A nation of shoppers who feel empty inside…

Bloggingheads.tv have filmed another illuminating psychology-related discussion (see player below), this time featuring moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt and libertarian political analyst Will Wilkinson.


Haidt believes that our moral response to a situation is akin to an aesthetic reaction – it happens in the blink of an eye, and it’s only after the gut reaction that we attempt to rationalise our feelings.

Underlying our moral responses are five foundations, which are calibrated at different levels depending on our cultural background. The first two, Harm/Care and and Fairness/Reciprocity, are universal, tend to correlate with each other, and are especially valued by liberals. The remaining three also tend to correlate with each other, but are less universal, tending to be valued more by conservative types. These are Ingroup loyalty, Authority/Respect and Purity/Sanctity.

Haidt is not a moral absolutist: he doesn’t think there is some external moral truth that existed before man, and will exist afterwards. Neither is he a moral rationalist: he doesn’t think reason is the epitome of morality. This usually leaves only relativism – the idea that any given moral code is as good as the next, but Haidt isn’t that either. Instead, he says there is a fourth way. There is a moral truth that emerges out of cultural and social circumstances, in the same way that the value of gold is not an inherent property of the metal, but emerges from market processes. Haidt says that appreciating this can help us to be more tolerant and understanding of other cultures.

Today it is morally right that men and women are perceived as equal, he says as an example, but go back in history and there were legitimate reasons driven by a need to divide labour that led the sexes to be viewed unequally, because that was what was seen to work best in that time.

For a successful society, Haidt believes, you need a balance between the five moral foundations – a blend of the liberal and conservative sensibilities. The danger with liberals, he says, is that they would likely choose to set the Authority, Ingroup, and Purity levels to zero, because they associate these values with racism and segregation. And yet, it is order, tradition, and a sense of community and belonging which Haidt believes makes people happy. Without these and you end up with a “nation of shoppers who feel empty inside”.

Haidt’s discussant Will Wilkinson, himself a libertarian, isn’t convinced: “I think meaning is overrated,” he says.

There’s plenty more in the clip above, including why religion is correlated with happiness within nations, and yet the world’s happiest nations are secular. Great stuff Blogginheads.tv – Keep it up!

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Want to know more about this area?
Link to recent Prospect magazine article on the emerging moral psychology (open access).
Link to Jonathan Haidt’s landmark paper on the new synthesis in moral psychology (open access).

2 thoughts on “A nation of shoppers who feel empty inside…”

  1. See if you can spot how many times Haidt pulls himself up by his own bootstraps.

  2. Haidt's response is moral relativism. The 'fourth response' is just this in a weakly worded way. As it differs between culture & time, it cannot be defined otherwise.

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