Friday, September 21, 2007

that's disgusting

A website called offers an online quiz that examines the justifications that a person uses when making a moral decision. The quiz is part of the work that a group of researchers are doing at the University of Virginia. The researchers propose that our moral decisions are grounded in five different areas that were developed over the centuries as human beings evolved and adapted to various circumstances. Two of the five areas are bound to the present, that is in order to make a decision about right and wrong in these two areas the only thing we have to look at is the present moment. The first area is whether someone is being hurt, or cared for. And the second area is whether someone is being treated fairly and equally. The last three areas all require examination of the past in order to decide whether an action is right or wrong. The third considers loyalty to the group – like following tradition. The fourth considers authority, like having respect for elders and ancestors, and the fifth considers categories of purity and sanctity, which are defined by cultural norms grounded in the long ago past.

Not surprisingly people who identify as politically liberal tend to give more weight to the first two categories and less to the final three, while conservatives tend in the opposite direction. That is, liberals tend to make their moral decisions based on whether someone is being hurt or cared for, and whether people are being treated fairly and equally. While conservatives generate their sense of right and wrong by consulting tradition, authority figures, and by assigning categories on an almost instinctual basis of whether something is sacred or profane, pure or disgusting.

See how that distinction plays out with your favorite issue of the culture wars. I'm for same sex marriage because people are being hurt and it's only fair. Or I'm against same sex marriage because marriage has traditionally been only for opposite sex couples, and I'm listening to the teachings of the leaders of my church, and because, frankly, gay sex is disgusting.

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