The Morality of Naughty or Nice


It’s that time of the year again. The stockings are hung by the children with care and the chimney is nestled all snug in its bed… wait, no. Strike that and reverse it. Anyway, Old St. Nick is nearly here and as anyone who has ever watched a Hallmark Original movie knows, he is keeping a list of people who have been naughty and nice, and he is checking it… at least twice.

Yet, what does it mean to be naughty or nice? How are we defining these vague terms of morality? Because as you may soon discover, morality is a lot more complicated then that jolly old elf makes it out to be.

Milk and Cookies Foundations Theory
We here at The NYRD have talked a lot about morality before, but today we want to focus on a theory of morality called the Moral Foundations Theory. This theory, first proposed by Jesse Graham and Jonathon Haidt, -who is a moral psychologist and professor of ethics at NYU- uses six metrics to determine what different people prioritize when it comes to their ethical beliefs and actions.

  1. Care/Harm: The value of cherishing and protecting others.
  2. Fairness/Cheating: The value of enforcing justice according to shared rule sets.
  3. Loyalty/Betrayal: The value of standing with a group/family/nation.
  4. Authority/Subversion: The value of tradition and legitimate authority.
  5. Sanctity/Degradation: The value of abhorring culturally taboo objects or actions.
  6. Liberty/Oppression: The value of abhorring dominating power and bullies.

In our society we talk about morality in a lot of different contexts: behavior, justice, reindeer games, etc, but Haidt was focusing on a much different context… “Christmas?”… No, its politics, because of course it is. In today’s fractured and divided world it is perhaps more important than ever to try and determine why two just and moral people can look at the same situation -or orange-faced President- and come to two different conclusions. It may not be because one is naughty and the other is nice. It may just be because they value different metrics on the above scale, but let us explain.

Making a Voter Roll and Checking it Twice
You see, Haidt and his colleagues used this theory to test people of different political ideologies, and like a little boy pulling on Santa’s beard at the mall on Route 78, they discovered a few interesting truths:

  • Liberals (Left Leaning) tend to score highest on the Care and Fairness metrics. They often value the protection and safekeeping of individual people over larger establishments, traditions, and governments. They believe in fair treatment and despise discrimination, and see government as a safeguard for helping the most vulnerable.
  • Conservatives (Right Leaning) tend to score fairly equally across all the metrics, but they do tend to be higher in the Authority, Loyalty, and Sanctity metrics, often seeing themselves as the defenders of tradition, culture, and nation. However, they only trust government to take care of defense and believe that it is best left out of economics.
  • Libertarians tend to score higher in Liberty and Fairness. They believe in both economic and personal freedoms and are more skeptical of Authority and Purity. They believe strongly in self-reliance, autonomy, and independence from oversight.

Now, this can also be applied culturally as well. Researchers at Rutgers University have observed that college students from Asian cultures tend to score higher on the Sanctity, Loyalty, and Authority metrics, while American college students tend to score higher on the Care and Fairness metrics. This can account for the contrast often found between American and Asian ways of life, specifically those found in Japan, China, and Korea, where people are more prone to group-think and are more culturally shame-prone than their Western counterparts, but the researchers also admit that their testing has been limited, as it is hard hit every house in the world in one night..

On Dasher, On Democrat, On Libertarian, and Conservative
None of this may be surprising to you -or an omniscient fat man sitting at the North Pole- but there is some interesting implications to the Moral Foundations Theory as it pertains to our own cultural divide. The most important of those is something we have suspected for a while, Democrats and Republicans just look at the world different… shocking… Each group values different things and thus when they look at the same situation they view it through different lens.

Again, this is not surprising, but it is worth trying to quantify. So when a Liberal looks the Trump Migrant Separation Policy, they think: that is terrible because they are doing Harm to those children and it is not
Fair that they are being punished and detained for crimes they did not even commit. Whereas Conservatives might look at the same issue an think: Those people knew what the penalty would be for crossing the border and yet they came anyway. This policy is only enforcing the Sanctity of our borders, and is safeguarding the Authority of our country and its Loyalty to the American people above all others.

Now that does not mean that neither side cannot see the merits of the other. After all, just because one political ideology scores lower on a particular metric, that does not mean that they are unaware of its benefits. Liberals score lowest of Sanctity and Loyalty, but they still score in the 25% range. Conservatives score lowest on Care and Fairness, but as we said before they stay pretty consistent across most metrics. No one here is being Naughty or Nice, they are just approaching the situation from different understandings based on their own morality.

Moral Self on the Shelf
This is the real idea that we need to take away. One side of the argument is not bad and one side is not good. We are just different, and the key to putting aside this fig-pudding-political-fighting over the holiday season is not about passing arbitrary judgements on one another. We are not Santa Claus and his big list of names. We are just people doing our best to understand and interpret the world, and get through Christmas dinner with our conservative uncle who thinks colored is still an appropriate word.

However, our constant fighting often has an adverse effect on our opinions. Arguing with your aunt over child detainment on Christmas Eve is only going to serve to drive her backward into clinging to her beliefs. It will only serve to make those relevant metrics more hard-line. People’s morality is affected by moral arguments, but not always in the ways we expect. That is why this holiday season we need to consider the values of those whom we find ourselves talking politics with. We need to try and see the world from their side and find a way to bring about compromise and agreement. A big part of that is learning our own moral values first, and about the beliefs and deficiencies in our own moral self

A new year is dawning, and it is a time for resolutions. So let’s all take a good hard look at ourselves and how we can relate to those around us, not how we are different. After all, for this holiday season we need to be looking in a mirror, not at some magical list of arbitrary moral judgement… because when you really think about it, what kind of person keeps a damn list anyway?


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