What is ethics and morality? I define these terms synonymously and ethics is commonly defined as concerning choices that people make that affect other sentient beings (as well as affecting the choosers themselves). As Skitka and Conway explain,
Morality is relevant, for example, when someone kicks another person, but not when a person
kicks a bicycle tire because the former situation involves a suffering mind, and the other does not.
Harmful choices are unethical although there is disagreement about 1) What is harmful? 2) How to prioritize different sentient beings in weighing harms to some versus benefits to others? and 3) When is a moral agent really making an intentional choice or not?
The second definition of ethics has to do with the aesthetics of a situation. Some people deem that a choice is immoral not because of any harm, but because of aesthetic judgements about emotions like disgust or sanctity. This definition of ethics is more controversial, but there is some psychological evidence that it is important for explaining how people actually make ethical judgements. Some of our aesthetics of morality are probably universal biological tendencies and others are taught or at least strengthened or weakened by cultural norms.
Philosophers have spent thousands of years developing and debating various logical systems for thinking through a rational way to make sense of what is moral and the biggest divide is between the deontology (sometimes called Kantianism) and the consequentialism (sometimes called utilitarianism). Deontology is following rules about what is good and bad and consequentialism is doing whatever leads to the greatest total good for the entire population.
Neither of these moral systems is sufficient for thinking about every situation which leads to arguments between fundamentalists who prefer one or the other. Deontologists give examples of the shortfall of consequentialism such as asking whether it would be moral to harvest the organs of a healthy, happy, innocent young person in order to save the lives of 20 other young people who need organ transplants. That would increase the total happiness of society, but violates our gut instincts about morality.
Consequentialists give similar thought experiments to trash fundamentalist deontology. For example, Deontologists say that lying is wrong, so is it immoral to lie to the Nazis to hide Anne Frank’s Jewish family and prevent them from being killed? There are many more examples because no single, simple ethical theory is sufficient to guide every situation.
Utilitarians need deontological rules to help guide their actions because people are bad at calculating the costs and benefits of every action and rules simplify the cognitive load of figuring out what actions have had the best expected value. Similarly, deontologists need utilitarianism to help them simplify the task of figuring out which rules should take priority when various rules inevitably come into conflict.
The Madison Collaborative combined these two philosophical systems along with six more into eight dimensions that they organized as questions for thinking through any moral judgment from eight different philosophical traditions as will be enumerated below.
Another system for thinking through different ethical perspectives is called Moral Foundations Theory (MFT). MFT was developed by psychologists who built upon work in cultural anthropology and evolutionary psychology to describe different kinds of emotional impulses that people have and how different kinds of emotional reactions lead to different kinds of moral rationalizations. Unlike the philosophers who started out by trying to answer the normative question of what is the best logical system for making moral judgements, the psychologists and anthropologists who have been developing MFT have been trying to describe all the fundamentally different cognitive systems that humans actually use when they make moral decisions. One cognitive foundation can disagree with other foundations and MFT attempts to use this observation to explain why different people disagree about what is ethical and what is not. MFT posits that some people value some moral foundations more than criteria and that leads to disagreement. MFT is a useful framework for understanding moral disagreements, but it leaves out tribalism and that is probably the biggest reason why people disagree about moral judgments. Tribalism is the fact that people disagree about who is more important for moral considerations than others.
There is considerable overlap between the Madison Collaborative’s eight dimensions and the six dimensions of MFT. Only three of the Madison Collaboration’s dimensions are not duplicated in MFT’s system and they are marked in red:
- “Fairness – How can I act equitably and balance legitimate interests?”
- “Outcomes – What achieves the best short- and long-term outcomes for me and all others?” Philosophers call this consequentialist moral reasoning.
- “Responsibilities – What duties and/or obligations apply?” Philosophers call this deontological moral reasoning.
- “Character – What action best reflects who I am and the person I want to become?” Philosophers call this system of moral reasoning virtue ethics.
- “Liberty – How does respect for freedom, personal autonomy, or consent apply?” See #8 below for commentary.
- “Empathy – What would I do if I cared deeply about those involved?” This is very similar to the “care/harm” dimension of MFT. This dimension can encompass different kinds of cognitive processes and Paul Bloom argues that focusing on empathy can be somewhat dangerous because too much empathy can be paralyzing. Bloom wrote a book called Against Empathy in which he argues that, “when it comes to moral reasoning, empathy is just a bad idea. It just throws in bias and innumeracy and confusion.” Bloom makes a good case that compassion and understanding are much better than empathy for moral reasoning. You may define these terms as all meaning exactly the same thing, but Bloom distinguishes between them and shows how empathy is a completely different thinking processes than compassion.
- “Authority – What do legitimate authorities (e.g. experts, law, my religion/god) expect of me?” This is part of moral foundations theory and it is quite redundant with #3, but the key word is “legitimate”. Different people completely disagree about whose moral authority is legitimate and there is often a tribalistic cause. For example, Republicans tend to follow Trump’s authority a lot more than Democrats do.
- “Rights – What rights (e.g. innate, legal, social) apply?” This is redundant with liberty (#5) because every right is just the liberty to control something. It also has some overlap with authority (#7) because an authority is a kind of right and any right (or liberty) that can be infringed is merely an aspiration without enforcement by some authority.
Because the Madison Collaborative was a project led by philosophers, they emphasized the most popular traditions in moral philosophy. The three most important schools of moral philosophy are consequentialism (#2), deontology (#3), and virtue ethics (#4). They also included other philosophical schools that have been less influential than the big three, but two of these schools are just studying the same dimension from different perspectives. For example, their last item “Rights” (#8) is redundant with liberty (#5) but they may have included both as separate dimensions because these concepts are stressed by different minor schools in moral philosophy. Rights are stressed by moral philosophers who work on social contract theory and natural rights theory whereas other philosophers obsess about liberty and freedom, even though rights and freedoms are really just the same thing, but seem different because each concept is looking from the opposite end of a single, continuous spectrum. Similarly, there is also considerable redundancy between rights and authority because a right is an authority to do something and vice versa. As explained at the link above rights/authority are at the opposite end of the same dimension with liberty because at one end is extreme liberty where one is not restricted by any authority and on the other end is extreme authority where someone’s liberty is minimized by an all-powerful authority.
Both The Madison Collaborative and MFT largely agree about four of the dimensions (Liberty, Empathy/care, and Authority), and although they both include Fairness, they emphasize two different definitions of fairness. MFT also has two additional unique dimensions of moral reasoning that the Madison Collaborative lacks:
- Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions)
- Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”
Below I’ve created a new list of moral questions by combining the Madison Collaborative’s philosophical questions with MFT’s psychological foundations. Both systems agree about three of the dimensions below (#2, #3, & #4 ). I combined the redundant liberty & rights categories from the Madison Collaborative into #3. I added the three unique dimensions from MFT (#6, #8, & #9), and the three unique dimensions from the Madison Collaborative (#1, #5, #7) and changed some of the names (especially #1, #5, #6, & #9).
I renamed the responsibilities question (#1), “Noblesse Oblige” to emphasize that the more your gifts, the greater your responsibilities because obviously anyone who has no power over something has no responsibility about it either and vice versa. Some gifts imply a responsibility to reciprocate to the giver, such as a child’s duty to their parents, but even gifts of chance providence, such as getting rich off of a lucky gold discovery, create responsibilities to use that wealth so that it helps rather than harming others. This is perhaps best known as Spider-man’s motto: “With great power comes great responsibility”. Although some people are much more powerful than others, everyone has some amount of power over others and with any power comes proportionate responsibility.
The new list of nine questions:
- Noblesse Oblige – What responsibilities, duties and/or obligations apply to people who have the kind of gifts I have been given?
- Authority – What do legitimate authorities and social traditions expect of me?
- Rights & Liberty – What rights (e.g. innate, legal, social) to freedom, autonomy, or consent apply? Could oppression be lifted?
- Empathy & Compassion – What would I do if I cared deeply about those involved? How can I reduce harm?
- Outcome Fairness – What achieves the best short- and long-term outcomes for me and all others?
- Procedural Fairness – How can I act equitably, balance legitimate interests, and minimize the harm of cheating?
- Character – What action best reflects who I am and the person I want to become?
- Sanctity/degradation – How much of my judgement is being driven by my gut reaction of moral disgust or aesthetic sense of purity and virtue?
- Identity & Tribalism – Should I be more loyal to some than others? Should I worry about others feeling betrayed if I don’t fulfill their expectations of my social role? Are some people’s preferences more important than others? Do animals count? How would my moral perspective change if I belonged to an opposing group? Which dimensions of group identity am I evoking in my answers to these questions: nationality, religion, race, gender, family role (e.g.: father, son, cousin, and/or brother), profession, or other identity valences?
The last moral question (#9) was inspired by the loyalty/betrayal foundation in MFT, and there isn’t a perfect name for this question so I call it Identity & Tribalism because that is better at evoking the core of this dimension which is the fact that humans identify with and prioritize some relationships over others. We all have various identities that are determined by the different roles we have in the various groups we identify with. Tribalism clearly communicates the idea that we are more loyal to some people than others and consider some people more important than others. Loyalty and betrayal wouldn’t even make sense without some sort of tribal/group identity.
Because the last dimension interacts with most of the others, it is best to review the first eight dimensions in light of identity and tribalism (the ninth dimension):
- Responsibility – Do I owe more responsibility to some people than others and why? Do I owe reciprocity to some more than others?
- Authority – Which authorities (e.g. experts, law, religion/god) are more legitimate than others and why? One source of legitimacy is Noblesse Oblige: Are the authorities mainly using their power to benefit those that they have authority over or for selfish ends? Are some authorities smarter, more compassionate, and/or more trustworthy than others?
- Rights & Liberty – One person’s right to a freedom almost always means the power to restrict another person’s freedoms in some way. Are some people’s freedoms more important than others’?
- Empathy/Compassion – Do I care equally for all involved and should I care about some more than others?
- Fairness of outcomes – Do outcomes matter more for some people than others?
- Procedural Fairness – This dimension should strive to be the least affected by tribalism.
- Character – Are my ideals of virtue highly dependent upon my tribal traditions and the role I am identifying with in this group?
- Sanctity/degradation – Am I disgusted by other people simply because I identify them as part of another tribe I dislike?
The tribal loyalty/betrayal question is the hardest one because it influences most of the other dimensions and makes the whole system more complicated. It is also a more controversial moral foundation because it is a source of the biggest conflicts. It has been an essential ethical motivation for a lot of the ugliness in human history like discrimination, wars, and slavery, so it is a potentially dangerous moral foundation. But it cannot be ignored because it is a universal moral motivator that is unavoidable and it is also essential to some of the most beautiful aspects of human experience like family, brotherhood, sisterhood, friendship, self-sacrifice for the group, and even identity itself. For example, my identity as part of the tribe of fatherhood makes me value responsibility and loyalty more than I did before internalizing this role as one aspect of my identity.
Everyone has multiple tribal identities that are elicited by different kinds of experience depending upon their situation, so it is important to think about how your different identities might have different moral values depending on how your context makes you think about your identity in any given time.
- a patriotic American during wartime.
- someone who tries to be a good Christian.
- a child who is thankful to a dying parent figure.
- a woman in a women’s group or on a men’s wrestling team.
- a white person traveling solo in Africa or China.
- a sometimes hard-working student.
- a good friend of XXX.
- a political liberal or conservative.
- a middle-class person in a group of billionaires or among the homeless.
Tribalism is the big kahuna of disagreement and controversy in politics and therefore in moral philosophy. For example, the fundamental reason for disagreement about the morality of abortion is a disagreement about at what point an unborn fetus becomes human. It doesn’t count until it becomes part of the human tribe rather than being a mere bit of biological tissue, but when does that happen? Catholic scholars call it ensoulment and this tribalistic issue is the critical question upon which the entire moral issue of abortion is balanced. Does every sperm or egg cell count as much as a healthy newborn baby? What about a freshly fertilized egg that has not begun to divide? That is when Catholic dogma says that ensoulment occurs, but according to polls, the majority of Americans can’t agree about what point mere flesh joins the human tribe and becomes a fully human baby.
Today almost nobody tries to construct moral arguments in favor of slavery, but they were common throughout history across much of the globe until sometime in the last 150 years or so. The key moral reasoning in favor of slavery was tribalism. Slavery has always been based upon the idea that slaves didn’t count as much as their owners and deserved to live in slavery.
The last step of moral reasoning
The last step after answering all nine questions is to weigh how much you want to value each of dimension in making your final decisions about right and wrong. The biggest contribution of the MFT literature is that different people weigh different dimensions differently. For example, on average, liberals value compassion/care more strongly than authority whereas conservatives tend to value both dimensions more equally, but every person values some dimensions more strongly in some contexts than others, partly depending upon which of their tribal identities feels more salient at the time.
Your answers to some of the questions will be more important to you than others. For example, I know that some of my moral judgments are heavily influenced by my idiosyncratic gut reactions regarding disgust versus purity (#8), and whereas some philosophers argue that these kinds of aesthetic feelings generally provide a reliable moral compass for most people, I have decided that my own aesthetic feelings are not completely reliable and when I identify that moral motive, I now regard it with skepticism.
For example, I intuitively feel that bloody acts of body mutilation seem morally wrong because I think it is disgusting and violates the sanctity of the natural human body, but most other people around me seem to feel like injecting ink into themselves with needles (tattoos) and hanging rocks from holes cut in the flesh of their faces (pierced ears) are beautiful and desirable. So although these acts instinctively feel immoral to me, I try to avoid being judgmental about them by reminding myself that my sense of disgust isn’t a reliable dimension for deciding morality unless other dimensions also agree. Even though I personally don’t think this dimension of morality should get much ethical weight, in practice, it does in fact motivate moral judgments for everyone, and so it is important to be conscious of it, especially if you think it is less important than the other dimensions.
Can we make the list of nine moral dimensions more succinct?
The Madison Collaborative made a unique contribution in condensing all the biggest traditional schools of Western moral philosophy down into eight key questions. That makes those schools of moral philosophy more useful and practical because they are easier to remember and anyone can ask themselves the eight questions and quickly think through these important dimensions of moral philosophy. They distilled the key parts of moral philosophy down to the point that it all fits on a business card.
My nine dimensions can also be distilled down almost as succinctly:
- Noblesse Oblige – What responsibilities, duties and/or obligations apply?
- Authority – What do legitimate authorities (e.g., law, god, experts) expect of me?
- Rights & Liberty – What rights to freedom, autonomy, or consent apply?
- Empathy & Compassion – What would I do if I cared deeply about those involved?
- Outcome Fairness: What achieves the best outcomes for all?
- Procedural Fairness: How can I equally balance interests, and minimize cheating?
- Character – What action best reflects who I am and the person I want to become?
- Sanctity – What is my gut reaction of disgust or purity and virtue?
- Identity & Tribalism – Am I more loyal to some than others in the first five questions? Why?
For more on ethics and Moral Foundations Theory (MFT), see my essay about honor.