Monday, 16 April 2012

Moral Foundations

Been reading a book by Professor Jonathan Haidt called “The Righteous Mind”, which goes quite a long way in explaining why there are such divisions in politics and religion. 

He suggests gut instinct plays a far greater role in our decision making than the reasoning or rational intellect. The instinct makes the decision and reason then kicks in to instantly conjure up post hoc arguments to bolster the decision the instinct has already made. A case of self-justification, which can lead to conflicts with facts - and sometimes even reality.

He posits 6 basic moral foundations as follows: 
  1. Care for others, protecting them from harm. 
  2. Fairness, justice, treating others equally. 
  3. Liberty/Oppression, resentment toward dominance and restrictions on liberty 
  4. Loyalty to your in-group, family, nation. 
  5. Respect for tradition and authority.  
  6. Purity or Sanctity, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions, etc. 
Now liberals are very high on the first three, while having only scant or no regard for the last three. For liberals the first three are indeed overriding imperatives – protection of the oppressed, the liberty of the individual to do what he or she wants (providing it harms no-one) and justice have primacy over the needs of the group.

By the above definition I am a liberal - I value justice and liberty while not having much regard for patriotism (I agree with Samuel Johnson that it is the last refuge of a scoundrel). Tradition means little to me (it applies friction to the wheel of progress) and I abhor all these interminable commemorations of disasters that happened decades or centuries ago (mawkish sentimentality - just get over it and move on!). 

Conservatives (and especially religious conservatives), however, while being average on the first three are extremely high on the following three. In this manner, conservatives have more moral foundations to satisfy, but the last three take precedence if they come into conflict with the first three - the group is all and they live by a hive mentality.

Additionally, the last three foundations are usually unquestioned by the average conservative, but can lead to some pretty nasty situations if taken to the extreme (think early and mid 20th century Germany). The group has primacy at the expense of the individual - and even possibly justice and liberty.

This is why liberals and conservatives (or atheists and those of faith) have such issues with each other – they cannot possibly see things from the other's perspective, they are simply not wired to do so. There's a wealth of experimental and empirical evidence to support Haidt's theory.

The irony is that we need both co-operating groups for social cohesion and individuals who can stand up for the those who may be oppressed by the groups. We have to lean to work together, somehow, and keep each other in check.


  1. The hypothesis doesn't seem to account for the large number (majority?) of Atheists/Agnostics who have been raised in religious environments and ultimately rejected religion, ignored it or generally reasoned their way out.

    You would suppose that such people (I'd count myself in that group) would actually know what it's like to be religious and can see things from that point of view, they just reject it.

  2. But their imperatives are still not your imperatives. As you say, you rejected them.

    You're a bit of a loner and a maverick - like me.... Bugger the group - every man for himself...

  3. CB, Maverick in a historical sense perhaps, but there's a billion people in the world that think this way, and quite a lot more who would but aren't allowed to. By definition they can't all be "loners", I'd use the word "rational".

  4. OK - 'cowboy', although I used to like Maverick. Much better than Rawhide.

  5. Mel Gibson ruined Maverick for me, a prize plonker if ever there was one, Eastwood was way cooler.