Social scientist Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory does not go far enough. Haidt suggests that moral foundations are a set of intuitions about human behavior and social interaction embedded in each of us by natural selection, and that the political divide can be traced to the different ways liberals and conservatives apply the foundations to construct their moral compasses. By stopping at questions of morality and political ideology I think Haidt’s analysis does not follow through to its logical conclusion.
Haidt has shown that conservatives employ all of the foundations in roughly equal balance, and liberals employ only about half of them (1), and that because of this disparity conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives. (2)
But, if Moral Foundations are products of evolution as Haidt describes, then they must exist in us for a reason, and that reason must be that they allow us to perceive, avoid, and deal with real life threats to our individual and collective survival and well being.
Therefore, if the liberal blind spot about conservatism is rooted in Liberalism’s partial application of the moral foundations then it does not follow that conservative morality and opinions are the only things that liberals don’t “see” and understand. The impairment of the liberal moral vision has to be less like a blind spot and more like color blindness. That is, it’s not selective. It does not prevent only the understanding of conservatism. It prevents the understanding of everything the moral foundations were designed to let us see, namely, the full spectrum of human behavior and social interaction and their consequences.
So it’s not just conservatives that liberals don’t fully grasp. It’s the full spectrum of human nature; it’s everything; it’s reality. This is why, as Haidt has observed, experiments in building societies solely, or even mostly, on only the “liberal” moral foundations inevitably fail.(3)
Further, Haidt has observed that, worldwide, the morality which employs all of the foundations in relatively equal balance is the norm, and the morality which employs only about half of them is the exception. (4)
The real question we should be asking ourselves, then, is not What’s the Matter with Kansas? but rather “What’s the Matter With Massachusetts?” If moral foundations are products of natural selection – and therefore instrumental to our survival and well being – then how and why do so many people openly reject half of them?
The answer, I think, is enculturation; the “nurture” part of the nature vs. nurture question. Successful human societies are built on the six-foundation morality – all the tools in the human moral tool box, as Haidt says in his TED talk – in which people set aside a certain amount of personal self interest for the mutual benefit and greater good of the entire community. At some point in the growth and maturation of such a society a tipping point of security and comfort is reached which allows people to focus less on the greater good and more on their own interests. The three-foundation morality gradually captures more and more of the collective cultural psyche, the cultural moral pendulum swings too far to that side of the left-right continuum, and characteristics of the aforementioned failures ensue.
I submit that Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) may be able to explain much more than just the political divide. I submit that MFT, in combination with the process of enculturation described above, could be a key to understanding the true causes behind the rise and fall of many of the great civilizations of human history.
I submit that the six-foundation and three-foundation moralities are not two sides of a coin in a yin/yang sort of way, as Haidt describes them, they are two points along a time-line that many past civilizations followed as they grew, prospered, become affluent, and then collapsed in upon themselves. I submit that MFT is not only the Rosetta Stone for understanding the current political divide, I submit that it not only could give us a clear-eyed understanding of the path America is currently on, but also the tools to get off that path and avoid the fate of so many civilizations that came before us.
I submit that the way we can change the path is to do the best we can to keep the pendulum in the middle. The way we do THAT is, at least partly, through education. I think a start along this path would be to include a module on Moral Foundations Theory in the social studies, government, and even health classes in all of our public middle schools and high schools. As a culture we need to understand that natural selection placed ALL of the moral foundations in us for a reason, that the reason is a good one, and that the “greater good,” and the “general welfare,” of all is best served when we maintain ALL of the foundations in EQUAL balance. With that better understanding, I am optimistic that in the decades ahead new government policies may be able to Nudge or Switch us back onto a more balanced path that is better for everyone.
(1) This a major finding of Haidt’s that is described throughout much of his work. Here’s an example: Haidt, J., & Graham, J. (2007). When morality opposes justice: Conservatives have moral intuitions that liberals may not recognize. Social Justice Research, 20, 98-116. Available at MoralFoundations.org
(2) “Political conservatives are more accurate than political liberals in characterizing the explicit moral beliefs of the other side.” 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. Page 3. Available at MoralFoundations.org
(3) Haidt talks about this at length in his talk When Compassion Leads To Sacrilege, which he gave at The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Educate (CCARE) at Stanford University. I typed a verbatim transcript of it, and posted it here. Liberalism and Conservatism correlate with the unconstrained and constrained vision described in A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, by Thomas Sowell.
(4) “Looking at the entire range of human societies, the statistically “normal” human society is built upon all five foundations. It is modern liberalism…which requires a special explanation.” From: Haidt, J., & Graham, J. (2007). When morality opposes justice: Conservatives have moral intuitions that liberals may not recognize. Social Justice Research, 20, 98-116. Available at MoralFoundations.org,