Editor’s Note: As part of our editorial policy, PPND does not publish political articles and does not host political debates in the comment section. While Jeremy does talk about his personal political viewpoint, it is purely to set the stage for a review of Jonathan Haidt’s new book. We have reviewed this article and view it to be appropriate for this site since it talks about the psychological underpinnings of political view points. But we will not host comments that argue with Jeremy about his particular political opinions.
I am a political liberal. Generally speaking, I’m anti-war, pro-immigration, pro-universal health care, pro-gay marriage, and so on. Like most liberals, I have a strong reaction to issues that center around two specific moral foundations: care and fairness. In other words, I tend to believe that a moral society is one that cares for people (including those that are in a minority position or less able to care for themselves) and I believe in equal rights and opportunities (fairness) for all.
In fact, these values seem so obviously important that I am often exasperated at my conservative friends who may hold different positions. If I’m completely honest, I can’t help but thinking that conservatives must either lack intelligence (i.e. they don’t understand the issues) or lack morality (i.e. they care about other things, like wealth, more than people).But Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion, holds a different view, and one that can help bridge the ever-widening gaps that occur in politics.
Moral Foundations Theory
His research on Moral Foundations Theory suggests that there is more to morality than caring and fairness. In fact, he describes the moral landscape as being like a tongue with six taste buds. Most liberals only have a “taste” for three foundations of morality: care (versus harm), fairness (versus cheating) and liberty (versus
oppression). Issues outside of these three either go unnoticed or are simply not given much importance in comparison.
Using All 6 Taste Buds
Conservative morality, on the other hand, is guided by all six moral foundations. In addition to care/harm, fairness/cheating and liberty/oppression, conservatives have a deep respect for authority (versus subversion), loyalty (versus betrayal), and sanctity (versus degradation). They believe more passionately in respecting traditions, hierarchical organization, and loyalty to their groups. This makes them more patriotic, more protective of territory (and willing to resort to force if necessary to defend it) and more religious (tradition, hierarchy, group loyalty, sanctity, and so on).Through the course of Haidt’s book, he shows how each of these moral foundations has evolved and how all of them can play a role in contributing to a better society. This is not one of those books where a researcher boils down a complex subject into a simple tag line. Haidt takes readers on a journey through that complexity, so that we can understand the nuances and contradictions inherent in human morality.
I was interested to hear Haidt talk about his own personal reactions to his work in this area. He said understanding the diversity of moral foundations had broadened his thinking and pulled him more politically towards the center. I felt the same way. Understanding the moral foundations of the conservative philosophy helps me to appreciate their viewpoints on certain issues, even if I disagree with some of their strategies.
This gives me great hope for the future of politics. Perhaps there is a way to infuse greater understanding into the issues so that all can better appreciate the moral foundations of opposing viewpoints.
Does Understanding Bring Change?
But Haidt is not as optimistic as I am. When I asked him about the possibilities of this, he had discouraging news. He said the common reaction from his students is not really a shift towards the middle. They don’t really change their views, although they might “hate the other side less.”
Unfortunately, Haidt describes morality as “the intuitive dog wagging the rational tail.” In other words, we have gut instincts (heavily influenced by our genes) about what feels right. And we tend to ignore evidence that doesn’t support this inner compass.“Morality binds and blinds” says Haidt, encapsulating both the challenge and the opportunity.
We blindly follow our moral instincts, and the foundations are hard to shake even in the presence of rationality.
But morality also brings people together with others who hold similar values. So while there is no single way to define or describe a moral life, we all have the ability to transcend self-interest in different ways and contribute to the greater good of our own communities.
References and recommended reading:
Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Pantheon.
Haidt, J. (2008). On the moral roots of liberals and conservatives. TED Talk.
Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment.
Psychological Review. 108, 814-834
YourMorals.org – a site with questionnaires for assessing your own moral foundations.