dBefore I get into my disagreement with Jonathan Haidt and his is-ought problem concerning moral foundationalism, I would like to put forth my own comprehensive argument about what morality is, why we should value what we value, and what makes a moral judgment legitimate as opposed to incomplete or illegitimate.

Premise 1: Morality is a product of evolution involving the criteria of pain, pleasure, intentions, consequences, and principles as they relate the preservation, cooperation, flourishing, and well-being of sentient life.

  • Morality originally arose as a survival mechanism for human beings – not in trees or rocks.
  • Morality is tied to sentience and the brain, and is therefore tied to ideas of pain, pleasure, intentions, consequences, and principles.
  • We recognize and understand the usefulness of morality as a tool for the self-preservation, cooperation, flourishing, and well-being of our species and others.

Conclusion from Premise 1: The goal of morality should be to aid in the preservation, cooperation, flourishing, and well-being of sentient beings, and by extension, the best possible morality is one which maximizes these things for all sentient beings.

Premise 2: Morality is tied to instinct. Since morality is a product of evolution and arose as a survival mechanism, it follows that morality has a connection to human instinct.

  • One feel’s an instinctual urge to help another when one sees a child being beating or an animal being tortured.
  • One feel’s an instinctual urge to preserve human life, regardless of circumstance. For example, when one sees another jumping off a bridge, one instinctually rushes to save them.
  • Our instinctual urge to protect human life regardless of pain, pleasure, intentions, consequences, flourishing, and well-being, can lead us to make the wrong decisions regarding abortion, assisted suicide, and can lead us to ignore the pain and pleasure of other species.

Conclusion from Premise 2: Instinct alone cannot be the foundation for morality because it can guide us to make choices which ignore the pain, pleasure, preservation, cooperation, flourishing, and the well-being of conscious creatures.

Premise 2: Morality is tied to the feelings and emotions of people and is rooted in convictions of right and wrong.

  • The feeling that black people were inferior served as a justification for racism, slavery, and segregation.
  • The feeling that loving others is a good thing serves as a moral justification for the family unit, acts of charity, and peaceful coexistence within society.

Conclusion from Premise 2: Since feelings about what is moral vary across time and qualitatively differ to the degree they promote preservation, cooperation, flourishing, and well-being, and to the degree they consider pain, pleasure, intentions, consequences, and principles relating to these things, feelings alone cannot be the foundation for morality.

Premise 3: Morality is tied to consensus. Since ethical systems are a product of social negotiation – not a product of individuals in isolation – consensus plays a role in determining the prevailing ethical systems and moral behaviors of the time.

  • Morality does not exist in a vacuum, only with respect to groups of people. A human being on a desert island with no other lifeforms has no moral obligations to anyone, including themselves.
  • Historically, individual ethics are only seen as valid to the degree to which others recognize and reaffirm an individual standards and behaviors, and to the degree to which an individual’s standards and behaviors can be understood and accepted by others.
  • In-group ideas about what morality should be and what roles it should play are confined to ideas about pain, pleasure, intentions, consequences, and principles, even if those ideas are mistaken.

Conclusion: Since prevailing ethical systems differ across time periods and cultures, and because the degree to which each ethical system or moral behavior promotes the preservation, cooperation, flourishing, and well-being of the species is qualitatively different, this suggests that consensus alone is not a stable foundation for determining the best possible ethical system.

Premise 4: Morality is tied to knowledge and reason. The influx of knowledge and the exercise of reason fundamentally affects the way human beings understand and negotiate ethics and moral behaviors.

  • We can use knowledge and reason to discredit the feeling and general consensus about the supposed inferiority of black people.
  • We can also use knowledge and reason to wipe out large swaths of the population in the pursuit of building a more sustainable planet.

Conclusion from Premise 4: Knowledge and reason alone cannot be the sole foundation for morality because reason alone ignores emotion and consensus and results in ethical systems and moral behaviors which are contrary to promoting preservation, cooperation, flourishing, and well-being as they relate to pain, pleasure, intentions, consequences, and principles.

Premise 5: The use of knowledge and reason have historically resulted in a greater positive impact on societies in terms of providing qualitatively better ethical systems than those which only relied on the use of instinct, emotion, and consensus.

  • In the past our instinct, feelings, and consensus enabled us to burn other human beings which were seen as “witches,” and allowed us to perceive physical diseases as a sign of evil which resulted in a culture of victim-blaming.
  • Through the influx of knowledge, we learned that what we assumed to be malevolent forces were actually due to mental illness.
  • In light of new knowledge, human beings began to incorporate reason into ethical decision-making by treating mentally ill people as victims instead of viewing them as a threat.

Premise 6: The exercise of reason in moral-decision making is necessary because it allows us to understand, explain, and argue why something should be valued, whereas emotions and consensus only give us a general a sense of what standards and behaviors are potentially good or bad.

  • If the racist that feels that black people are inferior cannot rationally explain the origin of his disgust, but solely relies to emotion and consensus, then their opinion should be regarded as uniformed, since the exercise of reason would allow them to realize their opinion is not legitimate.
  • Similarly, if the non-racist fails to articulate in rational terms why they should treat all people regardless of race as they themselves would like to be treated, but instead relies on emotion and consensus, then their opinion is also uninformed, as the exercise of reason would allow them to realize its legitimacy.

Premise 7: The use of emotion and consensus in moral-decision making is necessary because gives us a general sense of whether ethical standards and behaviors might be good or bad, whereas reason cannot give us this sense; it can only help us understand, explain and justify it.

  • The sociopath’s reasons as to why they are killing people might be very rational, but this ignores the pain and well-being of the victim as well as the consensus and feelings of most people regarding killing.
  • Similarly, the dictator might have a good reason for quashing dissent and exterminating entire swaths of the population, but this betrays the moral sense given to us by our emotions and ignores the well-being of others.

Final Conclusion from Premises 1-7: Moral decision-making should therefore necessarily involve the use of reason, emotion, and consensus, and the ethical systems which incorporate these things are qualitatively better – that is better for the preservation, cooperation, flourishing, and well-being of sentient life –  than ethical systems which do not incorporate all three.

In psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s book, “The Righteous Mind,” he outlines his theory of moral foundationalism, explaining that most people make moral judgments across cultures and countries according to 5 distinct criteria:

  • Harm
  • Fairness
  • Loyalty
  • Authority
  • Purity

In pointing to these criteria – a description of how most people make moral decisions across cultures, national boundaries, and political affiliations – he therefore concludes that the way most human beings tend to make moral judgments should be the way human beings make moral judgments.

From a philosophical standpoint, this is problematic for several reasons:

  • It commits Hume’s is-ought fallacy by transforming the descriptive data about moral foundations into a prescription that most people should make value judgments based on these categories.
  • It assumes that all 5 criteria in question are static, meaningful, equal, and applicable to all moral situations.

Regarding Haidt’s first implicit claim, it’s clear to see why the fact that people happen to make moral decisions a certain way has no bearing on whether those decisions are morally justified. In a world where killing others because they believe in the wrong God is the norm, and in which the moral criteria of in-group loyalty, authority, and purity reign supreme, this does not mean we should advocate for such an ethical system because doing so would result a net increase in pain and loss of life, which is contrary to one of the purposes and goals of morality – i.e. to maximize pleasure and well-being of all sentient beings.

Secondly, one of the problems inherent to Haidt’s 5 criteria of moral foundationalism as a prescriptive moral claim is one of coherence and inflexibility. In order for Haidt’s 5 criteria to be useful – not merely in terms of describing how people make moral choices, but in terms of prescribing how people should make those choices – one would have to do the following:

  • Demonstrate that these 5 criteria are morally valid.
  • Demonstrate how these 5 criteria are more necessary and more useful than other criteria.
  • Disallow for the revision, negation, and addition of criteria among individuals and collective societies with the influx of new knowledge and the passage of time.

Furthermore, even accepting that these 5 criteria should be used to make moral decisions, this coherency problem also extends to the use of the 5 criteria themselves because it implies a moral equivalency between them which has yet to be demonstrated.

To suggest that all criteria are equal is to imply that one criteria is no better than another when making moral judgments in the same way I argue that consensus, emotion, and reason are no better, only Haidt never bothers to explain why this must be the case.

However, even if we accept that these criteria are equivalent without qualification, we still run into problems because morality itself is context-bound – that is, something which is bound to specific circumstances and contexts. It could very well be the case that all 5 criteria should be employed when making moral judgments, but it could also be the case that only some or none of them should be employed when making moral judgments because they may simply not be relevant or necessary to answering the same moral question.

For example, when it comes to deciding whether to cheat on my wife, the criteria of harm, fairness, loyalty, authority, all seem to apply (though it’s clear to me that some matter more than others), while purity seems completely irrelevant. Similarly, when it comes to a married woman deciding to abort a non-sentient fetus, the criteria of loyalty, purity, and authority are seemingly irrelevant to the moral equation, while the regard for the pain of the mother and father involved and the criteria of fairness with respect to the wishes of each should obviously be considered.

Moreover, Haidt’s moral prescriptions based on moral foundationalism faces a historical problem since it presumes that the 5 criteria procured from the time in which we currently live should automatically form the basis for our actions, thereby making them static, universal, and unchanging standards of morality which should be taken at face value rather than scrutinized, criticized, and refined over time as the discovery of new knowledge helps us understand our world and our place within it.

For example, I could just as easily do a study charting the moral foundations of Mesopotamia in 2,000 B.C. and walk away with a very different data set regarding how human beings make moral decisions, and therefore conclude how those decisions should be made based on false premises. Additionally, the fact that morality is a constantly evolving, expanding sphere of knowledge and about how people should relate to each other, confining morality to 5 specific criteria for all time works against the evolution of morality itself and runs the risk of becoming just as dogmatic and harmful as the as the morally abhorrent cultures of the past and instinctual ethical systems which arose from them.

Furthermore, the adoption of Haidt’s moral foundations as a moral prescription is also problematic as the criteria individuals and societies use to make moral judgments change with the influx of new knowledge and experience which contradicts and replaces the previous moral criteria being used. For example, in my transition from Catholicism to atheism, and from my transition from omnivore to vegan over the course of my life, the criteria I used to make moral judgments significantly changed along with my individual understanding of what it meant to be moral and immoral. Similarly, in our Western, liberal democracy, gay marriage was seen as evil in the past few decades by the majority of the population whereas it is seen as normal today.

To Haidt’s credit, his work does show us why different people tend to value different things, providing valuable insights into human nature. However, it’s important to recognize that Haidt’s scientific findings are concerned with descriptions of raw data whereas his moral argument relies on a specific interpretation of that data.

By using a different interpretative framework or paradigm, for example, one can come to a completely different conclusion. While Haidt’s understanding and interpretation of the data about morality stems from what appears to be a kind of moral structural functionalism in which competing moral frameworks are necessary for society to survive (yin and yang), my own interpretation of the data about morality stems from a kind of moral conflict theory which argues that morality works dialectically toward a synthesis of competing moral frameworks, and which necessitates the discarding of bad ideas about morality while embracing ones that have proven to be more useful.

Similarly, while Haidt sees the fact that morality is understood differently and that different ethical systems and moral behaviors are adopted and prescribed throughout the world as a reliable basis for justifying the use of his 5 criteria, this merely suggests to me that not everyone has an equal understanding of what morality is or what it entails in the same way that not everyone has an equal understanding of religion or science, or in the same way that not everyone has an equal share of wealth or innate abilities.

Therefore, where Haidt sees the existence of irreconcilable differences among the way human beings perceive and behave in the world, I see these differences as a problem of competing moralities due to the passage of time, the influx of new knowledge in societies, and the rift between outdated definitions and understandings of morality based on instinct, consensus, and emotion versus more enlightened systems based on consensus, emotion, and reason.

In conclusion, I think Haidt’s choice to interpret the data in a way which makes his 5 criteria absolute and yet allows for moral relativity by suggesting all decisions made upon these chosen criteria are morally indistinguishable from each other is intellectually lazy and morally toxic. In my opinion, it is anti-knowledge, anti-reason, anti-progress, and if adopted, will ultimately fall apart as time goes on as its absurd and incoherent nature is realized in the wake of better and more useful ideas about morality.


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