Moral intuitionism and the “Search the Landfill” debate

The number-one issue in my home province of Manitoba in 2023 – whether or not to spend roughly $180 million searching a local landfill for the bodies of two murdered Indigenous women – offers a case study in the ways we go about coming to moral conclusions.

For those not from Manitoba, here’s a summary. A man is charged with the murder of four Indigenous women, one of whose remains was found in the city-owned Brady Road landfill (Winnipeg’s only public dump). The bodies of two of the others are believed to have been hauled away to the private Prairie Green landfill, which handles commercial dumping from businesses and heavy industry as well demolition scrap. A feasibility study determined that it would be possible to search the landfill – despite the presence of hazardous material such as asbestos – at a cost of up to $180 million. The provincial government, led by Premier Heather Stefanson, has said it will not fund such a search. In response, Indigenous people, including family members of the victims, blockaded the Brady Road landfill and later, following a court injunction, moved their protest camp to the grounds of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. The case has now become a national issue and if you’re Canadian you may have seen the message “Search the landfill” show up on you social media feed.

Generally, the case has been presented as one of compassion versus penny-pinching, with Stefanson branded as “Heartless Heather” and many accusations of racism. It has, of course, been politically polarized, with the federal minister of Indigenous Services (a Liberal) speaking out against Stefanson (leader of a Conservative government).

But I’d like to step away from the politics of it and look at the case from the perspective of moral intuitionism, as described by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

I believe the controversy shows how different moral frameworks can lead to different responses.

The argument for searching is that the families need to be able to bury their loved ones, that allowing the bodies to remain in the landfill (if they are in fact there) is an indignity, that refusing to search sends a message that these women and Indigenous women in general are not worthy of society’s concern.

The argument for not searching is that $180 million is a great deal of public money that could otherwise be spent on services for living people, that there’s no certainty the search would find anything, that conducting the search might further delay the trial of the suspect and that searching an industrial dump site risks harming the searchers. (With an estimated 60,000 tonnes of debris to be searched, this would be a project involving teams in full-body protective gear working full-time for up to two years. The price estimate is $80-$180 million, but recent experience with government projects suggests that the upper figure would likely turn out to be the starting point, with probable cost overruns.)

A reading of Haidt’s book inspires me to look at the moral foundations supporting these two sets of arguments and to conclude that they are based on different foundations.

In a nutshell, Haidt argues, citing decades of psychological research, that morals are based on intuitions that humans evolved over millions of years as social beings and that moral reasoning is a process we use mostly to support conclusions we intuitively arrive at. Some societies have in recent centuries emphasized one or two of these foundations more than others. Some societies are based on a mixture of six foundations.

The foundations, represented as concepts we intuitively like paired with their opposites, are: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression.

People in western liberal democratic societies tend to draw most of their moral responses from the care/harm and liberty/oppression foundations. That is, we believe the goal of laws and public policy is to reduce harm to people and to allow people freedom to go about their lives so long as they are not harming others.

Those are the moral foundations on which the ethical philosophy of utilitarianism is based. Utilitarianism states that “the good” is that which maximizes happiness and/or reduces suffering for the largest number of people while allowing people the greatest amount of freedom, so long as they are not impinging on the happiness of others. But as Haidt points out, there are many societies around the world that draw very strongly on the authority/subversion or sanctity/degradation foundations.

Let’s return to the landfill debate. The argument against the search is clearly based on a utilitarian calculation. Spending $180 million to search the landfill might relieve some of the suffering of family members, but that money, if spent on addiction services, supported housing or remodelling a dangerous intersection, might save many lives. Furthermore, the potential harm to the searchers, who might face long-term health effects like those of World Trade Center searchers, provides another utilitarian argument against the search.

The argument for the search, though it does draw on sympathy for the suffering of the families of the victims, is based primarily on the sanctity/degradation foundation. Signs during posters read “We are not trash.” Search proponents conjure the image of loved ones abandoned under mounds of garbage.

Speaking with a friend recently, I heard a statement along the lines of “I know some people say the money could be spent on other important things, but to me it all boils down to the idea that these women are buried with dirty diapers.”

That’s a powerful gut response, and it’s hard to counter that with calculations based on the cost of building additional units of public housing or additional beds in treatment facilities.

Not all societies depend heavily on the sanctity/degradation foundation for their moral responses. As Chait suggests, educated, multi-ethnic, trade and technology-based societies learn to suppress some of their visceral responses to things that go against their sanctity/degradation instinct. You have to, in order to do business with people who are different from you.

For smaller, more embattled groups, sanctity may play a role in ensuring group cohesion, which was essential for all human survival during the millennia when we all lived in small clan-based communities. (As another example of the sanctity response, think of armies with a “no man left behind” ethos. You might not be able to justify on a care/harm foundation sending soldiers into danger to recover the body of a fallen comrade. But many armies do this, because it creates greater group cohesion and thereby increases combat effectiveness.)

Certainly, sanctity seems to play a smaller role in the moral responses of most Canadians today than it would have in generations past. Consider, for example, the lack of response when churches were burned in the aftermath of the discovery, in 2020, of potential unmarked burial sites near some former residential schools. Consider as well the level of public support for medically assisted death, which goes against centuries of teachings about the sanctity of life.

But this doesn’t mean we’ve done away with the sanctity response entirely. Consider the public anger when somebody tags a war memorial or a national park rock formation with graffiti. Or perhaps consider the feeling of disgust you may have felt seeing a photo on social media of Donald Trump Jr. proudly displaying a leopard or elephant that he’s killed.

So if the theory of multiple intuitive moral foundations explains why people have such different responses to the landfill question, are we doomed to find no common ground?

I hope not. And perhaps, if we could better understand the foundations of others, we could find ways through this.

Perhaps the provincial government could better recognize the power of the sanctity response and propose at least a pilot-project search to determine if the full search would be as difficult and time-consuming as it seems. This might be a show of good faith. And perhaps, if we wish to argue that $180 million could better be spent on saving the lives of the living, we could put our money where our mouth is. A commitment of, let’s say, $30 million per year for six years – over and above what’s already budgeted for these areas – to new supported housing and/or addiction services would demonstrate that the decision not to search is in fact based on the care/harm moral foundation and not on simple cheapness.

And on the other side, it might help if there were some recognition that calling somebody “heartless” is not an argument, that counterfactuals (the oft-repeated “if this were two white women…”) are cheap, that spending public money effectively is, in fact, based on a moral foundation.

I confess, though, that I’m not holding my breath.