[Edited after publication for clarity.]
I used to get into a lot of really frustrating arguments about normative ethics where the person I was talking to and I were just talking past each other. When I found the Sorting Hat Chats system for classifying personality types, I originally just thought of it as being another elaborate fiction-based classification system, which is another one of my guilty pleasures. Sorting Hat Chats is divided into primary and secondary houses. While the secondary houses are just a new gloss on the standard Hogwarts houses, the primary houses are an inexplicably good system for classifying people’s opinions about normative ethics and scrupulosity. Now, instead of going “okay but that thing is wrong, why are you still arguing about it,” I go “ah, Ravenclaw primary” and move on. So I thought I would write up my understanding of the system somewhere more permanent than Tumblr.
(Note: Sorting Hat Chats house primaries only vaguely resemble the Hogwarts houses they are named after, and it is best to put aside your preconceptions about the houses when considering this system. Similarly, no knowledge of Harry Potter is required to understand the system. While this is my personal understanding of the system, I do not claim to know what the creators of the Sorting Hat Chats system intended and may very well be misunderstanding their original intent. I think it is fairly unlikely that this system covers literally all possible orientations towards normative ethics, but as-is it is useful enough that I think it’s worth sharing.)
Ravenclaw Primary. There is an infallible single-question test for identifying Ravenclaw primaries: “is normative ethics boring and/or completely disconnected from any actual moral reasoning you do in your everyday life?” If your answer is “yes”, you are not a Ravenclaw primary. If your answer is “no”, welcome to Team Ravenclaw.
Ravenclaw primaries believe that you should figure out what the right thing to do is through logic and reason. They often have a particular fondness for moral philosophy and ethical thought experiments. Ravenclaw primaries are particularly likely to identify as utilitarians, Kantians, and virtue ethicists. Other sorts of primaries only rarely identify as these categories unless they have to regularly talk to Ravenclaw primaries. For some reason, Ravenclaw primaries have a particular attraction to Catholicism and Judaism; I suspect I would know a lot of Ravenclaw primary Muslims if I knew more Muslims.
Please note that “Ravenclaw primary” is not the same thing as “moral realist.” Many Ravenclaw primaries are not moral realists, although they have a distinct tendency to fall into the “error theorist in metaethics class, utilitarian in normative ethics class” bucket. A Ravenclaw moral non-realist can be recognized by (a) the fact that they really really care about the difference between error theory and noncognitivism and (b) their insistence on trying to come up with some ethical system from first principles anyway.
It is commonly assumed that all effective altruists are Ravenclaw primaries. This is not actually true, although we do have a lot of them.
Gryffindor Primary. Like Ravenclaw primaries, Gryffindor primaries care about principles. Unlike Ravenclaw primaries, Gryffindor primaries tend to follow their hearts and their intuitive sense of what goodness is; they don’t view moral intuitions as raw material for a systematized moral system, but as justifications in themselves.
It is common for Gryffindor primaries to pursue certain values, such as justice or kindness or freedom or the flourishing of others or their family or their own happiness. It is also common for Gryffindor primaries to feel a strong intuitive sense that one should follow certain rules, such as letting everyone speak freely or avoiding blasphemy or being loyal to your friends.
Gryffindor primaries are perfectly capable of systematizing; a Gryffindor primary who intuitively values the greatest good for the greatest number will probably use a lot of numbers to figure out what the greatest good for the greatest number is. However, when it comes right down to it, when asked to justify their beliefs, a Gryffindor primary will go “because it’s WRONG”. When pressed, they will say “because it JUST IS. It’s OBVIOUS.” Occasionally they will engage in circular reasoning like “you should pursue beautiful things because they are beautiful!”
Not all Gryffindor primaries have an ethical system that involves caring about people. Oscar Wilde and Patti Smith are both excellent examples of Gryffindor primaries who are devoted to beauty and art.
I am a Gryffindor primary.
Hufflepuff Primary. Unlike Ravenclaws and Gryffindors, Hufflepuffs care about people. They believe in the inherent worth and dignity of individuals, and want to engage in moral behavior because they have empathy for others. (A Ravenclaw, on the other hand, would start wondering how you could measure worth and dignity, and a Gryffindor might decide they’re pursuing the principle of INHERENT WORTH AND DIGNITY FOR ALL HUMANKIND! without ever really caring about individual humans.)
Hufflepuffs are perhaps best modeled with the idea of circles of concern. Some Hufflepuffs have very small circles: perhaps they care about their family, or their friends, or themselves, or anyone who happens to be personally suffering in front of them at this moment. Some have larger circles: they care about a community, or people who have suffered the same thing they have suffered, or people who also practice their religion, or their country. Some Hufflepuff primaries’ circles embrace all of humankind, or all sentient beings, or ecosystems.
It is common for Hufflepuff primaries to have multiple circles and to care more about people in the inner circles than people in the outer circles. A Hufflepuff primary of my acquaintance occasionally comments that they care equally about their spouse and the entire continent of Africa.
In my experience, effective altruist Hufflepuff primaries often have a formative experience that causes them to have empathy with animals or people in the developing world: for example, they may have visited a developing country, gone to a museum exhibit that included an exhibit of rice equivalent to how much a person in the developing world eats in a day, or viewed a Mercy for Animals factory farm video.
Slytherin primary. Of the house primaries, Slytherins are the most likely to be parsed as amoral. The Slytherin primary cares about individuals: they almost always care about themselves; they may also care about their friends, partners, coworkers, or family. (Interestingly, some Slytherin primaries generalize this and agree that everyone else should care about their families too, sometimes promoting this principle at some cost to themselves; my father, a Slytherin primary, threatened to quit his job if one of his employees was fired for missing work because his child was in the hospital.)
A rough guideline for distinguishing Slytherin primaries from Hufflepuff primaries is that Hufflepuff primaries naturally care about groups (“my family”) while Slytherin primaries naturally care about individuals (“my dad, my mom, my sister, my husband, my child”). Hufflepuff primaries also tend to be more other-centered (“I care about you because you’re suffering”), while Slytherin primaries tend to be more self-centered (“I care about you because you are one of the six people I have chosen to care about”).
Most Slytherin primaries are not particularly altruistic. They sometimes engage in activism or charity donation if it’s in their own interest or the interest of the individuals they care about: for example, a trans Slytherin primary may advocate for trans rights; a Slytherin primary whose partner died of cancer may raise money to fight cancer. A small number of Slytherin primaries may take up altruism for reasons expressed eloquently in the following quote from Terry Pratchett’s Wee Free Men:
All witches are selfish, the Queen had said. But Tiffany’s Third Thoughts said: Then turn selfishness into a weapon! Make all things yours! Make other lives and dreams and hopes yours! Protect them! Save them! Bring them into the sheepfold! Walk the gale for them! Keep away the wolf! My dreams! My brother! My family! My land! My world! How dare you try to take these things, because they are mine!
It can sometimes be hard to determine someone’s primary. A Ravenclaw primary may behave similarly to a Hufflepuff primary if they’ve been reasoned into it; a Gryffindor primary who believes in the principle of helping people close to you may be difficult to tell apart from a Slytherin. But in my experience, if you question why someone believes what they believe thoroughly, you can almost always classify them into a house primary.
Why is this useful? First, you will avoid frustrating arguments because you are aware that other primaries differ from you. Slytherin primaries can recognize that altruism is psychologically important to other people and, while they don’t have to understand it, they do have to accept it. Ravenclaw primaries can avoid patiently repeating thought-experiment-based arguments to people who respond with “huh, that’s confusing” and then keep doing what they were going to do anyway. Gryffindor primaries can stop having arguments that end in “YOU SHOULDN’T DO WRONG THINGS BECAUSE THEY ARE WRONG, WHY IS THIS SO HARD TO UNDERSTAND.” Hufflepuff primaries will stop explaining that, you see, these people are people and they suffer and you should have empathy for them.
It can also help you strategize about how to convince someone to adopt your values. In my experience, philosophical arguments tend to only move Ravenclaw primaries. Gryffindor primaries respond best to Secular-Solstice-style attempts to make doing the right thing seem grand and beautiful. Hufflepuff primaries respond best to things that trigger empathy, such as Give Directly Live. Slytherin primaries… look, if you can appeal to their self-interest, do, but most of the time you’d be better off locating a Ravenclaw and leaving the Slytherin to do their own thing.
I also think the primaries have very different kinds of scrupulosity, and tactics that work to address one primary’s scrupulosity issues are incoherent or useless with another primary. Sorting Hat Chats calls scrupulosity issues a “burned primary.” I’ve noticed miscommunication particularly with Gryffindor and Ravenclaw primaries, perhaps because they’re the only ones I’ve seen burning around me.
Burned Ravenclaws lose faith in their ability to find the truth at all. They may be troubled by moral nihilism, the inability to understand everything that’s going on in the world, or the fact that any action has many unknowable consequences and you’ll never be able to know for sure if you did the consequentially right thing. I’d add that Ravenclaws often have guilt issues if they adopt a moral system they can’t live up to; that’s relatively treatable through persuading the Ravenclaw to adopt a more livable system.
Burned Gryffindors are no longer able to trust their own internal compass to point them to what’s right. The burned Gryffindor sometimes develops a coping mechanism, such as relying on a person or a system to tell them what’s right; this can allow them to function, but often makes them feel depressed and soulless, and does not fail gracefully if the person or system abuses their power. Some worry that every moral claim anyone makes is actually correct and spend hours worrying that perhaps they’re doing great evil by watching a movie that at least one person on the Internet disapproves of. In my experience as a recovering burned Gryffindor, the solution is not to try to come up with less demanding rules or force yourself to stop listening to random people’s moral claims by force of will; instead, it is to get in touch with your own felt sense of morality, whatever that is, and fiercely defend your ability to make moral decisions for no other reason except that it is right.
I have not personally encountered a burned Hufflepuff or Slytherin. (The Slytherins do need to cut it out with the “have you considered becoming a Slytherin?” approach to scrupulosity issues though.) According to Sorting Hat Chats, a burned Slytherin feels it is too dangerous to have loved ones or value anyone but themselves, while a burned Hufflepuff aches to be allowed to have a community and care about more people but for whatever reason feels this is not possible. I’m interested in burned and formerly burned Slytherin/Hufflepuff opinions on how correct that is, as well as burned and formerly burned Ravenclaws and Gryffindors who want to add new experiences to my analysis.