore can't understand why anyone—including the majority of Americans—would oppose gay marriage, for example, because legalising gay marriage would hurt nobody and end an injustice. Arguments about the sanctity of marriage or the authority of tradition sound like empty words sent out to cover irrational homophobia. But the culture war is not primarily a disagreement about what's harmful or fair; it is better described as a battle between two visions of the ideal society, one that is designed to appeal to two moral senses, the other designed to appeal to five.

Personally, I believe Haidt (and others) project too much hope in Obama’s ability to transcend party political lines. Based on what I’ve seen he has abandoned his message of hope and has resorted to more traditional party line politics.

I also believe there is another plausible theroy to expplain the differences in how conservatives, liberals and libertarians look at the world ethically. In reading Ken Wilber I became aware of Spiral Dynamics, a model for classifying worldviews based on stages of mental and spiritual evolution. Just as humans as a species have evolved over time, individual humans evolve through stages as they mature. Spiral Dynamics stems from the research conducted by Clare W. Graves, a professor of psychology who originally developed a model based on his research. Don Beck and Chris Cowan expanded on Graves’ work and added colors as a shorthand way to identify the different stages of evolution, which is explained in their book, Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership and Change.

The Spiral Dynamics model has 8 colors divided into two “tiers” but I’d like to focus on three colors that are contiguous with each other: blue, orange and green. Blue (also called “Traditional” by Stephen McIntosh) feels there is a Higher Power (typically God) that punishes evil and rewards the good. Blue values stability and order which is accomplished by obeying higher authorities and their rules. Traditional Republicans and conservatives are Blue.

Orange (or “Modern”) emphasize the individual and feel succesful living consists of competing to achieve results. They believe the free market best rewards individuals for their efforts. Libertarians typify Orange. They often form an uneasy alliance with Blue Republicans who also support the free market, sometimes reluctantly because of its inherent appeal to self-interest. Traditionalists support the market because it disciplines businessmen and individuals to pursue not just their own personal interests but “the public interest”. While Blue cherish tradition Orange values individual achievement and freedom.

Green (“Postmodern”) believe humans find love and purpose through affiliation and sharing. Green is more egalitarian, relativistic and collectivist. They also oppose the hierarchies, believing that there are no “higher” or “lower” levels. As a result Green look down on Blue and Orange as inferior. All three levels look at each other as if they’re from another world. In a sense they are: different worldviews each with its own value system. Wilber has written about the “Mean Green Meme” because it reduces morality to one dimension. Or as Haidt writes, they strip out two of the 5 moral dimensions and discard the rest. A healthy Green integrates the best aspects of Blue and Orange.

For more description of the various colors see

I know this system might sound a bit New Agey but as I have read and apply this model I believe it has some merit. I think it does help expplain why we see liberals, conservatives and libertarians constrantly talking past each other without making headway. As Ken Wilber would say, Green is not superior to Blue or Orange. A healthy Green honors and incorporates the healthy aspects of Blue (the objective need for rules such as law and order, traditions, etc.) and Orange (individualism, reason, self-interest). There is much more than I can cover here. I encourage anyone interested to the links provided above as well as the work of Ken Wilber. (See also Wilber’s original piece on his quadrants model, which I hope to discuss here in a future entry.)

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