Understanding Political Differences Through Moral Foundations Theory

Screen Shot 2019 03 09 at 4.25.24 PM
Screen Shot 2019 03 09 at 4.25.24 PM

Why are good people divided by politics and religion? Why do some people like spicy food while others do not? The answers, it turns out, are related.

In his groundbreaking book, “The Righteous Mind,” Professor Jonathan Haidt attempts to answer the first question by developing a framework that he calls Moral Foundations Theory (MFT). Haidt argues that humans have six moral foundations through which we view politics and policy: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, Sanctity/Degradation, and Liberty/Oppression.

These moral foundations, according to Haidt, act as our political “taste buds” and explain our political preferences in the same way that our lingual taste buds explain our culinary preferences. Some political ideologies rely on the Care/Harm foundation while others rely on Loyalty/Betrayal. Some people taste Fairness in terms of equality while others do so in terms of proportionality. Some people prefer salty food, some prefer sweet.

The Evolution of Haidt’s Moral Foundations

Haidt, a psychologist, leans heavily on evolutionary psychology to explain the origins of these foundations. I’ll briefly review each and discuss the political implications of these moral taste buds. They are also summarized in the table below.

“The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” Haidt 2012

The Care/Harm foundation developed through the protection of children—our ancestors cared for their children and helped them avoid harm in hopes of witnessing the survival of their genes in future generations. The Care/Harm foundation is seen in contemporary politics when Liberals put a “Save Darfur” bumper sticker on their car or when Conservatives do the same with a “Wounded Warriors” sticker. These are causes that interest us because we care about the individuals involved and wish for them to avoid harm. Interestingly, Liberals rely more on the Care/Harm foundation than Conservatives—this is evident in Liberal critiques of “heartless” Conservative policies on healthcare, education, or government spending.

The Fairness/Cheating foundation evolved through self-interest and reciprocal altruism. All organisms are self-interested, but once our ancestors developed the ability to remember past interactions, they could perform altruistic deeds with the expectation of a returned favor. They could also enforce consequences for a violation of such trust. Today, the Left demonstrates the Fairness/Cheating foundation when discussing social justice—think of debates about economic inequality in which Democrats argue that the wealthy are “not paying their fair share.” The Right demonstrates the Fairness/Cheating foundation when it argues that the government takes money from hardworking Americans (through taxes) and gives it to lazy people (on welfare and unemployment) and illegal immigrants (through healthcare and education). When speaking about fairness, Liberals are generally alluding to equality while Conservatives are generally alluding to proportionality. Hence, the disconnect—at least in part. Liberals still rely more on the fairness foundation than Conservatives, but more on that to come.

The Authority/Subversion foundation was also developed in our tribal pasts. For a group to survive, a societal structure had to be established with a leader and followers. In politics today, the Authority/Subversion foundation applies to traditions, institutions, and values. It is more natural for Conservatives to rely on this foundation than Liberals, who define themselves in opposition to hierarchy, inequality, and power.

The Loyalty/Betrayal foundation developed as our ancestors addressed adaptive challenges in coalitions. Loyalty to the group, and hence survival, was favored evolutionarily. Today, the human predilection for in-group loyalty remains and accounts for a large part of the political “us versus them” divide. The Right relies on the Loyalty/Betrayal foundation when framing debates in terms of nationalism, such as the recent debate about NFL players kneeling for the national anthem. Generally, Conservatives express this foundation more than Liberals.

The Sanctity/Degradation foundation was developed through the adaptive challenges of avoiding pathogens, parasites, and other existential threats originating from physical touch or proximity. Judged on a scale from neophilia (an attraction to new things) to neophobia (a fear of new things), Liberals score much higher for neophilia (for food, people, music, ideas) than Conservatives, who prefer to stick with what is tried and true, guarding boundaries and traditions. Social Conservatives particularly rely on the Sanctity/Degradation foundation when discussing the sanctity of life (in the abortion debate), the sanctity of marriage (in the gay rights debate), and the sanctity of self (in the contraception debate).

Through a later work, Haidt added a sixth moral foundation: the Liberty/Oppression foundation. Like the Authority/Subversion foundation, the Liberty/Oppression foundation evolved from the dynamics of group behavior, and it views authority as legitimate only in certain contexts. Both sides flex this foundation frequently. The Left relies on it in critiques of the wealthy, such as Occupy Wall Street, and in favor of those they view as victims and powerless groups. The Right flexes it in a more parochial way, concerned with the specific groups to which they belong. Conservatives say, “Don’t tread on me,” to Big Government in response to high taxes. They extend the argument to the spheres of business and nation, objecting to regulatory policy and international treaties, such as those created by the United Nations.

Connecting Moral Foundations to Political Polarization

How, then, do these moral foundations explain why good people disagree on politics and policy? The answer is that Liberals and Conservatives have different palates—our taste buds are simply not the same. In the chart below, Haidt shows that Liberals rely heavily on Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating while Conservatives rely on all five foundations somewhat equally. (Note that the Liberty/Oppression foundation is not shown in this chart, but was tested in further studies and was found to be expressed equally across ideologies.)

“Liberals and Conservatives Rely on Different Sets of Moral Foundations” by Graham, Haidt, and Nosek 2009

There it is, as clear as daylight. We are talking past each other because of our moral foundations. Democrats say that attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act show that Conservatives don’t care about low-income Americans while Republicans say that it infringes on their liberties. Democrats say that kneeling for the national anthem is a valid protest against a government that does not treat African Americans fairly while Republicans decry a lack of national loyalty, defending the sanctity of the national anthem. Read “The Righteous Mind” and the attendant body of scientific literature if you are still unconvinced.

A Call to Expand Our Palates

Despite the state of our politics today, there is hope. Haidt notes that, like taste buds, our moral foundations are “organized in advance of experience,”—this means that they are formed at birth and refined through the experiences of our lives.

For instance, I never liked spicy food until—and this is true—I was blindfolded for a taste test and bit into an extremely spicy pepper while traveling in Israel. It hurt. I washed my mouth out with cold water for about ten minutes to soothe the burn. But after that, nothing felt spicy to me anymore. As a result, I developed a palate for spice.

I believe the same can be true of our politics. It will require us to try new foods—even food we end up disliking—but we have to make the effort. Here’s to trying more spicy peppers.

If you enjoyed this article, you can read more bipartisan debates, op-eds, and interviews here. Or, follow The Righteous Mind here.

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Joseph Schuman
Editor-in-Chief at Divided We Fall

Joe Schuman is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Divided We Fall. He works to set the vision of the organization and to build the team to meet that mission. Joe works as a civilian for the Department of Defense promoting innovation and emerging technology. Joe is also an Officer in the Air National Guard and a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In his spare time he can be found reading non-fiction, playing piano, and running triathlons.


Anonymous June 29, 2023 at 9:20 pm

thank you

Lisa DiGiacomo December 4, 2022 at 10:34 am

First, I’m a caring liberal for sure. It seems to me that the dimensions He says Conservatives favor operate to maintain the favorable systems and hierarchy they generally have used to leverage wealth and control. The problem with that today, is that those they oppress are less willing to accept this. Hence, inability to staff menial jobs, increased violence such as brazen looting, etc. The most terrifying aspect of these values is abject tone deafness to climate change which affects everyone. But of course the poor pay more and often. Deal! Says the Conservatives! Liberals will lead to a better world and won’t stop trying.

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