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New And Improved Moral Foundations?


NOTE, November 12, 2012:

Isabel Penraeth writes a blog called Gemeinscaft Girl: Notes on a Human Tribe.

She wrote an absolutely fabulous piece called Parsing “Care” as a Moral Verb which I believe makes a claim similar to my claim here, with one very important difference;  She’s way better at this than I am.

Isabel writes as I wish I could, if only my writing skill and time available were up to the task.  I don’t know how she does it. I am humbled.

Specifically, I think my idea about Positive and Negative fairness in this post agrees in principle with Isabel’s idea of Activists and Mechanists.   Her idea is much more fully developed than mine.  Isabel then takes the discussion to the next level by introducing  ideas about who activists and mechanists seek to protect, namely, the downtrodden and the broken.  She then brings it all home through  real world examples which she believes illustrate those differences.  Among those examples is an exchange between Jonathan Haidt and Chris Hedges.

I almost want to delete my own post and replace it with a link to hers, and the words “What She Said.”  To Isabel…applause.


Haidt goes through a lot of machinations in The Righteous Mind and elsewhere trying to describe the different  interpretations of “fairness.” The fact that he has to do that is a red flag which suggests to me that he has not yet found the real root of the issue.  He doesn’t  seem to have this problem with any of the other foundations.  He’s much more confident with them.

He never does really nail it down. Instead, he says there are two different kinds of fairness; equality and equity, and he lumps them into a single foundation. And then, when he talks about fairness, he often qualifies it, saying “fairness as equality” and “fairness as equity.” If he has to qualify it like that then might it really be two different things? I suggest it is. I call those two things Positive Fairness and Negative Fairness.

There might be valid evolutionary justifications for both. Fairness as equality – Positive Fairness – is an outcome that must be MADE to happen, like forcing the small number of hunters to share the kill when they bring it back to the larger population of the tribe. Fairness as equity – Negative Fairness – is a process that must be ALLOWED to happen, like letting people own – have dominion over – that which they have rightfully earned (ownership: the seventh foundation?)*. The difference between making and allowing; between outcome and process; is huge.  It is the essential difference between the two. Further, it is the same difference which exists between the concepts of positive liberty and negative liberty, between social justice and justice, and between social equality and equality under the law. In every case the former is an outcome that must be made to happen, and the latter is a process which must be allowed to happen.

I’m not the first to talk about the idea of positive and negative justice, or fairness.  I first learned of it in an article written by Walter Williams in a commentary on World Net Daily titled Poker Justice. I wrote about it in more depth in another post called Liberty, Equality, Justice, and Fairness Mean Different Things in Different Moral Matrices.  A brief summary of my interpretation of this idea goes something like this:  Imagine a weekly poker game I play in and lose every time because everybody else is much better at it than I am.  The concept of negative fairness would mean that as long as all the rules are followed and nobody cheated then the game is fair.  There’s one set of laws that applies, and is applied, to all people.  The concept of positive fairness would mean that since I am so badly overmatched the game is inherently unfair to me.  Some amount of adjustment of the laws may be required for some types of people in order to ensure a greater probablity of a positive outcome, though not necessarily a guaranteed one, for everyone.

All I’m suggesting here is the broadening of this concept to all ALL the different permutations of the understanding of fairness, including justice, liberty, and equality.

Based on that broadening, I suggest that splitting fairness into two separate foundations in the following way might help to un-muddy the waters and relieve Haidt from having to caveat what he is talking about every time he mentions the Moral Foundation of fairness:

1) Positive fairness, meaning social equality (increased probability of a positive outcome, as in the poker game analogy), positive liberty, and social justice as outcomes that must be made to happen, and

2) Negative fairness, meaning equity, equality under the law, negative liberty, and justice as processes that must be allowed to happen.


*  I think Ownership is yet another foundation. According to one of Haidt’s web sites, MoralFoundations.org, that one has already been suggested. I agree with the suggestion, with the following clarification. The concept of Ownership should include some sort of requirement that it be legitimate, rightful, or justifiable, through it having been earned.


3 thoughts on “New And Improved Moral Foundations?

  1. Wow, thanks. I am still contemplating thy thinking on positive and negative fairness and plan to reply more fully once my ideas have, um, coalesced. It is interesting stuff. 🙂


    Posted by Isabel Penraeth | November 13, 2012, 6:58 pm


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