Meaning and Moral Foundations Theory

(cross-posted from https://​​www.michaelpj.com/​​blog/​​2018/​​04/​​07/​​mean­ing-and-mft.html)

Robin Han­son writes (some time ago, but it’s a clas­sic):

So there is a bit of a ten­sion here be­tween the mean­ing that cru­saders choose for them­selves and the hap­piness they try give to oth­ers. They might rea­son­ably be ac­cused of elitism, think­ing that hap­piness is good for the masses, while mean­ing should be re­served for elites like them. Also, since such folks tend to em­brace far mode thoughts more, and tend less to think that near mode de­sires say what we re­ally want, such folks should also be con­flicted about their over­whelming em­pha­sis on hap­piness over mean­ing when giv­ing policy ad­vice.

I think there’s some­thing in­ter­est­ing here, with my gloss on the in­ter­est­ing ques­tion be­ing: when we in­ter­vene in other peo­ple’s lives, why don’t we try more of­ten to make them mean­ingful rather than happy?

Let’s take two pre­misses. First, that peo­ple of­ten gain mean­ing in their lives from be­ing good (as Han­son ar­gues policy-mak­ers do). This ob­vi­ously isn’t the only source of mean­ing, but it is one.

Se­condly, let’s sup­pose that we buy Jonathan Haidt’s Mo­ral Foun­da­tions the­ory. “Elites” are anec­do­tally bi­ased to­wards the Harm/​Care foun­da­tion, and thus they get mean­ing out of helping other peo­ple. But what would it mean it mean to help other peo­ple have more (morally) mean­ingful lives? You would have to help peo­ple to help some third party. Now, this may be an effec­tive ap­proach to helping the third party, but in most situ­a­tions you might ex­pect that it would be eas­ier and more straight­for­ward to just help the third party di­rectly, rather than do­ing it in­di­rectly.

Harm/​Care is un­usual among the foun­da­tions in that it’s other-di­rected. The goal is to help other peo­ple, and it does not es­pe­cially mat­ter how that oc­curs. In par­tic­u­lar, it seems some­how in­ap­pro­pri­ate for some­one who cares about harm/​care to care about who does the helping—this fo­cusses the at­ten­tion on the helper, when it is the helpee who is rele­vant.

In con­trast, the other foun­da­tions cen­tre on the moral ac­tor them­selves. I can­not be just, loyal, a good fol­lower, or pure for you. You have to do this your­self, and so any at­tempt to make the world bet­ter for one of these foun­da­tions is go­ing to re­quire get­ting lots of other ac­tors to be more moral. Which may also make their lives feel more mean­ingful, if they sub­scribe to those foun­da­tions.

So we should ex­pect to see a lot more moral­ity/​mean­ingful­ness in­ter­ven­tions from peo­ple who sub­scribe to the other foun­da­tions. And I think we do: the war on drugs (pu­rity), na­tion­al­ism (au­thor­ity), ab­sti­nence-only sex ed (pu­rity again), etc. Th­ese are all things (partly) aiming to get peo­ple to be­have “bet­ter”. And maybe this even works: if you do think pu­rity is morally im­por­tant, and you don’t have sex un­til your wed­ding night, per­haps you do feel like it was more mean­ingful.

So here’s my ar­gu­ment for why we don’t tend to talk about mean­ingful­ness in­ter­ven­tions: we mostly don’t know how to get it, and while we can get some of it from moral­ity in­ter­ven­tions, those mostly don’t make sense un­der the harm/​care foun­da­tion.

We could clearly do bet­ter than this. At least we should con­sider cases where we can em­power peo­ple to help oth­ers, thus hope­fully mak­ing their lives more mean­ingful. If we think this is valuable, then we should be will­ing to trade off some amount of effi­ciency to get this. I don’t know how much, but we should at least think about it.

Se­condly, even if you don’t sub­scribe to the other foun­da­tions, if you can help peo­ple who do sub­scribe to them to fol­low them bet­ter, then that may make their lives more mean­ingful, even if we don’t think it’s ac­tu­ally morally bet­ter. Ob­vi­ously, we’d only want to do this in cases where it isn’t ac­tu­ally harm­ful: we cer­tainly shouldn’t sup­port ab­sti­nence-only sex ed. But per­haps we should con­sider e.g. helping peo­ple main­tain fam­ily loy­alties through difficult times.

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