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Moral Tastebuds

by Bill Meacham on December 6th, 2010

What do you think of using a needle to take heroin? Do you find it disgusting? Not advisable because it is harmful? Wrong or immoral in some way?

If you believed, as many do, that injecting heroin is all of the above, not only disgusting and harmful, but wrong and immoral as well, would you be willing to allow users to trade in used needles for clean ones, to reduce their chances of getting AIDS? The theocrats who run Iran have done just that, according to a recent story in the New York Times.(1) They have put needle exchange clinics in Tehran, Persepolis and other urban areas, as well as needle-dispensing machines in homeless shelters. They also offer methadone maintenance therapy, and don’t prosecute drug users so long as they are in treatment. This approach to drugs is called harm reduction, and as a result the crime rate has fallen and the spread of AIDS has been dramatically reduced, all without increasing drug use.

What is interesting from a philosophical point of view is the clash between approaches to morality. Consider this paragraph from the Times article:

It seems wrong for the government to be muddying a “don’t-do-drugs” message by supplying the equipment for an illegal and dangerous activity. But to oppose harm reduction only provides the illusion of morality. Surely it is more moral to choose a strategy that does not increase drug use, but does save lives.

Here is a clear contrast between two approaches to ethics, the Rightness paradigm, in which acts or policies are judged right or wrong according to moral rules, and the Goodness paradigm, in which acts or policies are judged helpful or harmful according to their consequences. It may be wrong to do drugs, and hence wrong to give people the means to do drugs, but giving users clean needles saves lives. Which is more moral?

Part of the question is what we mean by “moral.” I presume the author means, roughly, what we should do in a social context. “More moral” means more preferable as a course of action or a social policy. The Rightness paradigm and the Goodness paradigm are two ways of thinking about and deciding what is moral in this sense.(2) Jonathan Haidt, a researcher in social psychology, says there are three more, five in all:(3)

  • Care/Harm is in what I call the Goodness paradigm. The primary moral concern is to care for the weak and vulnerable and to avoid harm.
  • Fairness/Cheating is in what I call the Rightness paradigm. The primary moral concern is to ensure justice and fairness before the law, and to promote fairness and avoid cheating in social interactions.
  • Group Loyalty/Betrayal is the feeling of loyalty to one’s group and hostility or indifference to other groups. The primary moral concern is support the family, clan, tribe, state or nation, especially when in conflict with other groups, and to avoid betrayal.
  • Authority/Subversion is the impulse to show respect to persons of higher rank and to treat subordinates protectively. The primary moral concern is to maintain the social hierarchy, to act appropriately within that hierarchy toward superiors and inferiors, and to avoid subverting it.
  • Sancity/Degradation is the impulse to avoid contact with things or people you view as impure or unclean. The primary moral concern is to maintain your purity or moral cleanliness and to avoid impurity or degradation.

We don’t usually think about these five moral domains when making decisions or evaluating other people’s actions. Instead we make moral judgments rapidly, as snap judgments, without deliberative thought. In other words we have instincts for morals, a moral sense that seems to be built in. Or rather, five moral senses. In a recent talk at an Edge Foundation conference, Haidt likens the intuitive ability to interpret social situations in light of one or more of these paradigms to our tastebuds.(4) Just as there are five taste receptors – sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savory – there are these five moral intuitions. (But they don’t correlate one to one; it’s only an analogy.) And just as we don’t think about how to react to a sweet taste or a bitter one, etc., we don’t generally stop to think about moral quandaries or ethically-suspect situations. We just follow our gut reactions, our intuitions.

Try it. Which of the following resonate with you and which don’t? (You can pick more than one.)

  • Heroin use is bad because it hurts both the user and others as well.
  • Heroin use is wrong because it causes people to nod off and not contribute to society. It is a form of cheating; drug addicts take from others but don’t give back.
  • Heroin use is immoral because it undermines the strength of the community.
  • Heroin use is wrong because it is illegal.  Using it subverts authority.
  • Heroin use is abhorrent because it pollutes your body and mind.

Different people have these moral tastebuds in different strengths. Not everyone is alike; and we vary by heredity and by culture. You can take a quiz to find out your own profile at

Now that we know about these five moral tastebuds, what shall we do about them? Here is where the distinctively human capacity for second-order mentation comes in, our ability to pay attention to ourselves and how we typically react and think. Knowing that there are these five possibilities, we can decide which one to use when we need to make a conscious choice.

We can try to nurture and encourage one or the other in ourselves, although it’s probably not easy or even possible to change how we instinctively react. But it is possible to decide whether to act on our instincts. It is easiest to make such a choice when our moral instincts collide, as the leaders of Iran have done. Despite believing that it is wrong to use heroin, they have chosen harm reduction instead of punishment as a policy.

When moral instincts collide, and when action is necessary, which moral paradigm should a rational person choose? Which one makes the most sense to use as a guide for action? My own view is that the Goodness paradigm makes the most sense. Even if you think one of the others is more important, you need to make sure you are functioning well enough to be able to act on it, and that means nurturing your environment, social and physical, so it will nurture you. Nurturing and benefitting are squarely within the Goodness paradigm, and I think the Goodness paradigm should take precedence, for reasons which I discuss in detail elsewhere.(2) But what do you think, and why?

(1) “An Enlightened Exchange in Iran,” by Tina Rosenberg. On-line publication, URL = as of 30 November 2010.
(2) See my paper on “The Good and the Right.” On-line publication, URL =
(3) Links to Haidt’s work are found on his home page, URL = The five moral foundations are discussed at, URL =
(4) Haidt, Jonathan, “The New Science of Morality.” On-line publication, URL = as of 14 November 2010.

From → Philosophy

  1. Stephen permalink

    It troubles me for us to make moral decisions without asking, “What about God?” He is grieved, and disappointed, angered, and subject to various unpleasent reactions (e.g. vomiting out luke-warm believers). All, evidently because of our choices and actions. And then He is prone to bring disaster on person x because of the actions of person y. The land, it is written, will vomit everyone out of itself if the sexually immoral and abominatable are allowed to carry on.

    True? Too likely to be true to ignore, from all that I have learned from philosophy. Is not there always a risk factor involved in moral decisions? That is, a given immoral act may only bring a negative consequence with a certain probability. Forgetting about someone who might be involved strikes me as rude,

  2. tahseen permalink

    your writing is such a breath of fresh air! accessible, applied philosophy! will read more of your posts when i have a little more time.
    also found it heartening that you used an example which will help humanize an otherwise demonized country. good to see challenges to monolithic views of an entire country or people.
    thank you. that is heartening. though i anticipate we will reach a fork in the road (as i am a confirmed agnostic), i look forward to some great discussions.
    glad you found our film&forum group.

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