Friday, May 29, 2009

politics and morality

A lot of interesting work has been done over the past few decades on the psychological roots of our politics. Nicholas Kristof has a post on this today, from which I found the thinks to this organization and its online tests.

I took a their "moral foundations" test which correlates your stated politics with your feelings about authority, purity, fairness, and other things. Here is my result:

I am green, the average of liberals is blue, the average of conservatives is red. When it comes to valuing fairness over loyalty and not being squicked by unnatural, impure things, I am a typical liberal. I think my in-between score on attitudes to authority is a quirk of the questions asked, because in most ways I don't give a damn about authority. But there was a question about whether children need to learn to respect authority, and anybody who has ever raised a one-year-old knows that learning to pay attention when a grown-up says "don't touch that" is an absolutely essential life skill. So I think my answer to that one had more to do with being an experienced parent than being a conservative.

The other puzzling question was about whether soldiers should obey orders they "disagree with." Only someone who knows nothing about war would say no; an army in which soldiers did not reflexively obey orders would lose every battle in short order. But that doesn't mean a soldier shouldn't disobey when told, say, to shoot a prisoner or bomb a civilian target. There was an incident recorded by an embedded reported early in the invasion of Iraq that I thought was very interesting. An order came to the tank commander the reporter was riding with that sniper fire was coming from a certain building and he should shell the building. The tank commander took a look, saw that the building was an apartment house full of civilians and said to the reporter, "no way I'm obeying that order."

Being a soldier doesn't mean abandoning judgment. This tank commander knew that the invasion was going very well, that one or two Iraqi snipers posed no threat to the Americans, and so there was no real reason to risk killing dozens of civilians to remove the snipers, if they even existed. I would like to think that I would have done the same. But that doesn't mean the commander wouldn't obey the order in a different situation, say if his whole battalion was pinned down by fire and taking heavy casualities. Surely he obeys 98% or more of the orders he receives. That doesn't make him an authoritarian, just a realist who knows how armies work.

I think my score on "harm" is also interesting. I know too much about politics and history to ever say that avoiding harm to everyone is important. Everything harms somebody. And sometimes things that seem on the surface to be great harms turn out to be blessings. The invention of mechanical looms destroyed the livelihoods of millions of hand-loom weavers all across the world, which is a pretty serious harm, but on the other hand does anybody want to go back to a world in which ordinary cloth is a luxury item?

Update: here are my results from another, similar quiz on the same site, which I think better captures my attitude toward authority:

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