Read this (pdf). (You should also read this [pdf], but it's a bit longer and on a different subject matter.) Here's the abstract:
Researchers in moral psychology and social justice have agreed that morality is about matters of harm, rights, and justice. With this definition of morality, conservative opposition to social justice programs has appeared to be immoral, and has been explained as a product of various non-moral processes, such as system justification or social dominance orientation. In this article we argue that, from an anthropological perspective, the moral domain is usually much broader, encompassing many more aspects of social life and valuing institutions as much or more than individuals. We present theoretical and empirical reasons for believing that there are in fact five psychological systems that provide the foundations for the world's many moralities. The five foundations are psychological preparations for caring about and reacting emotionally to harm, reciprocity (including justice, fairness, and rights), ingroup, hierarchy, and purity. Political liberals have moral intuitions primarily based upon the first two foundations, and therefore misunderstand the moral motivations of political conservatives, who generally rely upon all five foundations.Brilliant, absolutely brilliant. His five foundations (which, unlike the categories that philosophers will pull out of their asses, are based on the statistical assessment of cross-cultural data) offer a radically novel approach to ethical life.
But, if that weren't a breathtaking enough insight (tears literally came to my eyes when reading this piece [I know, it's a strange tendency I have that when I read about ideas so profound I tear up; I just think it's an indication that I'm in the right business]), he shows how the "impoverished" ethical worldview of political liberals leads us to misunderstand our conservative compatriots, and ascribe motives to them that are just not fair.
When the moral domain is limited by definition to two foundations (harm/welfare/care, and justice/rights/fairness), then social justice is clearly the extension of morality out to the societal level. The programs and laws that social justice activists endorse aim to maximize the welfare and rights of individuals, particularly those whom the activists believe do not receive equal treatment or full justice in their society. If social justice is just morality writ large, it follows that opposition to these programs must be based on concerns other than moral concerns. Social justice research is therefore in part the search for the non-moral motivations Â such as selfishness, existential fear, or blind prejudice Â of those who oppose social justice, primarily political conservatives. For example, one of the leading approaches to the study of political attitudes states that political conservatism is a form of motivated social cognition: people embrace conservatism in part "because it serves to reduce fear, anxiety, and uncertainty; to avoid change, disruption, and ambiguity, and to explain, order, and justify inequality among groups and individuals" (Jost et al., 2003, p.340; see also Social Dominance Orientation, Pratto et al., 1994). This view of conservatives is so widespread among justice researchers that it sometimes leads to open expressions of self-righteousness and contempt.Ben is also a fan of Haidt, and has actually had the opportunity to meet him. He told me that Haidt is the only liberal academic he's encountered who actually seems to understand conservatism. One endorsement, albeit from the most intellectually rigorous conservative I know of, may not suffice to show that he's actually getting the conservative mindset right, but it's a good sign.
Now, if you haven't yet read the whole thing, you should.
His explanation of the culture war is amazing. It's more complex than that, but he certainly has reached a key insight (see his comment about Jon Stewart's interview of Rick Santorum, in particular).
As someone who has worked very hard to understand the conservative mindset--which is so difficult because academics are almost invariably political liberals or, in rare cases, libertarians, which more or less amounts to the same thing (except they seem to reject the whole care/harm ethic and are even more morally impoverished!)--I think this is extremely helpful.
Moreover, it makes me question my own moral beliefs. Now, it seems to me that there is a rational basis for the aspects of morality in which the group is valued over the individual (the hierarchical/traditional and ingroup foundations), but as far as I can tell, purity is based on a mere illusion. If, as Haidt suggests, this last developed as a response to avoiding contaminated meat, it seems that with contemporary understandings of sanitation, disease, and so forth, the purity ethic has been "outgrown".
What disgusts us now is merely an indication of what tended to cause sickness to our ancestors, but now, at best, disgust serves as an intuitive approximation of disease-causing substances. It's interesting that Martha Nussbaum, in her latest book, argues that disgust should have absolutely no place in social policy and law. I tend to agree, since we can now accomplish the function that purity intuitions used to perform through modern medicine and biology.
Now, this does leave untouched the "divine" aspects of the purity ethic, but I'm also inclined to dismiss these as superstitions. Today, there are more rigorous, proven methods of taking care of our bodies and treating it like a "temple": diet, exercise, stress regulation, sanitation, etc. Since the rejection of gay marriage is largely, although not entirely, premised on a disgust of sodomy, I still think there is no sound basis to this, for reasons I just stated.
I won't further explicate Haidt's article or his other body of work (I have other things to do, including responding to people about my last post, which I increasingly feel is inadequate, although I think this stuff sheds a new light on part of what I was trying to get at), but I encourage you to read more of him if you have an interest in ethics (and who doesn't?).