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February 25, 2010

idea for a moral philosophy survey

I suspect that people make moral judgments based on a mix of principles, rules, virtues, moral exemplars, and stories. My own philosophical position is that these factors are on a single plane. Principles need not underlie stories, for example. There can be a web of influence or implication that connects all these different kinds of factors. It can be legitimate for a story to imply a principle, a principle to imply respect for an exemplar, the exemplar to suggest respect for a virtue, which implies a different principle. None is necessarily primary or foundational.

As an empirical matter, people differ (I assume) in how their moral thought is organized. If you envision each moral factor as a node, and each implication from one factor to another as a network tie, then we each have a moral network map in our mind. But for some, the map will look like an organizational chart, with a few very broad principles at the bottom, which imply narrower principles, which imply specific judgments. For others, a single story (like the Gospels, or one's own traumatic experience) lies at the center, and everything else radiates out. Some may have a random-looking network map, with lots of nodes and connections but no order. And some--whether by chance or not--will have what's called a "scale-free" network, in which 20% of the nodes are responsible for 80% of the ties. That kind of network is robust and coherent, but not ordered like a flow chart. The 20% of "power nodes" may be a mix of stories, exemplars, principles, and virtues.

I would further hypothesize that people of similar cultures have similar moral network maps.

How to find out? I wonder if you could give people an online survey that led with a fairly realistic but fictional moral situation.* It would be something close to lived experience, not a scenario like a trolley problem that is contrived to bring abstract principles to the surface.

Respondents could then be asked:

1. What principles (if any) influence you when you think about what you should do?
2. Whom would you imitate (if anyone) when you're deciding what to do?
3. What virtues (if any) would you try to embody when you're deciding what to do?
4. What stories (if any) come to mind when you're deciding what to do?

All of a respondent's answers could then be displayed on a screen, randomly scattered across the plane. The respondent could be given a drawing tool and asked to draw arrows (one- or two-directional) between factors that seem to influence or support other ones. Those data would generate a moral network map for the individual, and we would see how much the structure of people's maps differ.

*It would be very challenging to write a scenario that didn't bias responses toward one kind of moral factor. It would also be difficult to create a fictional scenario that had salience for different people. But the general idea would be to create a nuanced, complex, realistic situation demanding a moral response. For me personally, the kind of fictional story that would resonate would be something like this: "Your child attends a local public school. She's doing well academically and learning some academic material in classes, although not as much as she could. The school is racially and culturally diverse, and she benefits from learning about people who are demographically different. White, middle-class students perform better on standardized tests within this school than their peers who are children of color. The principal is caring and concerned with equity but does not seem to have a vision. The teacher is not especially nice but does seem effective at raising all children's test scores. Options for you include moving your kid to a different school, becoming more involved in the school's governance, or advocating for a policy change. What do you feel you should do?"

February 25, 2010 1:21 PM | category: philosophy | Comments



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