you're reading...
The Moral Mind In Action

Openness To New Ideas Is Not A Moral Foundation

The character trait of openness to new ideas and experience is a consequence of a lack of moral foundations.

If moral foundations really do result from natural selection then it is likely they allow us to see and react to real world threats to our individual and collective survival.  One who employs only half the foundations sees only half the threats.  It’s only natural that such a person will be “open” to every new idea that comes along.  The phrase “Openness to new ideas” is a misnomer; it’s a politically correct spin that makes lemonade out of the lemons of threat blindness and moral groundlessness.  It is the manifestation of Sandel’s unencumbered self.

The lack of moral foundations also explains cognitive complexity.  With fewer foundations the elephant has no particular reason to prefer one path over another, and so every potential choice becomes an exercise in objective analysis of pros and cons, costs and benefits.

Some have suggested that openness to new ideas might be a moral foundation.  I disagree, and strongly.  It’s a character trait that results from a partial application of the moral foundations that have already been described.

Moral foundations come in pairs.  What would be the opposite of openness?  Some have suggested that it would be closed mindedness.  This is a misperception of the trait.  Its opposite would be threat sensitivity, which more naturally results from the employment of a greater number of moral foundations.

[UPDATE, 12/29/15: As of July 8, 2012 Dr. Haidt agreed with my assessment that Openness is not a moral foundation and that the opposite of Openness is threat sensitivity, but disagreed with my idea that it’s connected with moral foundations. He explains this in a comment, below]


15 thoughts on “Openness To New Ideas Is Not A Moral Foundation

  1. Gordon, I like the way you make clear that there’s a liberal tendency to overthink things, and to not rely as much on a broader moral set to guide them. A completely unencumbered openness is a form of groundlessness, and I think it causes many liberals a lot of problems. On a personal level, I am always trying to understand what constitutes a sensible openness, and what I’m belaboring- where my moral outlook is suffering as a result of trying to see things from too broad a perspective, if that makes sense, instead of relying on principles well. There’s a sense of reinventing the wheel to liberal approaches to problems sometimes: we have much more of a tendency to view situations as unique or new, when there may be very useful precedents. Higher drug use among liberals is a good example of this in my opinion, where people rely too much on their own experience or judgement, instead of taking the word of authority or those close to them (out of loyalty). Openness ties into compassion in an interesting way, too: liberals can view individual suffering as being an extremely complex situation that either can’t be the victim’s fault, or can’t be healthy to let them work their way out of, giving their ‘elephant’ full sway to easily miss (or, more often, discount the importance of) a paternalistic care component.

    I agree with you that people who say openness is a moral are using a liberal lens on life. But I want a balance. The last of Russell Kirk’s 10 conservative principles highlights a need to balance permanence and change. Burke had a lot of sensible things to say on the subject as well. It’s a bit facile, in my opinion, to assign openness to new experience, one of the statistically derived Big 5 main personality trait groups, to a lack of good moral scope. I agree that very high openness of the kind of you describe betrays a lack of the balance of morals, but there’s a definite positive moral aspect to being appropriately open to good change, which is a version of openness to new experience. Our literature and art are filled with instances of accepting or rejecting change as a crux of enacting personal morality effectively, as we struggle to trade off the value of permanence and change the way Mr. Kirk describes well: the moral value of preserving, versus embracing something new that is of perhaps greater value. Openness in that sense resembles a lot of good traits and values, like self-confidence or sensitivity: for most people a lot is too much, and a little is too little. Metals should be strong, but not too brittle: flexible enough for the job, but not necessarily malleable, or even liquid. I think that’s a better way to think about openness, rather than trying to decry a whole group of personality traits because liberals have a lot of them (in personality theory, there are about a dozen related traits clustered under Openness, including some aspects of cognitive complexity).

    As you said, openness is not a moral. I’d even go beyond your point and restate a large portion of Dr. Haidt’s message as “liberals can go overboard with their personality strength in openness, which causes an ironic irrational rejection of tradition, loyalty, and respect for authority, as well as an underestimate of the risk of change”. Even so, it’s a conservative value to be open enough to introduce the flexibility mankind needs to be successful. Too much or too little openness makes for problems in society.


    Posted by Scott Wagner | June 27, 2012, 3:59 am
    • It looks like we’re on the same page on this one. I agree that “it’s a conservative value to be open enough to introduce the flexibility mankind needs to be successful. Too much or too little openness makes for problems in society.”

      Moral foundations and personality traits, by themselves, are generally not inherently good or bad. They’re neutral characteristics that can have good or bad effects depending on how they are applied. I see them more like tools. Any tool – a hammer, for example – can be used to do harm or good; to create or destroy.

      Harm most often happens when a moral foundation or personality trait is allowed to dominate the others by a great amount. For example, the book Pathological Altruism by Barbara Oakley describes how the fixation on “care” can, ironically, actually do great harm.

      The key, as I said above and as I’ve maintained all along, is balance; checks and balances. Throughout human history it is from this that the greatest good for the greatest number of people has always come.

      I do have one quibble though. I disagree whith your statement that “It’s a bit facile, in my opinion, to assign openness to new experience, one of the statistically derived Big 5 main personality trait groups, to a lack of good moral scope. “

      I don’t think it’s facile at all, it’s data. We know from Haidt’s data that liberals tend to employ fewer moral foundations, and we also know from Big 5 data that liberals are higher on openness. It’s not too hard to see the correlation, and I bet that if studies were done they’d show it to be true.

      Imagine Haidt’s graph of all of the moral foundations, with liberalism on the left and conservatism on the right, with a line for openness drawn on it. I bet the openness line would be roughly in sync with the Care line.


      Posted by TheIndependentWhig | June 29, 2012, 8:42 am
      • Gordon, re openness correlating with missing out on binding foundations: it seems clear that high openness is correlated with such a weakness, but I don’t think you can state flatly, without making the bet that you mention and doing the research, that there’s a somewhat linear and causal relationship between the two variables, as in the openness you have, however slight, leads as a matter of course to a corresponding reduction in your appreciation of binding moralities. The assumption that that’s true seems to’ve lead you to castigate openness in general- that’s what I think is an overstatement on your part. A modicum of openness, in other words, may be a pure virtue if you will, that you can buy without statistically reducing your ability to be influenced by binding moralities- gaining that right amount of openness, per the tenth of Kirk’s conservative principles, would be a form of achieving that balance you seek. You seem to acknowledge that there’s a balanced amount of openness that may be appropriate for you, but then you want to say at the same time that openness is a problem in general re accepting binding moralities- but you don’t reconcile the two statements. I’m reacting to that logical gap: either some openness is good, or all openness is bad. If it’s all bad, then the correlation you mention may hold. If some is good, then the correlation between the two is less straight-forward, varying with the amount of openness one has.

        Your point about an openness line roughly in sync with the Care line for liberals is not applicable, because we are not talking about people high in openness, who we both agree are lacking in binding morality statistically- we’re talking about, say, conservatives or moderates that don’t value openness that highly, that might not really consider it a moral, the same way that I don’t consider politeness vital enough to call it a moral.


        Posted by jswagner | July 3, 2012, 1:39 pm
  2. Openness is correlated with a rejection of the binding moral foundations, but that doesn’t imply one is normally the cause of the other. More particularly, those high in openness are believed to be more likely to question authority and sacredness, and no doubt certain kinds of loyalty too, *as a result of being open*, so your argument would require evidence to show that isn’t the usual causal direction. It’s easy to see how causality could work both ways to some extent, but not entirely. Lack of the binding foundations can’t fully explain openness.

    For example, openness is understood to involve positive qualities (positive in the non-normative sense) such as curiosity about, interest in, and enjoyment of new things, not merely or always a lack of something. Further, openness is understood to be a broader characteristic than could plausibly be due mainly to a lack in the binding foundations. How would openness to perfectly culturally acceptable new foods, curiosity about new ideas about how language works, and desire for riding new roller coasters be caused by lack of sufficient respect for authority, loyalty and sacredness? All of these and many, many more qualities are part of openness to experience. This very well studied characteristic is considered a fundamental personality trait because it hasn’t been successfully explained as due to something more fundamental, or the lack of something more fundamental, such as you now argue it is.

    Given the above, the reason openness is pretty plainly a moral foundation is that it’s fundamental, commonly moralized, and required to explain key aspects of morality, as wee see when Haidt turns to it to explain an essential difference between liberal and conservative morality. The reason Jon didn’t count it as a moral foundation, judging from what his colleague Ravi Iyer has said, is basically a technicality, that it isn’t sufficiently moralized across cultures according to a social judgment test. (I don’t know what he bases that on.) There’s some discussion of that and why I don’t think it holds up at the link below. It’s a point Jon will have to address at some point.


    In all respects that matter, openness functions as a moral foundation and must be considered to fully understand morality in terms of moral foundations.


    Posted by Sanpete | July 1, 2012, 5:06 pm
    • Couple of points, Sanpete. First, that openness is generally correlated with a rejection of the binding moral foundations is a little controversial- can’t see that as a given. That *high* openness is so correlated seems plain, but part of our point is that a balanced openness may be uncorrelated with such rejection. I hope so, anyway. That would be very nice. Being open to a reasonable degree may still allow people to be binding morality types, without pulling them away from such morals.

      Second, I’m just getting generally annoyed with MFT in the sense that there’s an implication that there’s sacred morals and non-sacred ones, that we assign the term ‘foundation’ to the sacred ones, that we have to figure out which ones are, that others don’t matter because they’re less prevalent. The notion of general coverage for a given moral, especially as a statistical effort, is a valuable one: I actually like the subjective assignments of almost all the current morals used as ‘foundations’. But I really think that dragging in openness as a moral is no different than dragging in any other positive personality trait, or even characteristics. I have an aunt that thinks punctuality is a moral foundation, I know conservatives who consider conscientiousness, in its many and varied forms, are moral foundations. Even Emotional Stability, Agreeableness and Extroversion, or even subsets of these (like politeness) can commonly be morals. To say we value openness as a moral, to me, is essentially to say that it’s so caught up in our world view that we consider it essential for right living, like my aunt does punctuality. Certainly, in my circle, it is absolutely a moral- maybe even one of the top two, right after care/harm, and before justice. And yet, as with Gordon, openness can be viewed with great skepticism by good people. Many people- as in half or more. As in, it ain’t a general enough value at all to be calling it a foundation, whatever the hell foundation means. Doesn’t change that it’s definitely a moral for you and I: also doesn’t change that Gordon looks at it askance.

      The discussion with Ravi doesn’t clarify a thing for me re openness, though I like your points about subjectivity/objectivity: I’m confused why you sent us there. Ravi and I have talked about morals in this sense, and he and I both agree that foundations is quite subjective and a bit of a pop term, but that there is some use to drawing a line across very common morals and calling them foundations. His view, and mine, is not that openness is not a foundation because of a technicality, but more because it’s a beauty contest it loses when one winnows morals down to, say, 5, instead of, say, 15. This winnowing is somewhat random, in my opinion: Colin DeYoung has done work that asserts well that the current foundations reduce statistically better to two instead of 5/6/9, generally to what we think of as the individual and binding ones all mixed together. This fungibility should be thought of as part of the deal- would help us be a little less legalistic about what’s going on, as if we could codify things. Moral studies seems a messy, highly contingent affair, particularly sensitive to culture, politics, and, especially, individual dimensions.

      I think that embracing a small version of morality (foundations) and a large version (anything we value highly individually as a guidance to proper life) both have merits, but mixing the two is muddling. The former is useful, say, to highlight how we miss out on binding foundations, while the latter is a much richer way to illustrate how we drag morals (good/bad/evil/worthy/disgusting) into all kinds of corners of our lives, in a rather willy-nilly way. This essential, broader set of morals is getting ignored when we fret over what to include in a foundational analysis. Yet morals come up all the time, quite apart from these common ones. Most of the moral wrestling in my own life, among my circle, have little to do with foundational issues.


      Posted by Scott Wagner | July 3, 2012, 1:11 pm
      • Scott, the correlation I have in mind is proportional, that more openness correlates statistically (over a group) with greater likelihood of rejecting the binding foundations. I entirely agree that one can be open (and even high in openness) and not reject the binding foundations.

        As you point out, openness is a primary moral value for liberals. Many liberals regard it as the value that most defines liberalism, not without some reason. That conservatives largely regard it with suspicion makes it like the binding foundations are, largely rejected as a value by one side but important as a value to the other. There are other moral traits or values that might also be treated as moral foundations, something Jon acknowledges in his book (and he lists several he and his colleagues are studying), but openness is a particularly important one in understanding the differences between liberals and conservatives.

        Pointing out the place of openness is also useful for another reason. Jon’s research might reasonably lead to a conclusion TIW has reached about the superiority and self-sufficiency of conservatism if not for the part about openness. If we also consider other possible foundations, much the same point about the need for both conservatives and liberals might be supported, but openness is one that Jon discusses himself in the book, so it’s already handy.

        What’s explained at the link is why Ravi, and apparently his colleagues as well, reject openness as a moral foundation, and why I don’t find their view convincing. His objection is indeed based on what appears to be a technical issue, based on the view that moral foundations must be widely moralized across cultures, and that what determines this is a social judgment test that has special problems in application to openness. Even the view that the foundations must be widely moralized is a technical one, which I give reasons to reject. I agree Ravi also appears to think openness just isn’t as important for some other, unidentified reason, which might correlate with your beauty contest, but that seems as arbitrary a view to me as it apparently does to you. I agree that various ways to limit or include foundations are useful.


        Posted by Sanpete | July 4, 2012, 2:02 pm
  3. There’s a lot of criticism here of things I did not say.

    I did not castigate openness. I said it’s not a moral foundation. But for the record, openness is a personality trait that everyone has to some degree. Data shows that liberals have it more than conservatives but everyone has it to some extent. A graph of that data would therefore look like the graph of “Care;” higher on the liberal side than on the conservative side but still at healthy levels on both sides.

    I did not mention the binding foundations. I said openness is related to the number of foundations one employs.

    I did not say that higher openness leads to a corresponding reduction in the number foundations. In fact, I said the opposite: A reduction in the number of foundations leads to higher openness.


    Posted by TheIndependentWhig | July 3, 2012, 8:32 pm
    • TIW, I agree that everyone has some degree of openness, just as everyone values the binding foundations to some degree. Everyone also has some degree of neophobia, as Jon calls it. (The binding foundations are the ones liberals are said to lack, so those are the ones I referred to specifically.)

      I think Scott is onto something to the extent that your ideas about openness over the last weeks seem unsettled between general criticism (e,g, openness as groundlessness) and more neutral talk (we all have it to some degree, even if we’re well grounded, and it can be good or bad).


      Posted by Sanpete | July 4, 2012, 2:08 pm
      • Doesn’t it go without saying that when it comes to discussions relating to anything within the broad areas of the social sciences, including moral foundations, politics, and religion, everything is a matter of degree and nothing is totally black or white. We’re talking about generalizations here; tendencies and averages. Virtually none of the situations or descriptions fall into the realm of all or nothing. Do I really have to repeat that caveat with every statement I make or position I take? Isn’t it a “given”?

        How about this: It is my belief that, generally speaking, on average, the tendency is, the fewer moral foundations one employs the higher one is going to be on openness. Or, said differently, if a statisticaly significant sample of people were to weight each moral foundation in importance on a scale of 1 to 10, liberals would have a lower average score of all the foundations in the aggregate than conservatives would. It is my opinion that the lower the aggregate score of any one person, the higher that person is likely to be in the personality trait of openness. Further, the lower the score, the less the person is “grounded” in moral foundations.

        I don’t think there’s anything at all “unsettled” about what I’ve been saying. It’s all part of the bigger picture of the differences between liberals and conservatives. Another part of the same bigger picture is the tendency for liberals to have greater cognitive complexity, as I’ve described in a another post, here: https://theindependentwhig.com/2012/04/11/moral-foundations-theory-explains-cognitive-complexity/


        Posted by TheIndependentWhig | July 4, 2012, 6:14 pm
  4. I apologize for carelessly mixing around your intended causality between morals and openness, and for my other misunderstandings. I still don’t understand how you reconcile the two things you say about openness- good at modicum levels, yet a reflection of lacking moral foundations- but I’m stopping now, in case I’m being obtuse.

    Regarding my use of the word castigate- that is a strong word, but I think an accurate one to use when characterizing your oft-expressed attitude about the behavior of those who use less moral foundations, and, now, those who display openness to new experience. We tend to be hesitant to say other moral viewpoints are wrong, bad, or evil, preferring to be kinder or more ‘correct’, when those negative words can provide a simple, accurate way to describe how a different set of morals feels to us- not just different in a neutral way, but as a violation of moral views we essentially hold to be objective truth. This is why I recoil a bit from Dr. Haidt’s metaphor of tastes when discussing morals, which can make them seem like preferences, or imply that one set of tastes is as valid as another. But being moral is more fundamental than that: morals define our judgment about right and wrong. Even if we can intellectually acknowledge that our moral view isn’t necessarily objective or accurate, it doesn’t change a moral outlook’s purpose of providing our own foundational framework for good and bad in our life. In my opinion, you are quite judgmental- negative, castigatory- about those who use less moral foundations. And I think that’s ok. That judgement fuels your efforts to extend the breadth of our moral outlook, and is a product of your strong moral views.


    Posted by jswagner | July 4, 2012, 6:58 am
  5. Hi folks,
    i agree that openness is not a good candidate for “foundationhood,” but the debate over this results in part from the fact that I and my colleagues have not been as clear as we should be about what makes something a foundation. We’re trying to remedy that in a new paper we’re writing for the journal “Advances in Experimental Social Psychology.” We’ll list criteria for foundationhood.

    TIW, i agree that the opposite is threat sensitivity. One of my earliest empirical findings was that disgust sensitivity correlates strongly negatively with openness to experience. But i would not think of openness as a result of a configuration of foundations, or as resulting from a lack of reliance on some foundations. Openness is one of the big-5 traits, most of which can be identified in other animals. In any group of dogs, sheep, or even octopuses, some will explore more, others less. This is in large part because some individual brains are set to be more threat sensitive. The big-5 are all at the level that Dan McAdams calls “level-1 dispositional traits.” In that sense it could be a foundation — it is a lower level trait that will make certain moral claims resonate. It will probably end up meeting some of our criteria for foundationhood, but not others. Let’s revisit this in 2 months, after I’m done with the paper, and will post the criteria, let’s have a discussion of the criteria, and we can work thru questions like “is openness a foundation.”

    thanks for raising this question,


    Posted by Jon Haidt | July 8, 2012, 5:21 am
    • RE: “Openness is one of the big-5 traits, most of which can be identified in other animals. In any group of dogs, sheep, or even octopuses, some will explore more, others less. ”

      I don’t see the connection between these two sentences. In fact, it seems to me that they offer a false comparison. Further, I think the argument that the personality trait of openness/threat-sensitivity results from foundations is much stronger than the argument that it does not.


      Exploration is a sign of curiosity, not openness. Exploration/curiosity and openness are two very different traits. The latter does not automatically follow from the former, or vice versa.

      The opposite of openness is threat sensitivity. But threat-sensitive does not automatically mean threat averse. The riskiest endeavors man has ever engaged in, and succeeded at, exploration/curiosity especially, have required excruciating amounts of threat sensitivity. In this sense, openness is less likely to correlate with exploration/curiosity.

      Threat sensitivity is not only highly compatible with exploration/curiosity (probably much more so than openness), it is practically a necessary partner. The more risk involved in a project, the more threat-sensitive its participants must be. Few projects are riskier than exploration. The more threat-sensitive an explorer is the higher his or her (or its) odds of success, and longevity, will be.

      Speaking of longevity, from the standpoint of natural selection, the more open a person – or a dog or a sheep or an octopus – is (and thus the less threat sensitive) the less likely he/she/it will be around long enough to indulge its penchant for exploration/curiosity again in the future. From this perspective if there’s any relationship at all between exploration/curiosity and openness it’s more likely to be a negative one.

      Exploration/curiosity and threat-sensitivity are not mutually exclusive. Some of the most curious people the world has ever seen, and some of its greatest exploreres, have arguably also been the most threat-sensitive.

      Exploration/curiosity and openness are two different traits; separate and distinct. Exploration/curiosity, whether in humans or in animals, is no indication of openness, or vice versa.

      You say that that “some individual brains are set to be more threat sensitive.” Your data have shown that in humans those brains also tend use all the moral foundations. You argue that moral foundations are products of natural selection. If that is so, then the most likely reason for their existence is that they allow us to perceive and to respond to real-world threats to our individual and group survival. That is to say, moral foundations are threat sensors. And yet, you say that you “would not think of openness [lack of threat-sensitivity] as a result of a configuration of foundations, or as resulting from a lack of reliance on some foundations.”

      Why does your view that openness/threat-sensitivity does not result from moral foundations NOT contradict your position that moral foundations result from natural selection (and are thus probably threat sensors)?

      If moral foundations are products of natural selection (and thus probably threat sensors), but, as you suggest, openness (lack of threat sensitivity) does not result from a configuration of foundations or from a lack of reliance on some foundations, then how WOULD you explain the correlation between increased moral foundations and increased threat sensitivity, and the correlation between decreased moral foundations and decreased threat sensitivity (i.e., openness)?

      It seems to me that there’s a much stronger argument in favor of the trait of opennes/threat-sensitivity resulting from moral foundations than not, and a much stronger argument against what you suggest, which seems to be that oppennes just “is;” it just exists of its own accord, completely unconnected to anything else.

      Come to think of it, this begs even more questions:

      Why would foundations create morality but not personality traits? Where did personality traits come from? If not from foundations, then where? Did they come directly from natural selection like foundations, or did they just sort of appear out of nowhere? If they just sort of appeared would that suggest they’re mutations?


      Posted by The Independent Whig | July 25, 2012, 12:58 am
    • Re: “But i would not think of openness as a result of a configuration of foundations, or as resulting from a lack of reliance on some foundations.”

      You may be right that a cause and effect relationship between the two cannot be proved. I’m not expert in science or statistics or logic so I’ll defer to your expertise with such things.


      The way I see it, they do go together.

      You can’t bake a cake without flour and eggs, and you can’t bake a liberal without threat INsensitivity (aka “Openness”) and half the moral foundations (and of those, mostly “care.”)

      Moral foundations are threat detection modules. It follows logically, in my mind, that those who employ fewer threat detection modules would be less threat sensitive; that is, more “open.”

      The term “open to new ideas” is not a character trait in and of itself, it is only a label for the subset of, or the section within, the full range of threat sensitivity in which there’s a greater chance of finding liberals. Further, it is a flattering label which implies goodness; something to be desired; a positive quality. And by extension, therefore, it also implies that a person who is not “open” is in some way not up to par; insufficient; somehow lacking.

      Which begs the question: Could the fact that the field of academic social psychology is so overwhelmingly liberal – as Dr. Haidt illustrated so well in his “Post Partisan” talk – have anything to do with the labeling of characteristics of the liberal psyche in a way that implies goodness?

      It appears that there are no labels for any other sections within the full range of threat sensitivity, but if a label were to be applied in a similarly flattering way to the section in which there’s a greater chance of finding conservatives it might be something like “aware,” “alert,” “cognizant,” or some other synonym for “tuned in” or “in touch” with the social environment which more correctly characterizes the conservative psyche, and also puts the liberal psyche in a more accurate light.


      Posted by TheIndependentWhig | September 21, 2012, 1:13 pm


  1. Pingback: How To Better Articulate Conservatism (and Liberalism too) « The Independent Whig - February 13, 2013

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

I Support Viewpoint Diversity


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.


Venn Diagram of Liberal and Conservative Moral Foundations

%d bloggers like this: