Thursday, October 01, 2009

Theories of Morality

I'm going to cheat on this TED talk and just give excepts from a class paper I did on moral development after the video.

. . . If finding out the early lives of Kohlberg and Gilligan is hard, finding information about someone as young as Jonathan Haidt is pretty much an exercise in futility. All that can be said for certain about his background is that he is a social psychologist who teaches at the University of Virginia and is currently a Research Fellow at the University of California Santa Barbara until the end of 2008. By all reports, he is an excellent teacher, who believes in positive psychology. (The Leigh Bureau, 2008) However, in an interview for Vox Day, a Christian libertarian opinion columnist (2007), Haidt states that he is an atheist, but one who believes that religion is an adaptation that generally works well in societies.

Well-versed in Kohlberg's and Gilligan's theories, Haidt notes that Kohlberg's cross-cultural research was focused on finding support for Kohlberg's own construct and did not address the local cultures' belief systems. Haidt and Craig Joseph desired to go beyond other moral theorists and search for the psychological systems that create moral codes. So instead of creating a moral theory based on the observation of a relatively homogeneous group of subjects and determining a cognitive development theory, they researched the moral codes and institutions of cultures across the world and through history to find constants. They also researched several moral theories, including Shweder's three ethics, which claims that Kohlberg's and Gilligan's theories only constituted one ethic--the ethic of autonomy--while ignoring the ethics of community and divinity. (Haidt, 2007) While Haidt's Moral Foundations Theory is not a developmental model, it does go beyond the Western Judeo-Christian value system, as well as the ethic of autonomy. The five psychological moral systems proposed by Haidt are listed on the Moral Foundations homepage as the following:

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). (Haidt et al, 2008)

. . .

VI. Discussion

An observation made in the graduate level human development class, attended by the author of this paper, is the fact that hypothetical dilemmas cannot truly predict real life decisions. The lack of time, knowledge and resources may affect what someone might actually do in a situation. It was also pointed out that people will act at different moral stages depending on circumstances or priorities. Viktor Frankl's recollections from his imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps, in his book Man's Search for Meaning, is a perfect example of how people's moral can be changed by their circumstances. When people, due to external circumstances, physical illness or mental distress, are forced to a lower level of Maslow's hierarchies of needs, operating at a lower moral stage is to be expected. By linking morality to cognitive development, neither Kohlberg's and Gilligan's theories properly take into account this fluidity of moral decision making.

Based on Haidt's work, Kohlberg's and Gilligan's theories concentrate mostly on liberal values, setting some key conservative concerns at lower stages. Universities have long been considered bastions of liberalism, so this focus can hardly be a surprise. Unfortunately, as Haidt points out in his presentation at the 2008 TED conference, society cannot survive on liberalism alone. Both liberal and conservative forces are needed to keep a civilization viable. So to discount the conservative values in moral judgments is not only inaccurate, but creates unnecessary tension between different segments of society. While it is true that Haidt does not directly address the fluidity of moral decision making, his work does open the door by breaking down moral values into historic cross-cultural constants, instead using the moral preferences of the researchers. The main weak part of Haidt's research, based on the interviews done for this paper, is the belief that respondents will answer from their personal standards and not what they expect from others. Both Brett and the author of this paper share the belief that other people should not be held to their value system. The difference in their answers was based on the fact that while Brett answered as if judging other people, the author answered judging only herself. Haidt's questionnaire also doesn't take into account if someone considers resisting a particular value or two to be a high priority, as in the case of Elena, who is rebelling against the strict values of her adopted country and its religion-based government.

VI. Conclusion
Kohlberg's stages of morality, while still partially useful for most Westerners, is more accurate for liberal males than any other population. Even though Gilligan's theory mirrors Kohlberg's to some extent, it is difficult to use when there are no ethic of care considerations mentioned. Both theories lack real world moral predictive qualities, though they might give one an idea of a person's cognitive development. The idea that higher cognition leads to greater morality seems implausible when one considers that there are intelligent people with no morals at all, as well as very moral people with impaired cognition. Higher cognition may help make more effective moral choices, but it doesn't make a person more moral. That said, it is easy to see why someone who highly values education, like Kohlberg or Gilligan, would emphasize cognition. Indeed, it can be successfully argued that it is the duty of a moral person to check their facts and reasoning before making a decision. Such behavior falls under being prudent. Yet, as Haidt points out, a major percentage of people act like lawyers--making justifications for their actions after the fact, instead of considering the consequences before doing them. (Haidt, 2007)

Haidt's theory appears to be more predictive of behavior, since it focuses on types of values instead of a cognitive path or two of developing moral values. Possibly because of the biases of his predecessors, Haidt has been more vigilant in challenging his own biases and has worked to understand the "other side". It is not an easy thing to do, but the work of Haidt and of other theorists, such as Shweder, is a good start. Moral psychology and moral development theories still have a long ways to go before they can achieve the reliability of physical developmental models. Despite their shortcomings, however, these theories have provided frameworks on which moral thought can be discussed and studied.


Day, V. (2007). Interview with Jonathan Haidt. Retrieved on October 11, 2008 from

Haidt, J. (2008). The real difference between liberals and conservatives. TED 2008 Conference. Retrieved September 16, 2008 from

Haidt, J., Ditto, P., Graham, J., Iyer, R., Joseph, C., Koleva, S., and Nosek, B. (2008). Moral Foundations Theory homepage. University of Virginia. Retrieved October 11, 2008 from

Haidt, J., & Graham, J. (2007, March). When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions that Liberals may not Recognize. Social Justice Research, 20(1), 98-116. Retrieved September 28, 2008, doi:10.1007/s11211-007-0034-z

The Leigh Bureau (2008). Jonathan Haidt - bio. Retrieved October 11, 2006 from

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