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Conventional Wisdom, Foundations, The Moral Foundations

Are Moral Foundations Named Incorrectly, Leading to Misunderstanding?

I’m just thinking out loud here, but based on reactions to Moral Foundations from many liberals I can’t help but wonder sometimes if all of the foundations are properly named. I think Haidt’s choice of words for some of the foundations may be unfortunate because they’re potentially off-putting to liberals when they needn’t be. They’re loaded words that carry unnecessary and unfortunate baggage that thwarts a complete understanding of what the foundations really are.

In order to fully grasp moral foundations it seems to me that the most important thing to remember is that they are intuitions that are felt internally by individuals rather than external demands or restrictions placed upon individuals by others.   


Often the liberal response to this is “Loyalty to who or what?” It’s asked as a challenge, or a defiance, of the concept of loyalty, as if to say “You’re not the boss of me!” I think liberals tend to see it as an external constraint placed on the person; a commandment: Thou shalt be loyal. And/or they see it as blind, unthinking faith; an unquestioning lemming-like following of those who must be followed.

But that’s not at all how this intuition feels to me. Not even close. In fact it feels the opposite. For me it’s an internal feeling that projects outward toward other people. It’s a form or a method or a conduit of connection with other people. My reply to the liberal response would be “Is there no one toward whom you feel “I’ve got your back”? It’s trust, really. It’s allegiance. It’s camaraderie among co-equals. It’s reciprocity, in a way. It’s being the one set of footprints in the sand when another person needs to be carried, as a way to recognize and affirm that they were there for you when you needed to be carried, and to bond with them through that mutual support. It’s a feeling of affection. It’s a feeling from the inside of a person, projected outward toward other people, institutions, traditions, customs, alma maters, old school chums, old neighborhoods. It’s friendship. In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion Haidt describes it as follows (p., 163):

The Loyalty/betrayal foundation is just a part of our innate preparation for meeting the adaptive challenge of forming cohesive coalitions.The original trigger for the Loyalty foundation is anything that tells you who is a team player and who is a traitor, particularly when your team is fighting with other teams. But because we love tribalism so much, we seek. out ways to form groups and teams that can compete just for the fun of competing.Much of the psychology of sports is about expanding the current triggers of the Loyalty foundation so that people can have the pleasures of binding themselves together to pursue harmless trophies.

The love of loyal. teammates is matched by a corresponding hatred of traitors, who are usually considered to be far worse than enemies. The Koran, for example, is full of warnings about the duplicity of out-group members, particularly Jews, yet the Koran does not command Muslims to kill Jews. Far worse than a Jew is an apostate–a Muslim who has betrayed or. simply abandoned the faith. The Koran commands Muslims to kill apostates, and Allah himself promises that he “shall certainly roast them at a Fire; as often as their skins are wholly burned, We shall give them in exchange other skins, that they may taste the chastisement. Surely God is All-mighty, All-wise.”‘s Similarly, in The Inferno, Dante reserves the innermost circle of hell -and the most excruciating suffering-for the crime of treachery. Far worse than lust, gluttony, violence, or even heresy is the betrayal of one’s family, team, or nation.

Given such strong links to love and hate, is it any wonder that the Loyalty foundation plays an important role in politics?

Love and hate are internal emotions that are felt toward other people.  They’re not external constructs that are placed on people by others.  The Loyalty foundation is about camaraderie and affection.  The last thing it is is a rule or a restraint or a constraint that is placed upon him by external forces.  


The same sort of problems exist with this foundation as with the Loyalty foundation but with additional nuance.  Liberals tend to see this as an external demand placed on the person, rather than as an internal intuition that a person feels toward another person, institution, etc. And since it is an external demand it is practically by definition oppressive.  But again, that’s not what the Authority foundation feels like to me.  To me it’s an internal feeling of respect that projects outward toward others.  It’s also an innate understanding that in order to exist and to function a community must have some sense of order.  The Authority foundation is a two-way street.  It does include an element of externally imposed rules, but those rules include a symbiotic relationship between those who occupy different rungs on a community’s hierarchical ladder. Haidt’s description of it seems to express the same idea: 

When I began graduate school I subscribed to the common liberal belief that hierarchy = power = exploitation = evil. But when I began to work with Alan Fiske, I discovered that I was wrong. Fiske’s theory of the four basic kinds of social relationships includes one called ‘~uthority Ranking.” Drawing on his own fieldwork in Mrica, Fiske showed that people who relate to each other in this way have mutual expectations that are more like those of a parent and child than those of a dictator and fearful underlings:

In Authority Ranking, people have asymmetric positions in a linear hierarchy in which subordinates defer, respect, and (perhaps) obey, while superiors take precedence and take pastoral responsibility for subordinates. Examples are military hierarchies . . . ancestor worship ([including] offerings of filial piety’ and expectations of protection and enforcement of norms), [and] monotheistic religious moralities … Authority Ranking relationships are based on perceptions oflegitimate asymmetries, not coercive power; they are not inherently exploitative.32

The Authority foundation, as I describe it, is borrowed directly from Fiske. It is more complex than the other foundations because its modules must look in two directions-up toward superiors and down toward subordinates. These modules work together to help individuals meet the adaptive challenge of forging beneficial relationships within hierarchies. We are the descendants of the individuals who were best able to play the game—to rise in status while cultivating the protection of superiors and the allegiance of subordinates.33

The original triggers of some of these modules include patterns of appearance and behavior that indicate higher versus lower rank. Like chimpanzees, people track and remember who is above whom.34 When people within a hierarchical order act in ways that negate or subvert that order, we feel it instantly, even if we ourselves have not been directly harmed. If authority is in part about protecting order and fending off chaos, then everyone has a stake in supporting the existing order and in holding people accountable for fulfilling the obligations of their station.35

The current triggers of the Authority/subversion foundation, therefore, include anything that is construed as an act of obedience, disobedience, respect, disrespect, submission, or rebellion, with regard to authorities perceived to be legitimate. Current triggers also include acts that are seen to subvert the traditions, institutions, or values that are perceived to provide stability. As with the Loyalty foundation, it is much easier for the political right to build on this foundation than it is for the left, which often defines itself in part by its opposition to hierarchy, inequality, and power. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, pp 167-168.

The Authority foundation is about mutual respect.  It’s an innate appreciation for social order, and an inherent realization that society is impossible without it.  

“Binding” Foundations

Even binding is an unfortunate word. It too implies forces external to a person that are placed upon him; like being handcuffed or being tied up with a rope. But again, that’s not how those foundations feel to me. That’s not the intuitive flash I get from them. The feeling I get is that of connecting; of empathy. Conservatism, and more broadly the latter three foundations, are about establishing mutual connections with other people.  It’s about the conduits and pathways through which we relate and identify with one another. I think binding is an unfortunate word choice that mischaracterizes what’s really going on rather than communicates it accurately.


Moral foundations first and foremost, I believe, are intuitions felt by a person toward other people.  Loyalty is a form of affection.  Authority is a form of respect.  Binding is social connection and affinity.  From these descriptions I think you might be able to see why I think it’s wrong to characterize conservatism as resistance to change. And it is more correct to characterize it as respect for the types of things I’ve talked about here, and corollaries to them like social capital, and the intuitive understanding that it’s hard to create and easy to destroy. I think this offers a more accurate understanding of William F. Buckley’s famous quote “A Conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’ ” Conservatism, rightly understood, is respect for, not resistance to.



  1. Pingback: Five Challenges to Moral Foundations Theory | The Independent Whig - January 29, 2016

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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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