The Polarization Series: A Look at our Moral Foundations

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In my last piece in this series, I argued that our minds are susceptible to a host of biases and deceptions which influence our decisions. We are inclined to jump to conclusions, and make up stories to justify our beliefs – even when we lack concrete evidence to back up our claims.

This can partially explain why we are sometimes dumbfounded when questioning the judgements or actions of others. Of course, we all have the ability to act rationally, but our capacity to think clearly about issues is in large part shaped by our environment, as well as our emotions.

Let’s continue to peel the layers of and explore what factors influence our judgements.

With so much cultural and moral diversity apparent throughout history and across different societies in the modern era, is there anything that binds us together? After all, in spite of these disagreements on what we consider right or wrong, each of us humans share a common ancestry.

Moral Foundations Theory

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues developed a theory to try and answer these perennial questions. Moral Foundations Theory proposes that we all have a set of fundamental moral intuitions which guide our behaviour. In the Righteous Mind, Haidt puts forth six building blocks of morality. 

Moral FoundationDescriptionExamples
(1) Care\HarmWe are sensitive to others who are suffering, and are inclined to care for those who are vulnerable or in need.Care for a small child, or someone who is ill.
(2) Fairness\CheatingEnables us to be aware and reject ‘free riders’ in instances of group collaboration, that is those individuals who get the rewards of something but didn’t contribute.Explains our aversion towards those who are rewarded without ‘paying their fair share.’
(3) Loyalty\BetrayalEvolved to allow us to build coalitions and work collaboratively. Motivates us to reward those who remain faithful to a cause, while punish those who detract.Think of when your favourite player gets traded to a rival team.
(4) Authority\SubversionObedience to hierarchy, rank and position. Also includes the desire to follow traditions, institutions and shared values.Respect for parents and family, cultural traditions, and institutions.
(5)Sanctity\DegradationClosely associated what we deem as ‘sacred’.   On the flip side, feelings of ‘disgust’ arise in cases where someone degrades what we hold as sacred.Principles, objects or places we place an infinite value on.   Religious symbols, objects of patriotism including national flags, saints or heroes.
(6) Liberty\OppressionInclination to resist unwarranted authority, domination or tyranny.Desire towards equality and freedom.

Haidt comes up with yet another brilliant metaphor to explain a pluralist account of how we can all share these moral foundations yet have starkly different attitudes towards various contentious issues.

The analogy is as follows. All of us humans have the same five taste receptors, but like a variety of different cuisines. Cultures have different foods which satisfy our desire for sweetness. I may like churros while a friend may prefer baklava – nonetheless both desserts are satisfying the same taste receptor.  

Further, some of us could be more inclined towards foods which are more bitter, while others prefer foods which are sour. Just because we have the capacity for different tastes doesn’t mean we like them all equally.

Haidt’s thesis states that we are all born with the same six moral intuitions.  However, the variety and differentiation in our morals and values comes as a result of us our societal and cultural upbringings as well as our social interactions.  Different practices can satisfy the same moral foundation, and some groups may be drawn to some values more than others.

This allows for both rigid moral foundations, yet flexibility in the development of cultural norms.

Political Applications

What is interesting about Moral Foundations Theory is that can be applied to a range of issues, mostly notably politics.

Haidt’s research is able to help us discern what moral foundations underpin the values of liberals, conservatives and libertarians.

  • Liberals are motivated by (1) Care\harm and (2) Fairness\cheating foundations and (6) the Liberty\Oppression foundation. Focused on issues of fairness and social justice, liberals are driven by the desire to push for policies which expand equal treatment to minorities and marginalized groups. The attention is on the individual rights as opposed to the group.
  • Haidt found that conservatives appeal equally to all six foundations, giving the most weight to upholding tradition, social intuitions and shared values in order to uphold social cohesion.
  • Lastly, libertarians prioritize the (6) Liberty\Oppression foundation, namely advocating for freedom from interference by the state.

Search for the Grey Areas

Moral Foundations Theory offers us a starting point to better understand those who disagree with us on certain issues.  It is easy to simply talk past one another, especially in cases when two people have a different set of moral values.  As postdoctoral researcher Kristin Hurst notes,  

People on both sides of the political spectrum tend to frame their own issues using the language and arguments that align with the moral convictions of their own group. We can have a hard time recognizing the legitimacy of each other’s moral convictions and, because of that, find it difficult to craft arguments that resonate with people who prioritize a different set of values 

While we may not be convinced by another’s argument nor change our mind, at a minimum we can gain insight on which of the 6 moral foundations someone is appealing to.  With this, we can understand how to frame the issue in a way which is more sensitive to the moral concerns of others in order to try and develop a common ground on what is actually being debated.  

Each of the political paradigms or ways of seeing the world have both positives and negatives. For instance, there is a tradeoff between promoting individual rights (liberalism) and upholding traditions and social cohesion (conservatism).

Issues arise when we divide others into right or wrong or slip into black and white thinking. Rather than becoming fixated on our differences we can try to work towards searching for the ‘grey areas’, the things we can agree on and search for compromise.


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