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Liberalism & Conservatism, Moral Foundations Theory


If moral foundations are products of natural selection, then they exist for a reason. 
The reason is that they help us to perceive, think about, and respond to threats to our individual and collective well being. They are threat detection modules.

The more foundations each of us employs in our moral vision, the wider our perception of the social world, the better our ability to “detect and respond” to “certain patterns” of human behavior, and the better suited our cognitive capabilities will be to “meet those challenges.”     

The fewer foundations we employ the narrower our moral vision will be, the less likely will be our ability to recognize and understand the challenges society faces, and the fewer and less suited will be the cognitive tools available to us to react to them.

It might be possible to drive a screw with a hammer, but the result will be much more effective with the ability to recognize the problem and to select the appropriate tool.  The same goes for public policy.  Fewer moral foundations means fewer tools, and less likelihood the remaining ones will be up to the job.  The less the tools fit the job, the less chance our policies will be effective, and more likely they will fail or even exacerbate the problems they were intended to solve.

Since the three-foundation vision of the world is impaired, so is its vision for the world.  A political philosophy which fails to grasp the full spectrum of human nature cannot possibly offer complete solutions to the problems human society faces, and the net effect of that philosophy is more likely to do harm than good. 

The result is Pathological AltruismWithout the vision to see the full spectrum of human nature the three-foundation morality perceives the world almost exclusively in terms of protecting and defending the individual.   Without the checks and balances of the binding foundations, the three-foundation morality implements policies which, in the long run, end up doing more harm than good to the social fabric. 

This doesn’t mean that the egalitarian notions and good hearted concern for the individual which are at the core of liberal thought are not worthwhile ideas.  They are.  After all, they are grounded in Moral Foundations.  It means that Liberalism might have a better chance of actually achieving its goals, and it may even enjoy more success in elections than it currently does, if it incorporated all of the moral foundations into its vision. 

But as it stands today, liberalism does not do that.   Instead, its failure to employ all of the moral foundations leaves it color blind to the full spectrum of human nature.  It therefore tends to see and interpret society in a narrow, overly simplified, black-and-white way, and it thus fails to grasp that its policies tend to do more harm than good to the fabric – the matrix – of civilization.   Because of its moral color blindness, and its resulting Pathological Altruism, liberalism arguably becomes that which it despises, and because of that same blindness, it also fails to see that this is so. 

Contrary to the message that seems to emerge from Haidt’s evenhanded gentleness with his liberal audiences the nature of the liberal/conservative divide is not that of a Yin/Yang balance between two distinctly different yet equally valid ideologies, it is that of the imbalance between a fundamental human psychology which fails to employ all of the moral intuitions and is thus incapable of perceiving the reality of the social world in which it exists, and a psychology which employs all of the intuitions and is thus grounded much more firmly in reality.   It’s not Yin vs. Yang.  It’s Yin vs. Yin/Yang. 

I think Haidt’s work, if followed all the way to its logical conclusion, provides some of the best evidence that exists today in support of this hypothesis. 



  1. Pingback: How To Better Articulate Conservatism (and Liberalism too) « The Independent Whig - February 13, 2013

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