Thursday, 5 September 2013

Building Your (Axiological) Foundation on Sand

or, Are These Really the Foundations After All?

A Moral Foundations Theory post

In my first post of this series, "The Polonius Virtue," I wrote, "Freedom--whether articulated as liberation, choice, agency, or anarchy--is a pretty common trope for political speeches and actions, everything from liberation theology to pro-choice advocacy to justifications of foreign and domestic military violence." I don't suppose it will be controversial to say that freedom, as a buzzword, is taken up by most sides of each issue. In the same post, I also outline ways that I thought the moral foundation authenticity/artificiality operates in such different discourses as existentialism, Daoism, neo-romanticism, and genetic determinism. In the second post, "Unnatural Acts and Unnatural Ingredients," I suggest that sexual purity (eg. homophobia, pro-chastity) and biological purity (eg. anti-GMOs, environmentalism, organic food movement) are "one moral foundation (purity/disgust) mobilized in different realms (sexual, ritual, environmental, dietary)." So, I ask, if one moral foundation can be mobilized in different realms--freedom in both communism and capitalism, authenticity in existentialism and genetic determinism, purity in homophobia and environmentalism--how foundational are they? What else is involved that allows (or compels) these foundations to wind up producing such varied philosophies? Would that something else be foundational, instead?

I also notice how some of these concepts bleed into one another. In existentialism, freedom/oppression cannot be fully untangled from authenticity/artificiality; indeed, the same can be said of Daoism, though it formulates the relationship between the two moral foundations differently. In certain strains of environmentalism, natural authenticity is virtually synonymous with natural purity...and, I suspect, you could dig up some Internet pundit who equates sexual purity with sexual authenticity, as well. So it isn't just that individual moral foundations start to splinter; separate moral foundations start to fuse (or, anyway, are found to be fused).

I haven't any idea how to find a definitive answer, but I have some ideas about where we could start loving the question.

1. Maybe the use of the word "freedom" is cynical when it is used to support foreign military violence. Its speakers would not actually score very highly on the freedom/oppression scale if they took the Moral Foundations test. But they know (anecdotally, probably not experimental-psychologically) that other people value freedom highly, and so when they preach war, they marshal "freedom" for support. This cynicism might be conscious, unconscious, semi-conscious, doublethink, or whatever.
While I think this would go a very long way explaining the freedom example, I don't think it adequately addresses the purity/sanctity or authenticity/artificiality examples; I think that at least some of the time, people do genuinely (ie. non-cynically) use the same foundations to support different philosophies, and recent evidence supports me on that.

2. Maybe freedom does matter to warmongers, but their decision to monger war is made without reference to this particular moral foundation (or, anyway, this moral foundation lost out to the other factors in the decision-making process). Instead, they were swayed by some other motive--desire for public favour, xenophobia, love of Empire, American civil religion, whatever--and they use "freedom" as a post-hoc rationalization for their decision. As with post-hoc rationalizations generally, they really do believe that this moral foundation is motivating them. This is very much like #1, but without the cynicism.
There's pretty good evidence that people rationalize non-rational decisions rather a lot, so to me it feels like post-hoc rationalization is a good answer. But I don't like it for a few other reasons: I suspect that, at least in the biological purity examples, it would be hard to construct ulterior motives that were more plausible than disgust. Disgust is very strong, and the evidence to support disgust as a motivator is solid. Again, this story works better for freedom than for purity.

3. Maybe cultural expectation, social pressures, upbringing, and so on matter more than moral foundations. These other forces might shape moral foundations, but not all people in a family, community, etc. have the same foundations. However, they might wind up holding the same opinions because these social pressures shape the foundations in assorted ways. Mom is harm/care-oriented and Dad is authority/respect-oriented, but both wind up opposing the de-criminalization of polygamy (say). This isn't so much post-hoc rationalization as a pressure to interpret those foundations in different ways. The foundations are polysemic; they contain several (though limited) possible meanings (or, if you prefer, applications or expressions). So the moral foundations are still the tools by which people formulate moral opinions, but there is nothing inevitable about what opinion people will use those foundations to formulate. Or, if it is inevitable, something other than the moral foundations determines which opinions people will hold.
However, the trouble here is that foundations still don't seem to matter much; in order to explain how "freedom" can found such radically different philosophies, you'd have to say that social pressures exert overwhelming influence...and then Moral Foundation Theory is all but useless. The evidence that I know of suggests that the Moral Foundation Theory does describe some bit of reality rather well, so something in this story is wrong.

4. You can repeat #3 for pressures other than the ones described: personality, fear, whatnot. Same story, and same problems.

5. Perhaps the different ways freedom can be mobilized has something to do with how this foundation interacts with the other foundations. We already see that they are intertwined; maybe the forces exerting pressure on a moral foundation are the other foundations. We interpret freedom differently depending on how heavily we value freedom compared to care, or purity, or loyalty. Maybe, with a higher loyalty score, we start to value our country's freedom more than another country's.

6. Perhaps the difference is something so simple as a disagreement about the facts about the world. We have different data, so when we apply a standard axiology, we get different results.

Ultimately, my guess is that there isn't one answer for this problem. I would suggest that one person's case might resemble #1 most while another person's case resembles #4 most. I've got no real answers. I think, though, the problem lies either 1) in how Moral Foundation Theory articulates and explains the moral personality traits it measures or 2) in how I understand that articulation and explanation, because the data suggests that Moral Foundation Theory is measuring a valid feature of human moral reasoning. The data makes sense; it correlates with other measures, it show internal consistency, the studies are replicable. So there's something to this theory. But are those somethings foundations? What role do they play in moral reasoning? I don't know. (Maybe that's just because I haven't read the research. I'm firmly seated in my philosophy armchair.)

No comments:

Blog Widget by LinkWithin