Moral Foundation Theory

Sustainability is a concept with powerful moral dimensions.  To be a sustainable engineer requires an empathetic understanding of a diverse system of human values.

While the famous Golden Rule states, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” this rule fails when “others” hold fundamentally different values than you do.  A new Platinum Rule suggest that we should do unto others as they would have us do to them.  That is, to treat people on their own terms.

This requires a deeper understanding of how people can view right and wrong differently.  For example, in this video, Jonathan Haidt contrasts liberal and conservative values in five dimensions he calls the moral foundations.

Haidt asserts that human beings are born with innate moral sensibilities relating to:

  1. Harm,
  2. Fairness,
  3. Loyalty,
  4. Authority, and
  5. Sanctity.

If this is true, then we might also be able to see moral sensibilities in animals — which is exactly what Frans de Waal observes in intelligent animals like monkeys and elephants.

De Waal emphasizes empathy critical to two “pillars of morality”, particularly as they relate to fairness and compassion, which correspond well to Haidt’s first two moral foundations, fairness and harm.

Also, we discover in Rifkin and de Waal’s accounts of empathy that there are 3 kinds of empathy that correspond with the three aspects of the mind:

  1. Cognitive empathy (thinking how others think).
  2. Affective empathy (feeling how others feel).
  3. Conative empathy (instinctive action how others act).

Each of these forms of empathy are related to one another.  That is, empathy sometimes begins in action, or in feeling, or in thinking, and having started there can diffuse to the other aspects of the mind.

What empathy allows is the formation of strong in-group bonds that lead to cooperative, rather than competitive behaviors.  It is this cooperation that may allow resolution of certain wicked problems like climate change, poverty, or other seemingly irreconcilable modern issues.  The question of sustainability may hinge on the story we tell ourselves about capitalism and the purpose of business.

According to Haidt, “Facts don’t change minds.  Stories do.”

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