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Check and Balance

Moral Foundations “Check and Balance” Each Other

I used to tell my kids, “Why do you think a car has brakes?” And they all would say, “To stop.” And I’d say, “No, a car has brakes so that you can drive fast. If you got into a car that had no brakes and you knew it, how fast do you think you would drive? You wouldn’t drive very fast at all.” And that’s the same reason we have rules.
Former Citigroup Chairman John Reed, on Moyers & Company 

It’s also the same reason natural selection gave us all six (or more) moral foundations.  The first three are the car, the rest are the brakes. 

Moral foundations can be divided into two groups.  The first group is made up of the care/harm, fairness/cheating, and liberty/oppression foundations, and it tends to focus on the individual.  These are the “individualizing,” or “selfish” foundations. These are the car.

The second group is made up of the loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation foundations, and it tends to focus on binding people into groups.  These are the “binding,” or “groupish” foundations.  These are the brakes.

We humans are individualistic and tribalistic at the same time. 

We’re individualistic because we like freedom and autonomy.  We like being able to exercise our free will.  We like to do what we want when we want, and we don’t like anyone else telling us what we can and can’t do.  We like to drive fast. 

We’re tribalistic because we’re very social.  We form into groups for the mutual survival and well being of every member of the group.  Membership in a group necessarily places some restrictions on the autonomy of the individual.  For the good of the group, and ultimately therefore for ourselves, we need some brakes.

The great struggle of human society throughout history has been the search for balance between the autonomy of the individual and the needs of the community.  The conflict has been going on for so long that natural selection has worked it into our Moral Foundations, three of which are oriented to autonomy, and three toward community. 

Each moral foundation is a tool. And like any tool, each foundation can be used to do good or, if used to excess, to do harm.   The “individualizing” foundations are “checked and balanced” by the “binding” foundations such that neither gets the upper hand, and so that both are prevented from running amuck and causing harm.

Haidt alludes to this idea in When Morality Opposes Justice, when he describes the foundation of Care, saying “Compassion is not inevitable; it can be turned off by many forces, including the other [five] systems.”   He says the same sort of thing again in his description of the Fairness foundation when he says “These virtues can, of course, be overridden by moral concerns from the other [five] systems.”

The reader may observe that turning off or overriding a foundation is not quite the same thing as checking and balancing it, and that is correct.  But I think my larger point is also correct, and it is supported by Haidt’s findings: that moral foundations affect one another. What I’m suggesting is that the way they affect one another is as checks and balances in the struggle between autonomy and community.  I will further suggest, in a later post, that moral foundations are intertwined, and work together as a synergistic system in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. 

Examples of synergistic systems are communities, societies, cultures, and governments;  every one of which is an attempt to balance the desire of the individual to be free, and the need of the individual to depend on, and to be depended on by, other individuals in the group, and the necessary restrictions that need places on the individual desire for freedom.  Probably every form of society and government that has ever been tried throughout all of human history has been an attempt to find the balance.


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