Alexandr Chakroff

If you’re interested in understanding human conceptions of morality, you owe yourself some time to read Alexandr Chakroff’s dissertation. I know, no one actually reads dissertations any more and you’re a very busy person so certainly I’ll do my best to summarize key points below but I think that you’ll enjoy the read more than you expect for two reasons. One, Chakroff is a student of Joshua Greene. Greene is… well, I’m not entirely a fan but he’s become fairly famous for his work in moral judgment. At some point I’ll write up my thoughts on his engaging book, Moral Tribes. Second, Chakroff is more principled about designing experiments than Jonathon Haidt. There are places where Haidt inserts himself by “thinking hard” about a problem and then pronouncing an answer (e.g. the six categories in his moral foundations theory). Chakroff avoids this as much as possible by taking a data scientists view. What he loses in detail, he gains in clarity.

To demonstrate this principled approached, let me use as an example the first experiment from his dissertation. The purpose of the experiment is to see explore the structure of the moral domain across as diverse sample of humanity and it was structured as follows.

  1. Generate a cross-cultural list of sample moral violations. Participants were recruited through Mechanical Turk and individually asked to brainstorm as many moral violations as possible. The set of participants was almost gender balanced, represented a wide range of political orientation, and drawn from North American and India. Duplicate or vague responses were removed leaving 550 items in the list.
  2. General a cross-cultural set of moral judgments on these violations. Again, Mechanical Turk is used and participants are asked to rate the severity of 90 violations drawn randomly from the above list.
  3. Principal Components analysis on the resulting rankings. The algorithm extracted two principal components of significance.
  4. Intuition gathering. Participants from Mechanical Turk were presented with violations showing either high rankings in the first component or high rankings in the second and asked questions about those violations and the hypothetical agents involved.

The two components that Chakroff extracts do reinforce earlier results of Haidt. There was a well publicized result showing differences in moral reasoning between American liberals and conservatives, particularly in the categories that Haidt related to purity judgments. Chakroff shows a similar drift in his two categories.

Category one consists of harmful acts. These are “acts that directly and negatively impact others’ welfare” and corresponds to the individualizing grouping in moral foundations theory. Judgements of violations in this category depend on the situational context of a given problem and on the intent of the agents involved. Those guilty of category one violations are not trusted to refrain from further such violations (though they can be forgiven) but are not anticipated to commit category two violations.

Category two consists of impure acts. These are “acts that deviate from normative behavior, without necessarily hurting others” and corresponds to the binding grouping in moral foundations theory. Violations in this category are attributed to internal factors of the violating agent. While similar themes (food, sex) appear across different cultures, the particulars of the rules are local to each culture. Those guilty of category two violations are judged defective and not trusted to refrain from either category two or category one violations. Once you’ve violated a normative rule, you’ve shown yourself to be an unpredictable agent and all bets are off.