November 19, 2020


The 2020 election confirms that there are profound differences of opinion about multiple issues.  The book by Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion is a serious attempt by a social psychologist to identify the values that are expressed in political and religious affiliation.

He identifies six moral foundations that describe how the human mind is organized. He says that Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. Moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously, long before moral reasoning has a chance to get started, and those first intuitions tend to drive our later reasoning. This approach proposes that the moral foundations are innate.

Two important points about these six moral foundations.  First, they are often in conflict with one another.  The tension then is which prevails in specific situations.  Second, they are often defined in different ways by different people.  So, even though the specific foundation is the same, the different definitions will result in reactions that are in direct conflict.

  1. Care/Harm Foundation

This instinct makes us sensitive to signs of suffering and need; it makes us despise cruelty and want to care for those who are suffering. For some, this foundation is triggered by the plight of any kind of victim, and especially for those who exhibit some degree of blamelessness.  For some, the trigger is more or less limited for those who belong to or who’ve sacrificed for an in-group.

2.   Fairness/Cheating Foundation

This instinct is to cooperate with those who have been nice to us and shun those who took advantage of us. We feel pleasure, liking, and friendship when people show signs that they can be trusted to reciprocate. We feel anger, contempt, and even sometimes disgust when people try to cheat us or take advantage of us.  Everyone cares about fairness, but there are two major kinds. For some, fairness often implies equality of benefits and opportunity.  For some, it means proportionality—people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes.

3. Loyalty/Betrayal Foundation

This instinct is a reaction to one who is a team player and or one who is a traitor, particularly when your team is fighting with other teams. This is about insiders versus outsiders, us versus them. The love of loyal insiders is matched by a corresponding hatred of traitors, who are usually considered to be far worse than enemies.

4. Authority/Subversion Foundation

This instinct is about respect is deserved by parents, teachers, and others in positions of authority; the urge to respect hierarchical relationships. Without agreement on rank and a certain respect for authority there can be no great sensitivity to social rules. Human authority is not just raw power backed by the threat of force. Human authorities take on responsibility for maintaining order and justice. In recognizing rank, we acknowledge that people have asymmetric positions in a linear hierarchy in which subordinates defer, respect, and (perhaps) obey, while superiors take precedence and take pastoral responsibility for subordinates. If authority is in part about protecting order and fending off chaos, then everyone has a stake in supporting the existing order and in holding people accountable for fulfilling the obligations of their station. Current triggers also include acts that are seen to subvert the traditions, institutions, or values that are perceived to provide stability.

5. Sanctity/Degradation Foundation

This is the instinct to be aware of smells, sights, or other sensory patterns that predict the presence of dangerous pathogens in objects or people.  This foundation makes it easy for us to regard some things as “untouchable,” both in a bad way (because something is so dirty or polluted we want to stay away) and in a good way (because something is so hallowed, so sacred, that we want to protect it from desecration). The sense of disgust is the flip side of considering some things sacred.  The belief in sacredness helps bind individuals into moral communities. People feel that some things, actions, and people are noble, pure, and elevated; others are base, polluted, and degraded. Repugnance revolts against the excesses of human willfulness, warning us not to transgress what is unspeakably profound.  Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.

6. Liberty/Oppression Foundation

This foundation is about the feelings of resistance and resentment people feel toward who dominate us and restrict our liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.

Thought Starters for Sharing

  1. Which of the moral foundations cause the most noticeable emotional reaction for you?
  2. Which foundations, though important, seem less so that others on the list?
  3. As you’ve aged, how have your priorities with regard to the moral foundations changed?
  4. Which moral foundations do you worry about being supported by institutions and individuals?

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