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Turi: I’m so thrilled to be talking to Kurt gray. Kurt is the associate professor in psychology and neuroscience at the university of North Carolina at chapel Hill. Where he directs the deepest beliefs lab and the center for the science of moral understanding. . Kurt. Thanks so much for joining us.
Kurt: Thanks for having me.
Turi: When I ask you as a starter to give us a little history of morality, as it’s been understood over time.
Kurt: Yeah, you bet. So. I guess I won’t start so back in the midst of time, but, um, I’ll just start with the modern, modern history, which is to say morality used to be thought of as about reasoning, about rights and yeah, I would say it’s more philosophically grounded in enterprise. So philosophers getting together to think about what’s the best way to. Decide how to distribute resources or power or what’s the best way to live a life perhaps. And so they, uh, being philosophers, you know, old, old white men got together to think about what’s the best way to answer these questions. And when. Psychologist came along and started to study how everyday people thought about morality. They applied their kind of a philosophical template on to onto people onto everyday people. So they thought that just like philosophers people too thought deeply and reasoned about their, uh, their moral judgments and used things like, you know, rights-based and duties based, um, reasoning.
And so that. Happened for many decades, especially as moral psychology still had one foot firmly planted in moral philosophy. And it was kind of embodied by the work of Kohlberg is a developmental psychologist. Maybe you’ve discussed him before, but
Turi: You haven’t yeah. Tell us about Kohlberg.
Kurt: Okay. So Kohlberg was a developmental psychologist and he thought that each, each person progressed through a discrete set of stages of moral reasoning and these stages. Um, he called them something like the pre-conventional, the conventional and the post-conventional, which are not, you know, they’re not terms that sing. Uh, they’re not the most descriptive terms, but the idea is that when you’re, when you’re little, when you’re a child, you reason in terms of just the, the, uh, Whether your parents say it’s good or bad.
Right. And that defines the morality of something. And then when you’re older, you think in terms of conventional terms, right? So pre-conventional is just like dad, their mom says it’s good or bad. And then conventional terms are, you know, society says it’s good or bad, or, uh, You know, it’s my duty to do something or have a right to do something kind of everyday thinking that that everyday people might have.
And then post-conventional is something like if you were a manual concept, uh, and you came up with a categorical imperative, right? Like I, I should never lie in any situation. And so it. I could never lie, even if it’s a white lie, et cetera. So he thought that we basically progressed from children to adults, to con uh, in, in our lives and in society.
And so, and the next age was, was seen as be normatively better. Right. It was a better way of making decisions. Um, and so that was the kind of stage, right. We progress from children to adults, to cons and, and we reasoned through it. And the quality of that reasoning, um, Kind of dictated the quality of our moral judgments, but then there were some cracks that appeared.
So, uh, one of, um, one of Kohlberg students, Carol Gilligan said , she, we said that, look, this whole framework is kind of ridiculous because it, it privileges this kind of, um, objectivist male content view of the world. And, and it’s not necessarily better, right? There’s no better or worse ways than making a moral decision. Hearing the category comparative doesn’t make you any better than being concerned about the welfare of your family. And so she, she had this amazing critique and that was only the first. And then, uh, at the same time that she said that there’s not one best way of making moral decisions.
There’s a anthropologist named Rick Schrader who went to India and reveal that. You know, Indians make different moral judgments than Westerners. And, you know, as a true anthropologist, he said, look, and these are just as valid, right. Um, if you understand their worldview. And so, uh, again, cons is. Is not the be all end all. And based on, on those kinds of critiques of, uh, of moral reasoning and, and improving and moral judgment over time, moral psychology started to wonder maybe, maybe, you know, there wasn’t one moral truth and reasoning wasn’t the best. A
nd so, uh, into this, uh, changing time, John Haidt, uh, came along who I think you’ve interviewed as well.
Um, And he did some great work suggesting that maybe are more judgments are intuitive, more intuitive than we think they’re more about kind of spontaneously thinking good or bad, rather than reasoning through dilemmas and maybe moral judgments differ genuinely across cultures and contexts. And so that was in the early two thousands.
And then after that has been, um, Has been some work following up on this kind of, uh, insight from, from John Haidt, who kind of synthesize a lot of important, uh, thinking up until they’re about intuition, ism and moral pluralism. And then from those insights, there’s kind of been theories that have emerged, um, that. That take the insights of intuition, ism, and pluralism, and then marry them to this idea of, of the mind as this like modular, um, supermodular brain. Right.
Turi_Munthe-2: God, before we jump into the modular brain, I’m going to have, I have to ask you to. Um, to, to, to help us understand this idea of intuition, ism, and pluralism in the context of morality.
Kurt_Gray: Yup. Happy to, to back up. Uh, so intuition ism is the idea that our, our judgments, whether moral are not, are dictated by fast and quick and relatively automatic processes in our mind.
Turi_Munthe-2: So specifically against this very formal rash, rational reasoned approach that had been articulated historically.
Kurt_Gray: That’s right. That’s right. So if I ask you, um, do you like broccoli? What’s your answer?
Turi_Munthe-2: Instantly. I love it.
Kurt_Gray: There you go. Right? So you don’t have to think. And if I say, well, why do you like broccoli?
Turi_Munthe-2: Well, it would take me too long to articulate all the various different glories of its flavor.
Kurt_Gray: Right, right. Or maybe it’s just hard to think of them because you don’t need, you don’t need to reason for it. Right. It just comes spontaneously. Um, and so a lot of work in social psychology, uh, that predated this kind of intuition as in revolution in morality, suggest that. All sorts of judgments are really intuitive.
Right? It’s whether you, uh, how you feel towards politicians, how you feel towards foods, how you feel towards, um, I dunno, like fashion, whatever it doesn’t matter. Right. And everything it’s argued is, uh, is intuitive and it’s only by kind of like really powerfully exerted. Birding a force of will that we can bring our reasoning to bear on something, right?
So like what’s the best political system you’d say, I don’t know a democracy and capitalism. And U S if you ask me why I’d say, uh, I, you know, I would give you some reasons, but the idea of intuition, ism is perhaps those reasons, uh, Aren’t aren’t really reasons. They’re not the things that are really driving our judgment so much as, uh, what’s happening is we just have an intuition, a feeling in a sense in our, in our minds and bodies and we just make our judgments based on those feelings.
Turi_Munthe-2: And then these reasons are more like hoc justifications for those feelings.
Kurt_Gray: yeah, so that, that I think is debatable. So that’s something that the, the moral. The moral psychology community thinks that these reasons are made up. Uh, I’m not so convinced that the reasons are entirely made up. Um, but I am convinced that moral judgments are at least intuitive, right? If you ask them on about guns or abortion or taxes, they have a quick and automatic, uh, judgment
Turi_Munthe-2: So that’s intuition, ism, pluralism.
Kurt_Gray: So pluralism is just the idea that when people, uh, different people make different moral judgments, those moral judgments, we should take at face value as authentically moral. So that is to say if, um, if one person thinks that, uh, you can steal from the government to feed your starving family, then that is a, is a judgment that. Is just as valid as someone who says you should never steal because it violates, um, the category of comparative, which says never do something bad if it’s bad in any context. So pluralism suggests that, um, right. That any moral judgment, if. If kind of, and here’s where it gets a little tricky, right? Like what’s a valid, moral judgment.
If a community kind of like authentically holds this. Right. So if all Indians think that it is wrong to eat beef, um, then as Westerners, we can’t say like, Oh, you, you Indians, right? You just need more people with pith helmets walking around and then eventually you would come to see that that beef is lovely. The EAs, um, as, uh, you know, as we do in the West,
Turi_Munthe-2: I feel like you only bring up that example because I’ve got an English accent, but
Kurt_Gray: Yeah, that’s exactly it just twist the knife to the, to the Brits. Exactly. Uh, and so. Pluralism really suggest that all moral intuitions, uh, are, are valid intuitions and, and sort of a really functional purpose. Right? So the idea is, um, is they’re valid because they help people who have those intuitions meet a variety of functional challenges.
Right? So we pretty much all have a moral intuition about like, not. Uh, not murdering people because if there was a society that murdered people, every which way, then that society would die out. Right. Um, and so there are other intuitions, like don’t eat shellfish, right? And so maybe in the West, when there’s a red lobster here in America and you can eat.
All sorts of shellfish all the time. We think that’s foolish, but if you live in the desert and, and far away from the coast and shellfish were on, you know, likely to be rotten, then that’s a reasonable intuition. Right? And so now you’ve got, um, maybe a, a kosher intuition about not eating shellfish and that seems wrong.
So the idea is that all these intuitions are valid. If you understand them in their kind of functional context.
Turi_Munthe-2: that is that shift away. Therefore from let’s call it the sort of biscuit, dry algebraic philosophy of morality that leads us to Canton only can’t through a sort of an appreciation of the subjectiveness of it and the psychology around how morality is articulated that intuitive. Sort of gut feeling that we have.
So that’s the shift that John Haidt with moral foundations theory brings about. And then we end up with sort of extensions of that, including morality as corporation, for example.
Kurt_Gray: That’s right. Yep. So, and I guess I want to take a step back and say, you know, John really made to kind of two separate points, then I think they’re often conflated. Um, and maybe they’re conflated in his mind too, but I see the point of intuition, ism and pluralism thinking of morality is like, how does it help.
People and especially people in their groups survive. I think that’s a, it’s a really compelling analogy or sorry, insight and, um, read really transformed moral psychology. I think there’s a second step that was taken with things like moral foundations theory and even morality as cooperation. And that is, um, Thinking that, that general idea of intuition, ism and, um, and pluralism has a specific structure in the mind. Um, and, and that idea is that if there’s different kinds of morality in the world, then there must be different pieces of the brain that correspond to each of those kinds of morality.
Turi_Munthe-2: Beautiful image does, uh, does, uh, and that makes lots of sense. The image that I have for moral foundations theory, which some of our lessons will be. Very familiar with, it’s almost like a graphic equalizer with five buttons that go up and down. Right? You have the five, perhaps even six key features of morality as articulated by moral foundations theory.
And they go, liberals have two conservatives of five if they go up and down different levels. Yeah. It’s sort of like that. What you mean by the sort of a modular morality?
Kurt_Gray: Yeah, exactly. So the, the graphic equalizer is, is an interesting analogy because it is it’s separated from the front of the mind, right? Like you could just say those were just generally descriptive things, right? So graphic equalizers can vary, uh, in terms of a dimension. Right. Typically you’ve got your like bass and mids and treble, let’s say, and those all very long, a single dimension. Right. But I think moral foundation says that each of those is a totally different switch, right. Somehow in the, in the, in the mind. So I think it’s important to keep in mind that those analogies are actually quite different. I think John’s talked about like different taste buds or different switches in the brain.
Um, so in my view, I think. Yeah, the, uh, the kind of dimensional view is the, these are all kind of like dimensions, uh, I think is, is a little more reasonable than the ideas that there’s discrete foundations. If, um,
Turi_Munthe-2: Understood. Should we just let let’s list them to be clear? So on the you may need to help me on the one hand you have, um, the instinct towards protecting from harm, the instinct towards justice, the instinct towards authority towards loyalty and towards purity. Is that right? Is that the, is that the five?
Kurt_Gray: that’s right. Yep. Those are the, the panty and, uh, audio_only_16778242_Turi_Munthe-2: And the end of the morality is articulated by moral foundations theory, modular in that way. And I, and that’s where you that and that second part, um, that, that, that sense of a modular morality across our brains is what you take issue with. Isn’t it.
Kurt_Gray: That’s correct. Yeah. And I think it’s useful to think of the context in which moral foundations theory, uh, Rose and that was in. Kind of cognitive science back in the eighties and nineties thought of the brain as being consistent of these distinct little modules. So you might have a, an evolutionarily given module for, uh, detecting cheaters.
You might have an evolutionary module. For, um, finding a mate. And so the idea was like you had all these little Lego pieces and those Lego pieces could be taken out of the brain or put into the brain. If you, you know, you imagine that God was designing our brains or evolution, of course. And there you’d have like four little modules or five little modules in the case of moral foundations theory. And, and that analogy really Rose into this idea of, of basic emotions, which, um, your listeners may or may have, uh, may or may not have heard of. But the idea is that, you know, the movie inside out, we have five distinct emotions, like fear and anger and happiness and sadness and disgust and maybe surprise.
And so it’s, it’s kind of an analogy theory in that sense, right? Like, well, if we have five basic emotions, then let’s say we have five moral judgements and then, you know, We’ll call it a day. Um, but I, I mean, we can, we can jump right into it. I think that there’s, uh, there’s actually not a lot of evidence that, um, that there are these five modules and I think there’s actually pretty poor evidence that these are the five even descriptive things, um, that.
That described morality, um, in the original moral foundations paper, you show the things like authority and loyalty are correlated about 0.9. Um, so I think there’s, there’s kind of scant evidence that there is through these distinct foundations as, um, as argued by
Turi_Munthe-2: Gotcha. So not only the idea itself of these there’s modular morality is dodgy, but also that, um, that, that, that, that even the categories that, uh, uh, uh, of the wrong ones, you posit, therefore, something radically simpler, which you call dyadic moral theory. What is dyadic moral theory, Kat.
Kurt_Gray: The theory of dyadic morality is the idea that when we understand the moral world, we act, we ultimately perceive it in terms of harm. And so, um, it’s called dyadic morality because the core of our moral judgments involve two people, uh, an agent who is doing the moral deeds and, uh, a patient who’s receiving it.
So you can think of that as like a perpetrator and a victim. And so if you think about the. The most classic canonical immoral acts like murder or child abuse, child abuse is a, is, uh, a great act. Not because it’s a great thing to do, but because it perfectly captures that morality. So if you think about child abuse, you’ve got, um, you know, an adult who is this intentional responsible person, and they are causing damage to a vulnerable suffering. Uh, patient or victim or child. And so the, the crux of dyadic morality is that the lens through which we see the moral world is this template of, uh, unintentional, responsible agent causing damage to a suffering vulnerable patient. And so it. It perfectly captures things like murder and abuse and assault, even fraud, right?
Uh, unfairness, all sorts of things like that, where the, you know, someone is, is causing damage to another. But the, the interesting thing about dyadic morality is it can also help explain why people moralize other things. So if you think, and this is, um, A classic example of a political disagreements from America. If you think that, uh, that gay people are immoral as a Anita Bryant it, and it Nita was this country, Western singer in the sixties. She didn’t just think that it was. It was bad somehow to be gay. She taught that, that it would all be ultimately harmful. Right. She perceived this static template in homosexuality.
She thought that gay men would drive around and recruit children to their amazing lifestyle. So fabulous. Um, right. Like. I dunno, convertibles and snappy dressing and that they wouldn’t have kids. And then America would have no children. And then, uh, eventually, you know, nuclear Holocaust. So this line may not be super obvious to it, to, to some listeners, but I think to people who view things as a moral, they legitimately and deeply view them as harmful.
And so dyadic morality is ultimately about the link between perceived harm and immorality.
_Turi_Munthe-2: There’s a whole bunch to unpack there, but just given you, you started down, down that route, um, in another one of your papers, you talk about a sexual act, which has absolutely no possible harm elsewhere. It’s that you describe somebody masturbating to the image of that deceased sibling, which to most of us, um, Melissa’s disgust, revulsion, and a sense of that being immoral.
But yet no harm is actually played out in that instance. So are you, is there an argument that you’re backtracking harm into something else? Why is it harm? That is what are the, I know there’s huge amounts of research here. So I’m asking you for it. What’s the research, which tells you that. In fact, the reaction to that, that revulsion is one around harm and not one around something else.
Kurt_Gray: Yeah. Good question. So the, uh, The theory of dyadic morality ultimately argues against the idea of harmless wrongs. It says that, um, right, they don’t exist because if you think that something is wrong, then you also see it as harmful. And so there are many examples, often trotted out to, to argue against this.
Um, but I think those examples are typically tried it out by people who don’t see. The things they’re talking about as deeply wrong. So for acts of sexual immorality, um, typically the people who advance those ideas are, uh, are liberals and atheist. Let’s say, uh, And when they entertain them, they think, Oh, that’s, that’s gross, but they don’t think of them as deeply intuitively wrong.
And it turns out that if you ask people who do view those things as deeply and intuitively wrong, they also view them as deeply and intuitively harmful. Now. It can be hard to argue, you know, like what exactly are the, are the harms if someone’s saying well, like, I don’t believe that there’s harms because I don’t believe in the case of masturbating to a picture of your dead sibling.
I don’t believe that people, you know, survive death. I don’t believe that there’s a heaven. And so it. You know, I don’t believe that your, your sister is watching you from heaven, you know, screaming and shrieking, crying, as she thinks, how can my brother masturbate to a picture of me? Right? I mean, it’s not hard to picture some harm if you grant some assumptions, namely that your sibling can, um, you know, lives on after death, uh, and so forth.
So I think it is. It is very easy to see those harms. If you grant a number of assumptions, right. Or if you want to go to the societal route, if your neighbor is the kind of person who masturbates to a picture of their sister, right? What kind of things are they going to do when your child is out and about? Right. And people powerfully, see, uh, these harms are sort of these wrongs as, uh, causing harm in the moment, but also suggesting some deep character flaws, which will translate eventually to concrete harm.
Turi_Munthe-2: Understood. But as I understand it, the bulk of your research, a lot of your research has, has, has focused on the fact that across multiple cultures, that this notion of. Immorality and notion of harmfulness is almost synonymous. You see that all over the place. So that’s at the heart of this, your theory of dyadic morality.
Is it not that harmfulness and immorality are almost interchangeable of ideas across multiple cultures. And that also, so, and also the things which seem to us. So you’ve just talked about the things which seem to us as immoral, being also seeming to us as being harmful, but also that the things which we see of.
Uh, as being harmful translate also in our minds as being MRR.
Kurt_Gray: That’s right. That’s right. So there’s a, an inextricable link between, uh, harmony morality and yeah. It works both ways. And I think to be honest, if it wasn’t for a kind of background in moral psychology, uh, arguing about, you know, how much we can learn from people doing weird sexual acts without a victim.
I think it’s actually pretty uncontroversial that 95% of our moral judgments are ultimately about harm. So if you look at the laws on the books, in any country, it’s ultimately about safeguarding people and society from harm. Right children, the elderly adults, whatever. I mean, it’s, it’s all about guarding people from harm.
And so funnily enough, it seems like the. Bulk of the arguments in moral psychology about the nature of harm are arguing about these fringe concepts. Uh, I, I suggest that, um, ultimately we’re kind of arguing about whether the Platypus is a mammal, um, and that a lot of these theories often miss the point and even, even John Hite, who sometimes argue in static morality, he will grant that.
When people are disloyal to their parents or, you know, burn an American flag or, or do things that are, um, don’t have obvious victims, but you could still argue that they’re harmful, right? Like the downfall of America occurs when people defile its symbols. And so I think most people do agree that there’s, there’s clear, perceived harm and a lot of acts, uh, but maybe not in cases where you’re having sex with a dead chicken or something like that.
So I think that’s the point I want to make that. Most people agree and most everyday people agree, but, um, we’re kind of arguing about the fringes here.
Turi_Munthe-2: Okay, understood. So we’ve talked about certain instances where there doesn’t seem to be an obvious, um, An obvious victim, because in your dyadic model, you need a perpetrator and a victim, uh, like sexual behavior, which harms nobody else. Um, what about, what do we do with self-harm just as a sort of, out of curiosity, how do we perceive self-harm to understand self-harm within the moral framework as well?
Kurt_Gray: Hmm. That’s a, that’s a great question. And self-harm is, is again, I think these cases are so interesting. Self-harm and also these weird sexual proclivities, because they’re on the fringes, right? Yeah. There, there are these, these difficult thought experiments because they don’t match our typical intuitions.
And that’s why they’re fun to think about, but also that’s suggested that they’re not, um, you know, they’re not characteristic of most moral judgments, but about self harm. I think, you know, again, there’s disagreement about whether, uh, whether it’s wrong and what even constitutes self-harm. So. Uh, some people think masturbation is self harm.
Some people think, um, lethargy is self harm. You know, some of the gluttony, some of these seven deadly sins. And I think if you think that these kinds of self harm are, uh, are actually harmful, then I think you see them as a moral. And I think the way you can, you can get with a data template as you see. The present self is harming their future self. So the present self, the one who’s like lazy and overreading and taking drugs, that’s the person who’s harming the future self. Um, and, and certainly the way that people talk about, uh, about these, these things, these acts of self harm or motivating people not to commit them is like, think about your future self, right?
Or think about, uh, your family, right suicide. You’re gonna. Kill your future self and also make your family miserable. You know, so I think even there are people have the sense of harm.
Turi_Munthe-2: That’s fascinating and brings us in the most peculiar way possible to the, you know, the core, the core of dyadic thereof, dyadic morality, which is theory of mind. Um, And in this particular instance that we’ve brought up is, is this idea of a perpetrator committing, um, committing an act of violence or an act of harm upon a victim, both of whom are the same person, but therefore this notion of theory of mind is absolutely central to, uh, dyadic morality.
_Kurt_Gray: That’s right. So for harm to be perpetrated and, and, and importantly perceived, you have to have someone who can be harmed and you have to have someone who, you know, is blameworthy in committing that harm. Someone who can appreciate the harm that’s caused. So. Right. A hurricane, uh, destroying a village it’s bad, but it’s not evil, right?
Because people who are suffering are suffering, but there’s not an agent who you can blame for it. Right. Unless you think that the hurricane is caused by corporations polluting or God and acting vengeance, let’s say. And then on the flip side, To be something immoral. You need someone who can really suffer, right?
So if I shoot a gun into the sky, um, it’s maybe a little, a little dangerous, but it’s not as immoral as if that bullet came down and hit a kid, uh, or a puppy. And so you need to be able to perceive someone as capable of suffering and as someone capable of intention. And, and this is where you can get a lot of differences between between people, right? So, uh, in the U S where they. Locked away, immigrant children. I think some people saw those children as, as suffering, legitimately suffering in there and their heart just, you know, wept, wept for those children in cages. But on the other hand, if you thought that was a reasonable policy, then you see those children as. Um, not really feeling the same feelings as perhaps an American child, right. That, you know, those immigrant children just don’t have the depth of feeling that I do. And, and beyond that, like they’re going to come here and they’re going to assault my children. So you see those children, not as suffering victims, but instead as, uh, as intentional perpetrators. And so if you, if you view kind of victims, not as victims, but as perpetrators, then you can erase the moral harm of harming them.
Turi_Munthe-2: So here we are at the very rub because, uh, if we look at polarization across the political spectrum, or if we look purely at the differences in our own morality’s, um, everything, according to dyadic, moral theory, hinges on. An understanding of who is the perpetrator and who is the victim intentionality and, um, uh, and suffering, I suppose, on that point, because you’re just, just with the, just with the example of the children being locked up, there is a surely Republican language would be to say that the perpetrators of the locking up of the children is not Donald Trump’s executive order.
It is the parents of those children who illegally brought them over the border. So you are it’s. So there’s key question of the differences and amorality is around where you attribute agency. Is that right?
Kurt_Gray: That’s right where you attribute agency and the capacity to suffer. So if you look at kind of conservative news sources, what they’ll emphasize for immigration is the fact that, you know, there was someone raped by an illegal immigrants. And right. I mean, that is suffering, right? I mean, having, having illegal immigrants cause harm to a young woman is a clear dyadic instance.
Right? There’s an intentional agent harming a suffering patient, but on the, on the liberal side, right. There’s children locked in cages and a government that’s intentionally doing it. So yeah. It’s kind of like a Necker cube or a, or a visual illusion in some sense, the more you can see, uh, a suffering patient, then the more you see this intentional agent and those kinds of reinforce each other’s perceptions until you have really different worldviews, right? You totally disagree about who can suffer and who can cause harm. And, and whether that demands action.
Turi_Munthe-2: So we’re sort of at the heart of why people disagree. So spectacularly it’s intentionality and the perceptions of suffering. Can you, um, can. The theory of dyadic morality helped us build a sort of a taxonomy. Can you help us understand how that using, using the theory? Can we begin to see where conservative set or the kind of. Uh, the kind of agency that they attribute to the kind of victim hood that they see as opposed to the agency and victim hood that liberals or progressives would see as that. Can you build a taxonomy that between across the political spectrum?
Kurt_Gray: So, uh, I hope so because we’re, we’re trying to do it kind of, as we speak, uh, build these kinds of understanding. So I think what it boils down to are different assumptions of vulnerability is what we call it. So liberals and conservatives differ kind of fundamentally on. On who or what they see as vulnerable to harm.
And, and then they have narratives in their own kind of political bubbles that reinforced those assumptions of vulnerability. So I think if you are conservative, you see, uh, Divinity as more vulnerable to harm just by virtue of believing in it. Right. So if you believe in God and believe in Jesus and believe in the immortal soul, then it’s obviously it’s more possible to harm those things.
Then if you don’t believe they exist at all. Right. So that can help explain, uh, when conservatives say, well, think of the damage to your mortal soul, uh, watching pornography will, will taint your soul and send you to hell. Liberals are atheists and they don’t believe that you even have a soul. Then clearly there’s going to be some disagreement there. I also think that, uh, conservatives are more likely to see powerful people as having the capacity for suffering. So business owners, CEOs, people who we think are relatively more powerful conservatives will, will say, look, they are people just like any other person. And so when a CEO, uh, Cries. It is, it is the same tiers of, of, uh, of someone else crying. Right? So I think conservatives see, see people as capable of suffering, kind of no matter how powerful they are in society, no matter how, how much agency they have in a, in a general sense. Uh, so, and I think this, this is reflected in things like their opposition to affirmative action policies, right? So if, um, if a rich white kid doesn’t get into college and is very upset about it, then conservatives will say, well, her being upset is just as valid as. You know, someone, uh, an African-American applicant who came from a poor neighborhood, right? Like there’s two people who were upset. How did we adjudicate between their levels of upsetness? Well, maybe we should just admit the person who’s more qualified on paper now. And of course the liberals will say, um, you know, there’s systemic differences between, um, you know, their ability to get in.
But, but I think the fact that the moral disagreement is about these, uh, waiting, they’re kind of suffering. Okay. So conservatives, we got divine and we’ve got powerful. And I think, uh, liberals on their hand, they really see people different than themselves as capable of suffering and in a way that conservatives often don’t. So liberals will see, imagine a white liberal we’ll see, uh, African-Americans as capable of suffering or Muslim immigrants or refugees. Right? All sorts of people who, who are strikingly different than themselves. Oftentimes, when we look at other people’s minds across differences, we’ll see them as somehow less than ours and conservative or sorry, I’m liberal.
Sometimes see them as even more than theirs. Right. Um, so I may be suffering in a selection they might think, but really African-Americans suffer even more. And so that kind of elevation of the, of the suffering of people, different to themselves, I think can really help explain liberals. Worldviews. Um, so yeah, and then the, the other thing that I think liberals really sees the vulnerable is the environment. And maybe this is because we’ve grown up on movies like Fern, gully, or avatar, right? The paint trees is being able to feel, but, but I think when liberals look around the world, they see environmental destruction degradation, not as just, you know, using up a resource, but as really causing damage, right. As.
Pandas crying and squirrels dying and trees weeping and so forth. So I think those are the kinds of differences in, in perceived vulnerability on one hand, the other and the environment for liberals. Uh, and on the other hand, the powerful and the divine for concern.
Turi_Munthe-2: So that’s on the vulnerability side. Can you do we, can we do the same? Can we do the same exercise? I was on the agency side. So the kind of people, things that cause the damage, the nasty CEO kicking the ball baby, or the pedophile file or whatever it might be.
Kurt_Gray: It’s a great point. And it’s something that we haven’t, we haven’t really, uh, dug in quite as much, because I think we’re typically thinking of, of. Adults in general as being able to do harm. And so I think oftentimes it’s what it’s really driven by is the vulnerability first. And then you fill on the agency or accelerate the agency afterwards. But, but I think, uh, you can kind of see these played out right in that liberals can see. White people, white Americans as really perpetrators of harm and conservatives see agency much less. So typically we find in our studies that agency and suffering, uh, are complimentary or inverse of each other so that the more suffering you have, then the less agency or intention for, for causing harm and vice versa.
So I think we can just look at understandings of vulnerability and kind of flip it. So, uh, liberals see the powerful as really agents of harm, whereas conservatives, uh, again, just see that people are people and, you know, the powerful are no more likely to harm than, uh, than any other, or in fact, you know, it’s almost the opposite actually.
So if you, if you think of conservatives, um, Being concerned about the erosion of free speech. Um, and I think it’s a, you know, it’s a, it’s a valid concern being concerned about free speech. But I think the, the conservative narrative often kind of flips, flips the liberal narrative on its head. Right?
That’s the people who are really, um, in danger here are relatively powerful. Uh, W white men, right? Because they have an opinion to express and the kind of hoards of others are trying to cancel them. So I think you can see in this concern about cancel culture or this kind of, um, the static template as well.
Turi_Munthe-2: Okay. Is there any particular reason that you think that liberals are more concerned about the environment than, um, than conservatives are? There is a strong argument which has been made elsewhere that conservatives are slightly more prone to science denialism than, uh, than liberals are that they like systemic change. Um, The kind of systemic change that science promises, um, considerably less than liberals do for obvious reasons. Um, but what’s the, is there an equivalence between the sort of the fear of the divine being damaged on the conservative side and the fear of the environment being damaged on the liberal side?
Kurt_Gray: That’s a great question. And I think that there you’ve kind of picked up to two kinds of continuums, right? So the environment versus the divine is really kind of how much a science versus spiritual kind of you emphasize. Um, and the, the other versus powerful, I think is really about. Social change. So the powerful are the powerful, um, and they have been for a long time and then giving that power to others, right. Really undermines the status quo and, and the, the ways in which the power is allocated today and on the, on the environment and, and divine side, right? The more you, uh, Believe in God and believe that God is the way of knowing things instead of science. And the more you put emphasis on the divine versus the environment. So it kind of leads to broad tensions between the status quo and ways of knowing.
Turi_Munthe-2: Merely. Wow. So yes, you’ve got a hard tension there between yeah, the pit systemology and, um, an a sort of deep either optimism or pessimism around the future. Um,
Kurt_Gray: right. And in fact, I think, you know, conservatives see harm, uh, when we change, because they’re worried about throwing out. All the, you know, all the, the deep cultural things that, that define America and all the good things that those have given us. Right? So in the argument about discarding Confederate statues, liberals say, well, what you’re doing is you’re, uh, you’re going away from a past of slavery and that’s not only important, but, but. But paramount. And I think conservatives say clearly slavery was wrong, but there’s also many amazing, you know, good things heroics and bravery happened in the past. And we need to, to not, not forget that and honor that. So, um, right. There’s competing narratives of harm and change.
Turi_Munthe-2: . Cut. Thank you so much for walking us through these ideas in the aftermath of the election, in the U S do you think that the conservative and liberal sides of the political spectrum will come close together? Will or do you think where the polarization that we see today and have seen exacerbated by the last four years of, of, of Trump, um, are here to stay.
Kurt_Gray: I really hope that there is a, we can move forward and bridge these divides. And in fact, I’m dedicating my. My whole research career to finding ways to bridge these divides. And I think one way forward is acknowledging that the other side’s perceptions of harm are legitimate. And I think that’s, that’s one powerful thing that’s stopping America from moving forward.
So when, when conservatives say, look. We are actually worried about the harm caused by, by those who, you know, own businesses and those who enjoy political power. Now I think liberals can say. That’s a valid concern. If you’re the kind of person, right. If you’re, uh, a white business owner and you’re worried about paying your payroll as taxes go up, that’s a reasonable concern. And on the other hand, I think conservatives need to acknowledge that that when liberals are concerned about illegal immigrants or people of different religions and races, right, those are also valid concerns and they’re not being histrionic when they’re concerned about. Helping people immigrate or safeguarding protections across race. So I think the step forward is to think that, I think as you mentioned at the beginning, right, we see other people as immoral and that stops us from, from interacting, um, productive, lose people. And the way to see people as more moral is to acknowledge that their perceptions of harm are not. Made up, but instead authentic and that they really are worried about safeguarding others from suffering.
Turi_Munthe-2: It’s one of these, one of these key things that I can’t quite articulate, but, um, In the aftermath of Brexit in which I was eight, which was very firmly against what I couldn’t get my head around was the sincerity of the other side. I didn’t think they were being rational. I didn’t think they were being moral, but I also didn’t really believe that they thought that they, that they agreed with their own position.
And as you say, understanding the sincerity, the authenticity of the other side as the first step to realizing that actually the moral foundations upon which their politics are built are as real to them as ours are to us. Cut. Thank you very much, indeed. For this conversation it’s been thrilling.
Kurt_Gray: Thank you. Thank you for having me.