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Moral Foundations Help To Define the Elephant

Morality is our sense of right and wrong. It is the sets of behaviors that we, as a society and as individuals, consider to be acceptable and unacceptable. It is our collection of notions about how we should act and relate to one another. It is the instant, instinctual feeling of like or dislike that we get when we observe certain patterns of social behavior.

In order to survive and to thrive individually and as a species we humans have developed several “tricks” we use to help us cooperate in large groups for our mutual benefit. Our instinctual “gut feel” – our inner elephant – is driven in large part by a small number of psychological predispositions – the moral foundations – which are part of our psyche, placed there by natural selection for the purpose of helping us to function in, and as, a society. These predispositions contribute to our feelings of like and dislike, our tendency to approach or avoid, and even our reaction to fight or flee the patterns of social interaction we encounter in our every-day lives.

Thus, morality lives in the Elephant. I say “lives in” the elephant instead of “is” the elephant because there are other things in the elephant beyond just morality. But the point here is that since the instinct to like or dislike resides in our inner elephant, and since moral foundations essentially determine WHAT we like or dislike, moral foundations – morality – exists within the domain of the elephant.

Why is it that liberal and conservative elephants tend to “like” and “dislike,” very different patterns of social behavior?

The answer is that liberal and conservative elephants apply the moral foundations in different amounts, each arriving at their own distinct morality; a “moral matrix,” if you will – a prism, or a moral lens – through which we perceive the world around us, with which we make judgments about the world, and upon which we base our actions. Through a combination of nature and nurture liberals and conservatives really are “wired” differently at a fundamental level


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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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