Ethics Part 2.5: Moral Compasses Revisited

Before I start let me repost my late addition to the last post in my ethics series in case you missed it:

I had another thought to share that is related to this subject: When talking about morality I consider moral/immoral to be a false dichotomy. Actions that are wrong and should be avoided or punished are obviously immoral, however everything else is not moral by default. I consider moral actions to be actions and behaviors that we want to encourage and reward. Actions that we would not punish but we also do not feel any need to encourage are morally neutral. For example, doing you homework in order to do well in school is a moral action, however watching an hour of TV after you finish would be morally neutral. I know I didn't explicitly mention morally neutral actions in my post, but they were part of the framework I was basing everything on.

When writing about the Moral Compasses I felt guilty that I couldn't find anything to cite. I'd read about it very closely in a magazine (don't even remember which one) about a year ago, and because when I scrutinized the article I found that it fit in with my anthropological framework of human behavior and psychology, I accepted it and integrated it into my own way of thinking. Not in the habit of blogging yet, I didn't record where I found it, what the original study had been, or how to find it again. Well I was just looking under the wrong terms it seems. Today I found a NY Times article on the study (beware it's quite long) that goes into great detail on the subject (so you know I'm not making it up ;) ). Thanks to Greta Christina, another blogger who pointed me towards it in her own article on ethics and values.

Edit: I've changed the labels for each value on the original post, because these are simpler.

In her article Greta aggressively argues for the idea that some moral values are inherently stronger in liberals, and others are inherently stronger in conservatives. Remember how I said that for a secularist Harm and Fairness were the most crucial? Well Greta argues for how they are also the primary moral instincts of liberals. This makes a lot of sense, since secularism is philosophy supported by liberals and attacked by conservatives (oooh Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, and Glenn Beck; so many hours of anger and laughter that you give me). Greta points out, as I did, that these are the two value sets that are best able to be applied to both yourself and others. She also does a better job of explaining why universalization of values is important

In other words, the philosophical underpinning of ethics are that they ought to be applicable to everyone. They ought to be universalizable.

And liberal values -- fairness and harm -- are universalizable.

In fact, it's inherent in the very nature of these values that they are universalizable

She also points out that "It is in the very nature of conservative values -- authority, loyalty, and purity -- that they are applied differently to different people. It is in the very nature of conservative values that some animals are, and ought to be, more equal than others."

I won't steal Greta's explanations for why that is the case, you can read them for yourself here. If you're interested in the topic it I encourage you to do so, she makes a very good argument for her proposition.

A few quick examples of political controversies that stem from holding different sets of moral values.

Harm: Liberals are for gun control because they want to reduce the harmful number of gun crimes that occur. Harm isn't the biggest priority for conservatives so in their mind infringing on the rights of gun owners is the more important aspect of the debate.

Fairness: Liberals argue that gays should be allowed to serve openly in the military, it is an issue of fairness to them. Conservatives don't think life is fair and some even argue that we shouldn't try to make life fair, which means they do not value the argument from fairness.

Authority: Many conservatives believe that Presidents shouldn't be criticized because they are the authority figure, our Commander in Chief (as long as they are a properly conservative president). "And it is our duty as loyal Americans to shut up once the fighting begins." - Bill O'Reilly 2003. Liberals on the other hand have always held up the expression "Dissent is the highest form of Patriotism" - Thomas Jefferson.

Loyalty: This is the most conservative of values, deference to something or someone out of tradition. Conservatives by definition want as little change as possible, so loyalty is their big thing.

Purity: Conservatives argue that marijuana (and historically alcohol as well) should be illegal, even though empirically speaking long term use has less ill effects on the body and mind than alcohol, and no one has ever died from an overdose. Liberals are less concerned about purity, which is why they are tolerant of substance use when done safely and responsibly.

Can you think of any political positions that either party is holding that seems to differ from the general rule here? Not challenging you to defy me, just putting up another open question (and it saves me the trouble of thinking about it!).

Having read Greta's post it's obvious why I switched from a moderate Republican to a Progressive Caucus Democrat in less than a years time. I was intentionally realigning my moral values with Harm and Fairness, as a result the liberal viewpoints started jumping out as the more moral positions to hold. I would even go so far as to agree with Greta Christina's position that the greater the emphasis placed on the liberal values of Harm and Fairness, the more moral a society tends to be.

So if you accept the idea that the philosophical foundation of ethics is that other people matter as much as we ourselves do, and that any principles of ethics ought to apply to other people as much as they do to ourselves, then that makes liberal values... well, better. Closer to that philosophical foundation.

"Closer" is of course the best that we can strive for, as ethics are complicated and as we've seen moral principles often contradictory. And I'm not advocating that we throw out conservative values. As I argued in my previous post and Greta also argues, all of these moral instincts have a place. But that's why I like putting effort into it, it's an intriguing and unsolvable puzzle, in which more value comes from going through the process than having a solution handed to you.

In search of reason,



  1. "Liberal" is a really tricky word. I just got done with a class where a prof who describes himself as "card-carrying socialist" also used "liberal" perjoratively.

    "Liberal" really shifts with the context. In global economics, it seems to mean globalization, free trade, anti-protectionism, etc. ("neoliberalism"), which is confusing because those are supposed to be "conservative" positions. I've also heard it used to refer to western enlightenment thought, so broadly that it could describe all mainstream American politics ("liberal" and conservative).

    This is important when we talk about imperialism and oppression at home. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. I agree that some kind of universal morality exists, but we have to be careful pursuing it. If we're going to talk about "harm" and "fairness," we have to look at the history of those ideas in our own (western) culture. We have to recognize when the very framework of the discussion is a western framework.

    Anyway, as far as exceptions to Greta Christina's liberal/conservative rule in the American political context, I'd point out that Tea Partiers and other conservatives are trotting out the "dissent is patriotic" line pretty aggressively these days. Political expediency and convenience probably account for a lot of the posturing of our two political parties, who love to foment the conceit that they represent two timeless and essential sides of human politics.

    I'd point to gun control as being ambiguous, in terms of Greta's five elements of ethics. On on the one hand, sure, you have Harm, but on the other you have Authority. Gun lovers are always talking about the need to resist tyranny and all that jazz.

    The last of my two cents - many cents? Nonsense? haha - is that the values of Republican and Democratic voters are influenced by the cynical goals of Republicans and Democrats. Politicians don't just respond to voters' opinions; voters' opinions are shaped. Anyone who sends out a message in media is to some extent exerting influence on our values, and certain media outlets are very influential (not just your Fox News or other parts of monopolized news, but places like as well).

  2. I think I made it decently clear that I meant liberal in the broad political context of liberal (for change) vs. conservative (for status quo). You're right about it being used in many different ways, thats why when I talked about myself in particular I made sure to identify with the Progressive Caucus of the Democratic Party.

    I wasn't quite saying that there is a universal morality (and in previous posts I've said there isn't), simply that we should apply our moral principles in a universal way, i.e. the same for everyone. As to the western framework, I'm a cultural anthropology geek, when I talk about help and harm I always make sure to consider what the recipient's perception of what is help and what is harm. Not sure how fairness can ever be skewed by cultural prejudices when applied correctly, care to elaborate?

    Thanks for pointing out some exceptions, it gives a fuller picture to the story. And I also value the insight on the two-way relationship between voters and politicians/pundits. I agree completely with that sentiment.


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