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Moral Foundations Have Facets; Are Experienced Differently by Liberals and Conservatives

The moral foundation of care feels different, conjures different emotions, and maybe even carries different meanings, depending on whether you’re on the political left or right.  The meanings could be so different that it might actually be two separate foundations. Or, if not separate foundations, at least separate facets of the parent foundation. The same might be true for other foundations.

Facets are the sub-parts within, or the variations of, a single broad trait. For example, each of the Big Five personality traits has six facets, as follows:

  1. Neuroticism: anxiety, hostility, depression, self-consciousness, impulsiveness, vulnerability
  2. Extraversion: warmth, gregariousness, assertiveness, activity, excitement-seeking, positive emotions
  3. Openness: fantasy, aesthetics, feelings, actions, ideas, values
  4. Agreeableness: trust, straightforwardness, altruism, compliance, modesty, tender-mindedness
  5. Conscientiousness: competence, order, dutifulness, achievement striving, self-discipline, deliberation.

I think moral foundations might ALSO have facets, and by NOT recognizing this we make it harder on ourselves to understand the differences between liberals and conservatives.

In a previous essay I pointed out how words like liberty, equality, justice, and fairness evoke different, even mutually exclusive, concepts in different moral matrices. In this essay I suggest that moral intuitions are experienced or felt differently too. The flashes of affect of like/dislike, approach/avoid, and fight/flee that liberals and conservatives feel in response to the things we see around us are qualitatively different. Just as there are two stories about capitalism, so too might there be two stories about care, fairness, liberty, etc.

If this is true then it may help to explain some of the hyper-partisan rancor we see in the world these days. Even with the greater understanding of ourselves afforded to us by Moral Foundations Theory (book here, much of the supporting evidence, here),  we’re STILL talking past each other and we don’t know it.

The types of moral transgressions that enrage liberals seem to be of a different quality from the ones that enrage conservatives. Liberals seem to experience negative feelings in response to things that are visible, obvious, immediate, and measurable, whereas conservatives seem to be upset by things that are more existential, conceptual, and long term. For example, liberals seem to be upset by procedural maneuverings by Republicans in congress or by apparent numerical or statistical incongruities within the population. Conservatives, on the other hand, seem to be more upset by what they perceive as affronts to their sense of social capital, societal cohesion, community, interconnectedness.

Mind you, I’m NOT talking about principles or tenets of liberalism and conservatism. I’m talking about subconscious intuitions, feelings, social senses, flashes of affect. Principles come later; they follow from the social senses.

Moralities are emergent complex 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.  Moralities differ from their major ingredients (the moral foundations of care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and purity/degradation) the way cake differs from flour, water, eggs, butter, baking soda, sugar, and salt.

The first principle of moral psychology is “intuition comes first, strategic reasoning second.” The feelings we experience in reaction to things we see in the social word arise instantly and automatically from our subconscious minds. Only later, after the fact, do we use conscious reason to explain and defend those feelings, and to persuade others that our own feelings are the right ones. In the social and moral realm, reason is, and can only ever be, a post-hoc rationalization of feelings already felt, and decisions already made.

Intuitions arise from many different subconscious psychological mechanisms that evolved in the human brain as we became The Social Animal. In the search for those mechanisms some of the most influential are the moral foundations. These have been called the “low hanging fruit” of moral psychology. Moralities around the world differ in the degree to which they prioritize each of the foundations.

The point I’m making in this essay is that intuitions arise not only from moral foundations, but ALSO from the moralities themselves; from the cake as well as from the ingredients. By any name, the overall worldview, or vision, or consensual hallucination, or closed epistemic system that is a morality or an ideology, is, in and of itself, a moral foundation, or a sacred value, that causes in us a negative flash of affect when we feel it is threatened, just like when we feel a moral foundation is violated.

I think the reason for this is that moral foundations interact with one another and influence each other similar to the way the ingredients of cake combine to create something wholly different from themselves. A kind of chemical reaction happens among the moral foundations that transforms each of them into something different from what they are in their raw form. Every moral foundation is under the influence, so to speak, of all the others.

In this essay I’m concentrating on the moral foundation of care, but the same general concept applies to all of the other foundations as well. Two quick examples: For liberals the liberty foundation tends to be conceived of as positive liberty, or “freedom to,” whereas for conservatives liberty tends to be felt as negative liberty, or “freedom from.” The fairness foundation, for liberals, tends toward equality of outcome, but for conservatives it tends toward two other distinct facets; equality under the law – rather than being outcome-based is it process-based – AND equity, where reward is commensurate with contribution.

The moral foundation of care/harm is manifested differently, and feels different to the individual who experiences it, when its major influences are fairness and liberty as compared to when its influences ALSO include loyalty, authority, and purity. I wrote about the different manifestations of care nearly five years ago in my essay “Do Liberals Really ‘Care’ more?”. In short the liberal intuition of care seems to lean more toward “give a man a fish,” whereas the conservative intuition of care seems to lean more toward “teach a man to fish.” Liberal intuitions of care seem more aligned with the concept of “Coddle U” in this lecture by Jonathan Haidt, and conservative intuitions of care seem to lean more toward the concepts of “Strengthen U” and Antifragile. The liberal intuition seems to rest in a faith in the self, as in “I am able, I will provide for the less able.” The conservative intuition seems to rest in a faith in the other person, as in “He is able, I will help him learn to provide for himself.” The liberal intuition is results-based, the conservative intuition is activity or process-based.

The trait of “care” is broad, and includes facets or sub traits like empathy, sympathy, and compassion. Each of these facets of care is distinctly different from the others. What’s more, some of these facets have facets of their own, as discussed in this excerpt from Empathic Perspectives;

When you break down the different types of Empaths, what you will usually find is that there are two types of Empaths, or two levels of empathy. These are the Cognitive Empath (cognitive level) and the Emotional Empath (emotional level). Some people tend to polarize toward one type, while avoiding the other, but to be an effective Empath, and one who is truly balanced at that, one must learn to cultivate both in balance. So lets look at each of these types of Empaths in a little more depth.

Empathy is the capability to share your feelings and understand another’s emotion and feelings. It is often characterized as the ability to “put oneself into another’s shoes,” or in some way experience what the other person is feeling. Empathy does not necessarily imply compassion, sympathy, or empathic concern because this capacity can be present in context of compassionate or cruel behavior.

Emotional Empathy occurs when you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious. This kind of Empathy makes someone well-attuned to another person’s inner emotional world.

Cognitive Empathy is having a consciousness of the need to imaginatively put oneself in the place of others in order to genuinely understand them, which requires the consciousness of our egocentric tendency to identify truth with our immediate perceptions of long-standing thought or belief.

Intuitions of loyalty, authority, and purity are experienced by conservatives as internal feelings of respect, affection, admiration, reverence, honor, and even love, toward the people, institutions, customs, traditions, and symbols that make cooperative society possible; and for the collected wisdom of all who came before, upon whose metaphorical shoulders we ALL stand; and for the sacrifices they made and the work they did that made possible the relatively higher quality of life, liberty, safety, comforts, and conveniences we now enjoy. This feeling, sense, awareness, of the debt we owe to those who came before us, and of the lessons their experiences teach us, is the social capital that conservatives seek to conserve. In its most extreme form this feeling conservatives have for others is expressed by the following sentiment:

Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

That love, that care for and about others, is manifested by conservatives through the binding foundations. Is it any wonder that conservatives care so much for the American flag, and become so upset when they see it desecrated? It is the defilement and desecration of a loved one. No less.

But liberals, since the binding foundations are essentially absent from their moral matrix, tend to see them as external demands imposed upon some people by other people, as described in this excerpt from page 334 of The Righteous Mind :

When I speak to liberal audiences about the three “binding” foundations – Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity – I find that many in the audience don’t just fail to resonate; they actively reject these concerns as immoral. Loyalty to a group shrinks the moral circle; it is the basis of racism and exclusion, they say. Authority is oppression. Sanctity is religious mumbo-jumbo whose only function is to suppress female sexuality and justify homophobia.

This liberal perspective about conservatives displays a stunning lack, a near absence, of both kinds of empathy. Liberals display toward conservatives neither the “ability to feel physically along with the other person,” nor the ability “to imaginatively put oneself in the place of others in order to genuinely understand them.”

While it may be true that liberals score higher than conservatives on one or more of the facets of the broad moral foundation of care, empathy is clearly not one of them. Liberals, in fact, are LESS empathic than conservatives, as Haidt’s studies and findings here, here, here, and here illustrate. It is misleading and disingenuous to assert that liberals “care” more than conservatives do.

In Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion Haidt says:

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

But that, it seems, is precisely what the current definition of the moral foundation of care does. It eliminates the conservative manifestations of care by definition, and then uses that restrictive definition to assert, falsely in my view, that liberals “care” more than conservatives. This assertion just happens to support the oft-heard liberal viewpoint that conservatives are heartless and mean.

Moral Foundations Theory is on the right track.  It is a great leap forward in our understanding of ourselves.  But it still has a long way to go before it tells the whole truth about liberals and conservatives.



  1. Pingback: Nine Challenges to Moral Foundations Theory | The Independent Whig - September 17, 2019

  2. Pingback: Eight Challenges to Moral Foundations Theory | The Independent Whig - April 17, 2017

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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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