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Liberalism & Conservatism, The Moral Mind In Action

Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft: Conservatism is the Seedbed of Liberalism

When there’s food on the table there are many problems. When there’s no food on the table there is only one problem. – Proverb

I believe that the six-foundation morality – “all the tools in the toolbox” – puts food on the table by allowing humans to create cooperative societies. Those societies then provide the quality of life and the freedom of thought which allow the individuals within them the luxury of loosening their focus on the binding foundations and concentrating it more on the individualizing ones, which in turn allows the three-foundation morality to develop and take hold.

The relationship between conservatism and liberalism, therefore, is not that of two sides of the same coin – as if human society can be described as a constant yin-yang style push-pull between liberalism and conservatism as Haidt suggests – it is, rather, the relationship between two points along a time-line of how human societies historically develop, grow, mature, and change.  I know this is a nuanced, some may say hair splitting, view, but I think there’s some truth to it. 

In “Planet of the Durkheimians,” Haidt explains:

The analysis of such transitions was the life-work of Ferdinand Tönnies (2001/1887), who saw this process unfolding in 19th-century Europe. Tönnies referred to the traditional pattern of social relations as “Gemeinschaft,” which is usually translated as “community.” Gemeinschaft relationships rest on the three pillars (whether real or imagined) of shared blood, shared place, and shared mind or belief. The prototype of Gemeinschaft is the family, and the family (particularly the patriarchal family) is easily scaled up to create larger Gemeinschaft institutions such as the Catholic Church or the feudal system. Tönnies labeled the new, more impersonal kind of relationship “Gesellschaft,” which is usually translated as “society” or “civil society.” Gesellschaft is what happens when the social restraints of community are weakened, mid-level institutions are eliminated, and people are largely free to pursue their own goals as they see fit. Gesellschaft relationships are “characterized by a high degree of individualism, impersonality, [and] contractualism, and [they proceed] from volition or sheer interest rather than from the complex of affective states, habits, and traditions that underlies Gemeinschaft” (Nisbet, 1993, p. 74.)

The cultural/historical component of moral foundations theory is largely the story developed by Tönnies, Durkheim, and Weber in their analyses of the transformation of European society from the middle ages to modernity. In brief: the historical and cross-cultural prevalence of Gemeinschaft suggests that this form of association is in some sense the human default – it is the form of social structure in which human evolution took place, and the context in which intuitive ethics became a part of the human mind. The great sociologists put forth many ideas about what drives the shift toward Gesellschaft, and a common theme is the weakening of social constraints upon individuals and the empowering of individuals to make their own choices. Wealth, mobility, technology, education, and cultural diversity – all of these factors weaken the historical interdependence of people within a longstanding community, and free individuals to construct lives for themselves guided by their own preferences. As that happens, the relative importance of the five foundations shifts.

I believe this process happens gradually, and eventually reaches a tipping point in which the three-foundation morality begins to become the dominate mindset within a culture.   The dawn of the progressive era marked the tipping point in America.  At that point, or not long thereafter, people who are naturally predisposed to the six-foundation morality reacted to the “tipping” toward the left, and THAT created the yin/yang dichotomy of which Haidt now speaks.



(1) Haidt,  J., & Graham, J. (2009). Planet of the Durkheimians, Where Community, Authority, and Sacredness are Foundations of Morality. In J. Jost, A. C. Kay, & H. Thorisdottir (Eds.), Social and Psychological Bases  of Ideology and System Justification. Available on the Publications page of the web site MoralFoundations.org

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