Morality and Politics

This past fall I read Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. It’s a very interesting read that I highly recommend, concerning a field of study called moral psychology.

Though the book ultimately examines the differences in the moral matrix of Republican vs Democratic (and to a lesser extent Libertarian) voters, Haidt also presents several very interesting and important insights into the psychological, sociological, and even anthropological underpinnings of our sense of morality.

Haidt reported findings that validated much of what I already believed about morality and its relationship to politics. In the next few blogs I plan to explore what Haidt’s insights might suggest as to how we should engage with each other politically, but also how we might better address changing public policy.

The current state of political discourse in the US seems to be exceedingly fraught with a disgustingly elevated state of rancor and polarization. Perhaps a better understanding of both the commonality as well as diversity of our different moral matrixes might help us interact with each other in more productive ways. By finding better ways to work through our differences, maybe we can better cultivate the just, mutually-beneficial, and harmonious communities that we wish for ourselves, our families, and our fellow citizens.

Our moral sense has developed over the ages to enable successful interactions with each other in large cooperative groups, tribes, and nations – without the glue of kinship that governed our ancestral hunter-gatherer groups. Though morality is taught to us (i.e., by parents, schools, and religions), our morality also includes behaviors that we modify over our lives as we interact in various relationships and communities.

Moral questions are those that address behaviors that one judges as good vs evil, right vs wrong, or simply proper vs improper. We should thus not wonder why morality and politics are, and in fact should be, considered together. There are clearly some moral issues (e.g., murder and theft) that are for practical purpose universal. But those of us who live in large diverse populations interact with others who have deeply-held moral positions that must be considered, discussed, negotiated, and compromised to provide just and harmonious communities. Separating moral issues from social conventions should be an important aspect of this endeavor.

Modern political struggles, particularly in large Western nations, are in large part driven by the diversity of the moral codes of its citizens. There is no doubt that what many of us expect and want government to do springs first from our individual moral compasses. 

Though the US has historically been more open to diverse moral codes than much of the rest of the world, we now seem to be increasingly sorting ourselves into morally congruent communities – geographically, socially, and politically. If we’re going to break down the barriers to understanding that we seem to be erecting between ourselves and others, it’s imperative that we better recognize and respect points of view that are different from our own. 

First, some important insights from Haidt’s book:

Insight #1: Though we often believe otherwise, our moral positions spring very quickly from an intuitive feeling response, typically one of disgust or disrespect. Our moral sense of whether something is right or wrong starts in our gut. In most cases, we simply know in our heart-of-hearts whether something is right or wrong.

Insight #2: Moral reasoning, the conscious rationales for our moral positions, almost always post-dates the initial intuitive response. It should be no surprise to those following politics, how much reason is a post-hoc response to support and justify a position rather than to develop one. You may think you’ve come to your position rationally, but most of the time, you’ve simply used your rational thinking mind to defend a position you already know is right. Though rationally defending our positions is a good thing, we should also recognize the dangers of group-think and confirmation bias.

Insight #3: When we do manage a change in our moral position (that is a change in our moral intuition), it is almost always via personal interactions or through emotionally compelling stories. People very seldom make such changes without some sort of personal interaction that compels them to consider a change in heart. Battles of the moral reasoning wits just don’t work.

Think about these insights – or better yet, read about the psychological studies that support Haidt’s observations.

Haidt likens our moral intuition as a kind of elephant, a very smart elephant but nonetheless a beast driven by instinct. Moral reasoning, on the other hand, is the elephant’s driver, able to guide the elephant but not control him. Moral judgment is almost always the elephant’s call. Haidt makes a compelling case that the rider evolved to serve the elephant, not the other way around.

Our moral matrices came into being as a means of binding people together, first in hunter-gatherer groups and then into larger settlements and civilizations beginning with the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution 10,000 years ago. The human evolutionary response to the various (sometimes hostile) environments we came to occupy on the earth was an ever-present ability to get along in inclusive and trustworthy groups. Haidt points out that among all species, “Human beings are the world champions of cooperation beyond kinship…”.

Though our moral matrices are built-in to our fundamental human nature, by built-in, Haidt means organized in advance of experience. That is, cultural evolution and personal experiences cause our moral matrices to be expressed in different ways. Haidt suggests, however, that our fundamental moral matrix is made up of five moral foundations, with a sixth that he added almost as an afterthought, but which deserves further consideration in a future blog.

  1. Care/harm: cherishing and protecting others from harm. Stemming from the adaptive challenge of caring for vulnerable children.
  2. Fairness/cheating: rendering justice according to shared rules. Stemming from the challenge of groups reaping rewards of cooperation without getting exploited.
  3. Loyalty/betrayal: standing with your group, family, tribe, or nation. Stemming from the challenge of forming and maintaining coalitions, as well as intragroup cohesion.
  4. Authority/subversion: submitting to tradition and legitimate authority. Stemming from the challenge of forming beneficial relationships within social hierarchies.
  5. Sanctity/purity: abhorrence of disgusting foods and actions. Stemming from the omnivore’s dilemma requiring a varied but safe diet.
  6. Liberty/oppression: freedom from coercion by a dominating power. Stemming from the challenge of living in groups with individuals who would unwantedly dominate others.

Each of us brings our own personal spins (both cultural and personal) on each of these foundations. We’re bound to have different interpretations as to how these principles should be reflected in our own as wells as others’ behaviors. But we also have different perspectives on the relative importance of each of the six different moral foundations, and how to resolve the inevitable moral conflicts.  

In the next several blogs, I’ll further explore the relevancy of Haidt’s moral foundations on our politics. Maybe this discussion will spawn a few to-do lists.

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