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When In Rome: a Theory of How to Change Moral Sentiments

March 22, 2012

It is easier to get people to opt into a society with different norms than it is to convince them to change their behavior while everyone else remains the same. Grafting new rules on top of old institutions is a perilous journey. There’s lots to talk about in Jonathan Haidt’s fascinating book, The Righteous Mind, but I was struck by Haidt’s own story. He didn’t notice how impoverished the typical secular urban moral palette is until he lived in India. Writing about his first study there, he admits:

But these experiments taught me little in comparison to what I learned just from stumbling around the complex social web of a small Indian city and then talking with my hosts and advisors about my confusion. One cause of confusion was that I had brought with me two incompatible identities. On one hand, I was a twenty-nine-year-old liberal atheist with very definite views about right and wrong. On the other hand, I wanted to be like those open-minded anthropologists I had read so much about and had studied with, such as Alan Fiske and Richard Shweder. My first few weeks in Bhubaneswar were therefore filled with feelings of shock and dissonance. I dined with men whose wives silently served us and then retreated to the kitchen, not speaking to me the entire evening. I was told to be stricter with my servants, and to stop thanking them for serving me. I watched people bathe and cook with visibly polluted water that was held to be sacred. In short, I was immersed in a sex-segregated, hierarchically stratified, devoutly religious society, and I was committed to understanding it on its own terms.

It only took a few weeks for my dissonance to disappear, not because I was a natural anthropologist but because the normal capacity for empathy kicked in. I liked these people who were hosting me, helping me, and teaching me…Rather than automatically rejecting the men as sexist oppressors and pitying the women, children, and servants as helpless victims, I began to see a moral world in which families, not individuals, are the basic unit of society, and the members of each extended family (including its servants) are intensely interdependent. In this world, equality and personal autonomy were not sacred values. Honoring elders, gods, and guests, protecting subordinates, and fulfilling one’s role-based duties were more important.

I had read about Shweder’s ethic of community and had understood it intellectually. But now for the first time in my life, I began to feel it. [pp 101-102]

No amount of arguing could have led Haidt to adopt these attitudes. No deduction from moral principles in a reflective equilibrium could have led to these intuitions. They had to be lived and then felt. Not that this suite of moral sentiments presents a better way of life. But it does show how people can change. In a world of robust competition between jurisdictions, we should see a variety of different ways of life. That variety is a good thing. But if anything like a free society can flourish amid the competition, it will be because people have opted into it and have grown accustomed to its norms and values. That will be the larger force for change. Arguing for people in Chicago or Los Angeles to adopt those attitudes today one by one doesn’t stand a chance.

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3 Comments
  1. twistedone151 permalink
    March 29, 2012 8:02 pm

    You’re right that “Arguing for people in Chicago or Los Angeles to adopt those attitudes today one by one doesn’t stand a chance.” And you’re right that “a world of robust competition between jurisdictions” would be a greater force for producing a freer society via a greater variety of systems and ways of life. All these point to the desirability of projects, such as seasteading, to increase competitive governance.

    However, just because a thing is desirable, does not mean that it is possible. None of the above addresses the fact that the world is full, there are no new frontiers, and seasteading will never, never work. No matter how good a thing competitive government might be, no matter how much you may want it, it’s not going to happen. Trying will only waste resouces, and quite likely get people hurt.

  2. jacoblyles permalink
    April 2, 2012 12:51 am

    The lesson here is that peer pressure is stronger than logical argument. If he played the role of the strident liberal universalist in India, his hosts would have thought he was a dick.

    Well-adjusted people adopt moral principles based on who they want to like them.

    • Mike Gibson permalink*
      April 2, 2012 2:03 am

      I agree, but it’s also important to see that he began to feel the authority of certain people. That’s not quite the same as peer pressure, since peers are equals.

      Still, the the peer pressure theory of moral change is a good one.

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