Have you ever heard the phrase, If A then B? Computer programmers call these sort of statements if/then statements. For example, “If something is a dog, then it’s a mammal” and it can be drawn by writing the word dog, and then drawing an arrow pointing to the word mammal. These statements are especially valuable in computer programming, because lots of if/then statements can produce incredibly complex results. But beyond their use in computer programming, what is especially interesting to me about if/then statements is how something so simple can so easily trick our brains.
We hear the statement If A then B, but our brains almost automatically, even against our will sometimes, think the opposite is true…we flip the direction of the arrow. We think that if A leads to B then B must also lead to A. But that’s not true…it’s a logical fallacy. Going back to the earlier example, If something is a dog, then it’s a mammal. However, we can’t always flip the arrow and say, if something is a mammal, then it is a dog…because there are lots of mammals that aren’t dogs. And though it makes sense to say, If I work hard then I’ll get tired, it doesn’t always make sense to say that if I’m tired, then it’s because I worked hard. I might be tired because I’m sick, or because I’m old, not because I worked hard.
The fact that our brains mix this up all the time is interesting. But what’s even more interesting to me is that this simple misunderstanding has enormous consequences…and causes untold amounts of contention.
We especially see this in politics, where people think that if A then B is the same thing as if B then A. For example, communists would be expected to vote for candidates favoring a powerful, centralized government. However, the reverse isn’t always true…that everyone who votes for a powerful, centralized government is a communist. People might vote for a powerful, centralized government because they believe a centralized government can be most effective in fighting poverty, ending a pandemic, or providing military defense…reasons that have nothing to do with communism.
In other words, people can want the same thing for different reasons. This is such an important point that I want to repeat it: people can want the same thing for different reasons. And those reasons matter.
We see another example of this when it comes to immigration policy and racism. Politicians who limit immigration would be supported by racists. In other words, if racist, then vote for politicians who limit immigration. However, that does not mean that we can flip the arrow and say that everyone who votes for politicians limiting immigration is racist. If A then B does not always mean if B then A. People might vote for these politicians because they want to reduce illegal immigration, all the while being supportive of legal immigration. Or people might be in favor of tighter immigration laws due to a pandemic. Moreover, people might vote for these politicians for reasons that have nothing to do with immigration or racism. For example, voters might be prioritizing economic or social issues.
To be clear, my main point isn’t to say that all beliefs are equally valid. Some beliefs are more correct than others, and sometimes people’s beliefs are just flat out wrong. My point, however, is that people can want the same things for different reasons. And understanding those reasons is crucial if we ever want to understand one another and perhaps persuade each other. Trying to change the mind of a racist would require an entirely different approach than trying to change the mind of someone who prioritizes economic policy over immigration policy.
But this all leads to another question. Why can people have such different beliefs on moral issues in the first place? Recent research on moral psychology has provided some fascinating insights into this question.
When people evaluate whether a behavior is immoral, they essentially ask themselves the following two questions? Does it harm anyone? and Is it fair? The answers to those questions will be a good indicator of whether the behavior is immoral.
However, other people ask themselves those two questions, but also take into account 3 additional considerations? Besides just caring about harm and fairness, they also care about being pure, respecting authority, being loyal to their in-group.
Jesse Graham and Jonathan Haidt, the professors who conducted this research, had people read statements about dogs and indicate which dog they liked most. Here are the dog descriptions:
“Suppose you have a dog that is independent-minded, and relates to its owner as a friend and an equal.” Or, “ Suppose you have a dog that is extremely loyal to its home and family and doesn’t warm up quickly to strangers.
Some people really like the description of the first dog, and it tends to be the people who only think about harm and fairness as a moral dimension. However, other people believe that loyalty is an important moral consideration and thus prefer the second dog to the first. In other words, people have different moral taste buds.
But it gets more interesting. Peoples’ response to the dog statements can actually predict who they will vote for in a presidential election. People who prefer the first dog are likely democrats. People who prefer the 2nd dog are likely republicans.
By asking people dozens of questions similar to the two dog questions above, Graham and Haidt learned that democrats tend to prioritize harm and fairness when making moral calculations. But republicans, in addition to caring about harm and fairness, also care about purity, being loyal to their in-group, and respecting authority. Thus, a campaign slogan of “Law and Order” is more likely to be associated with a republican campaign than a democratic campaign.
But just because some people value two moral foundations and others value five, does that mean both sets of values are right? When I discuss the moral foundations in my ethics course, the question always arises as to which foundations are the most important. And I usually arrive at the conclusion, it depends. Any moral foundation, taken to the extreme, can become immoral. Frequently there is a tension between the moral foundations…as there is a tension between political parties.
But of course I’m not the first to conclude this. Yin and Yang represent the tension that exists between opposite forces. In Hinduism there exists Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer. In Christianity, Adam and Eve had a choice between fruit from two different trees. In the same way that there are tensions between competing interests in philosophy and religion, there are tensions between the 5 moral foundations. And to say that one moral foundation should always trump another, is likely shortsighted.
So why does this matter? Why does it matter that people have different moral tastebuds? While it is important to try to understand which moral foundations should be prioritized (and under which circumstances), it’s also important to remember that when we disagree with someone, their perspective may be grounded in morality just as ours might be. They just might be prioritizing a different moral foundation than us.
But I think there’s another lesson here as well. At times we might think our position is morally superior by telling ourselves, “well at least I’m not on the side of the Communists” or “at least the racists don’t agree with me.” But in that moment when we’re tempted to “flip the arrow” we need to remember that people can want the same things but for different reasons.
It’s a simple idea. Please take it seriously.
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