Moral Foundations Theory and Ideological Tolerance

A Review of
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
(Author: Jonathan Haidt)

Understanding the deep psychology of liberal and conservative attitudes could help all of us to understand each other better and to cooperate constructively.  That is why Jonathan Haidt’s work is so critically important.

The core of his approach, which he calls Moral Foundations Theory, has been to identify a small set of “foundations” or basic values that have social and political relevance:

  • Care:  cherishing and protecting others
  • Fairness or proportionality:  rendering justice according to shared rules
  • Loyalty or ingroup:  standing with your group, family, nation
  • Authority or respect:  submitting to tradition and legitimate authority
  • Sanctity or purity:  abhorrence for disgusting things, foods, profanities
  • Liberty:  freedom from coercion by dominating power

Through extensive survey research, Haidt has shown that liberals mainly value Care and Fairness; and conservatives value Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity; and both (in different ways) value Liberty.  The main significance is that, whenever one side tries to understand the other side’s political positions, they seem nonsensical because the unstated values leading to those positions are invisible.  If all citizens were made aware of these different prioritizations, it wouldn’t of course lead them suddenly to agree on political issues; however, it would at least change the dialogue away from the typical “they’re stupid/crazy/evil…”

I do have questions about the specific values that Haidt has proposed.  Let me mention a couple of these questions here.

Haidt sees it as significant that conservatism is based on a greater number of values than liberalism.  But how can we know whether human values have been “chunked” by Haidt in the optimal way?  As a crude example: perhaps Fairness would more helpfully be chunked into four different foundations, and Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity combined into one “Respect-oriented” value?  It would be interesting to see explicit criteria for development of the taxonomy.

Another question that nagged at me is whether each of these values—apart from their demonstrated psychological reality—are equally beneficial from a societal standpoint.  Take Sanctity, for example.  There is no doubt that the emotion of revulsion for certain things has served the interest of tribes and other groups, for example by preserving religion’s power to bind people together.  But in our modern condition, is revulsion an appropriate basis for governance, policymaking, or voting?

Haidt recognizes the issue, and acknowledges that morality both “binds and blinds.”  And it would be a fool’s errand to try to change human nature; the most that might be hoped for is to manage emotions like revulsion and keep some of them away from public decision-making.  Explaining such emotions to liberals who are not motivated by them, however, poses a dilemma: why, in particular, should the value of Sanctity be respected by such liberals?

Haidt’s response is that Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity are admirable in the way that they have been providing the “glue” holding societies together.  He describes the concept of moral capital as:

the degree to which a community possesses interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that mesh well with evolved psychological mechanisms and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.

And Haidt identifies this as something liberals fail to appreciate:

…If you are trying to change an organization or a society and you do not consider the effects of your changes on moral capital, you’re asking for trouble. This, I believe, is the fundamental blind spot of the left. It explains why liberal reforms so often backfire, and why communist revolutions usually end up in despotism. It is the reason I believe that liberalism—which has done so much to bring about freedom and equal opportunity—is not sufficient as a governing philosophy. It tends to overreach, change too many things too quickly, and reduce the stock of moral capital inadvertently. Conversely, while conservatives do a better job of preserving moral capital, they often fail to notice certain classes of victims, fail to limit the predations of certain powerful interests, and fail to see the need to change or update institutions as times change.

The way forward for reducing political polarization, it seems then, would be to teach citizens about the sources and function of moral capital, and to provide citizens a “colloquial” vocabulary for discussing the six foundations.   Importantly, conservatives generally can understand liberals’ Caring and Fairness values without much explanation, even if they think liberals take them to extremes.  But what conservatives need is an improved ability to explain the societal importance of their own values to liberals (and, of course, liberals must be willing to learn to see those connections.)  There, I believe, is the core educational need for citizens of all ages: to explain deeply what moral capital is, how it is functioning, and how easily it can vanish.

I suspect it will not be trivial to explain to liberals.  Is the upshot (they may wonder) that authority should not be questioned?  Or that morality is impossible without faith?  Liberals may find it easy to acknowledge that Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity are important for, say, minimizing criminal behavior.  However, explanations will need to be provided as to how moral capital appropriately influences or guides public decision-making, and how progressive policies can erode moral capital.

I suspect Haidt might offer several explanations.  One might be that expansion of federal power and programs diminishes the importance of community-level institutions such as churches and synagogues without providing a replacement.  Another is that the domination of liberal values like fairness has the side effect of pushing aside equally important values like humility, respect, and patriotism.

These topics tend not to be a part of the national political dialogue, perhaps because they are seen as undiscussable or irreconcilable, or even because of a vague fear that the very act of discussing them could result in the loss of ground for either side.  But until they are discussed in a concerted fashion, anger and polarization will continue.

Of course, this certainly is not the only kind of citizen education that needs to be employed to combat political polarization. Ordinary citizens’ ignorance about political issues makes it easy for media-savvy parties and politicians to manipulate them into various kinds of counterproductive outrage. Ensuring that citizens have sound, basic knowledge about national issues and about the tricks of political persuasion also will make them more resistant to partisan attempts at demonizing people on the other side.

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