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The Moral Foundations

The Moral Foundations

For convenience, a short description of each Moral Foundation is offered here, making heavy use of text from Haidt’s web site,
www.moralfoundations.org, along with a portion of a transcript I typed while watching this video of one of Haidt’s talks (carefully, hitting “pause” and “rewind” many, many times) . All such text is in italics, and is immediately followed with a link to the source.

Haidt’s original publications describe the moral foundations in much more detail and with much more depth and nuance.  They are available on the Publications page of his web site www.MoralFoundations.org.  I highly recommend them to anyone and everyone who has an interest in politics. 

“Moral Foundations Theory was created to understand why morality varies so much across cultures yet still shows so many similarities and recurrent themes. In brief, the theory proposes that five (or more) innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of “intuitive ethics.” Each culture then constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world.

“Much of our present research involves applying the theory to political “cultures” such as those of liberals and conservatives. The current American culture war, we have found, can be seen as arising from the fact that liberals try to create a morality relying primarily on the Care/harm foundation, with support also from Fairness/cheating. In contrast, we find that conservatives, especially religious conservatives, use all five foundations, including Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, and Sanctity/degradation.” (copied from www.moralfoundations.org on 10/15/11 )

  1. Care and harm “This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. This foundation underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.” (copied from www.moralfoundations.org on 10/15/11 )
  2. Fairness and cheating “This is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. This foundation generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulate the theory in 2011 based on new data, we are giving greater emphasis to proportionality, which is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]“ (copied from www.moralfoundations.org on 10/15/11 )
  3. Loyalty and betrayal “This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. This foundation underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”” (copied from www.moralfoundations.org on 10/15/11 )
  4. Authority and subversion “This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.” (copied from www.moralfoundations.org on 10/15/11 )
  5. Sanctity and degradation “This foundation is related to the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It supports the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).” ( copied from www.moralfoundations.org on 10/15/11)
  6. Liberty and oppression “The very last foundation, the very newest one that we’ve been really forced by the data to add is that there are very strong deep concerns about liberty. But it took as a while to understand this. The key was coming upon this work by the anthropologist Chris Boehm called Hierarchy in the Forest, and his point is that chimpanzees and most other primates are really despotic, hierarchical, the ones that are closest to us generally, bonobos less but even still they’re hierarchical. Yet hunter-gatherers are always egalitarian. Yet as soon as agriculture comes in they’re all really hierarchical. So what’s human nature? And his answer is; hierarchical. Absolutely, hierarchical.  But, we also hate alpha males. So, we hate being dominated by abusive alpha males. So we have this ability to gang up to take down bullies. We hate bullies. We are hierarchical, even despotic creatures, Boehm’s is that it’s not that we all want equality. There’s not a deep human desire to live equal. There’s a deep human desire to not be dominated, bullied, or oppressed. And we get together to take down those bullies.”  (From a transcription typed by The Independent Whig of a talk entitled “When Compassion Leads to Sacrilege,” given by Haidt at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research (CCARE), a video of which is available here. )
  7. Ownership The Independent Whig believes that the concept of ownership of property (possibly called Ownership/Stealing, if following the naming pattern of the other foundtions) is a seventh moral foundation, as suggested by Polly Wiessner, and described on the YourMorals.org web site as follows: Polly Wiessner, U. of Utah, pointed out to Jon Haidt, in a conversation, that the issue of possession or private property is not included in the five foundations. Wiessner noted that many animals have territories that they defend, and that other animals often respect, indicating that there is a very plausible evolutionary story for why people care so much about possessions and territories, and will defend them with violence when necessary. (Copied from the Challenges page of the MoralFoundations.org web site on 10/15/11)

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