The Foundations of Morality

There are many lenses through which to view the roots of our political polarization and deteriorating public discourse. In a previous blog, I suggested that Haidt’s six moral foundations (listed below) may provide a useful starting point for discussing ways to work through our collective dysfunction.

  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.

Haidt found that there are distinct differences between the emphasis placed on the different foundations between those who identify as Liberal (or Progressive) vs. Conservative. For those on the left end of the political spectrum, the Care and Fairness foundations play a much more important role than the next three (Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity).

Those on the right, on the other hand, tend to rely on the first five foundations roughly equally. The left, at least politically, seems to be almost ambivalent about the other three. Haidt goes so far as to suggest that Conservatives, by embracing all five of Haidt’s original foundations, have a distinct advantage over Liberals when it comes to politics.

The Liberty/Oppression foundation does not seem to have been well tested by Haidt or other researchers, and almost appears as an afterthought in his book. He does suggest that this foundation seems to have been embraced by those on the left and right, though it is expressed differently. Says Haidt:

This foundation supports the egalitarianism and antiauthoritarianism of the left, as well as the don’t-tread-on-me and give-me-liberty antigovernment anger of libertarians and some conservatives.

Haidt suggests that Libertarians care about the Liberty foundation “almost to the exclusion of all other concerns,” giving it primacy in their politics.

This is not to say that individual Liberals or Conservatives or Libertarians don’t embrace a wide range of the six foundations in a myriad number of ways, particularly outside of their political positions. However, how we come down on various issues in the realm of politics (including who we vote for) tends to align well with the general views of those in our chosen tribe.

For discussion purposes, I’m going to group Haidt’s foundations into three pairs (for now I’ll call them Cornerstones). These Cornerstone groupings are based not so much on the evolutionary/sociological underpinnings of the foundations, but rather around how the foundations are being addressed through our everyday and political discourse.

  1. Individual Cornerstone
  2. Community Cornerstone
  3. Sacrosanct Cornerstone

Individual Cornerstone

I’ll define the Individual Cornerstone to encompass Haidt’s Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating foundations, both of which focus primarily on individual behavior – caring for and protecting others (particularly those who are more vulnerable or less fortunate) from harm and making sure that everyone gets treated fairly.

These two foundations often come into serious conflict, especially when it comes to political matters. One person’s worthy recipient of care is another person’s freeloader. One person’s successful entrepreneur is another’s greedy capitalist.

Community Cornerstone

The Community Cornerstone encompasses Haidt’s Loyalty/Betrayal and Authority/Subversion foundations, both of which focus primarily on intragroup behaviors – maintaining group cohesion and mutually-beneficial relationships to reap the rewards of group cooperation.

Libertarians and Progressives tend to place little emphasis on these foundations as a basis for political discourse. But they very much come into play in the various groups and communities that operate in our lives – businesses, civic groups, churches, and yes, political parties. Many on the right certainly put significant emphasis on them, even in national politics. 

Sacrosanct Cornerstone

Lumping Haidt’s Sanctity/Purity foundation with the Libertarian favorite, Liberty/Oppression, might seem a stretch to some. Let me explain by first noting that I believe Haidt gave an incomplete presentation of his Sacrosanct/Purity foundation by pinning it almost entirely on the omnivore’s dilemma and questions of purity. I believe that the human species has deep within us a transcendent sacred morality – a sense that something beyond our limited ego-selves matters in the universe.

When issues around the Liberty/Oppression foundation are discussed, discourse often seems to have that same flavor. Whether the appeal is to God’s law, natural law, the rule of law, or even to the US Constitution, there is clearly a sacred quality to the discussion. Both foundations encapsulate a desire for moral principles that transcend human frailties. Such principles, we hope, can provide a basis for universal and unquestionable moral positions.

Intergroup Cornerstone

Many reading this blog may say: “Don’t foundations have four cornerstones, not three?”. No metaphor should be taken too far, but to assuage those of you looking for the fourth cornerstone, I shall not disappoint.

Haidt, to his credit, took great care to tie his six moral foundations into ancient human anthropological adaptations. I applaud what he did. But human evolution didn’t end with the advent of agriculture and civilization, though only a mere 10,000 years ago.

With the rise in large civilizations and increasing human populations, competition between groups was inevitable. In the not-to-distant past, our out-of-group moral positions seem to have been anything goes, allowing few qualms about wars of conquest, slavery, and even genocide.

But we now live in an increasingly intertwined and globalized world. International trade is a significant part of most countries’ economies. Cross-border terrorism has not gone away. Nuclear weapons threaten mass annihilation. Mass communication and travel is with us to stay.

And we have a United Nations, the Geneva Conventions, and many cross-border NGOs. Clearly there is an instinct, however flawed, to make embrace intragroup moral behaviors to make our world more peaceful and prosperous.  

How we interact between nations, and even toward members of our own nation that we don’t normally embrace as part of our tribe, requires perhaps some as yet evolved moral foundations. 

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