Thursday, April 14, 2016

Jonathan Haidt and Moral Foundations Theory

It's not often that you happen upon a book which reframes the entire way you think about humanity and large complex societies; a book with new paradigms for thinking about religion, politics and psychology.

When that book is beautifully-written and a real page turner you have this:

'The Righteous Mind' by Jonathan Haidt introduces Moral Foundations Theory - six dimensions on which our relationships with our fellow human beings and our environment can be classified. Emily Ekins and Jonathan Haidt explain the basics.
"We'd like to add another psychological tool to the toolbox: Moral Foundations Theory. One of us (Haidt) developed the theory in the early 2000s, with several other social psychologists, in order to study moral differences across cultures. Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) draws on anthropology and on evolutionary biology to identify the universal "taste buds" of the moral sense, while at the same time explaining how every society creates its own unique morality.

"Think of it like this: Evolution gave all human beings the same taste receptors — for sweet, sour, salt, bitter, and umami (or MSG) — but cultures then create unique cuisines, constrained by the fact that the cuisine must please those taste receptors. Moral foundations work much the same way. The six main moral taste receptors, according to MFT, are:
  1. Care/harm: We feel compassion for those who are vulnerable or suffering.

  2. Fairness/cheating: We constantly monitor whether people are getting what they deserve, whether things are balanced. We shun or punish cheaters.

  3. Liberty/oppression: We resent restrictions on our choices and actions; we band together to resist bullies.

  4. Loyalty/betrayal: We keep track of who is "us" and who is not; we enjoy tribal rituals, and we hate traitors.

  5. Authority/subversion: We value order and hierarchy; we dislike those who undermine legitimate authority and sow chaos.

  6. Sanctity/degradation: We have a sense that some things are elevated and pure and must be kept protected from the degradation and profanity of everyday life. (This foundation is best seen among religious conservatives, but you can find it on the left as well, particularly on issues related to environmentalism.)
"As with cuisines, societies vary a great deal in the moralities they construct out of these universal predispositions. Many traditional agricultural and herding societies rely heavily on the loyalty, authority, and sanctity  foundations to create rituals, myths, and religious institutions that bind groups together with a strong tribal consciousness.

"That can be highly effective for groups that are often attacked by neighboring rivals, but commercial societies (such as Amsterdam in the 17th century or New York City today) are far less in need of these foundations, and so make much less use of them.

"Their moral values, stories, and political institutions flow more directly from the liberty and fairness foundations — well suited to a culture based on exchange and production — and are therefore much more tolerant and open to ethnic diversity.

"In recent years, MFT has been used to study political differences between the American left and right. Republicans and Democrats in the United States are now in some ways like citizens of different countries, with different beliefs about American history, the Constitution, economics, and climate science.

"Using questionnaires, text analyses, and other methods, psychologists have found that progressives put more emphasis on the care foundation than do other groups, while social conservatives see more value in loyalty, authority, and sanctity than do other groups. Libertarians, meanwhile, put liberty far above all other moral concerns.

"Fairness, important to all groups, nonetheless has subtypes: The left values fairness more when it is presented as equality, particularly equality of outcomes between groups (which is at the heart of social justice). The right values fairness more than the left when it is presented as proportionality — a focus on merit, which includes a desire to let people fail when they are perceived to have been lazy or otherwise undeserving."


"Here's a graph showing how how each candidate's supporters prioritize each of the moral foundations compared with the average American.

"Bars above zero indicate that the candidate's supporters place more emphasis on that particular moral foundation compared with the average voter.

"Bars that dip down below zero do not mean those supporters do not care about the moral concern, only that they gave relatively lower ratings to it compared with the rest of our nationally representative survey sample."

Diagram edited to remove Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson

An explanation of this chart can be found at the article. Suffice it to say that it conforms to a much-replicated finding that:

  • Liberals (ie left-wingers) are motivated almost entirely by the Caring dimension (blue - concern for 'victims of oppression') and Liberty (yellow -  "everyone should be free to do as they choose, so long as they don't infringe on upon the freedom of others.")

  • Conservatives (ie right-wingers) are less 'caring', stronger on no freeloading (green - Proportionality is the desire for people to reap what they sow — for good deeds to be rewarded and bad deeds punished.") and supportive of institutions (red).

  • Libertarians, represented by no-hope candidate Rand Paul, are like Mr Spock in Star Trek: cool and unemotional, detached and strongly autonomous - as shown by the large response on yellow (Liberty - freedom from interference). 

Full disclosure: in tests, I score as Libertarian - even though I know that no such political movement can (or should) ever attain power.


In the UK, I think these political results would map smoothly across for the left.

Bernie Sanders presses just the same moral buttons as Jeremy Corbyn; Hillary Clinton could be any mainstream Labour Party machine politician.

Finding UK analogues for the right of the political spectrum is harder.

Trump's moral score makes him a traditional authoritarian, described in the article thus:
"Voters who still score high on authority/loyalty/sanctity and low on care — even after accounting for all the demographic variables — are significantly more likely to vote for Donald Trump. These are the true authoritarians — they value obedience while scoring low on compassion."
In the UK the only similar politician who comes to mind is Nigel Farage, who is not a serious contender for power. David Cameron is most like Jeb Bush, who scored pretty much where the average American was .. and got booted out of a highly-partisan contest for his pains.


Moral Foundations Theory also has something to say about Brexit.


The inflated 'Caring' universality of the left makes staying in the EU a liberal-elite reflex. The usual suspects include the BBC and The Guardian. The Bubble does indeed have a pan-European span. But the more parochial 'Caring' of the masses tends to stop at the Channel.


If you're for Brexit it pays to emphasise that our natural loyalty is to the institutions of the British nation state which represents 'our tribe'. The EU violates Fairness/ Proportionality when using our resources in favour of free-riders.

There are plenty of examples, starting with Club Med.


Here there are two narratives. The Brexit camp sees EU institutions as oppressive and pushes the Liberty button for freedom from them; the left sees the EU infrastructure (dominated by liberals) as a bastion of support in the battle against the truly oppressive elites (companies, English right-wing politicians).

Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity

Europe is not a demos for the masses: there is no sense of a 'moral us' between the English and the French, Germans, Italians and all the rest. This means that 'Remain' exerts little positive leverage on Loyalty, Authority or Sanctity although it can negatively leverage Authority, pointing out that leaving might lead to chaotically-worse institutional outcomes. Here lies Operation Fear.


I hope I've shown you the power of Moral Foundations Theory and I strongly recommend you read Jonathan Haidt's book. He has a blog, too.


Further posts on Jonathan Haidt's work:

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