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Liberalism & Conservatism, Uncategorized

The Hole in Moral Foundations Theory and a Speculation On How To Fix It

Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) does not explain everything it purports to explain, i.e., the workings of our righteous minds.  I suggest that in order to be a complete theory it must.

In this essay I describe what I think MFT does not explain, and I speculate on what’s missing from it such that it might.

The speculation takes the form of a triptych: three separate thoughts that don’t necessarily follow from one to the next, but nonetheless work together to tell a complete story.

Introduction:  What MFT Misses

Considered in the abstract, the moral foundations of care, fairness, and liberty could produce a wide variety of styles of thought.  But only one style of thought correlates with that combination of foundations, that of liberalism.     That’s a statistically impossible result.

Further, that combination alone does not explain why “Some people are naturally inclined to see every transaction as a swindle, every contract as a form of exploitation, every tradition as a superstition.” (1)  It does not explain the liberal compulsion for collectivist, redistributionist social structures.  It does not explain the conception of fairness, equality, and justice as outcomes (as opposed to processes.)  It does not explain, and could in fact be construed to vehemently oppose, the notion that such things should be forcibly imposed by the state through threat of violence; violence that, because it comes from the state, is thought to be legitimate.  (Think that’s an exaggeration?  Refuse to pay your parking tickets, or your taxes (the medium through which  the above concepts are achieved) and see if men in state uniforms wearing state badges and carrying state sanctioned weapons don’t knock on your door.)

The moral foundations of care, fairness, and liberty are insufficient to explain all of these things.  As they say down east, you can’t get there from here.  There must be, has to be, something else going on.

Triptych Part I:

Flour + water + sugar + yeast = bread.

Flour + water + sugar + eggs = cake.

The moral foundations are the flour, water, and sugar.

The liberal and conservative styles of thought are the yeast and the eggs.

The liberal and conservative moralities are the bread and the cake.

I propose that the idea that a particular style of thought results from a particular combination of moral foundations puts the cart before the horse.  I propose instead that style of thought is a separate ingredient in and of itself.  And more than that, it’s not just an ingredient, it’s the ingredient that makes all the difference.  Yeast causes a chemical reaction that’s entirely different from that of eggs.  Style of thought is the ingredient that makes the difference between bread and cake.  It’s a selector, a filter, that either screens out or includes the foundations of loyalty, authority, and sanctity.  It’s the psychological discriminator between liberalism and conservatism.

Style of thought is the Y chromosome of morality.  It’s what’s missing from MFT that helps to explain what MFT cannot explain by itself.

Triptych Part 2:

If evolution created six psychological mechanisms to help The Social Animal survive and thrive then it makes sense that local conditions in the various climates, geographies, and social circumstances around the world and across time would cause variations in the degree to which each of the six is applied.   There are many examples in nature of variations within a species; birds with different plumages for example, like ducks.

It does not make sense that fifteen percent of the world’s population would reject three of them.(2)  That would be nature’s equivalent of owls not using their eyesight, dogs not using their sense of smell, or bats not using their hearing.   That kind of thing does happen but it’s relatively rare.  There are birds that don’t fly, for example, like the steamer duck.  But there are usually special circumstances that cause that sort of thing.

MFT begs a HUGE question that I suggest it has to answer if it is to be complete:

Why does liberalism exist?  What explains the steamer duck of morality?  Why would a small subset of the social animal species abandon half the evolved psychological mechanisms upon which it depends for its survival?  Why would it abandon half the instincts that millions of years of evolution gave to it; instincts that make it what it is?

One possible explanation, already at hand, jumps immediately to the front of the pack of contenders:  Fast evolution.

Could that be it?  Could the liberal righteous mind be an evolutionary branch?  Is liberalism an adaptation?  If so then what caused it?  What were the adaptive pressures that selected for a three-foundation morality?

I proposed some possibilities in posts called Gemeinschaft and Geselleschaft, Why Does Liberalism Exist, and indirectly in Is Groupthink Evidence of Another Moral Foundation?

But those proposals are beside the point of the current discussion, which is this: Liberalism is an adaptation, and a side track, an anomaly, from the main thread of human evolution.  If not then what is it?

Triptych Part 3:

If morality is part outside the mind stuff and part inside the mind stuff (3) then what’s the inside the mind stuff?

The foundations can’t be ALL of the inside the mind stuff because they alone don’t explain liberalism.  Something else is going on.  Something is selecting which foundations will be used, and to what extent; reacting to half of them with disgust, and trying to banish them.  What’s that something?   What evolved psychological mechanism, cognitive module, mental switch, gene, or whatever, filters out or suppresses some of the other evolved psychological mechanisms?  What psychological mechanism works like an immune system bent on banishing other mechanisms?

Let’s give that mechanism a name.  Let’s call it M.   Is M morality, rightly understood?   Is M the hive switch; the ten percent bee in all of us?  Is liberalism an adaptation in which the hive switch fails to activate, such that it can’t be flipped?

Isn’t the outside the mind stuff, even traditions, customs, institutions, and the rest, a social construct?  I understand and agree that psyche and the culture make each other up, but isn’t that just a feedback loop?  Isn’t culture a social construct that shapes behaviors, and aren’t behaviors the external patterns that are detected by the little radars of social awareness we call moral foundations?   And when the radars are triggered don’t they send signals to M which then processes the signals to create the output we know as morality (the “like-o-meter”? (4))  From the psychological perspective of inside the mind stuff, is M – style of thought – one of the evolved psychological mechanisms that help to create moral systems?


(1) If You’re For The Little Guy, You Should Be A Conservative, by Danl Hannan

(2) Study: American Liberals and Conservatives Think as if From Different Cultures, by Fariss Samarrai

(3) Haidt’s definition of morality:

Not surprisingly, my approach starts with Durkheim, who said: “What is moral is everything that is a source of solidarity, everything that forces man to … regulate his actions by something other than … his own egoism. ” As a sociologist, Durkheim focused on social facts-things that exist outside of any individual mind-which constrain the egoism of individuals. Examples of such social facts include religions, families, laws, and the shared networks of meaning that I have called moral matrices. Because I’m a psychologist, I’m going to insist that we include inside-the-mind stuff too, such as the moral emotions, the inner lawyer (or press secretary), the six moral foundations, the hive switch, and all the other evolved psychological mechanisms I’ve described in this book. My definition puts these two sets of puzzle pieces together to define moral systems:

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible. (p. 314, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion)

(4) The “Like-O-Meter,: From The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, by Jonathan Haidt, pp 25-27: :

The most important words in the elephant’s language are “like” and “dislike,” or “approach” and “withdraw.” Even the simplest animal must make decisions at every moment: Left or right? Go or stop? Eat or don’t eat? Animals with brains complex enough to have emotions make these decisions effortlessly and automatically by having what is sometimes called a “like-o-meter” running in their heads at all times. If a monkey tasting a new fruit feels a sweet sensation, its like-o-meter registers “I like it”; the monkey feels pleasure and bites right in. If the taste is bitter, a flash of displeasure discourages further eating. There’s no need for a weighing of pros and cons, or for a reasoning system. Just flashes of pleasure and displeasure.

We humans have a like-o-meter too, and it’s always running. Its influence is subtle, but careful experiments show that you have a like-dislike reaction to everything you are experiencing, even if you’re not aware of the experience.



  1. Pingback: Mizzou Madness, and a Challenge to Moral Foundations Theory | The Independent Whig - January 26, 2016

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