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An essay by Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys:

Moral Foundation Theory.

Part 1 of two parts:

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In my earlier essay "Have Democrats Lost Their Soul I referred to Jonathan Haidt’s book "The Righteous Mind," in which he discusses his Moral Foundation Theory. I said I’d address this book after I had finished reading it.

In the first part he discusses the history of moral thinking. In the second part he addresses his theory. I will look at the third section in another essay. There is much that I agree with in the book and much that I disagree with. I don’t have a problem with his survey technique, or questions or his findings. I do question his interpretation of those findings. On pages 158 and 159 he presents a graph and explanation of the graph that charts the responses of "Very Liberal folk" on the far left to "Very Conservative folk" on the far right about their responses to sets of questions about the five moral principles: Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity.

The graph shows Liberals score high on Care and Fairness as the prime reason they cite for making a moral choice and they score very low on the other three. All the folk measured scored high on Care/Fairness but the line sloped gradually down from the Very Liberals on the left to the Very Conservatives on the right. For those less liberal, the lines for the other three moved from lower to higher and for the Very Conservatives came close to converging at the same point.

The lines look somewhat like this:

Haidt’s conclusion is that the "Very Conservative people" use all five moral foundations in making their decisions, while the "Very Liberal people" just use two. Because five is better than two when making making moral judgments, then Conservatives are better than Liberals. This is where I think he missed something:

  • The fact that the lines are converging,(and in later studies showed they cross on the far right), and

  • I noticed that Conservatives and Liberals have very different ideas of what constitutes team play and the greater good. Many other observations and conversations makes me think that there is some other factor at work here. That, I think, is Obedience. The very Conservatives aren’t basing their moral judgments on five criteria but simply on one, Obedience. Obedience is what connects the five criteria together. It also binds Authoritarian figures and their Followers together.

    I think that, overall, his own bias is showing in his discussions. This jumped out at me on page 156. Here he states unequivocally:

    "Republicans understand moral psychology. Democrats don’t."

    I don’t think Republicans understand moral psychology. I think they appeal to visceral, gut emotions, which is what Authoritarian types depend on to keep their followers in line. I think there is more to moral psychology than visceral gut emotions. I think their lack of understanding is shown quite clearly with how they -- the leadership of the Republican party -- lost control of the party with the election of President Trump. Also, they have subverted their own stated moral principles (against deficit spending as one example) in favor of power/control of all parts of the government.

Obedience is their prime motivating factor. Both obedience of politicians to the leadership of the party, and of the followers to all the leaders.

I think Haidt makes an error early on page 26 where he states

"If morality doesn’t come primarily from reasoning, then that leaves some combination of innateness and social learning as the most likely candidates."

Here he has succumbed to a false dichotomy, the combination that guides our morality in this 21 st Century (AND I think this was also present with our earliest ancestors) is a combination of three things not two: reasoning, innateness and social learning.

It takes a combination of social learning and the ability to reason (to see pros and cons of an issue, not just to find a justification for a pre-conceived position) that overrides innateness.

A second error I think he has made is in looking at evolution as a fate accompli, a finished act. He makes several arguments and explanations how his different moral foundations filled an evolutionary function, helping early human’s survival. He lists these in a chart on page 125. And he expands on the ideas in the later sections when he talks in depth about each of the five moral foundations.

His problem here is that what worked for our 1 st century cousins isn’t well suited for those of us in this 21 st century. What worked for small tribal groups trying to claim, and establish and defend their territory doesn’t work for our multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multi- religious 21 st century societies. We are no longer living in small tribal groups. Global communication and transportation networks have shrunk our world and global supply chains for both goods and raw materials have bound us together. Our survival is now dependent on more than our obedience to a small tribal/religious/social/nationalistic group.

People and societies have to evolve new ways of dealing with the challenges and difficulties that we face. Evolution, even social/moral evolution, is -- and must be -- an ongoing process: As conditions change, people must learn to adapt to accommodate those changes. For 21 st century people, this involves the greater use of or dependence upon our ability to reason.

I think Haidt sees or understands reason as the ability to justify ones actions. I would call what he describes as rationalizing. This is seen in the section where he talks about the elephant (our innateness) and the rider on the elephant (reason) who isn’t really in control of the elephant. The rider finds justification for what the elephant wants to do.

This explanation is a good one to a point. On page 131 he states:

"Nature (innateness) provides a first draft (the elephant), which experience (the inexperienced rider) then revises ..."

I would add:

"and reason (the mature, experienced rider) then refines."

I have lived close to nature most of my life. Survival depends upon more than gut reactions, emotions and life experiences. It also requires the ability to reason -- to observe signs,
analyze those signs and then to apply your knowledge (from life experience but also what you have learned from studying the weather, from books, from studying animal behavior) in order to choose the best course of action.

The person that hears the rattle of the rattlesnake and responds to gut/emotional reactions is likely to jump and land closer or on top of the snake. The person who can control the urge to jump and take the time to reason can decide to freeze, or back away slowly and live to go hiking another day!

Reasoning involves the ability to ask questions, to consider a variety of options, to make connections between seemingly disparate sets of information (drawing on biology, history,
physics, current events, personal experience, books read, etc) to consider short term and long term outcomes/consequences, and to then decide on a course of action -- what is the moral, right, good action to take and what action is immoral, wrong, and bad for all of us. -- not just as actions that are best for our small tribal group in the short term but which might cause bigger problems on down the road.

Reasoning CAN lead people to a higher level of moral understanding, a level that doesn’t succumb to gut or emotional reactions. When reasoning turns to rationalization no change or advances are made.

I think he shows his failure to grasp this concept when he says on page 132:

"It makes no evolutionary sense for you to care about what happens to my son Max, or a hungry child in a faraway country, or a baby seal."

It makes no evolutionary sense for our distant tribal ancestors BUT it makes great evolutionary sense to people living in the 21 st century. Our reasoning has shown them that we are all connected, that our planet is one living organism (as many Hindus and Buddhists have understood for centuries). What happens in a distant country can affect what happens to me in my country. Pollution doesn’t respect tribal boundaries. Nuclear fallout from a World War III will not respect tribal boundaries. Global warming affects the entire planet, and we are seeing those effects today all over the world -- even right here in Illinois where I live, far removed from rising sea levels and the disastrous consequences of hurricanes.

Westerners have also grasped this global connection. I am reminded of John Donne’s poem written around 1624 "No man is an Island". Joan Baez turned the sentiment into a beautiful song:

"No man is an island, No man stands alone, Each man’s joy is joy to me, Each man’s grief is my own. We need one another, So I will defend, Each man as my brother, Each man as my friend."

In the early days of human evolution survival depended upon building tight knit family groups obedient to their leader -- without hesitation, or question or challenge. Survival favored the few natural leaders (authoritarian/patriarchal figures) and a mass of natural followers. I’ll refer to these two groups as the "Patriarchs and the Followers."
BUT the survival of these Patriarchs and their Followers ALSO depended upon the few rebels, individualist, innovators in their groups that marched to the beat of a different drum. I will call these folk "Innovators." These innovators came up with the new tools and farming and animal husbandry techniques that gave the group a BIG advantage over other groups. He touches on this in part three but I don’t think he gives enough credit to the Innovators.

I am not saying here that there aren’t some that are free riders, some are lazy, cheaters, con-artists trying to get someone else to do their work for them BUT not everyone who marches to the beat of that different drum is a free loader!

Survival has never been solely dependent on who the mightiest warriors or the tightest knit most obedient group are but which group has the best innovators to give them an advantage. The leaders and their followers created a safe environment where the innovators could innovate! Where the innovators could use their reasoning skills to benefit the whole group. Innovators are not just inventors of new tools and farming and animal husbandry practices, they are curious and questioning people, not afraid of new things, not afraid of change, they are open to learning and exploring about new things and new people and new cultures, they are flexible and adaptable, not stuck in their ways.

Haidt notes these differences on page 148 where he mentions neophilia (openness to new things/experience) and neophobia (a fear of new things/experiences). He notes how the
neophobes had a survival advantage over the neophiles. BUT he doesn’t see how this advantage was for our earliest ancestors and is not the best survival strategy for those of us in the 21st Century. Nor does he acknowledge the important part the Innovators played in the overall survival and thriving of the tribe.

In summary I think Haidt offers a good introduction to how our moral sense developed . I don’t think he understands how what was a successful strategy for our earliest ancestors isn’t a successful strategy for us today.

Demographers track changes in age and racial distributions (changes) in societies. I think we are also seeing a demographic change in the distribution of Patriarchs, and their Followers (neophobes) and the Innovators (neophiles). The Patriarchs and their Followers helped create the civilizations where the Innovators could not just survive but where they could flourish and they have gradually grown in numbers to the point they are challenging the values and mores of the Patriarchs and their Followers in favor of a new set of values, and morals better suited for life in this 21 st Century.

I like to think that I am descended from a long line of Innovators (neophiles). While my earliest cousins were preparing for a hunt, my direct ancestor was probably on a hillside under the shade of a tree chipping away at a flint nodule figuring out how to make arrowheads so his hunter cousins could have more success at their hunt! Some of my ancestors cousins probably called him lazy, not a team player, a free loader/rider..but I bet they sure were glad to get their hands on those new arrows and spears with the flint tips!

I can see those same cousins giving my ancestor a hard time when they came back from the hunt several days later carrying the game they caught on their shoulders and saying something like this: "What are you wasting your time on now you lazy good for nothing. And my ancestor looks up and says "I call it a wheel."

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This topic continues in Part 2

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. book cover Jonathan Haidt’s book: "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion," Vintage (2012). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store Available in hardcover, paperback, audiobook, Kindle, and Audio CD formats.

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Author: Contributing editor Susan Humphreys
Originally posted on: 2018-OCT-26

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