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Why Framing Liberal Positions With Binding Foundations Often Fails

Daniel S. Levine, Professor of Psychology, University of Texas at Arlington, recently posted a review of The Righteous Mind on Amazon.com in which he gives examples of how liberals might do a better job of appealing to conservatives by framing liberal views in terms of the binding foundations. I think Professor Levine’s examples are better demonstrations of what Haidt calls the liberal “tin ear” than they are of persuasive arguments.

Professor Levine says:

“Haidt is right that loyalty, authority, and sanctity are important moral values for many people. So rather than attacking conservatives for believing in those values, liberals should try to co-opt them. For example, if a corporation closes a working factory in an American town and lays off unionized workers in favor of cheaper labor overseas, liberals can rightly claim that the corporation is being disloyal to its community. If a tar sands oil pipeline threatens to accelerate climate change, liberals can claim that building it disrespects the authority of scientists who have carefully studied its effects. If the same pipeline is likely to spill, liberals can claim that it violates the sanctity of our clean water supply and our natural wonders.”

In a response to Professor Levine’s review I said…

Be very careful with the idea of liberal co-opting of conservative values. Liberal attempts at this too often come across like Hawkeye Pierce in the old M*A*S*H TV show, when he says “Sincerity? I can fake that.”

Here’s a quote on this topic from a talk Haidt gave at Sixth and I in Washington, D.C. (available on BookTV, here ) starting around 45:30: 

“There are so many efforts on the left to do framing by using conservative words and concepts, and they just show that the left has a tin ear. Here’s the sort of sign you saw during the Iraq war. “Support our Troops. Bring them Home Now. I support our troops; I don’t want them to get killed because, you know, violence is bad. I support them. I want to bring them home.” That just shows you have no clue; You have no clue what it means to be fighting a war; You have no clue what it means to support your team when it is playing an away game. “Come home. We don’t want you to break your ankle on the basketball court.”

Supporting the troops, or loyalty to our “team,” does not mean protecting our team from harm. It means giving our team everything it needs to win. Loyalty means giving our team Kevlar, or more and better weapons, or more teammates. Probably the last thing it means is pulling them out and bringing them home (unless they’ve won and the game, or the war, is over).

Loyalty applies to the in-group. Not “the community” as Professor Levine uses it. The first priority of a company is to survive. The second is create wealth. It is true that many companies achieve success by being “tuned in” to the needs of its customer base – the “community” it serves – but make no mistake that its loyalty is first, last, and always to its own survival and growth. This is as it should be for every in-group. It is the nature of things.

The ultimate in-group is the family. The family is arguably the bedrock of all human life, survival, and well being, and even possibly the origin of many of the moral foundations. The next in-group is the neighborhood within which the family lives, and then the larger community, and so-on, to ultimately the country. In-groups can also be any gathering of like-minded people, like churches, Elks clubs, or even bowling leagues. It is these to which the loyalty foundation applies, and its purpose, again, is to do everything possible for the in-group to “win” in the sense of prevailing over anything that is perceived as a threat to it. Professor Levine’s example suggests the in-group of the company should be loyal to some other in-group which is external to itself. This conception of loyalty does more to show that those who advocate it have “no clue” what loyalty is really about than it does to win over any converts.

The foundation of authority has to do with the recognition of the value of, and thus respect for, a social structure, including families, neighborhoods, communities, countries, and the traditions, customs, laws, social habits, and leadership which comprise that structure. It is the understanding that the purpose, the responsibility, of that structure – of that “authority” – is to maintain and advance the integrity, survival, and well being of the in-group, including those members of the in-group who cannot help themselves. It is the acceptance, therefore, that the “rules” that come from this type of authority are valid and legitimate, and it is respect for, and deference to, those rules.

Morality is emergent. It is greater than the sum of its parts. It is also internalized. It is a major portion, if not the majority, of the intuitive elephant. The elephant may not be able to define morality – our sense of right and wrong – in a formulaic way that allows right and wrong or good and bad to be determined by some sort of checklist (like a list of moral foundations), but he knows it when he sees it. Morality is a feeling. It is a sense of self, and of one’s relationship with others, in the true meaning of the word “sense.” It is a way of perceiving, and of inhabiting, one’s physical body and one’s social surroundings.

A liberal can’t just appeal to “authority” as if it were a feature – a box to be checked when shopping for a new widget – and expect conservatives to think, “Oh, well then, he’s one of us, he gets it” and then change their mind. Such an approach, if adopted by liberals, would indeed be an attempt to “co-opt” the binding moral foundations in the worst sense of the word. But this is exactly what Professor Levine’s example of the “authority of scientists” seems to do. It tries to paint, or whitewash, a Hawkeye Pierce façade of “authority” on top of an otherwise three-foundation morality of “care” in the hope that the emergent, greater than the sum of its parts, six-foundation vision won’t see through it. It is more of a cross-group “we’re smarter and more enlightened than you so you must do as we say” elitism, which is the antithesis of the six-foundation morality and its sense of protection of the in-group, than it is any sort of true appreciation of the six-foundation emergent sense of the authority foundation.

Professor Levine’s example of the use of the sanctity foundation is better, but it still doesn’t quite hit the mark, and it therefore still risks coming across as missing the point, and thus violating it, rather than as proof that liberals get it. Sanctity starts with the individual – in our sense of disgust and revulsion toward rotting food – and extends outward from there to our body (a temple to be respected and protected, not a playground to be abused), to our home (e.g., taking off one’s shoes upon entering helps keep it clean and prevent the violation of it by disease), to our family (which, as mentioned above, is the most fundamental, most powerful, in-group of all because it is the bedrock of all human life, which requires, and is impossible without, a man and a woman), to our community (fixing broken windows in a neighborhood, and ticketing minor violations such as fare jumping in subways, lead to reductions in the frequencies of much worse crimes), to our nation (love it, respect it, cherish it, because it IS exceptional, and NOT the equivalent of British or Greek exceptionalism). The connection between clean water and sanctity is part of all that, but only a part of it. The “natural wonders,” not so much.  Which brings into question whether even health-related aspect of the clean water appeal to sanctity is genuine. It is awfully tough to accept a liberal appeal to sanctity when so much of the “no harm, no foul” morality of liberalism results in the direct, blatant, and even sometimes proud violation of practically every one, and more, of the parenthetical illustrations of the sanctity foundation in this paragraph.


One thought on “Why Framing Liberal Positions With Binding Foundations Often Fails

  1. Well said, TIW. Dr. Lakoff preaches a more intelligent version of the same thing. It’s fine to make the points, and to believe that ignoring them is perhaps a fault in conservative opinion, but the manipulation component takes framing too far. We all tend to do this self-serving scheming too much with one another- we like to imply hypocrisy or narrow-mindedness in the opposition, that they have kinks in their values they don’t see. Such ‘re-framing’ is easy and usually wrong and harmful, displaying not just a lack of sense of the subject but also a discounting of real, useful values we should share, at least partially. It also shows we’re not really listening. I like to try to think of important political conflicts as coming down on one side or the other of useful values that are in tension. But that makes it complicated- much easier to imply the other guy’s principles are worse than useless, and mine are all-important. Dumbing it down to grinding away with our own cafeteria picks keeps the arguments clear and keeps our egos fed.

    We like the safety net of food stamps, but what do we do about 42 million people on them- where do we fall on that issue at the moment? Do we concern ourselves overwhelmingly with the real, cascading problems of mass poverty, or with addressing suffering optimally, or do we emphasize the fiscal nightmare, or see personal responsibility dimensions as primary? Then, given our predeliction, how do we address the tensions or synergies between these (preferably with specific policy)? Taking an approach that systematically approaches values from the standpoint of tensions helps normal frames of others stay legitimate- we can acknowledge values more accurately through listening better, while helping emphasize things that push one to act advocating certain values over the other. Keeping an assumption that the tension itself is healthy is powerful. It helps keep critiques better and more specific. And helps us shut up more. It’s amazing how few people can shut the hell up in this game to try to hear an argument anew, or to hear past the argument to fears, or more basic issues that aren’t being stated.

    It is in this spirit that I advocate for conservative principles with liberals. You do it to promulgate what you see as the best viewpoint. This fellow’s shallow manipulations just add layers of liberal bias that you and I are both trying to peel off.


    Posted by jswagner | September 23, 2012, 5:55 pm

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