Tuesday, August 10, 2004
Haidt and associates (1993: 613) presented stories about `harmless yet offensive violations of strong social norms' to men and women of high and low socioeconomic status (SES). For example: a man goes to the supermarket once a week and buys a dead chicken. But before cooking the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he cooks it and eats it. (Haidt et al. 1993: 617). Lower SES subjects tended to `moralize' harmless and offensive behaviour like that in the chicken story. These subjects were more inclined than their privileged counterparts to say that the actor should be `stopped or punished,' and more inclined to deny that such behaviours would be `OK' if customary in a given country (Haidt et al. 1993: 618-19).
[Source: Doris, John M. and Stephen P. Stich (2004). ETHICS AND PSYCHOLOGY . In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge.]
Doris and Stich draw a conclusion for philosophical method. Philosophers, especially those working in ethics, are inclined to treat their own moral intuitions as evidence for the correctness of their favored interpretation of morality. Doris and Stich note that the academic setting of contemporary philosophy virtually guarantees that its practitioners will possess high socioeconomic status. So, when philosophers assume their intuitions to be normative, they unknowingly assume that the intuitions of those with high socioeconomic status trump the intuitions of those from other backgrounds. Given this situation, Doris and Stich recommend that if philosophers continue to make use of thought experiments that they consign them to an expository rather than an evidentiary role.
I haven't been able to track down the Haidt article*, so my response to Doris and Stich is preliminary. I have questions regarding the factors that go into determining social and economic status, and how those various factors are correlated. It would be interesting to know, for example, whether the results are more highly correlated with educational achievement or with income. The most I am confident in saying at this point is that there is some variable, call it SES, which is correlated with ethical intuitions.
There is, it seems to me, an interesting political point to be made. Note that the families of responses correlate roughly with positions that might be called 'socially progressive' and 'socially conservative'. It doesn't take a particularly astute observer of American politics to note that this divide has been used by the Republican Party in service of an agenda that, viewed from a materialist perspective, favors the interests of the monied elite. Moreover, this marriage of ideology and policy is not mere accident. Consider, for example, the notion that each person has an absolute right to the product of his own labors. This doctrine is a tenet of social conservatism which has the effect of contributing to the reproduction of existing structural inequalities. It has been used to garner broad support among the economically less well off in favor of polices that don't materially benefit them. Examples include support for the repeal of the inheritance tax, for the lowering of marginal rates of income tax, and for the weakening of the social welfare net.
The upshot is that the Republicans, or at any rate the monied elites who benefit from Republican policy, have reason to promote broad acceptance of social conservatism, and hence reason to seek that value of SES which is correlated with socially conservative intuitions. If this variable does, in fact, correlate with advantages in social and economic status then this comes very close to empirical support for Marx's remarks about the nature of ruling class ideology. But that's a whole 'nother can of worms.
*But here's a citation: Haidt, J., Koller, S. and Dias, M. (1993) `Affect, Culture, and Morality, or Is It Wrong To Eat Your Dog?', Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 65 (4): 613-28