An analysis of morals
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there,” 13th-century Persian poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi once said. Those of us who have not found the field that the Sufi mystic is referring to, however, navigate the world by avoiding what is deemed wrong and embracing what is deemed right. Sailboats rely on wind to navigate the waters, and humans rely on morals to navigate life.
Due to the moral intuition playing a big role in the decisions we make, several ideas and theories about morals have emerged over the years: Søren Kierkegaard’s divine command theory; Plato’s virtue-based and happiness-oriented theory; and Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative to name a few.
Among the ample theories out there, the moral foundation theory argues that all humans on this planet digest information against a background of five moral foundations.
Rene Weber, a UCSB media neuroscience professor, broke down these five foundations for the News-Press.
He said, “Every culture on this planet has the capacity to evaluate information against a background of
- Fairness or cheating
- Harm or care for other people
- Sensitivity for authority or not adhering to an authority
- Loyalty or disloyalty
- Purity or impurity”
Movies, books, news and social media are often “framed along these lines of broad moral foundations,” according to Dr. Weber.
The sails of the boat, however, can begin to shake when the winds arrive from different directions, and that is when conflicts occur.
“Some narratives pitch different moral foundations against others and create moral conflict,” said Dr. Weber.
He described a hypothetical news story about conflict in Afghanistan.
“You could frame this story as the American soldiers who need to be loyal to their country and need to do their job to protect the American, but at the same time, innocent people were harmed; children dead,” Dr. Weber said.
The clash between the moral dimensions — in this case, the dimensions of loyalty/disloyalty moral and harm/care — raises responses from content consumers: “make them upset; make them share messages; do something,” said Dr. Weber.
The ability to mobilize human beings for a certain cause has led to both joys and tragedies throughout time. What if somebody aiming to spur others to act could configure the message — be it a campaign video, an advertisement or a Tweet — to drum up action?
There’s been ample theorizing and researching on that as well.
“There’s a whole range of research out there, hundreds of paper…Most of this research is based on this notion that we actually can reliably extract this moral information from text narratives,” said Dr. Weber. “It assumes that if I have a bunch of people, I train them, I tell them exactly what these moral foundations are…how to identify these moral content patterns…they will all come up with the same data…the same content data which we as scientists then say is a reliable measurement and then use this content and run our models and make predictions.”
Once the moral information has been extracted, a content producer — be it a writer, a director or a singer — can tweak her/his message to maximize influence, which would capture attention and, subsequently, dollars. It all sounds relatively easy in theory, but the reality is not so.
Dr. Weber and his team found that simply training analyzers, or coders, and letting them extract moral information is “not that easy because there’s a lot of individual variation how people are sensitive to moral information.”
This is when the Moral Narrative Analyzer comes in. A software that combines computer algorithms with text mining and evaluations of 800 coders. Dr. Weber and his team created this software with the hope to classify moral dimensions that are woven in narratives of content and to identify differences in these dimensions across cultures.
What makes MoNa different from just a cohort of coders extracting moral domains in narratives? The software takes into account the different moral profiles of each individual coder. Each person weighs each of the five moral foundations differently. One person might hold fairness on a higher level of importance than adhering to authority.
Taking these moral weight differences into consideration and having 800 outsourced coders evaluating set MoNa apart in the eyes of Dr. Weber.
The academic background of Dr. Weber, a native of Germany, extends into the realms of economics, statistics, psychology and medicine.
“I did my medical doctorate in cognitive neuroscience and psychiatry,” Dr. Weber told the News-Press.
The UCSB professor is three years short of becoming a certified doctor.
“In order to be certified, I needed three more years to work at a clinic…but that I never did because I wanted to do research,” said Dr. Weber.
He arrived to the U.S. in 2003 for a postdoc position at USC, where he worked for two years before moving to Michigan to be a communications and media studies professor at Michigan State University. Dr. Weber arrived to UCSB 12 years ago and is now a tenured professor.
With such an interdisciplinary and multicultural background, Dr. Weber hopes MoNa can help human beings realize how their morals and views may overlap more than they think.
“If we understand that we all together apply moral frames to process reality, but we have different weightings and there’s actually still a surprisingly large overlap of moral framing in humans…That actually can bring ppl together,” said Dr. Weber. “If I have my sensibilities are on fairness, deception, care and harm, that doesn’t make me a more moral or better person than another person that is likewise moral but has his or her focus more on loyalty or authority or sanctity. If people better understand this that these moral sensibilities are just differently distributed,” they will see that “there’s still a common ground.”
Dr. Weber said he thinks that through MoNa’s contribution to human understanding of morals, folks will realize that “there is not a good morality and bad morality.”
Perhaps Rumi won’t be so lonely in that field he was describing.MoNa can be accessed at https://mnl.ucsb.edu/mona.