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Moral Foundations Theory

Haidt’s Evenhandedness Dilutes the Message



Haidt is a social scientist in the best sense of the word “scientist.”  
He forms a hypothesis, tests it as rigorously as possible, and follows the evidence wherever it may lead, even if it leads to ideas that are contrary to his own personal leanings.  He does not seek to judge, only to explain. 

But his finding that liberals don’t employ the full tool set of moral foundations and therefore don’t “get” human nature as well as conservatives do is controversial.  It can, and has, raised the ire of some liberals, which is understandable since everyone has a vested interest in defending their beliefs.   Haidt encourages open discussion, honest criticism, and peer review of his theory.  Offering one’s hypotheses for scrutiny is part of the scientific process.  It is the best way to find the truth.    

The audiences at Haidt’s speaking engagements are typically overwhelmingly liberal. But liberalism takes the brunt of his message.  It is partly for this reason, I believe, that he is especially careful in the way he delivers his message.  He wants liberals to hear his message, not tune him out, so he appeals to the liberal notions of open mindedness and inclusiveness, and he presents his ideas in an evenhanded way that carefully avoids implying that any morality is inherently “better” than the other; only that they are different, and that a better understanding of the differences might help to lessen the political divide.  

And, truth be told, his style works very well.  He is a wonderful speaker and writer.  He has a personable, ingratiating style and he uses clear, accessible language that is rich with easy to understand metaphors which get directly to the heart of his subject matter.  Haidt’s audiences are usually quite receptive and appreciative of his message.   

But it is exactly that evenhandedness which, I believe, prevents Haidt’s analysis from continuing all the way to its natural, final, conclusion.   He breaks the “bad news” to liberals so gently that the full weight and meaning of the message and what it says about liberalism is not completely conveyed. 

Also, as open minded as Haidt is, I believe that his interpretation and analysis of his findings is performed from within the liberal moral matrix.  Here I’m using “moral matrix” the way Haidt does in the talk he gave on the moral roots of liberals and conservatives, available here:  The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives, (TED.com).

I believe that if the message is to get through it must be followed all the way to its logical conclusion, and that conclusion must be stated succinctly, forthrightly, and unequivocally.  I also think that Haidt’s findings would benefit from honest interpretations by those of us who’s moral matrix is constructed from all of the moral foundations in equal balance.   

This essay is an initial attempt at both of those things.  

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I Support Viewpoint Diversity

www.heterodoxacademy.org

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.

An Interpretation of Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory

This sidebar lists a series of posts which together make up an essay relating Moral Foundations Theory to today's politics, and even a little history, as viewed through The Independent Whig's six-foundation moral lens.

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