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Nine Challenges to Moral Foundations Theory

In this post I accept the invitation to submit challenges, constructive criticisms, of Moral Foundations Theory that was issues by its authors.  I’ve written about these challenges in other posts.  In this post I summarize them in one place and provide links to the other posts, related essays, and other sources.

[NOTE: This post is a living document.  It originally contained only five challenges and was titled as such.  Three more challenge were added and the post was retitled on 1/29/16.  It was updated again on 2/3/16 to expand and clarify Challenge #8, and again on 4/17/17 to add links to new posts containing more information and reasoning, and to clarify some of the text. The Ninth Challenge was added on 6/17/17, incorporating some ideas into the challenges from previous blog posts. It was updated on 9/17/19 to add links to essays of mine on Quillette Magazine and Areo Magazine that help to elucidate Challenge #4; possibly the most important challenge.]    

Challenge #1 – Missing Foundation: Property, or Owning/Stealing

I submitted this challenge in an email to Haidt several years ago.  I was the second person to do so, but still, it passed muster and earned a mention on the challenges page of the Moral Foundations Theory web site. Here’s the text from my email that made it onto the page, followed by a short comment that I presume was written by Jonathan Haidt: 

“To a conservative, liberty and personal property go hand-in-hand.  Dominion over one’s self includes reaping the rewards, or paying the consequences, of one’s actions.  Whatever I legally accrue is mine, and nobody else’s, to decide what to do with.  I have a right to my own stuff that nobody else can infringe upon.  If the government or any other power can take my stuff then part of who and what I am belongs to the government or the other power instead of to me and therefore I am not truly free.  I understand and accept the necessity of taxes, but only for the purposes of government’s enumerated powers.  Other than that my money is part of my freedom and it is “not yours to give.” The sense of ownership is so strong that I wonder if it might be part of the mind’s initial draft, and therefore a tentative candidate for a sixth moral foundation.   What child does not feel a sense of being wronged if something of theirs is taken away?” [[TIW] is a runner up, in that he submitted this suggestion after Polly Wiessner. He’ll get a free dinner and signed book from Jon Haidt. It turns out [TIW] is right in his claim about children and ownership; and since he wrote these words, several labs have been publishing research showing the fairly early emergence of ownership/possession in children; see especially work by Ori Friedman.]

Challenge #2 – Missing Foundation: Groupthink, or Belonging/Ostracizing

Dr. Haidt recognized this idea too, in a comment to my original blog post, saying: “TIW this is a great post.  I agree that the “need to belong” is clearly innate, and clearly adaptive. To the extent that it contributes in any way to human morality, you could say it is a foundation of human morality.” Haidt then goes on to challenge my idea by listing some of the requirements it must satisfy in order to qualify as a foundation.  I responded to his challenge, also in the comments, in a way that I think adequately addresses his concerns.  Readers should check it out and form their own opinions on whether or not I’m on the right track.

Here’s an excerpt from my original post:   

Isn’t an individual’s desire to be part of the “in” group innate, especially when one considers that it seems to be part of the entire process of growing up? Doesn’t innateness point to foundationhood rather than to an intuition? I mean, Haidt says that intuitions are ideas that emerge into consciousness, but they’re not necessarily innate. Foundations, on the other hand, are innate and they help to shape the intuitions. Doesn’t the desire to be part of the “in” group qualify? Also, wouldn’t being part of the “in” group, as opposed to being a cast-out, ostracized, have helped individuals to survive? Isn’t that, too, one of the requirements for foundationhood; individual survival from the standpoint of natural selection? And finally, doesn’t it seem that the desire’s separateness from morality, yet a potential influence of it, such that it could be a factor in causing the elephant to lean one way or the other, also point to foundationhood? This desire is quite a different thing from in-group loyalty, by the way. It’s not that foundation.  I’m not sure what I’d call it, “inclusion/ostracism” maybe?

The Cultural Cognition Project is dedicated to studying this idea, and may provides a wealth of evidence in support of the notion that it’s a moral foundation. Here’s an excerpt from the introductory paragraph of their web site:

The Cultural Cognition Project is a group of scholars interested in studying how cultural values shape public risk perceptions and related policy beliefs. Cultural cognition refers to the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether global warming is a serious threat; whether the death penalty deters murder; whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to values that define their cultural identities. Project members are using the methods of various disciplines — including social psychology, anthropology, communications, and political science — to chart the impact of this phenomenon and to identify the mechanisms through which it operates.

Challenge #3 – Missing Fourth Principle of Moral Psychology: Moral Foundations Reveal and Enlighten

I propose that Haidt’s three principles of moral psychology do not, and further cannot, by themselves, tell the whole story.   The complete story requires a fourth principle.

Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, is divided into three sections. Each section describes one of Haidt’s three principles:

1) Intuition comes first, strategic reasoning second
2) There’s more to morality than care and fairness
3) Morality binds and blinds

Those three principles do not explain why conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives, why conservatives understand human nature better than do liberals, and why historically conservatives have tended to think liberals are good people with bad ideas, whereas liberals have tended to think conservatives are bad people.

I propose that the following fourth principle of moral psychology is necessary in order to provide a more complete and accurate description of moral perception, understanding, thought, and behavior than is possible with Moral Foundations Theory as it currently stands:

4) Moral Foundations Reveal and Enlighten

Moral foundations operate like little radars, constantly scanning the social environment for patterns of thoughts and behaviors that represented opportunities and threats to our genetic ancestors. They’re part of the automatic subconscious monitor and control system of the social animal (i.e., humans). They’re the fast thinking, low effort, cognitive processes that help keep the social animal alive and possibly thriving.

Moral foundations are evolved psychological mechanisms of social perception and awareness.  The more of them one employs the more in tune with human nature in general and aware of social situations in particular one tends to be.   Through that sort of awareness moral foundations are modules of social connection described by Matthew D. Lieberman in Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.  They’re the bridge we used to cross the Rubicon to shared intent. They’re the tools in the toolbox that make possible the “absolute miracle” of cooperative human society.  The fourth principle of moral psychology, I suggest, is one of those things that’s so obvious, so self evident, that we fail to see it. We’re unaware of it in the way that fish are unaware of water.

With the Fourth Principle of Moral Psychology – Moral Foundations Reveal and Enlighten – Moral Foundations Theory does explain why conservatives understand liberals and human nature better than liberals understand conservatives and human nature.  Without it, I suggest, Moral Foundations Theory is incomplete.

I propose that the missing fourth principle of moral psychology might even explain, or at least go part of the way toward explaining, why all-foundation thought has a greater tendency to be holistic whereas one, or two, or three-foundation thought tends to be WEIRD. The natural tension between the ethics of autonomy (first three foundations) and community (latter three foundations) exists fully formed within all-foundation moral systems. The simultaneous internalization of the opposing ideas of individualizing and binding, and the need to balance them, is innate to all-foundation moral systems. These systems MUST be holistic processors. It’s necessary for them, and practically inevitable, in order for them to be able to internalize and sort out and balance the opposing concepts of autonomy and community. As Sowell describes in A Conflict of Visions, the right has an innate grasp of the idea that “there are no solutions, only tradeoffs.”  This might also explain the better innate appreciation on the part of all-foundation systems of the importance and the fragility of social capital. Autonomy-only moral systems have no need to hold opposing ideas in mind at the same time. There’s no need for them to think holistically, or to see the forest AND the trees, like there is for all-foundation moralities. For autonomy-only moral system, WEIRD thought seems to follow more naturally. It’s the cognitive path of least resistance, so to speak

The Fourth Principle could also help to explain cognitive complexity.

Challenge #4 – Missing Fifth Principle of Moral Psychology: Brain Type Comes First, Intuitions Follow.  Or, Cognitive Style is a Moral Foundation

My original statement of this challenge is intact after the double line below.

My newest statement of this challenge is my essay in Quillete Magazine, Towards a Cognitive Theory of Politics.

This challenge holds that Moral Foundations Theory expresses only one dimension of a two-dimensional phenomenon; the righteous mind. As such moral foundations theory does not, indeed cannot, describe everything we see in the moral, ideological, political realm. This challenge proposes a second dimension, Cognitive Style, which, in combination with Moral Foundations, offers a much more complete understanding of the social animal. 

I’ve used The Cognitive Theory as the basis for analyses and opinions of mine that have been published in Areo Magazine. Those essays help to further elucidate The Cognitive Theory. In reverse chronological order they are:

What The Coddling of the American Mind Fails to Spell Out

The Water We Swim In: A Need To Look at Causes As Well As Effects 

Springtime for Snowflakes: “Social Justice” and Its Postmodern Parentage: A Review

Understanding Human Nature is the Best Way of Fixing Our Political Culture

This graphic from The Water We Swim In helps to illustrate:


Challenge as originally written:

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

This section of this post summarizes the much more detailed essay Cognitive Style is a Moral Foundation.  To be clear, I’m not suggesting that cognitive style meets all of the criteria for foundationhood Dr. Haidt spells out in Moral Foundations Theory: The Pragmatic Validity of Moral Pluralism.  I’m suggesting that it’s part of the low hanging fruit of evolved psychological mechanisms that explain morality.  As Dr. Haidt has said, there are possibly hundreds of aspects of morality.  Moral foundations are some of the most influential, easiest to see, and easiest to describe and define; the low hanging fruit. It is in this sense that I suggest cognitive style is a moral “foundation.” 

Just as there are different physical body types (i.e., ectomorph, endomorph, and mesomorph), so too, I believe, are there different brain types; different configurations of logical wiring that connect the dots of the facts and evidence of the social world in different ways, leading to sometimes starkly different conclusions.  Liberal and conservative, I propose, are not just different combinations of moral foundations, but also are distinctly different logical processors, different operating systems, if you will; different types of brains.

The two main cognitive styles are traced through 2400 years of human history by Arthur Herman in his book The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization, in which Plato and Aristotle serve as metaphors for the two types of thinking.

In short, Plato held that everything in the real world is but a pale imitation of its ideal self.  This goes for individual people, families, communities, governments, trees, birds, bees, swimming pools…everything. It is the job of the enlightened, informed, philosopher to see and understand the ideal, and to help people, communities, etc., constantly strive to realize that ideal.  This style of thought is expressed through John Lennon’s “Imagine,” RFK’s “I dream things that never were and ask why not,” and Obama’s desire to “fundamentally transform” America.

Aristotle agreed that humans should always strive to improve, but human nature has real limits that place hard constraints on what’s possible, and we risk doing more harm than good if we try to shape it into something it cannot be. Rather, we must work within those constraints, and maybe even leverage them to our advantage, as we strive to do better.

The crux of my suggestion about cognitive styles is this:  It is NOT TRUE that Plato and Aristotle invented different epistemic systems. Rather, it IS TRUE that each of them articulated the “organized ahead of experience” algorithmic processes of their own brains. 

Ever since Edmund Burke wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France it has been clear that the patterns and styles of thought of left and right are distinctly different yet remarkably consistent, arguably appearing long before the French Revolution, even as far back as Magna Carta in 1215, and continuing through today.  

The left tends to think in terms of positive liberty, vindictive protectiveness, and social justice.  It tends to think in radical, revolutionary terms; desirous of throwing out existing traditions, customs, and institutions and replacing them with entirely new ones, freshly designed through reason.  This sort of thinking is exemplified by events like the French Revolution of 1789, the Russian Revolution of 1917, the German Revolution of 1933, and campus protests of the 1960s and today.   The phrase “culture of victimhood”  is apropos of this style of thought in all of its manifestations.   Its means and methods change with the cultural norms of time and place, but the thought process that underlies it has remained essentially unchanged.  

The same sort of consistency also exists on the right, but rightist logic leads to an arguably opposite set of conclusions.  The right tends to think in terms of negative liberty and self reliance.  It tends to think in incremental terms; conserving the baby of existing norms while at the same time improving and enhancing the bathwater of social structures where needed.  

Words like equality, justice, and fairness mean different things to left and right as well.   The left tends to see them as outcomes, the right tends to see them as processes.    

The examples I give here represent only the tip of the iceberg.  Several books explore differences like these in much greater detail, including A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles by Thomas Sowell, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left by Yuval Levin,The book Conservatism by Jerry Z. Muller, especially the first chapter, provides a good overview of the rightist style of thought.

Any number of styles of thought could theoretically result from the moral foundations employed by the left and right, similar to the many possible combinations of numbers in a six digit lottery.  But only one style of thought actually does appear consistently on each side.   Are moral foundations alone sufficient to explain that?  Are they all that’s needed for us to understand all of the 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 human nature and the social world are, 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.  It’s a bridge too far.  There’s something missing.  Some other factor or dimension is necessary in order for us to complete the journey to full understanding of our righteous minds.  I think the dimension that’s missing is style of thought; brain type.

See my essay Arguing About the Argument: The Two Cognitive “Apps” Behind the Political Divide

A counter-argument to the one I’m making here might be that since liberalism is weighted most heavily on “care” it’s only natural for liberals to be angry and vindictive when they perceive a lack of it.  Who doesn’t feel at least a touch of anger at the sight of wanton suffering?  But by that logic libertarians, whose moral matrix is weighted almost entirely on the liberty foundation, should have just as big of a chip on their shoulder against the world as do liberals, if not an even bigger one, in response to wanton oppression.  But the opposite seems to be true.  Libertarians as a group seem positively cheerful; they’re “happy warriors” relative to liberals.   The culture of victimhood is unique to liberalism, or maybe more appropriately to progressivism, and does not follow from moral foundations alone.  There’s something else going on.     

I suggest that the something else is cognitive style; brain type. Could it be that style of thought might be the ingredient, the dimension, the catalyst, that makes the essential difference between left and right, and determines their respective moral matrices, 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 the combination of moral foundations resonates with us, and whether our elephants and riders lean left or right?  I suggest that the answer to this question is yes; that style of thought is an, and possibly THE, essential ingredient of our righteous minds, and that Moral Foundations Theory is incomplete with out it.

And speaking of progressivism, here’s a bit of speculation:  Is it a fourth moral matrix, separate from liberalism?  Progressive Social Justice Warriors (SJWs) seem a different breed from run of the mill liberals.  Even many liberals these days are shocked and dismayed by the level of vindictive authoritarianism SJWs exhibit with their crusades against microagressions and cultural appropriation, and their demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces

Challenge #5: Is Fairness/Cheating Really Two Different Foundations Rolled Into One?

Since writing this challenge I’ve expanded the concept, as described in the essay Moral Foundations Have Facets; Are Experienced Differently by Liberals and Conservatives.

Part of the problem we STILL have, even with moral foundations theory, is that we tend to conflate unlike things with each other as if they were one and the same.  I wrote about this in Stop Conflating Ideology with Government.  We treat the ingredients and the cake as if they’re the same thing when they’re not.  Left and right, first and foremost, are psychological profiles defined by moral foundations and cognitive style. Moral intuitions follow from the psychological profiles. Sowell’s visions, or world views, follow from the moral intuitions. Ideologies follow from the visions.  Social policies follow from the ideologies. All of these things are different levels, if you will, of social cognition, sorta like the hierarchy of needs.  They’re different phenomena.  But we think and act and argue as if they’re the same.  That’s a mistake.  We need to tease these out from one another and address each in its own realm.  

Haidt goes through a lot of machinations in The Righteous Mind and elsewhere trying to describe the different interpretations of “fairness.” The fact that he has to do that is a red flag which suggests to me that he has not yet peeled the onion all the way back.  He doesn’t  seem to have this problem with any of the other foundations.  He’s much more confident and direct with them. 

He never does really nail it down. Instead, he says there are two different kinds of fairness; equality and equity, and he lumps them into a single foundation. And then, when he talks about fairness, he often qualifies it, saying “fairness as equality” or “fairness as equity.” If he has to qualify it like that then might it really be two different things? I suggest it is. I call those two things Positive Fairness and Negative Fairness.

There might be valid evolutionary justifications for both. Fairness as equality – Positive Fairness – is an outcome that must be MADE to happen, like forcing the small number of hunters to share the kill when they bring it back to the larger population of the tribe. Fairness as equity – Negative Fairness – is a process that must be ALLOWED to happen, like letting people own – have dominion over – that which they have rightfully earned (ownership: the seventh foundation?). The difference between making and allowing; between outcome and process; is huge.  It is the essential difference between the two. Further, it is the same difference which exists between the concepts of positive liberty and negative liberty, between social justice and justice, and between social equality and equality under the law. In every case the former is an outcome that must be made to happen, and the latter is a process which must be allowed to happen.

I’m not the first to talk about the idea of positive and negative justice, or fairness.  I first learned of it in an article written by Walter Williams in a commentary on World Net Daily titled Poker Justice. I wrote about it in more depth in another post called Liberty, Equality, Justice, and Fairness Mean Different Things in Different Moral Matrices.  A brief summary of my interpretation of this idea goes something like this:  Imagine a weekly poker game I play in and lose every time because everybody else is much better at it than I am.  The concept of negative fairness would mean that as long as all the rules are followed and nobody cheated then the game is fair.  There’s one set of laws that applies, and is applied, to all people.  The concept of positive fairness would mean that since I am so badly overmatched the game is inherently unfair to me.  Some amount of adjustment of the laws may be required for some types of people in order to ensure a greater probablity of a positive outcome, though not necessarily a guaranteed one, for everyone.

Is it possible that the fairness/cheating foundation is actually two foundations rolled into one that should be separated?

Challenge #6: Are Loyalty and Authority Correctly Named? 

I wonder if Loyalty and Authority are the right words for those foundations.  They seem to be perceived by some, mostly on the left, as external demands placed on the individual by others; as oppressions.  But that’s not how they feel to me, and I presume others on the right.  To me they’re internal emotions or intuitions I feel toward other people.  They’re forms of respect, gratitude, allegiance, even love.  They’re intuitions of “I’ve got your back,” or ‘I owe you one” that I feel toward other people who do the same for me.  I wonder if other words like “respect” or “allegiance” might be more descriptively accurate and also more acceptable to the left.     

Challenge #7: Is the Liberty Foundation Really two Foundations Rolled Into One? And is “Equality” a Foundation? 

I’ve put the two very different concepts of Liberty and Equality into one challenge for a reason.  This is related to Challenge #3, the Missing Ingredient of Style of Thought. I’ve written previously about how liberty, equality, fairness, and justice mean different things in different moral matrices.    It could be that style of thought, cognitive wiring, is what leads to the very different connotations of those concepts.  The common thread that runs through both sets of meanings of those words are the competing concepts of “positive” vs. “negative” versions of each.  For example, positive liberty is “freedom to,” and negative liberty is “freedom from.”  Similarly, I would describe positive fairness as the idea of relatively equal outcomes, and negative fairness as being more process-based; one set of rules that applies, and is applied, the same to everyone. 

But  what if that’s not the case?  What if there’s more too it than just style of thought?

I’ve wonder if positive and negative versions of such things might actually be entirely different foundations.  If memory serves, I recall somewhere in Haidt’s work coming across the idea that liberalism is a social construct produced by philosophers, whereas the fact that moral foundations are innate products of natural selection suggests that an all-foundation moral matrix is the human default.  And so there’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem with this particular challenge, and at any rate it can be difficult to tease moral foundations from styles of thought from personality traits from social constructs from traditions, customs, institutions, from cultures, etc. .  

That said, here’s my point; The compulsion toward equality of outcome is so exceedingly strong in human nature that I can’t help but think that there’s another moral foundation buried somewhere in there.  Practically every leftist ideology, past or present, has been built at least partly on some manifestation of the general concept of equality of outcome, or, for lack of a better phrase, equality of quality of life.  It seems to me that that compulsion is more than just a social construct dreamed up in the minds of philosophers.  It seems to me that there’s some innate, possibly naturally selected instinctual need, for people to feel that they’re not falling behind everyone else, and for people to make sure that everyone has about the same level of comfort and safety in their lives.  The very notion, even the thought, that some people might be better off than others seems to be anathema to large numbers of people.   

So, rather than moral matrices leading to different interpretations, different meanings, of concepts like liberty, equality, fairness, and justice, is it possible that the competing concepts of “positive” and “negative” versions those things evidence of another moral foundation?  

Challenge #8:  Missing or Incorrect Conclusion – Flatland/Spaceland, not Yin/Yang  

With the utmost respect to Dr. Haidt, I think he unlocked the door to a truer and deeper understanding of liberalism, conservatism, and the dynamic between them, but failed to walk through it.  His data and the message it presents are clear, but he just couldn’t bring himself to say it.  At least not publicly.

In this challenge I walk through that door to present a brand new theory of our righteous minds that I believe Haidt’s data inevitably leads to.  As I’ve written before, This Explains, And Changes, Everything. I explain it in greater depth in How Moral Foundations Affect Partisan Divisiveness.

I realize this challenge may offend some sensibilities. But my position is that if we’re going to rely on data, evidence, and critical thinking, and if we’re going to follow the evidence wherever it leads, then we’re obligated to rely on all of the evidence, and follow it all the way to the end. As Jonathan Rauch points out in Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, Expanded Edition, practically every great idea in human history started out “offending” the status quo.  If we’re not free to “call it like it is,” or if we’re not free to present what we see as possible alternative explanations for things that others maybe have not yet thought of, then all our noble talk about pursuing truth, being evidence-based, and using solid reasoning, is mere pretense; it’s lip service and nothing more.  

This theory is a game changer similar to that of The Argumentative Theory of Reason.  The argumentative theory posits that the biggest flaw of human reason was our assumption about what it’s for.  For the longest time we assumed that the human capability to reason was shaped by natural selection to help us make better decisions and find truth.  That assumption made all of the myriad biases and other supposed flaws that are built-in to reason near impossible to understand.  How could evolution have gotten such an important thing so wrong?  Well, according to The Argumentative Theory, it didn’t.  As it turns out, it appears that reason is nearly perfect at doing what it was “designed” by evolution to do, which is to help us persuade other people to see things our way.  It’s not reason that’s flawed, it’s our assumption as to its evolved purpose.  And that false assumption prevented us from a truer, deeper, understanding of it.  The real purpose of reason is captured in this quote from Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Change by Jonah Goldberg:

What Hitler got from Italian Fascism – and as indicated above from the French and Russian revolutions – was the importance of having an idea that would arouse the masses. The particular content of the idea was decidedly secondary. The ultimate utility of ideas is not their intrinsic truth but the extent to which they make a desired action possible. (p.55)

Haidt’s work shows that the exact same sort of problem – that of a false assumption – plagues our understanding of the differences between liberalism and conservatism and of the dynamic between them.  And that false assumption is causing us to try all sorts of misguided solutions (like No Labels, and The Asteroids Club) in trying to ameliorate the rancor between the two sides.

Our assumption that liberalism and conservatism are like Yin and Yang, or like Shiva and Vishnu, as Haidt claimed in his 2008 TED Talk (an idea that has not appeared in his more recent talks available online), or like a tug-of-war in two dimensions (e.g., between a penchant for change and a penchant for stability on an otherwise level field), is as wrong as our assumption that reason is for finding truth.   The correct assumption is that they are more like Flatland and Spaceland (see below), or like the color blind and the fully sighted. Here’s the problem in one image:

I think Dr. Haidt’s presentation style may be a little too deft for his own good.  Or, I should probably say, for the good of his theory.  If we actually ARE going to make it all the way to the end of the story of our righteous minds then, I submit, one way or another, we’re going to have to talk about the elephant in the room.

This challenge is part of my thesis.  Here’s how I described it in a comment I made to a blog post at HeterodoxAcademy.org:

I think a (fatal?) flaw in a great deal (practically all?) of the reasoning about the differences between liberalism and conservatism is the tendency to see it as an either/or situation.

I think Moral Foundations Theory shows this to be a false assumption, and that the correct way to think of it is either/AND.

The first three foundations are “individualizing,” corresponding to Shweder’s ethic of autonomy. The latter three are “binding,” and correspond with his ethics of community and divinity.

There’s no liberal foundation or ethic that’s not also a conservative foundation or ethic, but half the conservative foundations and ethics are external to liberal morality. (I know there are grey areas and some overlap here, but I trust you get my point. The graphs in Haidt’s book and presentations tell a pretty clear story.)

Inherent to conservatism is the simultaneous holding of the opposing concepts of individualizing and binding, and the inherent appreciation of the need to balance the two.

Liberalism has no such inherent internal holding of opposing concepts, nor an inherent sense of a need to balance them. It’s all individualizing all the time. It’s all bees and no hive. In fact, it’s damn the hive. As Haidt describes in “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.

In order to truly understand conservatism and liberalism each in their own right (including ideas about cognitive complexity), and the relationship between them as well, we MUST let go of the idea that the two are locked in some sort of Dr. Doolittle-esque Pushmepullyou Yin/Yang style tug of war, and realize that if Moral Foundations Theory teaches us anything it is that the two are more like Flatland/Spaceland as Haidt describes it in The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom

One day, the square is visited by a sphere from a three-dimensional world called Spaceland. When a sphere visits Flatland, however, all that is visible to Flatlanders is the part of the sphere that lies in their plain-in other words, a circle. The square is astonished that the circle is able to grow or shrink at will (by rising or sinking into the plane of Flatland) and even to disappear and reappear in a different place (by leaving the plane, and then reentering it). The sphere tries to explain the concept of the third dimension to the two-dimensional square, but the square, though skilled at two-dimensional geometry, doesn’t get it. He cannot understand what it means to have thickness in addition to height and breadth, nor can he understand that the circle came from up above him, where “up” does not mean from the north. The sphere presents analogies and geometrical demonstrations of how to move from one dimension to two, and then from two to three, but the square still finds the idea of moving “up” out of the plane of Flatland ridiculous.

Once we “cross the Rubicon” from perceiving the situation as Yin/Yang to perceiving it as Flatland/Spaceland (as Haidt’s data suggests), SO MUCH suddenly becomes clear. (Similar to the way the supposed “flaws” of reason suddenly make sense when we let go of the assumption that its purpose is to find truth and make better decisions and replace that assumption with the more scientifically supportable concept that its purpose is to help us win arguments.)

If we listen carefully and honestly to the conservative response to liberal appeals to “care” what we hear is “Yes. We agree. Care is important, indeed vital. But the necessary ingredients of a healthy happy prosperous life are so much more than JUST “care,” all these other foundations and ethics are ALSO important.” As Haidt said in his original TED talk, the “absolute miracle” of human cooperative society requires “all the tools in the toolbox.” THAT is the view from Spaceland.

But the liberal Flatlanders just don’t see it, or get it. To them, morality starts AND ENDS with care, and so, practically by definition, it is self-evident to them, that anyone who disagrees with them does NOT care, and anyone who does not care is just “mean.”

R. R. Reno summed up the situation succinctly when he referred to liberals as Our One Eyed Friends in his review of The Righteous Mind in the magazine First Things

Thus the profound problem we face. Liberalism is blind in one eye yet it insists on the superiority of its vision and its supreme right to rule. It cannot see half the things a governing philosophy must see, and claims that those who see both halves are thereby unqualified to govern.

This does not mean that conservatives are off the hook.  They too have a lot to learn, about themselves and about people who think differently from they way they do.  But the notion that left and right are like Yin and Yang is refuted by the evidence, and it prevents a truer and deeper understanding of our righteous minds, the nature of the political divide, and the reasons for the rancor that flows back and forth across it. 

Challenge #9 – The Prime Directives of Liberalism and Conservatism; Moral/Social Capital is a Moral Foundation

Link to a related blog post: Moral Foundations Have Facets; Are Experienced Differently by Liberals and Conservatives

Ideologies, world views, moral matrices – Narratives – Narratives are social facts. They 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 or sacred values.

Moral intuitions arise from them AS WELL AS from moral foundations.  If we look only at moral foundations then we miss some important aspects of “why good people are divided by politics and religion.”


The narrative of a group represents the collective consciousness, the consensual hallucination, of the group.  It explains the groups perception of the social world; how it operates, and the place within it the members of the group occupy.  It is through our narratives that we situate ourselves withing the social universe.  

Intuitions, behaviors, relationships, attitudes, and traits that emerge from narratives are called “structural effects.”  Structural effects include intuitions about civil rights, justice, equality, fairness, kindness, and even the role and purpose of government. The positive or negative intuitions of like or dislike, approach or avoid, and fight or flee, we feel in response to the things we see in the social world around us come primarily from our narratives, not from moral foundations.

When people are moved to exercise their right to assemble or their right to protest or even in extreme cases to give their lives for others, it is almost always in the name of a narrative rather than in the name of this or that moral foundation or sacred value..   

Narratives, not moral foundations, are the primary motivators of most political thought and action.

Narratives are essentially a set of fundamental truths – unquestioned assumptions about human nature and human social action – that “everybody knows.”  They are conventional wisdom, or common sense, stitched together into a story.  In this way narratives define what’s real and not real in the minds of their believers. Narratives literally define reality.  There are as many realities as there are narratives. This is what is often meant when people say that reality, or truth, is impossible to truly know. 

The Prime Directives of Liberalism and Conservatism

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 easy.

It seems that liberalism and conservatism each has a prime directive, and that the prime directives are emergent properties of a their respective unique mix of moral foundations and cognitive style.

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 conservative are dumbfounded in their attempts to explain to liberals WHY hose things are wrong. There’s no clear victim, other than theworld 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, and heartbreak one feels when one sees or thinks of the suffering of another, AND the strong urge to reach out and sooth, 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.


Moral Foundations Theory is the best, most complete, description of our righteous minds and the partisan divide that has been offered to date.  It resonates so well with so many people from so many different backgrounds that one tends to think it almost has to be right.

But with that said, it does not, and cannot, describe all of the differences we see between left and right in the real world.  I propose that the challenges I’ve offered here, or something like them, are missing from the theory and should be added to it in order for it to tell the complete story

As a scientist Haidt is very open about the possibility that Moral Foundations Theory should be tested, and might need to be refined, explaining in September of 2010, that:  

We’ve got to be very, very cautious about bias. I believe that morality has to be understood as a largely tribal phenomenon, at least in its origins. By its very nature, morality binds us into groups, in order to compete with other groups

And as I said before, nearly all of us doing this work are secular Liberals. And that means that we’re at very high risk of misunderstanding those moralities that are not our own. If we were judges working on a case, we’d pretty much all have to recuse ourselves. But we’re not going to do that, so we’ve got to just be extra careful to seek out critical views, to study moralities that aren’t our own, to consider, to empathize, to think about them as possibly coherent systems of beliefs and values that could be related to coherent, and even humane, human ways of living and flourishing.

So, that’s my presentation. That’s what I think the moral sciences should look like in the 21st century. Of course, I’ve created this presentation using my reasoning skills, and I know that my reasoning is designed only to help me find evidence to support this view. So, I thank you for all the help you’re about to give me in overcoming my confirmation bias, by pointing out all the contradictory evidence that I missed.

This conservative offers “critical views,” and submits these five challenges as possible additional or contradictory evidence and reasoning that Moral Foundations Theory might have missed.

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I Support Viewpoint Diversity


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.

An Interpretation of Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory

This sidebar lists a series of posts which together make up an essay relating Moral Foundations Theory to today's politics, and even a little history, as viewed through The Independent Whig's six-foundation moral lens.


Venn Diagram of Liberal and Conservative Traits and Moral Foundations and

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