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The Missing Fourth Principle of Moral Psychology

Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, is divided into three sections.  Each section describes one of Haidt’s three principles of moral psychology, which are: 

1) Intuition comes first, strategic reasoning second
2) There’s more to morality than care and fairness
3) Morality binds and blinds

I propose that those three principles of moral psychology in combination with the moral foundations themselves are insufficient to explain all of the empirical evidence Haidt has collected. They don’t explain why conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives, and they don’t explain why conservatives understand human nature better than do liberals. They also don’t explain why historically conservatives have tended to think liberals are good people with bad ideas, whereas liberals tend to think conservatives are bad people.  

I propose that a fourth principle of moral psychology is necessary in order to more completely describe moral perception, thought, and behavior.

The missing fourth principle of moral psychology:
Moral foundations reveal and enlighten

Moral foundations operate like little radars, constantly scanning the social environment for patterns of thoughts and behaviors that represented opportunities and threats to our genetic ancestors.  They’re part of the automatic subconscious monitor and control system of the social animal. They’re the fast-thinking low effort cognitive processes that  help keep the social animal alive and possibly thriving.  They’re evolved psychological mechanisms of social perception and awareness. And through that awareness, therefore, they’re modules of social connection. They’re possibly the posts and beams of the bridge we used to cross the Rubicon to shared intent. This fourth principle of moral psychology, I suggest, is one of those things that’s so obvious, so self evident, that we fail to see it. We’re unaware of it in the way that fish are unaware of water. 

This next idea might be a bridge too far. It’s more speculative. But, I propose that the missing fourth principle of moral psychology might explain, or at least go part of the way toward explaining, why all-foundation thought has a greater tendency to be holistic whereas one, or two, or three-foundation thought tends to be WEIRD. The natural tension between the ethics of autonomy and community exists fully formed within all-foundation moral systems. The simultaneous internalization of these opposing ideas, and the need to balance them, is innate to all-foundation moral systems. These systems MUST be holistic processors. It’s necessary for them, and practically inevitable, in order for them to be able to internalize and sort out and balance the opposing concepts of autonomy and community. This might also explain the better innate appreciation on the part of all-foundation systems of the importance and the fragility of social capital. Autonomy-only moral systems have no need to hold opposing ideas in mind at the same time. There’s no need for them to think holistically, or to see the forest AND the trees, like there is for all-foundation moralities. For autonomy-only moral system, WEIRD thought seems to follow more naturally. It’s the cognitive path of least resistance, so to speak.

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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.

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