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Moral Foundations Perform Many Functions but are Insufficient to Fully Describe Morality

I believe that Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory as described in his book The Righteous Mind, in the many academic research papers he’s published, and in talks he’s given, many of which are available online, indicate that Moral Foundations perform many functions. 

1) They are the primary colors of the moral spectrum from which every morality can be comprised,

2) they are the color receptors of each individual’s moral eye – one for each primary color – which evolved in us because the primary colors are…

3) …the necessary ingredients – the tools in the tool kit – of human groupishness (i.e., cooperative society, civilization.)

4) Moral Foundations are evolved pattern recognition modules of (e.g., not unlike the ability to perceive patterns in color blindness charts) of social behavior, circumstances, and situations that correspond with the adaptive challenges and opportunities surrounding human groupishness,…

5) …evolved threat/opportunity detection modules that assess the perceived patterns,…

6) …modules of constant, automatic, subconscious “fast” cognition that can send signals upward into consciousness when a threat/opportunity is detected (i.e., intuition),…

7) …modules of occasional, conscious “slow” reason, with which we justify, defend, and attempt to persuade others that our intuitions are the right ones.

8) Moral Foundations structure the space of our thinking, which means that they define the limits and the extent of:

a. our capability to perceive, understand, and articulate, the social world, and therefore

b. the closed epistemic system that is a moral matrix,

c. the realities in which each of us lives.

9) Moral Foundations are components of fundamental human nature.

Cake or Bread?

All that said, Moral Foundations are NOT the be-all end-all descriptors of morality. 

Morality is an emergent complex system that’s greater than the sum of its parts, of which moral foundations are only a portion.

Moral foundations are to morality as flour, water, sugar, salt, and flavoring are to cake.

But those are also the ingredients of bread. So what’s the difference? How do we make cake not bread, or vice versa?

The answer is that there’s a missing ingredient. If we add eggs we get cake. If we add yeast we get bread.  

In my formulation of morality, eggs and yeast are the two main cognitive styles. The style that’s used makes ALL the difference. Cognitive style is missing from Moral Foundations Theory. Moral Foundations Theory is incomplete without Cognitive Style. For more on this see my Nine Challenges to Moral Foundations Theory.  

Prime Directives

Since moralities are emergent complex systems, it’s better to think of them as Prime Directives than as collections of ingredients. 

If you’re familiar with Star Trek then you’re familiar with the concept of a Prime Directive. It’s a single, overriding, guiding principle that influences, “shapes the path,” as it were, of everything else.

A radio commercial for a local car dealer I must have heard a hundred times after I moved to D.C. in the mid 1980’s contained the line

Once you decide to be the best, all the other decisions are easy.

That’s the role of the prime directive; it’s that single, bright, guide star that makes all the day-to-day decisions of navigating through life easier.

It seems that liberalism and conservatism each has a prime directive and that the prime directives are emergent properties of their respective unique mix of moral foundations and cognitive styles. It is wrong to suggest that liberals “care” more than do conservatives.  They both care, and deeply.  The difference between the two is in what they care about; their prime directives.

The conservative prime directive seems to be moral capital. It’s why things like flag burning and gay marriage and gender-fluid bathrooms feel wrong to conservatives. It’s why conservatives are dumbfounded in their attempts to explain to liberals WHY those things are wrong. There’s no clear victim, other than the world full of relationships that is human society. Social capital is as real as asphalt to conservatives, but seems merely conceptual or ephemeral or ideological, and therefore irrelevant to “evidence” based liberals.

The liberal prime directive seems to be the feeling of empathy, sympathy, compassion, kindness, and heartbreak one feels when one sees or thinks of the suffering of another, AND the strong urge to reach out and soothe, nurture, heal and protect others from suffering. To say that liberalism is a one-foundation morality is, I think, to misrepresent the liberal “moral sentiment” as shallower than it really is. It’s much more all-encompassing and comprehensive than the care foundation alone. It’s all of the different forms of caring for or about an individual – empathy, compassion, sympathy, etc. – rolled into one.


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