Haidt: Three Ethics Are More Descriptive Than One

From pages 115 – 118 of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.


The University of Chicago is proud of its ranking by Playboy magazine as the “worst party school” in the United States. Winters are long and brutal, bookstores outnumber bars, and students wear T-shirts showing the university crest above phrases such as “Where Fun Goes to Die” and “Hell Does Freeze Over.” I arrived at the university on it September evening in 1992, unpacked my rental truck, and went out for a beer. At the table next to mine, there was a heated argument. A bearded man slammed his hands on the table and shouted, “Damn it, I’m talking about Marx!”

This was Richard Shweder’s culture. I had been granted a fellowship to work with Shweder for two years after I finished my Ph.D. at Penn. Shweder was the leading thinker in cultural psychology-a new discipline that combined the anthropologist’s love of context and variability with the psychologist’s interest in mental processes.8 A dictum of cultural psychology is that “culture and psyche make each other Up.”9 In other words, you can’t study the mind while ignoring culture, as psychologists usually do, because minds function only once they’ve been filled out by a particular culture. And you can’t study culture while ignoring psychology, as anthropologists usually do, because social practices and institutions (such as initiation rites, witchcraft, and religion) are to some extent shaped by concepts and desires rooted deep within the human mind, which explains why they often take similar forms on different continents.

I was particularly drawn to a new theory of morality Shweder had developed based on his research in Orissa (which I described in chapter 1). Mter he published that study, he and his colleagues continued to analyze the six hundred interview transcripts they had collected. They found three major clusters of moral themes, which they called the ethics of autonomy, community, and divinity.’° Each one is based on a different idea about what a person really is.

The ethic of autonomy is based on the idea that people are, first and foremost, autonomous individuals with wants, needs, and preferences. People should be free to satisfy these wants, needs, and preferences as they see fit, and so societies develop moral concepts such as rights, liberty, and justice, which allow people to coexist peacefully without interfering too much in each other’s projects. This is the dominant ethic in individualistic societies. You find it in the writings of utilitarians such as John Stuart Mill and Peter Singer” (who value justice and rights only to the extent that they increase human welfare), and you find it in the writings of deontologists such as Kant and Kohlberg (who prize justice and rights even in cases where doing so may reduce overall welfare).

But as soon as you step outside of Western secular society, you hear people talking in two additional moral languages. The ethic of community is based on the idea that people are, first and foremost, members oflarger entities such as families, teams, armies, companies, tribes, and nations. These larger entities are more than the sum of the people who compose them; they are real, they matter, and they must be protected. People have an obligation to play their assigned roles in these entitles. Many societies therefore develop moral concepts such as duty, hierarchy, respect, reputation, and patriotism. In such societies, the Western insistence that people should design their own lives and pursue their own goals seems selfish and dangerous-a sure way to weaken the social fabric and destroy the institutions and collective entities upon which everyone depends.

The ethic of divinity is based on the idea that people are, first and foremost, temporary vessels within which a divine soul has been implanted.” People are not just animals with an extra serving of consciousness; they are children of God and should behave accordingly. The body is a temple, not a playground. Even if it does no harm and violates nobody’s rights when a man has sex with a chicken carcass, he still shouldn’t do it because it degrades him, dishonors his creator, and violates the sacred order of the universe. Many societies therefore develop moral concepts such as sanctity and sin, purity and pollution, elevation and degradation. In such societies’ the personal liberty of secular Western nations looks like libertinism, hedonism, and a celebration of humanity’s baser instincts. ‘3

I first read about Shweder’s three ethics in 1991, after I had collected my data in Brazil but before I had written my dissertation. I realized that all of my best stories-the ones that got people to react emotionally without being able to find a victim-involved either disrespect, which violated the ethics of community (for example, using a flag as a rag), or disgust and carnality, which violated the ethics of divinity (for example, the thing with the chicken).

I used Shweder’s theory to analyze the justifications people gave (when I asked them “Can you tell me why?”), and it worked like magic. The Penn students spoke almost exclusively in the language of the ethic of autonomy, whereas the other groups (particularly the working-class groups) made much more use of the ethic of community, and a bit more use of the ethic of divinity.4 Soon after I arrived in Chicago, I applied for a Fulbright fellowship to spend three months in India, where I hoped to get a closer look at the ethic of divinity. (It had been the rarest of the three ethics in my dissertation data.) Because I was able to draw on Shweder’s extensive network of friends and colleagues in Bhubaneswar, the capital city of Orissa, it was easy for me to put together a detailed research proposal, which was funded. Mter spending a year in Chicago reading cultural psychology and learning from Shweder and his students, I flew off to India in September 1993·

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