Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, and founder of moral foundations theory.
Image by the Miller Center at the University of Virginia via Flickr:

The Righteous Mind: Moral Foundations Theory

Why are good people divided by politics and religion? Why do some people like spicy food while others do not? The answers, it turns out, are related.

In his groundbreaking book, “The Righteous Mind,” Professor Jonathan Haidt attempts to answer the first question by developing a framework that he calls “Moral Foundations Theory.” Haidt argues that humans have six “Moral Foundations” through which we view politics and policy: the Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, Sanctity/Degradation, and Liberty/Oppression foundations.

These moral foundations, according to Haidt, act as our political “taste buds” and explain our political preferences in the same way that our taste buds explain our culinary preferences. Some political ideologies rely on the Care/Harm foundation while others really on Loyalty/Betrayal. Some people taste Fairness in terms of equality while others do so in terms of proportionality. Some people prefer salty food, some prefer sweet.

Haidt, a psychologist, leans heavily on evolutionary psychology to explain the origins of these foundations. I’ll review each, briefly, and discuss the political implications of these moral taste buds. They are also summarized in the table below.

“The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” Haidt 2012

The Care/Harm foundation developed through the protection of children—our ancestors cared for their children and helped them avoid harm because they wished to see their genes passed on to future generations. The Care/Harm foundation is seen in politics today when Liberals put a “Save Darfur” bumper sticker on their car or when Conservatives do the same with a “Wounded Warriors” sticker. These are causes we are interested in because we care about the individuals involved and wish for them to avoid harm. Interestingly, Liberals rely more on the Care/Harm foundation than Conservatives—think of Liberal critiques of “heartless” Conservative policies on healthcare, education, or government spending.

The Fairness/Cheating foundation evolved through self-interest and reciprocal altruism. All organisms are self-interested but once our ancestors could remember past interactions, they could perform altruistic deeds with the expectation of the favor returned. They could also enforce consequences for a violation of such trust. Today, the Left demonstrates the Fairness/Cheating foundation when talking about social justice—think of arguments around economic inequality where Democrats say the wealthy are “not paying their fair share.” The Right shows the Fairness/Cheating foundation when talking about the government taking money from hardworking Americans (through taxes) and giving it to lazy people (welfare and unemployment) and illegal immigrants (via healthcare and education). When Liberals talk about fairness they are generally talking about equality while Conservatives are generally talking about proportionality. Hence, the disconnect, at least in part. Yet again, Liberals rely more on the fairness foundation than Conservatives, but more on that to come.

The Authority/Subversion foundation was also developed in our tribal pasts. In order for the group to survive, a societal ordering had to be established with a leader and followers. In politics today, the Authority and Subversion foundation is directed towards traditions, institutions, and values. It is more natural for Conservatives to rely on this foundation than Liberals who define themselves in opposition to hierarchy, inequality, and power.

The Loyalty/Betrayal foundation was developed through the meeting of adaptive challenges in coalitions. Loyalty to the group, and hence survival, was preferenced evolutionarily. Today, the human predilection for in-group loyalty remains and accounts for a large-part of the political “us versus them” divide today. The Right relies on the Loyalty/Betrayal foundation when framing debates in terms of Nationalism, such as the recent debate about NFL players kneeling for the national anthem. Generally, Conservatives express this foundation more than Liberals.

The Sanctity/Degradation foundation was developed through the adaptive challenges of avoiding pathogens, parasites, and other threats of physical touch or proximity. Judged on a scale neophilia (an attraction to new things) to neophobia (a fear of new things), Liberals score much higher for neophilia (for food, people, music, ideas) than Conservatives, who prefer to stick with what’s tried and true, guarding boundaries and traditions. Social Conservatives particularly rely on the Sanctity/Degradation foundation when talking about the sanctity of life (in the abortion debate), the sanctity of marriage (in the gay rights debate) and the sanctity of the self (in the contraception debate).

Through a later work, Haidt added a six moral foundation: the Liberty/Oppression foundation which, like the Authority/Subversion foundation, evolved from the dynamics of group behavior. The Liberty/Oppression foundation views authority as legitimate only in certain contexts. Both sides flex this foundation frequently. The Left relies on it in critiques of the wealthy, such as Occupy Wall Street, and in favor of who they view as victims and powerless groups. The Right flexes it in a more parochial way, concerned with the specific groups to which they belong. Conservatives say don’t tread on me (to Big Government and high taxes), on my business (through regulations), or my nation (via the United Nations and international treaties).

How, then, do these moral foundations explain why good people disagree on politics and policy? The answer is that Liberals and Conservatives have different palate. Our taste buds are simply not the same. In the chart below, Haidt shows that Liberals rely heavily on Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating while Conservatives rely heavily on all five foundations somewhat equally. (Note that the Liberty/Oppression foundation is not shown in this chart, but was tested in further studies and was found to be expressed equally across ideologies.)

“Liberals and Conservatives Rely on Different Sets of Moral Foundations” by Graham, Haidt, and Nosek 2009

There it is. Clear as daylight. We are talking past each other because of our moral foundations. The Democrats say that attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act show that Conservatives don’t care about low-income Americans while Republicans say that it infringes on their liberties. Democrats say that kneeling for the national anthem is a valid protest against a government that does not treat African Americans fairly while Republicans decry that lack of national loyalty and defend the sanctity of the national anthem. Read the Righteous Mind, and the attendant body of scientific literature, if you are not convinced.

Such is the state of our politics today, but there is hope. Haidt notes that, like taste buds, our moral foundation are “organized in advance of experience,” meaning preformed at birth, but that they are refined through the experiences of our lives.

I never used to like spicy food, as a matter of fact, until I was—and this is true—blindfolded for a taste-test and bit into an extremely spicy pepper while on a trip in Israel. It hurt. I washed my mouth out with cold water for about ten minutes to ease the burn. But after that, nothing felt spicy to me anymore and I actually developed a palate for spice.

I believe the same can be true of our politics. It will require us to try new foods. Even food we end up disliking. But we have to make the effort. Here’s to more spicy peppers.

If you enjoyed this article, you can read more like it here. Or, follow The Righteous Mind here.

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Joe Schuman is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Divided We Fall. He works to set the vision of the organization and to build the team to meet that mission. Joe works as a civilian for the Department of Defense promoting innovation and emerging technology. Joe is also an Officer in the Air National Guard and a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In his spare time he can be found reading non-fiction, playing piano, and running triathlons.


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[…] Jonathan Haidt comes to a similar conclusion, which he expresses differently in his moral foundations theory. Liberals focus more on the individualizing foundations of care and fairness and conservatives focus […]

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