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Moral Foundations Theory

Upside Down Analysis

Just after the 41 minute mark in this video of a talk he gave at the Aspen Ideas Festival this year, entitled “The Psychological Foundations of the Culture War (or, How “Liberal” Became a Dirty Word) Jonathan Haidt made a comment that I emphatically disagree with. In this post I suggest why Haidt’s comment might characterize the situation the wrong way around.  My explanation also offers a peek into an alternate interpretation of Moral Foundations Theory which I hope to develop more fully in future posts.
Haidt’s comment was; “Liberals do something that I think is absolutely essential. Liberals do speak for the weak and the oppressed. They want change and justice even at the risk of chaos. And I believe if they didn’t do this, if nobody spoke up for the weak and the oppressed, the political system is such that the powerful get to write the laws themselves, they get to, literally, you know, literally, they get to write the laws themselves behind closed committee doors. Not that the Democrats are innocent of that, but if there was not liberalism as resistance to the powerful the whole shop would be given away to certain very powerful, wealthy, especially corporate interests.”

Despite the brilliance of Haidt’s analysis and insight I think his comment demonstrates that he sometimes still views things from inside the liberal moral matrix. (The “moral matrix” is a concept which he himself introduced quite eloquently in this video of a talk he gave on “The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives” at TED (Technology, Entertainment Design. A nonprofit devoted to “Ideas Worth Spreading.”)

Here’s my explanation of why I think Haidt has things backwards:

Each moral foundation is a tool.  And like any tool, each foundation can be used to do good or to do harm.  Moral foundations work together as a comprehensive synergistic system to “check and balance” each other so that no single tool or subset of tools is allowed to run amok and cause harm.

It’s when things get out of balance and one or two foundations are allowed to dominate and “have their way” with the others that communities, or civilizations, have problems. The problems can come from the bottom up, like in the French Revolution, or like in communes based on only the “liberal” moral foundation – typically associated with the sixties – which usually fail much sooner than communes based on a wider set of foundations, and like when some members of Occupy Wall Street vandalized businesses and destroyed property in Oakland, or marched on the private homes of people in New York City. Top down problems happen when societies try to “equalize” or “homogenize” humanity by rule, like in Communist Russia and China, and in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

The best description I’ve found to date of all the foundations operating in balance is The Mike Romano Story in the beginning of chapter 9 of the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.  (See pages 203 through the first paragraph at the top of page 208). Here’s a piece of that story:

“People are incredibly sensitive to the environment and the culture – to the norms and expectations of the communities they are in. We all want to wear the right clothes, to say the right things, to frequent the right places. Because we instinctively try to fit in with our peer group, behavior is contagious, sometimes in surprising ways.

Imagine that your job was to design an environment that would extinguish drug addiction. You could take drug-addicted U.S soldiers [returning from Vietnam], drop them into this environment, and feel confident that the forces within it would act powerfully to help them beat their habits. Think of this environment as an antidrug theme park, and assume that you can spend as much as you want to construct it. What would your theme park look like?

It might look a whole lot like Romano’s neighborhood in Milwaukee.

You’d want to surround the former soldiers with people who love them and care about them – and who treat them as the drug-free persons they once were. You’d give them interesting work to do – perhaps designing posters for rock bands – so that their minds would be distracted from the joys of opium. You’d create well-publicized sanctions against drug use. You’d keep the drug economy underground, making the former soldiers sneak around to obtain and use drugs. You’d make sure their girlfriends gave them a hard time about their drug use. You’d set up social taboos so that the soldiers would feel derelict, even pathetic, if they kept using. You’d remove the contagious drug-using behavior from the environment – no more addicted soldiers around – and replace it with contagious drug-free behavior. And you would provide rich environmental cues – sights, songs, food, clothes, and homes – that remind the former soldiers of their prewar, drug-free identities.

The Milwaukee Theme Park: That’s exactly why Mike Romano became a former addict. When Romano relocated to Milwaukee, his environment changed, and the new environment changed him.”

The “Milwaukee Theme Park” is the environment of all the moral foundations working together in balance. 

That environment is represented by an image Haidt displays in the 37th minute of his Aspen Ideas presentation. It is a photo of two young pre-teen or young teen girls and their parents. The image is a metaphor for all of the moral foundations operating in balanced synergy. 

Surrounding that image are several other images: One from Madonna’s book “Sex,” another of a teen with a split tongue and a pierced nose, another of some pills, another of flag burning, another representing abortion, another of Dr. Kevorkian, and another of a sex toy. Those images, taken together, are a metaphor for what happens when one, two, or three foundations are allowed to run amok, unchecked by the others.

The title of that slide in Haidt’s presentation is: “Is anything sacred to the left?”

Which environment do you think does a better job of protecting the weak? Is it the one comprised of all the foundations working in balance, which helped Mike Romano get clean, and which is represented by the young family with the two girls? Or is it the one comprised of only some of the moral foundations, unbalanced by the others, and run amok, represented by all the photos which surround the girls and their parents?  

I think it’s the former, and I think Haidt’s comment that if it weren’t for liberalism speaking out for the weak and the oppressed the “whole shop” of that protection would be given away to the powerful has the story completely upside down. 

There is no better environment for protecting the weak than the environment of “The Milwaukee Theme Park” that Mike Romano came home to from Vietnam: the environment of all the foundations in equal balance; the environment represented by the image of the girls and their parents in Haidt’s presentation, in which the girls represent the weak.

The environment of only some of the moral foundations not only fails to protect the weak – the girls in the image – it in fact assaults them from all sides, as represented by all the images surrounding the them in Haidt’s presentation slide. 

Here’s another very big point which is lost in all the discussion:

It’s not an either/or situation. It’s not true that either we have liberalism – with its supposed protection of the weak and individual autonomy – or we have conservatism – which supposedly would give away the “whole shop” of protection of the weak. The either/or conception is a conception of the liberal moral matrix.

The truth is, there’s room within the full-foundation morality for tattoos and piercings and egalitarianism and freedom of expression. It’s not the horrible place which, in spite of his brilliant analysis and tremendous insight, even Haidt intimates it is with his “whole shop” comment.

But you have to get out of the liberal moral matrix to see it.

If I could make one change to improve this country I would do everything I could to “Switch” our public education system into an environment like the one Mike Romano came home to from Vietnam, and away from the environment of indoctrination into only one or two or three foundations it has become.

And you know what? I think the full foundation environment is not only the best possible way to protect the weak, I think it also offers the best chance humanity has of coming as close as human nature will allow to the social justice that liberalism seeks.


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