Moral Tastes: A Rainbow of Flavors
Hi everyone, Professor Cox here again. So, in chapter six, Haidt introduces the metaphor of moral “taste buds,” explaining that all cultures have a set of moral “flavors,” which guide their structure. He explains that usually two variations arise, a “welfare” based or a “rights” based mode of operation. But, he points out, all cultures have a mix of these flavors. He cautions that philosophies which attempt to reduce morality to a “single principle” are limiting, and don’t encompass the nuance and multitudinous nature of our moral reasoning (132).
As a teacher of writing here at UMD, I feel privileged to be exposed to the moral tastes of my students. Through our classroom discussion, reading and writing, individual perspectives are always revealed in unique and surprising ways. Writing is a practice of refining your thinking, taking ideas from the outside and relating them to your own experience and values. Students in first year writing courses are asked to think critically, investigate ideas through writing and propose arguments based on their own reasoning. I find that when we make arguments and assertions we are almost always making underlying assumptions about what is right, what is moral even if we don’t state it directly. In rhetorical terms we might call this reasoning that uses enthymeme. In other words, we lean towards our favorite moral tastes. As an instructor, I have my own leanings in moral taste. One of the strengths for me personally with this book was that Haidt actually really helped me to sort of “see how the other half lives.”
Another quick example came for me on pages 136-138, where Haidt presents a graph (fig. 6.1). The graph shows how people usually tend to move in one direction or the other, being “systemizers” or “empathizers.” I’ll admit, I think I’m an empathizer. I frequently look for the emotional or sympathetic component of the information I take in. I am grateful that I have all sorts of students in my classes who are very different than I am and I get to learn about why they see things the way that they do. Some are more systematic and others are sympathetic but in very different variations from one another. Haidt gave me some essential clues to better understanding the thoughts and morals of people I might encounter. I feel better prepared now to remember that our moral reasoning is not only complex but is also rooted in multiple places like experience, brain chemistry, culture and genetics.
So, my questions to you dear readers are these: when you read something—an article, a book, a Facebook posting, how do you decipher the “moral tastes” of the author and their argument? What clues are you given in the text and how do you decide what the underlying moral foundations of the argument are? Haidt explicitly tells us about his own bias but many things we read and encounter do not. Once you’ve deciphered the moral component, how do you use that to inform how you will respond to the text? Think of something you read recently; can you identify what the strongest moral tastes were in the piece? Do you understand the text differently thinking about it through the lens of moral reasoning? What if it goes against your own favorite moral tastes?
If you haven’t read something besides this book recently (it is summer vacation after all), take a quick look at this very short video where journalists are discussing former NSA employee Edward Snowden and tell me, what do you think about the underlying moral reasoning they are discussing? Do they lean more towards the sympathetic or the systemizing foundation? How can you tell?