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Moral Pluralism: Beyond Harm

[email protected]

Back to the overall question!

Do cultural differences in moral psychology explain political conflict on climate change?


Work through Feinberg & Willer, 2013 ‘The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes’

Next quote to analyse


Moral-foundations researchers have investigated the similarities and differences in morality among individuals across cultures (Haidt & Joseph, 2004). These researchers have found evidence for five fundamental domains of human morality

(Feinberg & Willer, 2013, p. 2)

Here I am just going to focus on the idea that there is more than one.

Why accept [descriptive, not normative] pluralism?

harmImagine that Roderick intentionally punched someone in the ribs.Imagine that Roderick intentionally punched himself in the ribs.
purityImagine that Roderick intentionally poured a cup of urine on someone's lap.Imagine that Roderick intentionally poured a cup of urine on his own lap.

Chakroff et al, 2013 (Supplementary Materials)

four questions

How much does this violate the natural order of things - how unnatural is this?

How disgusted do you feel about this?

How damaging is this?

How angry do you feel about this?

See (Dungan, Chakroff, & Young, 2017, p. 12) for a summary of ‘existing evidence for distinct cognitive processing of harm and purity violations. First, information about a violator’s intentions influence moral judgments of harm violations more than purity violations [...]. Second, purity violations, more so than harm violations, are attributed to dispositional versus situational factors [...] and strongly affect perceptions of the violator’s moral character’.
[Some of the evidence for moral foundations theory, including confirmatory factor analysis, supports the claim that there are multiple domains. But there's also some kind of skepticism that we might have about that research, so here's some other research that further supports the claim.]
[I start here because it's important that we have evidence from outside of moral foundations theory, at least for the claim about multiple foundations.]
So here's a study by Chakroff et al. (2013). It’s a study from a long paper by there's where they looked at two factors. So you could either be thinking about. Violations involving harm or violations involving purity. And they can be either other directed or self directed.
these are quotes from their materials. This isn't me. That's not how I spell my name. Imagine that Steven intentionally punched someone in the ribs. OK, so this would be a case of another directed harm violation. Versus case where I intentionally punched myself in the ribs. Or this person Steven, who's definitely could pour a Cup of urine into someone's lap, right? And the idea there is that. Well, it's basically a purity violation, right? There is an element of harm here, but the fact that it's urine and not water is what causes the purity violation makes sense.
(Chakroff et al., 2013)

Chakroff et al, 2013 figure 1b (part)

unnaturalness (How much does this violate the natural order of things - how unnatural is this?), disgust (How disgusted do you feel about this?), damage (How damaging is this?), and anger (How angry do you feel about this?).
The lighter bars are damage and anger (combined); the darker bars are unnaturalness and disgust combined
And what they found. The assumptions are there are at least two fundamental domains of human knowledge. Well, that's the claim, and here's some evidence for the claim, so I'm taking it. I'm taking this to be an empirical issue.
This isn't the main part of their studies, but I think it's helpful for us. What they find, First, is that their subjects can distinguish between whether there's a violation of the purity or harm. And Secondly, that they tend overwhelmingly to regard violations which are self directed as purity violations versus violations, which are other directed as harm variations

‘Participants judged other-directed acts to be more harmful than impure and also more harmful compared to self-directed acts. By contrast, participants judged self-directed acts to be more impure, and also trended toward judging self-directed acts as more impure compared to other-directed acts‘

(Chakroff et al., 2013, p. 4)

Quote with stats: ‘Participants judged other-directed acts to be more harmful (M = .27, SE = .07) than impure (M = -.13, SE = .07) (t(168) = -2.73, p = .007), and also more harmful compared to self- directed acts (M = -.21, SE = .07) (t(329) = 4.56. p < .001). By contrast, participants judged self-directed acts to be more impure (M = .04, SE = .07) than harmful (M = -.21, SE = .07) (t(161) = 2.0, p = .047), and also trended toward judging self- directed acts as more impure compared to other-directed acts (M = -.13, SE = .07) (t(329) = -1.52. p = .13).‘
So what you're seeing here is factored out. The fact that sometimes we've got we've got what's in fact a harm violation and punching somebody versus a purity violation pouring some urine into their lap. If you factor that out, what you find is that. Other directed violations are generally regarded as cases of harm. Self directed are regarded as cases of purity, so this is helpful for us. It shows it suggests that is evidence that humans can distinguish between Harmon purity violations. And that they regard different things as cues to the two kinds of violation. So they tend to regard the fact that action is self directed as a cue to it being a purity violation. So Benedict was asking, you know? Why should we accept that there are at least two? Foundations of human morality and the answer is, well, you know we should just accept that, and indeed there are people like shine and a. Who think they're there are not. They think that everything is really essentially comes down to harm. Essentially comes down to harm that finding. I think it's difficult to square with the fact that humans can and do readily distinguish between multiple different kinds of violation this way. OK, so far so good.

[LATER RESEARCH] People expect those who commit purity violations to harm others, but not conversely (Chakroff et al., 2017).

Why accept (descriptive) pluralism?

individual foundations

harm/care, cheating/fairness


binding foundations

betrayal/loyalty, subversion/authority, and impurity/purity


If I saw a mother slapping her child, I would be outraged.

It can never be right to kill a human being.

Compassion for those who are suffering is the most crucial virtue.

The government must first and foremost protect all people from harm.


People should not do things that are revolting to others, even if no one is harmed.

I would call some acts wrong on the grounds that they are unnatural or disgusting.

Chastity is still an important virtue for teenagers today, even if many don’t think it is.

The government should try to help people live virtuously and avoid sin.

(Graham et al., 2009, p. Appendix B)

purity matters: pathogens

[connecting evolution to MFT]: ‘pathogens are among the principle existential threats to organisms, so those who could best avoid pathogens would have enhanced evolutionary fitness. Van Vugt and Park contend that human groups develop unique practices for reducing pathogen exposure---particularly in how they prepare their foods and maintain their hygiene. When groups are exposed to the practices of a foreign culture, they may perceive its members as especially likely to carry pathogens that may contaminate one’s ingroup’ (Graham et al., 2013, p. 93)

van Leeuwen et al, 2012 figure 1

(van Leeuwen et al., 2012, p. figure 1)
Historical pathogen prevalence
‘binding foundations (mean of Ingroup/loyalty, Authority/respect, and Purity/sanctity). The data for contemporary pathogen prevalence showed a similar pattern.’
‘When controlling for GDP per capita, the pattern of correlations between historical pathogen prevalence and endorsement of moral foundations remained largely unchanged; however, contemporary pathogen prevalence was not significantly correlated with any of the moral foundations’ (van Leeuwen et al., 2012).

‘historical pathogen prevalence

---even when controlling for individual-level variation in political orientation, gender, education, and age---

significantly predicted endorsement of Ingroup/loyalty [stats removed], Authority/respect, and Purity/sanctity;

it did not predict endorsement of Harm/care or Fairness/reciprocity’

(van Leeuwen et al., 2012)

van Leeuwen et al, 2012

‘Participants were 120,778 adult visitors (42.0% female, median age=35 years) to the Web site who completed the MFQ (Graham et al., 2011) and provided demographic data for country (for participants who moved to their current country at age 14 years or older, the country they grew up in was used instead, cf. Graham et al., 2011). Data from the MFQ were available for 147 countries for which historical pathogen prevalence data were available’
No invariance testing done!

Why accept (descriptive) pluralism?

Argument for pluralism

### Argument for Pluarlism Moral Foundations Theory is pluralist (it postulates more than one foundation). A monist theory would likely identify harm, or something related to harm, as the one foundation. Why accept pluralism? Because

‘[p]urity/degradation judgments predict important thoughts and behaviors over and above Care/harm judgments.

For instance, purity concerns uniquely predict (beyond other foundations and demographics such as political ideology) culture-war attitudes about gay marriage, euthanasia, abortion, and pornography (Koleva et al., 2012).

Purity also predicts opposition to stem cell research (Clifford & Jerit, 2013), environmental attitudes (Rottman, Kelemen, & Young, 2015), lawsuits (Buccafusco & Fagundes, 2015), and social distancing in real-world social networks (Dehghani et al., 2016)’

(Graham et al., 2019).

‘Inconsistent with Moral Dyad Theory, our results did not support the prediction that Harm concerns would be the unequivocally most important predictor of sacrifice endorsement. Consistent with Moral Foundations Theory, however, multiple moral values are predictive of sacrifice judgments: Harm and Purity negatively predict, and Ingroup positively predicts, endorsement of harmful action in service of saving lives, with Harm and Purity explaining similar amounts of unique variance. The present study demonstrates the utility of pluralistic accounts of morality, even in moral situations in which harm is central (Crone & Laham, 2015)’ (Graham et al., 2019) on (Crone & Laham, 2015).

Background: People who identify as more socially conservative tend to exhibit stronger homophobia (Barnett et al., 2018).



Hard to think this can be a driver (as opposed to a sustaining mechanism) because religious attitudes are so flexible. For example, semitic religions are monotheistic despite stories of demigods mating with humans in Genesis (Hendel, 1987); and many of them are fine with lending money for interest despite this being widely condemned.
Since much same interpretive expertise is used by some religious adherents to dissociate their religions homophobia, it is hard to think that religion as such can explain why people who identify as more socially conservative tend to exhibit stronger homophobia. (Might still be an effective sustaining mechanism, and may support moral disengagement.)

cultural differences in morality?

(Barnett et al., 2018, p. figure 2)

CAPTION : ‘MultiplemediationmodelforStudy1:politicalideology(social;IV),bindingandindividualizingfoundations(mediators),homophobia(DV)’

‘political ideology had an indirect effect on homophobia most consistently [...] through the binding foundations’ (Barnett et al., 2018, p. 1192).

Start with homosexuality (Barnett et al., 2018), (Lai et al., 2014), (Koleva et al., 2012).
‘in the current research sanctity emerged as the strongest predicting foundation for attitudes toward homosexuality (including ATL and ATG), which is consistent with Koleva et al.’s (2012) results, where sanctity was seen to be the strongest predicting foundation for same-sex relationships’ (Lai et al., 2014).


Why accept (descriptive) moral pluralism?

it matches patterns in ethical judgements (Chakroff et al., 2013)

specific kinds of moral concern (e.g. purity) appear to have had different roles in evolution (van Leeuwen et al., 2012)

it is needed to explain how cultural differences in moral psychology underpin attitudes to homosexuality (Barnett et al., 2018; Lai et al., 2014; Koleva et al., 2012).