Alan Jacobs has a really important post up about Jonathan Haidt’s moral matrices theory, which he (Jacobs) finds fascinating. Jacobs says Haidt doesn’t really answer the question of how each of us finds our moral matrix. True, many of us stick with the ones within which we were raised, but many of us also reject that matrix, or significantly modify it. How do we do so? Jacobs says C.S. Lewis offered a profound insight into how this might be done:

[Lewis] called his audience’s attention to the presence, in schools and businesses and governments and armies and indeed in every other human institution, of a “second or unwritten system” that stands next to the formal organization.

You discover gradually, in almost indefinable ways, that it exists and that you are outside it, and then later, perhaps, that you are inside it…. It is not easy, even at a given moment, to say who is inside and who it outside…. People think they are in it after they have in fact been pushed out of it, or before they have been allowed in; this provides great amusement for those who are really inside.
Lewis does not think that any of his audience will be surprised to hear of this phenomenon of the Inner Ring; but he thinks that some may be surprised when he goes on to argue, in a point so important that I’m going to put it in bold type, “I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.”And it is important for young people to know of the force of this desire because “of all passions the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”

Jacobs goes on:

This, I think, is how our “moral matrices,” as Haidt calls them, are formed: we respond to the irresistible draw of belonging to a group of people whom we happen to encounter and happen to find immensely attractive. The element of sheer contingency here is, or ought to be, terrifying: had we encountered a group of equally attractive and interesting people who held very different views, then we too would hold very different views.

And, once we’re part of the Inner Ring, we maintain our status in part by coming up with those post hoc rationalizations that confirm our group identity and, equally important, confirm the nastiness of those who are Outside, who are Not Us. And it’s worth noting, as Avery Pennarun has recently noted, that one of the things that makes smart people smart is their skill at such rationalization: “Smart people have a problem, especially (although not only) when you put them in large groups. That problem is an ability to convincingly rationalize nearly anything.”

Do, do, do read the whole thing. It’s not entirely bleak; Jacobs points out that the same dynamic can draw us away from evil and toward the Good.

What Jacobs speaks of here is something that preoccupies me, in one form or another, and has for years. How do we know what we know? and How do we choose well based on what we know? 

When I first took Haidt’s moral inventory quiz, I scored very high on four of the five moral pillars:

1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]
3) Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”
4) Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
5) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).

The only one I scored low on — unusually low — was “loyalty/betrayal.” Why is this, considering that loyalty is considered an elemental part of the conservative temperament?

Here’s why, or so it seems to me: I first took the Haidt quiz around 2005 or 2006, when I was losing my Catholic faith and also losing my faith in movement conservatism. My loyalty to Catholicism and to movement conservatism had blinded me to some very serious faults in both. (N.B., I’m not bringing this up to have these arguments again; I’m simply trying to explain why I scored so low on loyalty). I reflected at length about how things that once seemed obviously true to me no longer did — and I had to face the role that the comforts of belonging to a tribe (conservatives, Catholics) played in shaping, and distorting, my perceptions and intuitions.

I do not believe this is anything particular to conservatives or to Catholics. I believe that it is particular to human beings. Those who believe themselves to be clear, objective thinkers, not swayed by partisanship, emotion, and subjectivity, are often those most in danger of falling prey to partisanship, emotion, and subjectivity.

Truth to tell, I’ve never been much of a joiner, because it has been hard — but certainly not impossible — for me to quit asking questions. I’m not saying this is a virtue, necessarily; in fact, it can be a vice, depending on the context. If you are living in Nazi-occupied France, you had better not ask too many questions about what it means to collaborate with your communist neighbor who is active in supporting the patriotic resistance to the Germans. There is more vice than virtue in being so scrupulously pure and logical that one cannot act to resist evil. And my personal experience being on the outside of the Inner Ring in my first high school made me permanently suspicious of Inner Rings.

But not suspicious enough, I concede. Some of the happiest and most satisfying times in my life have been when I felt solidarity with fellow political conservatives and conservative Catholics. We were right, and we were together. For most people, that is narcotic, but it is especially the case for intellectually-oriented people, who are especially motivated by ideas and abstractions.

Human society is inherently hierarchical; there is no way not to have Inner Rings. The question is what those within the Inner Ring stands for: something virtuous, or something vicious? How can you know? And how can those in the Inner Ring police themselves, to prevent vice from corrupting their perception and thus their actions?

I can rationalize nearly anything. I know this about myself. Do you know it about yourself? Because it’s true. The problem is that none of us can ever escape our subjectivity. None of us can ever know things purely. But all of us have to act on incomplete knowledge, and in fact on knowledge that can never be complete. Again, I do not think there is special virtue in being so divided, so deliberative, and so pure-minded that you cannot bring yourself to act to promote the Good and to resist Evil.

Anyway, I bring all this up because Jacobs’s post made me think about how my moral matrix evolved. Much of it is inborn, I think; the power of my responses to four of the five pillars indicates that I have very strong emotional responses to moral questions (something that’s obvious to anybody who has read my blog for any length of time). This suggests to me that I have a much stronger reaction to any and all moral questions than the average person. That doesn’t make me more moral than others; it only means I am unusually engaged by them. Had Haidt’s quiz existed in 1998, and I had taken it then, I am certain that I would have scored much higher on Loyalty than I did nine or ten years later.

Today, in 2014, I am far less tempted by the Inner Ring than I ever have been. But I am under no illusion that I’m immune to the desire to belong to the elite. I can only hope that the elites that appeal to me are those who set themselves apart by their passion for faith, hope, and love — but mostly, love. It’s hard.

I’m interested to know which experiences — and which Inner Rings — have shaped you readers’ moral matrices. Have there been good Inner Rings that have drawn you in? Bad ones? I’m less interested in argument than in reading about your own experiences on this front.