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Mizzou Madness, and a Challenge to Moral Foundations Theory

Marty Rochester, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of political science at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, blogged a guest post entitled Mizzou Madness at Heterodox Academy which illustrates how the vindictive protectiveness evident on today’s campuses can be seen as part of a larger pattern of thought that has existed for centuries.

In the spirit of scientific inquiry the authors of Moral Foundations Theory invite challenges – constructive suggestions for improvements – to the theory.  

Rochester’s observations offer a good introduction to a suggestion for improvement I’ve maintained for some time now.

Here’s an excerpt from Rochester’s post:

The same collegians who utter obscenities at university officials and their peers claim a right not to be “offended” or made “uncomfortable” by even the slightest counterpoint to their worldviews, their psyches so fragile as to require “trigger warnings” in advance of any ideas that might deny them a “safe space.” A growing number of commentators, both liberals and conservatives (from Nicholas Kristof to Roger Kimball), have criticized these sophomoric types as “snowflakes,” “Little Robespierres,” and “crybullies.”

Their faculty and administrator enablers have been called worse, and rightly so, for preaching about the importance of “diversity” and then failing to defend those who would dissent from the protestors and dare to contemplate politically incorrect thoughts. Many such leaders are planning to impose a “cultural competency” curriculum, which cannot help but conjure up the ideological reeducation camps administered by Pol Pot in Cambodia and Mao in China.

My Challenge

As great as Moral Foundations Theory is I’m not convinced it is sufficient to explain all of the differences we see between left and right. I suspect that style of thought, like the moral foundations themselves, might be “low hanging fruit” hiding in plain sight that helps us to understand those differences more completely and accurately than is possible through moral foundations alone.  

The pattern of thought described by Rochester has been a consistent element of the leftist righteous mind from 1789 to 1917 to 1933 to today. The phrase “Little Robespierres” nails it. The references to Mao and Pol Pot are not a stretch, they’re wholly consistent.

Words like liberty, equality, justice, and fairness mean different things to left and right.  The left tends to think in terms of positive liberty and see equality, justice, and fairness as outcomes.  The right tends to think in terms of negative liberty and see the other things as process-based.

The means employed by the the left change with the cultural norms of time and place, but from The Terror of the French Revolution to the Vindictive Protectiveness of today’s campus the thought process and its ends always seem to be the same: purge from polite (sic) society those who don’t think the right thoughts.  

Are moral foundations alone sufficient to explain all of these stark differences in moral cognition; in the differences between the way left and right stitch together essentially the same facts and evidence yet arrive at such widely divergent conclusions about the meanings of fundamental concepts, and equally divergent visions of what the social world is, and should be, and how to go about achieving it?    I have to say, I just don’t see it.  It seems to me that Moral Foundations Theory can take us part way there, but not all the way.  There’s something missing.  Some other factor or dimension is necessary in order for us to complete the journey to full understanding.  

My suggestion is that the missing factor or dimension is style of thought; the particular but starkly different ways in which each side connects the dots of facts and evidence.  Could it be that style of thought might be the ingredient, the catalyst, that makes the essential difference between left and right, similar to the way just one ingredient makes the essential difference between bread and cake? Flour, water, and yeast make bread. Flour, water, and eggs make cake. Could different styles of thought, different logical wirings or processes, be the psychological equivalent of yeast and eggs that determines which moral foundations resonate with us, and whether our elephants and riders lean left or right?

I suggest that this is indeed the case, and that Moral Foundations Theory is incomplete with out it.



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