you're reading...
Reason and Experience, The Partisan Divide, The Political Divide

What Moral Foundations Really Are, and How They Help Us To Diagnose and Treat The Political Divide

1) Moral foundations are evolved psychological mechanisms of moral and social perception. They are senses. Each moral foundation provides its possessor with a predisposition to perceive the particular aspect of human behavior that is associated with that foundation. The metaphor I like to use is this: Moral foundations are to moral and social perception as the light sensitive cells on the retina of the eye are to visual perception. The light sensitive cells are called rods and cones. Roughly speaking, rods perceive in black and white, and cones perceive color. Our brains interpret the signals sent to them by the rods and cones. In my metaphor individualizing foundations are the rods of human moral and social perception, and the binding foundations are the cones. Moral foundations are the receptors of the moral and social eye.

2) Moral foundations are evolved psychological mechanisms of automatic cognition. They are the source of our instantaneous intuitive reactions to like or dislike, approach or avoid, and fight or flee that which the moral and social eye perceives. They cause our elephants to lean to the left or to the right. Intuition is cognition. Moral foundations are the cognitive tools of the intuitive elephant.

3) Moral foundations are evolved psychological mechanisms of controlled cognition. They are the building blocks we use to create the post hoc rationales with which we defend our intuitions and attempt to persuade others that our intuitions are the right ones. Moral foundations are the cognitive tools of the rational rider whose chief purpose is to act as the elephant’s press secretary.

4) Moral foundations are some of the “evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self interest and make cooperative societies possible.” Moral foundations, along with other mechanisms, are essential to the “greatest miracle” of humanity; our ability to band together into large non-kin groups and create ultra-social civilizations. Moral foundations are part of what makes humans human.

In sum, moral foundations are evolved psychological mechanisms through which we perceive, intuit, and reason about the world of social interaction; what it is, and what it should be. They delineate the dimensions of our moral and social vision in every sense of that word, and they are essential to human cooperation and sociality. Moral foundations are fundamental elements of human nature.

Conservative and Liberal Cognitive “Wiring”

The more foundations the brain is wired to accept and interpret, the more of the world of human social interaction its elephant will be able to intuitively grasp, and the more its rider will be able to consciously describe and defend.

The conservative brain interprets the signals it receives from the rods (the receptors that sense the individualizing foundations) and the cones (the receptors that sense the binding foundations) roughly equally. Conservatives perceive, intuit, and reason with all the foundations; they see the full spectrum of human moral and social behavior.

The liberal brain is wired to heavily favor the signals it receives from the rods, and often to reject the signals it receives from the cones. Liberals perceive, intuit, and reason almost exclusively with only the individualizing foundations; they see only about half of the spectrum of human morality and sociality.

This dichotomy of wiring explains why conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives. There is no part of liberalism that is not also part of conservatism, but at least half, and probably more, of conservatism is beyond the reach of liberal perception, intuition, and reason.

It also describes why conservatives understand human nature better than liberals do. The moral foundations are part of that nature. The more of them the brain is wired to interpret, the more likely one is to “get” what being human is all about, and the more likely one will account for human nature when creating, or voting for, public policy.

The dichotomy of wiring also explains why conservatives tend toward placing their faith in the practical knowledge of experience and liberals tend toward placing their faith in the technical knowledge of reason. That is, conservatives tend to think more like intuitionists, and liberals tend to think more like rationalists, as explained here, here, here, and here.

Other Evolved Mechanisms

Another evolved psychological mechanism is reason. For hundreds of years it was thought that reason is fraught with flaws. It was assumed that reason evolved to help us make better decisions, and to find truth. Yet study after study showed that reason is prone to all sorts of biases, and that humans, when considered individually, are terrible at using reason to find truth. How can this be so? It can be so because the original assumption about the purpose of reason is the thing that is flawed, not reason itself. It is now believed by many social scientists who study reason that it evolved not to find truth, but to win arguments. With this new assumption everything else falls into place; all the biases, all the perceived “flaws” of reason make perfect sense. They’re not flaws at all, they’re features; features that help the rider do a better job of acting as press secretary on behalf of the elephant. Far from being flawed, reason is superb at doing what it was designed to do, persuading and winning arguments, and the built-in biases are some of its best attributes.

A third evolved psychological mechanism is groupishness. Humans are social animals. We depend on each other for our survival and for our well being. We evolved to form into groups of interdependent individuals. Evolution favored attributes in individuals that helped the groups they belonged to outcompete other groups. Among these attributes are the binding foundations. In particular we tend to be loyal to the groups we belong to, and we tend to rise to their defense – sometimes blindly – when they are challenged.

A fourth evolved psychological mechanism is the hypersensitive agency detector. From an evolutionary standpoint, animals, including humans, tend to react to phenomena they don’t immediately understand as if that phenomena resulted from the action(s) of another animal or being. If we hear the crack of a branch in the forest we instinctively and automatically turn to see if someone or something is there. The capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power is called “agency.” (Merriam-Webster).  If you think about it, it makes sense that evolution would design us to suspect agency behind everything we don’t immediately understand. It is much safer, and better for our longevity, if we assume agency first and ask questions later. It has been theorized that this is how religiosity evolved. Agency could explain thunder and lighting, rain and drought, good and bad harvests and hunting expeditions, and even karma. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to understand how agency might have become gods and religion. And in turn, how respecting, honoring, and worshipping gods and common values helped people to cooperate and form more cohesive, longer lasting groups, which in turn were better at outcompeting other groups.

Rationalists tend to not believe in gods or religion. They tend to believe that anything and everything, even consciousness, even social facts like human groupishness, can be explained by science; by chemistry and physics; and by biology. (An overview of this, and a controversy surrounding it is here.)

Since half the moral foundations are external and thus generally unavailable to the liberal brain’s capabilities of perception, intuition, and reasoning; and since liberal thought thus tends toward secular rationalism and away from intuitionism and religiosity, it naturally and inevitably follows that some liberals and rationalists tend to ascribe what they don’t understand about non-liberal or non-rationalist moralities or ideologies to some flaw, some shortcoming, some mental, psychological, or emotional dysfunction. They see this dysfunction as a virus, as a disease, as an external agent, which makes otherwise “normal” people sick, and which therefore must be erased from society (see here). They have names for this form of agency. They call it “conservatism,” or “religion” or “extremism.” The “agency” of conservatism and religion serve the same purpose today for many liberals and rationalists that the agency of gods once served; it explains what otherwise cannot be explained; it offers an understanding of what otherwise cannot be understood. In today’s culture, to many people, conservatism and religion are the new “agency.”

Diagnosis of the Political Divide

All people are equally subject to the evolved psychological mechanisms mentioned here; the “flaws” of reason, the tendency to divide into and stick up for groups, and the tendency to ascribe what we do not understand to some form of agency. Since we are all equal in this regard it is unlikely that those things are the wedge that creates the political divide. Those things probably contribute to the divide, they are the hammer that drives the wedge deeper, but they are not the wedge itself. Since they are common to everyone in equal measure they do not, they cannot, describe the essential, fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives.

Only moral foundations can do that.
The chief cause of the political divide is that the perceptive, intuitive, and rational capabilities of the “binding” moral foundations are essentially absent from the perception, subconscious cognition (intuition), and conscious cognition (reason) of the liberal righteous mind. As R. R. Reno said, liberalism “cannot see half the things a governing philosophy must see, and claims that those who see both halves are thereby unqualified to govern.” And, as Andrew G. Biggs said, “Liberals don’t know what they don’t know; they don’t understand how limited their knowledge of conservative values is.”  The same goes for the liberal knowledge of human nature.

Misleading Metaphors

The metaphor of moral foundations as taste buds and moralities as cuisines is therefore an incorrect characterization of the psychological underpinnings of what’s really going on across the political divide. The metaphor implies that morality is a matter of taste or of preference, little different from preferences in food, music, art, or books. The implication of the metaphor is that no moral preference or cuisine is better or worse than another; that instead they’re equivalent, just different. The metaphor might be true if liberalism and conservatism both used the same foundations in equal amounts, regardless of whether they used all of them or some of them, and simply came to different conclusions about what’s best. But as Haidt’s data shows, that’s not what’s happening.

The metaphor of Yin/Yang equivalence between liberalism and conservatism is a similar mischaracterization. It too implies relative equality between the two moralities, granting, as it does, equal amounts of insight to both sides.

Haidt claims that he’s not a moral relativist, and a careful reading of The Righteous Mind shows this to be true. But the metaphors he uses to describe morality are unfortunate because they imply the opposite. Further, they belie his own findings and conclusions, not the least of which are that conservatives understand liberals and human nature better than liberals understand conservatives and human nature. The political divide is not a two-way street that runs equally in both directions, yet Haidt’s metaphors imply that it is.

 Haidt's Findings and Metaphors Suggest Different Things

The Asteroids Club

Haidt compounded this error by forming The Asteroids Club, the motto of which is “I’ll help you deflect your asteroid if you help me deflect mine,” where asteroids are some of the big issues – like climate change, rising inequality, entitlement spending, and the breakdown of the family – that concern liberals and conservatives. The idea behind The Asteroids Club is that common threats like 9/11 or the Boston Marathon bombings tend to make people forget their partisan-ness and come together as one. As he describes it in The Righteous Mind, common threats like those “flip the hive switch.” It’s a nice idea, but it seems naïve. It seems to put too much faith in the hive switch, which is just one of many findings about human nature Haidt describes in The Righteous Mind, and at the same time it ignores the rest of the findings, not the least of which is the human tendency to circle the wagons around sacred values. There are a lot of sacred values embedded in those asteroids.

The Asteroids Club also seems to ignore the fact that in many cases the partisan contention over the asteroids has less to do with the threats themselves and more to do with the perceived causes and therefore the recommended solutions for them, all of which very quickly come right back to moral foundations and the differences between the way liberals and conservatives perceive, intuit, and reason about the world. Club meetings might start out great, especially if they begin with a viewing of one of Haidt’s lectures about how common threats create common ground. But, like the secular communes of the 1960s that Richard Sosis studied and Haidt described in The Righteous Mind, I strongly suspect that, when it comes time to decide the best way to deflect the asteroid the group will fall apart. The dichotomy between the liberal and conservative perceptions, intuitions, and reasoning will come to the fore and the discussion will devolve along the usual partisan lines. It’s awfully tough to overcome a few hundred thousand years of evolution of righteous minds simply because it seems like the right thing to.

Haidt has mentioned the “mountain of evidence” about the “failure of efforts” to teach “debiasing” and “critical thinking.” (See here.)  The evidence shows, for example, that ethics courses don’t improve ethical behavior. And yet, The Asteroids Club seems to be an attempt to do exactly that sort of thing; to teach “getting along” with the expectation, counter to all evidence, that it will actually happen. The blog page of The Asteroids Club contains quotes from famous people saying things like “My goal is to get people to have discussions about things about which they disagree in a civil way,” and “Acknowledging that what others believe is as sacred to them as what we believe is sacred to us is essential to getting past the gridlock.” If there’s a mountain of evidence showing that efforts to “debias” or to teach ethics don’t work then it’s a bit baffling why Haidt thinks The Asteroids Club will work.

A final point about the Asteroids Club; its motto suggests moral relativism similar to the way the metaphors of taste buds and Yin/Yang do. It forces the three-foundation morality and the all-foundation morality onto the same playing field, and just as the metaphors do, it suggests that moralities are equivalent but different; that they are equal but opposite viewpoints about the social world. But we know, from Haidt’s own research and findings, that that’s not the case. That’s just not what’s going on, psychologically or morally, across the political divide.

A More Complete Treatment Plan

In medicine, proper treatment depends upon proper diagnosis. The same is true of the political divide. Diagnosing the political divide through metaphors of equivalence between the two sides and treating the divide with remedies such as The Asteroids Club is a bit like diagnosing a bullet wound as a surface blemish and treating it with a band-aid. It addresses the visible part of the injury but it does nothing to repair the internal damage, even though it’s the internal damage that does the real harm.  I would not suggest that The Asteroids Club should be disbanded.  In spite of my criticisms of it, Haidt’s lectures about it and his invitations for people to join are good things because they introduce moral foundations and they get people thinking.

But if there is to be any hope of reducing demonization and shrinking the political divide then we need to do more than just patch the surface, we must also attempt to repair the internal damage.  

If moral foundations really are evolved psychological mechanisms then they have been in play throughout all of recorded human history. I believe that the phenomenon of the righteous mind has been a factor in every moment of every turn of events, even before the existence of concepts such as liberalism and conservatism. Moral foundations are apparent in ancient Rome, in the The Glorious Revolution in England and in the Magna Carta; in the writings of the philosophes of the French Revolution and in the opposition to it by Edmund Burke; in the ideas of David Hume and of John Locke; of Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman; and in the founding of America. Moral foundations are apparent in the bedtime stories we read to our preschoolers, and in the required reading of their English classes throughout their educational careers. Moral foundations factor in to what they learn in practically every class they take, from history to civics to economics, and even to “health” class, or any class that attempts to help them understand human nature and why it can be difficult to get along.

Elephants can’t be persuaded but they can be trained. That means there’s bad news and good news. The bad news is that it is highly unlikely that the liberal elephant can be persuaded to see, intuit, and reason with all the foundations by something as simple as a metaphor or The Asteroids Club. The good news is that if it is exposed to all the foundations in an intellectually honest way throughout its growth and maturation then it can learn the benefits and costs associated with each, it can assimilate the foundations into its intuitions and its reasoning, and it can accommodate them and account for them when it is called upon to make, or vote on, public policy. The same is true of conservative elephants, which tend to react to the incessant violations of its sacred values by the liberal elephant (see here) by circling the wagons around those values so tightly that it can lose sight of the benefits of the “individualizing” foundations, and of the balance between individualizing and binding which is the hallmark of conservatism. (see here, here,  and here

My recommendation for reducing demonization and shrinking the political divide, therefore, is to include an age-appropriate module on Moral Foundations in every social studies, history, government, economics, and health class in every public school in the country. Practically every subject in our public education system could include a module which explicitly identifies and reinforces the ideas of The Righteous Mind and shows how those ideas are brought to bear on that subject; even, or possibly especially, “Health” classes, where our kids might be taught how moral foundations can sometimes make it difficult to see eye to eye, and how understanding where others are “coming from” can help them to get past that problem. For example, in every class the module could review the moral foundations, and the students could be asked to write an essay in which they identify which foundations are in play in stories (in English) or in events (in history) or in theories (in economics), or in social interactions (in health) and how the foundations might have influenced the ideas and behaviors of the participants or the outcomes.

I’m not saying we need to make people more conservative, or that we even can, or that if we could we should. I think the basic human struggle between autonomy and community, or between individualizing and binding, will always exist; it too is a part of human nature. In fact, I think it is the fundamental problem that all societies attempt to solve. “Genes make brains,” and our genetic makeup is a key determinant of whether we’re liberal or conservative. Nature has seen to it that those two basic predispositions are a natural part of the human condition (possibly as a result of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft.) I don’t see the existence of liberal and conservative cognitive “wirings” as a “problem” that needs to be “fixed.” What I am saying is that we could give ourselves a better chance of finding the proper balance between individualizing and binding if we had a more realistic perception of it, and if we were all mindful of both sides of it, instead of looking at it with only half of our naturally selected capacities as so many of us apparently do.

What I am saying is that I think if, as a culture, we had a better appreciation of what really makes us tick (moral foundations), and why (natural selection), and how they help us to pull off the “greatest miracle” of creating cooperative societies (all six foundations in equal balance, or “all the tools in the tool box”), and why getting along can be difficult (circling the wagons around sacred values) then the result would be better public policies that are more in tune with fundamental human nature.

We cannot possibly expect future generations to get along unless and until we “change the path” in a way that gives them a truer grasp of why getting along can be so hard to do.


2 thoughts on “What Moral Foundations Really Are, and How They Help Us To Diagnose and Treat The Political Divide

  1. I continue to be impressed by your respectful treatment of Haidt–his brilliant research and the contradictions of his own arguments. Thank you for your thoughtful and intelligent treatment of this controversial, frustrating and important subject!


    Posted by Susan Quinn | May 26, 2013, 11:58 am

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: