Uncommon Common Sense

By Bill Frayer
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Is That Immoral or Just Not Such a Good Idea?


Bill Frayer 2010Julie and Mark, who are sister and brother, are traveling together in France. They are both on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin on the beach. They decide it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love…Julie is already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy it but decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret between them… So what do you think about this?  Was it wrong for them to have sex?”

Johathan Haidt used this scenario in research to determine how people view morality.  The research is outlined in his book, The Righteous Mind. Most people, of course, thought this behavior was not a good idea.  But when the researchers asked if the behavior was immoral there was a distinct difference of opinion. Those who considered themselves conservative overwhelmingly thought it was immoral. The liberals, on the other hand, thought it was a bad idea, but not necessarily immoral.  Why?

Haidt suggests there are five areas of morality that people, throughout the world, use to decide if something is morally correct: harm, fairness, loyalty to one’s group, respect for authority, and sanctity. There appears to be no harm in their behavior. It was not unfair, nor did it involve loyalty to a group or respect for authority. But it could be seen as violating the sanctity of the family or of longstanding sexual mores. 

Haidt has suggested that, for liberal thinkers, the two most important values on which morality rests are avoiding harm and promoting fairness.  Conservatives, on the other hand, value all five values when making a moral decision. 

Liberals, although they might not agree with Julie and Mark’s decision, were likely to say it was harmless, therefore not immoral. Conservatives were quick to label it as immoral, a violation of the value of sanctity. If we consider many contemporary questions on which liberals and conservatives disagree, many come down to the values which conservatives value more than liberals: abortion (sanctity), patriotism (loyalty), immigration (loyalty), value of military experience (authority), and homosexuality (sanctity). I am abbreviating these drastically because of my word limit, but if we consider the differences, most liberal positions focus on the harm and fairness values, while the conservative positions have a broader justification which in addition to harm and fairness, also focus on loyalty, authority and sanctity. 

Haidt makes the point that in most of the rest of the world (exception: Western Europe), moral values strongly use all five of the values, often focusing more strongly on loyalty, authority, and sanctity than on fairness and harm.

Is this why we have so much trouble understanding each other?  Do we just fail to see how the other side can think about the big issues of the day?  Of course Haidt is using a broad brush to draw these distinctions. This runs the risk of oversimplifying, of course.  For example, some liberal positions focus, to a degree, on sanctity (opposition to NGO foods, environmental protection).  Conservatives are obviously concerned about harm and fairness, just not to the exclusion of other values. 

I have conservative friends who are good people.  When I can’t understand why they believe what they do, I am reminded of a Francis David quote which hangs in our Unitarian-Universalist church: “We do not have to think alike to love alike.”

Bill Frayer




Column: Uncommon Common Sense




Bill Frayer lived all of his adult life in Maine until moving to Mexico in 2007.  He had a long career teaching writing, critical thinking, and communication at the community college and university level.  He has published a critical thinking textbook and four volumes of poetry.  Stirring up trouble with his column for the last eight years, he enjoys hearing from those who have strong opinions about what he writes.  Now a snowbird back in Maine, he enjoys playing blues, eating lobster, and fishing with his granddaughter.  In Ajijic he enjoys leading TED talks at LCS and talking poetry with his fellow poets.


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