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How Moral Foundations Theory Leads Us Astray

differ from their major ingredients (the moral foundations of care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and purity/degradation) in the same way cake differs from flour, water, eggs, butter, baking soda, sugar, and salt; They are emergent systems that are greater than the sum of their parts. They are not worlds full of objects, some of which happen to be moral foundations

Emergent conservative intuitions of care and compassion can be understood as the concepts of “Strengthen U” and Antifragile in this lecture by Jonathan Haidt. 

Liberal intuitions of care are illustrated by the concept of “Coddle U.”

Just as the intuition of “fairness” is experienced – felt – differently by left and right(1), so too is the intuition of “care.” 

So here’s the rub:

The emergent liberal intuition of care ALSO just happens to be the definition, or at least the perception, of the moral foundation of care. Two very different phenomena have exactly the same name. 

Quoting from Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion, and changing two words:

“If we want to stage a fair fight between conservative and liberal moralities, we can’t eliminate one by definition before the match begins.”

But that is precisely the case with “care” and “fairness,” and with any suggestion that liberals “care” more or are more compassionate than conservatives.  The emergent intuitions of care and fairness are conflated with the separate ingredients that happen to go by the same names.  And then that conflation is used to eliminate conservative intuitions of care from the fight by definition before the match begins.

This mistake of reasoning seems ubiquitous among left-wing readers and interpreters of Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, and of left wingers generally even if they are not familiar with MFT.

Failure to see or make the distinction between moral foundations and emergent intuitions leads to incorrect analyses and conclusions about our righteous minds and the true nature of the political divide.


(1) from Moral Foundations dot orgThis foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]


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