Moral Pyschology

I have been baffled by the Democrats. Why, when everyone is moaning about gas prices, would the Democrats keep trying to pass laws that would raise gas prices? The best answer I could come up with is extreme shortsightedness. Now I think I have a better answer.

Welcome to the world of moral psychology.

For a fuller explanation, read this. My simple interpretation is this: when it comes to issues of morality, purely rational action is often overruled. We have moral sentiments which are often strong enough to prevent immoral acts, no matter how rational they might be. But people have different understandings of morality.

Johnathan Haidt proposes five components to anyone’s moral code. These are:

  • avoidance of harm
  • fairness
  • group loyalty
  • respect for authority
  • purity

Different individuals and cultures apply different weights to the moral code components. People we think of as “liberals” put heavy emphasis on avoidance of harm and fairness, while cultural conservatives draw more heavily on all five.

So here’s my thinking: if you think that it’s harmful that gas prices are rising and unfair that big oil companies are making a lot of money, a windfall profit tax has some moral appeal. It doesn’t have much rational appeal, but morality can trump rationality. Democratic politicians, knowing that voters aren’t generally well informed, can tap into that by

  • appealing to moral sentiments
  • positioning the Republicans on the wrong side of a moral issue while
  • remaining confident that it won’t come to pass so that no real harm is done

This is not unique to Democrats. Republicans do the same dance (think abortion and gay marriage, both appeals to purity). My guess is that all skilled politicians know how to manipulate moral sentiment.

The problem is, sometimes moral sentiments actually do prevail over reason and do cause harm. Really stupid laws can and do get enacted.

Almost no one wants to live in a world of pure reason which lacks any moral grounding (think Nazis). Almost no one wants to live in a world of moral codes that overrule all reason (think Taliban).

I don’t know where this will lead, but issues of moral psychology are certainly going to impact my efforts to think things through.


One response to this post.

  1. […] with too little thought and too little humility. Reformers are always in a hurry, and can make a good moral case, but a more conservative and thoughful approach would seem to be justified in most cases. Beware […]


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