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Moral Foundations Theory

An Interpretation of Moral Foundations Theory: Introduction and Table of Contents

This post is an Introduction and Table of Contents (scroll down a little) for a series of posts. 
Each post in the series stands on its own, but together they form an alternate interpretation of Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory. 

I live in the six-foundation moral matrix. In other words, I am conservative.  Haidt grew up in the three-foundation matrix.  He was liberal when he started his research.  The moral matrix each of us lives in shapes our perceptions of, and for, the world.  From the perspective of my matrix I connect the “dots” Haidt has shined a light on with a “spin” that is different from his.  It’s not that I disagree with Haidt,  I’m using almost all of his dots, it’s just that I’m lining them up differently; reinterpreting and extending them a little, to tell a story that is a little more politically robust than the one he tells.  Essentially, I am using Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory and his notion of The Rider and The Elephant as a jumping off point similar to the way Chip and Dan Heath do in their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

My “spin” is that conservatism is demonstrably better than liberalism, and Moral Foundations Theory helps to make that case. I will argue that in the grand scheme of things the greater good is better served, the weak are better protected, and the individual and community are better cared for, by the six-foundation morality than by the three-foundation one.  I know this view is contrary to much of today’s conventional wisdom – the things that “everybody knows” which form the unspoken presuppositions behind much of today’s political debate – but, I’ll argue, much of that conventional wisdom is not so wise.

I use the phrase “in the grand scheme of things” for a reason.  The thesis I present here is about the six-foundation and three-foundation moralities.  It is not about Repulicans and Democrats.  Both political parties are far from perfect, both have made serious mistakes.  I think mistakes are made when policies are not “in sync” with human nature, which sometimes allows one or two moral foundations to “run amok” and dominate the others.  This happens on both sides of the political aisle.  What I am saying is that recent findings in social science research have shed new light on the true nature of, well, human nature, and the better understanding that comes from it would benefit people of all political stripes.     

I’m finding that “six-foundation” and “three-foundation” work better for me than “conservatism” and “liberalism” as descriptors of the two moralities.  The latter descriptores are loaded words that bring too much emotional baggage and unfortunate stereotypes to the discussion, and even hinder it.  But with that said, I’ll still use them sometimes for expedience.  As Haidt has observed, even though little is really black and white, the terms liberalism and conservatism offer a pretty good first approximation of the two basic world views. (1) Just remember, whenever you see “conservative” think of it as a shorthand way of saying “six-foundation morality,” (seven, actually, because I think “owernship/stealing” or “property” is another foundation) and whenever you see “liberal” think “three-foundation morality.”

I’m sure I’ll learn more as time goes on, and I may change my mind about some things.  But for the moment, this multiple-post essay is a pretty good summation of where my thinking is right now.

(1) Graham, J., Haidt, J., & Nosek, B. A. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  Available on one of Haidt’s web sites, MoralFoundations.org.


Table of Contents

Overview: Moral Foundations Theory Explains Much More Than Just the Political Divide

Haidt’s Evenhandedness Dilutes the Message

The Moral Mind

The Four Principles of Moral Psychology

Introduction to Moral Foundations Theory (MFT)

The Moral Foundations

Moral Foundations Check and Balance Each Other

Morality is Greater Than the Sum of its Parts

The Rider and the Elephant

Moral Foundations Help to Define the Elephant

The Liberal Elephant

The Conservative Elephant

Reason is for Winning, not Truth Finding (and Moral Foundations are the Rider’s Tools of Reason)

How to Train an Elephant

The Moral Mind in Action

Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft: Conservatism is the Seedbed of Liberalism

The Complex Nature of Human Society and Interaction

Liberal and Conservative Moral Visions

Liberal and Conservative – Reason and Experience

Liberal and Conservative – Individual and Community

Liberal and Conservative – Literal and Conceptual

The Bees and the Hive: Liberal and Conservative Perceptions of Human Nature

Liberty, Equality, Justice, and Fairness Have Different Meanings in Different Moral Matrices

Protecting the Weak

Do Liberals Really “Care” More?

Other Brief Thoughts: Haidt’s Yin/Yang, Moral Thinking, and Advice to Democrats

The Root Cause of the Political Divide



Post Script


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A politically diverse group of social scientists, natural scientists, humanists, and other scholars who want to improve our academic disciplines and universities. We share a concern about a growing problem: the loss or lack of “viewpoint diversity.” When nearly everyone in a field shares the same political orientation, certain ideas become orthodoxy, dissent is discouraged, and errors can go unchallenged.

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