Monday, 29 April 2013

Shifting Perceptions


Not long after the Boston Marathon bombing culprits were caught or killed, The New York Times ran a feature article about the brothers with the title "Far From War-Torn Homeland, Trying to Fit in" which portrayed them in a rather sympathetic light. The article seeks to trigger the Care foundation in the reader. Why would a liberal newspaper do this? Because the Care foundation has become so dominant in liberal minds that they have almost no other options. It has become their default response to moral issues.

So, try a little experiment, allow yourself to accept the NYT slant on this and look at that photo with your perceptions affected by Care and feel your elephant lean towards him: do you see a slightly baby-faced young man looking hounded and vulnerable, his eyes suggesting sadness?

Now, try taking a different emotional view. This young man is steeped in Jihadist ideas and ambitions. He fully supports the killing of non-believers in accordance with his prophet's teachings and example; he feels hatred towards the liberals he sees as he walks around Boston because however much kindness they may show towards him they are in the last analysis non-believers and as his prophet said, "O believers, take not Jews and Christians as friends" (Koran 5:54); "Muslims are harsh against the unbelievers, merciful to one another" (Koran 48:25). Now look at the picture. Has your perception changed slightly? Do you now see hatred in his eyes instead of sadness? This is a small change but our attitudes are formed and maintained by thousands of tiny things like this. These tiny psychological events are like the microscopic level of the psychological and cultural worlds we inhabit, they are like the small drops of water that form the rivulets up in the hills which then form the streams and brooks, then the raging rivers below. When it comes to unlocking the liberal mind, even the smallest things, acting like a conspiracy of ants, can still hold them prisoner.

The Liberal Triad restricts the liberal's range of possible moral responses to Care, Fairness, Non-oppression. So this is why we get these absurd pronouncements from them. Remember that the moral foundations are emotional/intuitive, they create the rapid reflexive attitude which the rational mind then attempts to justify. This has proven to be very difficult in the context of the Boston bombings because a lot of the usual props are missing or point in the opposite direction (e.g. the race of the perpetrators is Caucasian rather than Arab or Asian; the target was a liberal sporting event not a bank, military, or government entity). The rationalisations offered have therefore sounded particularly desperate and inept. "We should have done more to make these immigrants feel more welcome." "They felt alienated and excluded." And that justifies killing innocent people? How low can these liberals sink?

But of course in their own eyes they are being scrupulously fair and compassionate and could never be accused of making "oppressive" demands on anyone, least of all a poor, misunderstood jihadist.

This also shows again the reflexive way that liberals stand up for out-groups in accordance with the Liberal Template. Their thinking is locked into this framework and they cannot think outside of it. We've all heard the expression "thinking outside the box". Well, liberals cannot think outside of their box.

Given the welcome, the financial support and the educational provision lavished on the Tzarnaev family (estimates put the welfare bill alone at $100,000), the citizens of Boston, and America more generally, should not be beating themselves up over whether they did enough to "include" the Tzarnaev family, what they should really be doing is looking at how they have been Betrayed. Betrayed not just by the bombers but also by the media which continues to evade the issues and whitewash events.

To focus on this Betrayal might trigger this moral foundation in many more people and lead to a widespread revulsion at the attitudes of the bombers and their cheerleaders; and, a greater awareness of the conflict between the generosity of the in-group (America) and the unyielding hostility of the out-group (Islam). This is also where liberals are extremely weak and it would create opportunities and gains for conservatives.


Thursday, 25 April 2013

Unlocking the Liberal Mind - Part 5 - Entering The Liberal Matrix

It was good advice to a young person, "Always do what you are afraid to do." from Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay on Self-Reliance
I think Emerson might well have added, "And always think what you are afraid to think, and say what you are afraid to say."

Thinking what they are afraid to think is something that liberals desperately need to do. They huff and puff self-righteously about respecting "otherness" and celebrating diversity but in their hearts they are so awfully scared of being themselves and thinking their own thoughts.

At the beginning of the last section I talked about The Matrix and how what we're dealing with here is like a consensual hallucination. This hallucination is maintained by the shared assumptions and perceptions of the people in the matrix. For those in the liberal matrix these are liberal perceptions and assumptions.

Take this example:
 "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..."  [The United States Declaration of Independence - 1776]
This is a perfect expression of liberal thought and the United States has been the clearest example of liberal principles in action. I thoroughly approve of this declaration but, note the word "self-evident". What does that mean? Surely it means that we take it to be obvious, incontrovertible, an unquestionable assumption? With a moral and political doctrine you have to begin somewhere and the concept of fundamental "God-given" rights is a fine place to start. However, the idea that these are self-evident can easily lead us to assume that they are universally obvious, which they are not. Nor are they universally held or even admired.

For example, the Muslim nations were not at all happy with the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights which was set out (along liberal principles) in 1948. In particular, the Muslims were unhappy about anything which contradicted Sharia, which was just about all of it. So, they made an alternative declaration, The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights, in which they make various noises about the superiority of Islam, thus undermining the whole point of universality.

Contrast these two excerpts, one from the Universal Declaration, the other from the Cairo Declaration:
"Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world..."
"Reaffirming the civilising and historical role of the Islamic Ummah which God made the best nation that has given mankind a universal and well-balanced civilisation in which harmony is established between this life and the hereafter and knowledge is combined with faith; and the role that this Ummah should play to guide a humanity confused by competing trends and ideologies and to provide solutions to the chronic problems of this materialistic civilisation..." (my italics)
You can see immediately the different worldviews at work here: the liberal worldview is very like the Declaration of Independence above with equality, inalienable rights, and freedom. The Islamic statement is immediately divisive, talking of the best nation, "should guide humanity confused by competing trends" (i.e. eradicate every idea that contradicts Islam). The Cairo Declaration proceeds in a similar vein all the way through and in Article 24 states:
"All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari'a."
So after going round the houses it concludes by saying that Shariah is the ultimate arbiter and anything which contradicts it is not permitted. That's more or less what they said at the outset too.

When reading Mark Durie's book The Third Choice: Islam, Dhimmitude, and Freedom I was struck by how different the worldview of Islam is to that of Liberalism. I came to see how a very different worldview is constructed on a different set of foundations - in this case, the example and teaching of Muhammad. I came to see how a different moral matrix was formed in which things that I find abhorrent are treated as the expression of divine sanctities. The appalling judgements and punishments of Sharia may seem barbaric to us but to Muslims they are self-evidently true and just since they were made by Muhammad, the perfect example of conduct and the only source of truth.

Liberals find it extremely hard to face these differences because they are caught between their dominant Care foundation and their commitment to being non-Oppressive, and an awareness of facts that would make them feel much more hostile to Muslims if they were to allow them to enter their minds. Liberals protect themselves by projecting their own liberal assumptions onto alien people who hold very different views to their own.

I now want to look at how the liberal matrix came into being. I'm not claiming to be an expert on the history and development of liberalism (it's too vast a subject); what I will do is to give an overview of liberalism as I see it. I'm particularly interested in the psychological dimension of this development so that will be my focus. I will also be concentrating on the British experience as Britain was very influential throughout most of this period through the British Empire.

I'll be using the concepts outlined in the previous sections to help illuminate aspects of liberal thought. I will be making particular use of the concepts in Moral Foundations Theory, so to help make things a little less cumbersome let me make something clear: when I use the words Care, Harm, Fairness, Cheating, Loyalty, Betrayal, Authority, Subversion, Sanctity, Degradation with a capital letter I am referring to that moral foundation. It will save me from repeatedly writing Care/Harm Foundation etc.

The liberal worldview has not always existed. It is a relative newcomer to the world and, though highly successful for many societies, it has not become universal. How did it come into being?

Early Liberalism

There were various social currents which led to the break-up of medieval Christendom. The Renaissance brought a resurgence of classical civilisational cultural forms and the reassertion of classical philosophy and literature. It became possible to see medieval Christendom in some sort of historical context; a fact which made it less absolute. The Reformation brought Protestant subjectivisation to religion, by which I mean a person's relationship with God was ultimately their private affair and not something requiring an intermediary such as a priest. Conscience was the ultimate arbiter, the ultimate confessor. Freedom of conscience took root here and continued to proliferate in non-conformist religious movements. The development of democratic movements in the 17th century, often inspired by non-conformist elements paved the way towards the recognition of individual rights and universal suffrage, both cornerstones of the liberal edifice. The scientific approach to knowledge in the 17th century began to erode religious certainties and religious authority. This trend was reinforced by the growing freedom of conscience which laid the foundations for freedom of enquiry, both in science and other disciplines.

Where the medieval social order had been fixed, stratified according to a blend of religious and secular authorities, the early liberal era became much more fluid, particularly with the growing middle classes who took the opportunities provided by the loosening of social structures.

John Locke (1632-1704)
Liberalism was given a loose-knit theoretical foundation in the work of John Locke. His approach was pragmatic rather than dogmatic; he did not attempt to provide a coherent rational system but rather a new temper of thought which sought to reform society on the principles of personal liberty, the enjoyment of private property, freedom of conscience, rationality, a system of checks and balances in government to forestall the creation of tyrannies, and an empirical approach to knowledge which would seek progress through science, based on observation, and its application to human affairs. Its recipe for social change was not wholesale revolution but incremental changes that would be broadly agreed upon at each step. Its byword was tolerance and its most powerful weapon was freedom of speech, most famously expressed by Voltaire when he said, “I disapprove of what you say but will fight to the death to defend your right to say it.” In fact, Voltaire was responsible for taking Locke's ideas to France where he championed them.

In the first half of the 18th C. liberal society consolidated the gains of the Glorious Revolution and held back any resurgence of Catholicism in the form of the Jacobites (those still loyal to the catholic James II), culminating in the decisive defeat of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. Notable during this period was a group known as the Kit-Cat Club. This was a group of influential Whigs who were determined to see the fruits of the Glorious Revolution realised. The Hanoverian Protestant kings (George I, II, III, IV) were also key agents in seeing the Protestant hold on power maintained.

Liberals during this period were acutely aware of the perils of religious fanaticism and unreason, as played out during the previous century, and therefore strove to develop a social order based on rationality and tolerance, and that included tolerance of free speech. Today's progressive liberals might find this rather difficult to understand since it was a form of free speech in which differences of opinion could be hotly contested without the risk of being made into a moral pariah for expressing a viewpoint deemed off limits.


I recently bought James Burnham's book "Suicide of the West". This book, written in 1964, is a brilliant analysis of liberal ideology. I can do no better than base my exposition of the liberal matrix on his analysis.

Burnham had also arrived at the idea that liberalism constituted a sort of disorder, "the liberal syndrome" in his words. He saw this syndrome at work in relation to the threat from communism whereas I see it at work in relation to Islam. The parallels are spooky, to say the least.

Like myself, he saw various social and philosophical currents feeding into the development of liberal thought. He also saw liberalism as a rather nebulous, unsystematised philosophical tendency rather than a highly logical system. He identified 19 key liberal ideas which I shall work through in the same order as he does. As Burnham said, these ideas are often not precisely defined, they express tendencies or presumptions rather than laws or precise hypotheses. These core ideas illuminate a lot of liberal priorities and also why certain thoughts are now considered taboo in liberal circles. He also analysed the way liberal priorities have changed during the past 300 years, which is very important.

The liberal ideas:
Although we call these things ideas, they are not generally clearly defined or articulated. They are more akin to articles of faith. They have more emotional power than pure intellectual strength. James Burnham puts this point extremely well,
Modern liberalism, for most liberals, is not a consciously understood set of rational beliefs, but a bundle of unexamined prejudices and conjoined sentiments. The basic ideas and beliefs seem more satisfactory when they are not made fully explicit, when they merely lurk rather obscurely in the background, coloring the rhetoric and adding a certain emotive glow. "Democracy", "equality", "popular government", "free speech", "peace", "universal welfare", "progress", are symbols that warm the heart; but the mind has a hard time getting through the smoke that surrounds them. (Suicide of the West p.145)
For example, the great slogan of the French Republic "Equality, Liberty, Brotherhood" begs the question of how one actually reconciles equality with liberty since they pull in opposite directions.


To be continued...

Friday, 12 April 2013

Unlocking the Liberal Mind - Part 4 - The Righteous Mind

Go to Part 3

In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt takes us on a journey: an intellectual journey, a personal journey, an emotional journey. This section will aim to give you an overview.

In the film The Matrix people are held in a “consensual hallucination”. The hero of the film is given the option of taking a red pill which will release him from the hallucination and restore him to his own physical body (which is lying a vat of goo). Or he can take a blue pill and his consciousness will be restored to the matrix where he can continue in the rather pleasant hallucination in which nearly all human beings spend their conscious existence. He opts for the red pill and steps out of the hallucination. I'll return this theme again but for now...

Cross-cultural psychology

The work of Richard Shweder was one of the key milestones for Haidt in his journey. Shweder developed the concept of sociocentric and individualistic societies. All societies have to answer a small set of questions about social order, and one of the key questions is what will be the relationship between the individual and the group. Most societies have been sociocentric, the individual is subservient to the group. Western societies since the Enlightenment have championed the rights of the individual and societies have come to be seen as the protectors of individual rights.

This individualistic approach spread very rapidly through the 20th century and defeated the sociocentric threats of both Nazism and Communism. The individualistic order is built up around the protection of individuals and their freedom.

For Haidt, Shweder’s work enabled him to see that there were competing moral matrices across the world and within each country. The work of Shweder was his red pill.

Shweder carried out hundreds of interviews with Americans and Indians (in the state of Orissa which is on the east coast of India) in which he presented them with short stories that involved a violation of a social rule in either the USA or Orissa. For example:


1. Actions that Indians and Americans agreed were wrong
  • While walking, a man saw a dog sleeping on the road. He walked up to it and kicked it.
  • A father said to his son, “If you do well on the exam, I will buy you a pen.” The son did well on the exam, but the father did not give him anything.
2. Actions that Americans said were wrong but Indians said were acceptable
  • A young married woman went alone to see a movie without informing her husband. When she returned home her husband said, “If you do it again, I will beat you black and blue.” She did it again; he beat her black and blue. (Judge the husband)
  • A man had a married son and a married daughter. After his death his son claimed most of the property. (Judge the son)
3. Actions that Indians said were wrong but Americans said were acceptable
  • In a family, a twenty-five-year-old son addresses his father by his first name
  • A woman cooked rice and wanted to eat with her husband and his elder brother. Then she ate with them. (Judge the woman)
  • A widow in your community eats fish two or three times a week
  • After defecation a woman did not change her clothes before cooking


In box 2. The actions that Americans said were wrong but Indians said were acceptable illustrate the different cultural perspectives on the position of women. For the Indians, inequality and authority enforced through physical punishment is right and proper.

In box 3 there are issues of respect for social position and the proper conduct of women that seem bizarre to Americans. As far as Americans are concerned a widow can eat what she darn well likes and it’s got nothing to do with anybody else (individualistic culture) but for the Indians there are certain social norms to follow even when it has no practical effect on anyone else.

Box 1 shows episodes of harm and unfairness which both Americans and Indians saw as wrong.

Haidt tells of his experience of living within a different cultural milieu in India (in the town of Bhubaneswar) and relates how it gave him first-hand experience of living within a different moral matrix. It reinforced his view that there is no universal moral backdrop upon which all people can agree. There are real and profound differences between cultures and there is no Archimedean point which allows anyone to say that their cultural norms are right and those of others are wrong. What typically happens is that we feel that our cultural norms are the right ones and we cannot understand how people could feel any different. But they do. Haidt describes a society in which women were, and expect to be, treated as inferiors; servants were not to be thanked for anything; women played their role, primarily in the kitchen, in the background and did not expect to be addressed as equals; to do so would make them distinctly uncomfortable. Haidt is not saying this is right or wrong (obviously, from a liberal egalitarian perspective, it’s wrong); it’s just the way that things are done in that part of India, amongst this stratum of society, and they see it as wrong to do otherwise.

Anthropologists developed the concept of cultural relativism in order to help them gain more accurate insights into alien cultures, as the research above demonstrates. This is a very sensible approach to take when studying alien cultures as it is impossible to understand a culture if you keep imposing your cultural preconceptions onto it or if you constantly judge it by the standards of your cultural norms. The doctrine of cultural relativism was expounded most forcefully by Melville Herskovits (1895-1963), who defined it as a perspective in which the values and institutions of any culture must be taken to be self-validating. (From The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought). This is obviously a useful and valid doctrine in the context of anthropology but where it has become extremely problematic is in the transfer to the political domain. Cultural relativism is widely practiced by multicultural democratic societies as a way of managing the multiplicity of cultures that now make up their populations. This results in a rather “hands off” approach to cultural differences. We are now seeing the beginnings of a severe clash between the individualistic cultures and the highly sociocentric culture of Islam.

So, in some moral matrices it’s not acceptable to treat women as equals while in others it’s not acceptable to not do so. Research indicates that we are born with certain predispositions towards moral feelings and attitudes which are non-culturally specific. These are universal but within particular cultures we learn what we should feel moral about. This is why there are different moral attitudes. But the underlying mechanisms are the same across cultures.

Dumbfounding studies

Through his research Haidt came to the conclusion that these underlying moral predispositions are the affective drivers of our moral reactions. The reasoning which we provide for ourselves and others is secondary. He undertook many studies in which subjects were presented with different moral situations; they were then asked whether they thought the behaviour described was acceptable or not and then asked to say why they thought that. Consider the following example:

Julie and Mark, who are sister and brother, are travelling together in France. They are both on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie is already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy it, but they decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret between them, which makes them feel even closer to each other. So what do you think about this? Was it wrong for them to have sex?  [The Righteous Mind p.38]

Only 20% of subjects said it was OK for Julie and Mark to have sex but where people said it was wrong they found it hard to deliver any reasoning that could stand up to scrutiny. These ‘dumfounding’ studies confirmed his prediction that people begin with a feeling that something is wrong and then try to present a rational case to support or justify that feeling. These feelings spring from the underlying moral predispositions.

Haidt uses the metaphor of the mind as 90% elephant and 10% rider. The elephant is all the automatic, emotional, features of the brain that have evolved over millions of years, are highly adapted and react much faster than you can think. This part of the brain is much larger than the conscious self which is represented by the rider. When the elephant leans one way or the other (like/dislike) in response to a situation, the rider follows and provides a respectable justification for the way the elephant is leaning. In response to the story of Julie and Mark for most people the elephant leans towards disapproval. As this happens, the conscious self, the rider, takes on the role of providing rational justifications for the elephant’s moral posture. This mechanism is summed up as “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.”

The way the elephant feels about something or someone also affects how we see that thing or person. This is affective primacy. It is a very rapid semi-emotional assessment of like/dislike that the animal brain has evolved to carry out. Subsequent “reasoning” about the person or thing will be masked by the effects of affective priming.  This relates to the discussion of perception in Part 1.

WEIRD societies versus the rest

The point to take from this is that different moral perspectives operate in different cultures. We see the world from the point of view of our moral perspective which we have learned as members of our societies or subcultures. Others learn different moral perspectives as members of their societies or subcultures. The research in moral psychology shows that what is common to all of us are certain predispositions to learn moral responses. These predispositions are inherited from our evolutionary past. We learn what to be moral about. In Western Educated Industrialised Rich Democratic (WEIRD) societies, there are sets of responses to people who can be deemed inferior which are thought to be morally appropriate (e.g. forbearance, consideration, tolerance) and those thought to be morally inappropriate (e.g. condescension, ridicule, exploitation). The very idea of my describing people as “inferior” will raise the moral hackles of many. That’s why I used the term, because it illustrates the emotional reaction of the moral mind. In WEIRD societies we’re not even supposed to think of people as inferior, even though they might actually be inferior on almost every conceivable measure.

WEIRD societies are statistical outliers; they are unrepresentative of the world population as a whole today and they are unrepresentative of the societies of the past. Basing your views of the way people think and behave on the behaviour of people in WEIRD societies will most likely lead you to draw false conclusions. However, this is what most westerners do and what most western leaders do. It’s the result of what’s called the representativeness heuristic (remember those rules of thumb mentioned in Part 2?). The representative heuristic is a mental shortcut which infers that the people I’m most familiar with are representative of all people. In many respects this might be true but in terms of moral thinking and cultural norms, it is definitely false. Liberals were particularly guilty of this during the so-called “Arab Spring” in which they identified a tiny minority of young people as being representative of North African societies as a whole, in spite of the existence of plenty of evidence which indicated these youngsters were not representative. They could identify with these young people because they were more similar to themselves. As a result of the representative heuristic they took them to be representative of most North Africans. This has proven completely false. (But you can safely bet that liberals will still be clinging to this perception).


Haidt compares our moral predispositions to taste receptors. They are there in all of us but they are tuned differently. It’s rather like the cuisines of different cultures; they all work with the same taste receptors but they develop different sets of flavours and different culinary themes. These ideas are based on extensive research and can be considered robust.

Many years of research across several continents has led Haidt and others in the field of cultural and moral psychology to the conclusion that there are 6 moral foundations. These are the in-built predispositions mentioned above which give rise to the sense that something is “just wrong” even if we can’t seem to explain exactly why. A recent example of a moral/political issue that has highlighted a difference in moral perspective is same-sex marriage. Broadly speaking, those on the right have been against it, whilst those on the liberal/left (anything goes as long as no-one gets hurt and equality must be applied in all matters) have been more comfortable with it. Those who’ve been opposed to it have “felt” it was wrong and have used arguments such as: “a marriage should be between a man and a woman with the ultimate purpose of raising a family”; “if they adopt children it may lead to problems at school”. Whatever the merits of these arguments, the real impetus for them comes from a pre-rational, emotional/intuitive level which just finds it at odds with their moral feelings (and there's nothing wrong with that).

The liberal counter-arguments have been dominated by notions like “equality”, human rights, and inclusiveness. The underlying moral feeling is concerned with not judging others, not “being oppressive” or authoritarian; there are no particular sanctities to get upset about. From this perspective, we have to keep stretching the boundaries of what’s acceptable so that marginal groups can be brought into the fold. All life’s contradictions will dissolve in the acid of equality. Any movement towards greater equality and inclusiveness is moral progress.
So what are the moral taste receptors that we are all born with? Research has so far identified six. They are stated in terms of opposing pairs and they are referred to as Moral Foundations:

Care/Harm
Fairness/Cheating
Liberty/Oppression
Loyalty/Betrayal
Authority/Subversion
Sanctity/Degradation

The Care/Harm foundation, as it suggests, is related to our sense that harming others, particularly the weak and vulnerable, is wrong. To care for the weak and vulnerable is virtuous and right. This would appear to have obvious links to the need for our ancestors (going right back to apes and primitive people) to care for the young. Primates, and particularly humans, have a relatively long period after birth in which they cannot fend for themselves. By contrast, a foal or calf will be on its feet shortly after birth and must be ready to move when the herd moves. Because we have relatively large heads, we have to be born before we have that sort of physical maturity and we therefore require a long period of being cared for. It is within this context that the moral foundation of Care/Harm arose.

The Fairness/Cheating foundation underlies our moral emotions relating to fairness and justice. Being in social groups confers many advantages upon group animals like ourselves such as the benefits of cooperation in which things can be achieved together which could not be done by individuals on their own. There is therefore a bargain to be struck in group effort such that participation in the risks or physical effort leads to a share of the prize. But what if people try to get a share of the prize without sharing the risk or the effort? This is the basis of the Fairness/Cheating foundation. We are highly tuned to the immorality of “free riders” and societies have ways of dealing with them. For liberals and especially the Left, the Fairness foundation motivates their concern with exploitation. [The moral emotions associated with cheating are anger and contempt. If individuals persistently cheat on the group, they must be punished to try to make them change their behaviour or they may be ostracised permanently.]

The Loyalty/Betrayal foundation is seen most obviously in those cultures where fidelity to the in-group is paramount. Islam demands the execution of apostates, for example. It may be expressed as loyalty to a sovereign, and this has certainly has been a key element of monarchical societies, even to the present day. But it is also seen in the loyalty expected of members of social and political movements. Those who change sides are the object of particular scorn. Whatever we may feel about the particulars of a person who betrays their group, we are all likely to feel some revulsion at the act of betrayal or disloyalty itself.

The Authority/Subversion foundation concerns the way we relate within hierarchies and is probably anchored in the value placed on social order. Those of our ancestors who were best able to navigate the social world of hierarchies would have had an advantage and would be best positioned to pass on their hierarchy navigating genes to the next generation. The Authority foundation relates to all those mental processes and outward behaviours that enable us to respond appropriately within authority structures. If, on the other hand, we reject hierarchical relationships we will tend more to the subversive end of this spectrum. Human cultures vary enormously in how far they demand respect for parents, teachers and other authority figures. Authority should not be confused with power, according to Haidt. Although, authority may ultimately be linked to the use of force for maintaining the social order, authority figures also have responsibilities for protecting the social order and of those within that order; there is a paternalistic element. For sure, there are often abuses of authority but authority in itself should not be seen negatively and in many cultures it is viewed very positively.

The Sanctity/Degradation foundation is based on what Haidt sees as a vertical dimension of purity versus impurity. Many cultures place certain objects or places on a totally different level to the ordinary worldly domain. Some temples have inner sanctums to which only those trained in the correct procedures of self-purification are allowed to enter. Many religions have washing rituals associated with prayer or meditation. Many afford a holiness to the spaces where rituals and prayers are carried out. These are not to be defiled by unseemly conduct or other forms of contamination from the outside. In the Grand Mosque in Mecca, it is forbidden for non-believers to enter as they are deemed to be unclean. If caught breaking this rule you face certain death. It is thought that the Sanctity/Degradation foundation is thought to be rooted in the disgust reflex which we acquired through our evolution as omnivores. Being omnivores opened up many opportunities for us to expand populations into unexplored territory but it also brought the risk of poisoning by eating contaminated or poisonous food. Our disgust reflex developed as a means of allowing us to maximise the advantages of being omnivores and minimise the disadvantages.

I’ve done my best to give a sufficient but not overly detailed account of Moral Foundations Theory but if you want to get a better understanding you can read this or get yourself a copy of The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, a very worthwhile read.

Applying Moral Foundations to Political Psychology

The moral foundations start to become particularly fascinating when applied to the political spectrum. They also, I believe, offer us some powerful conceptual tools for examining the differences between liberals and non-liberals and for allowing us too see into the world of the liberal mind, which is what this is all about in the end!

First, lets have a look at some important research findings for the moral foundations along the political spectrum:




Along the bottom, the graph shows the self-reported political identity of the people who responded to the moral foundations questionnaire. These self-reported identities have been checked objectively and have been shown to be valid. The scale on the left shows how strongly respondents were rated on the different moral foundations as measured by their responses to moral questions. You can do these tests for yourself to see your own balance of moral foundations if you visit www.yourmorals.org

The graph shows a clear relationship between the different moral foundations and your position on the political spectrum. For liberals, Care and Fairness are the most important foundations. All the others are of much lower importance. For conservatives, Care and Fairness don’t have the overriding importance that they do for liberals and they also score more highly on the other foundations of Authority, Loyalty and Sanctity. In effect, liberals have a 2 foundation morality while conservatives have a more balanced 5 foundation morality. This research has been carried out many times in many different cultures and among many different populations and the results are consistent: liberal morality is dominated by concerns about Care and Fairness, whilst more conservative people have what we might describe as a full suite of moral foundations.

The way the moral foundations are tested is well illustrated by a series of questions asked about breeds of dogs preferred for pets.

Look at the following list:

  • The breed is extremely gentle
  • The breed is very independent-minded and relates to the owner as a friend and equal
  • The breed is extremely loyal to its home and family and it doesn’t warm up quickly to strangers
  • The breed is very obedient is quickly trained to take orders
  • The breed is very clean and, like a cat, takes great care with its personal hygiene

Haidt et al. found that people preferred dogs that fit their moral matrices. Liberals went for dogs that are gentle and relate to them as equals (Care and Fairness). Conservatives look for dogs which are loyal and obedient (Loyalty and Authority). There was no partisan tilt on Sanctity; both sets preferred dogs that were clean. [The Righteous Mind pp. 161-162]

“But what about the sixth foundation?”, I hear you say. In response to an essay entitled, “What makes people vote Republican?” (Haidt is a liberal),  Haidt received a lot of feedback which led him and his colleagues to revise the Moral Foundations. It was clear from the reactions of conservatives in particular that the team had overlooked something. They had assumed that Fairness was essentially about Equality (which of course reflected their own liberal assumptions) but conservatives were saying something different and significant: Fairness is about proportionality. We should reap what we sow. If everyone gets essentially the same outcomes in life irrespective of how hard they work or what talents they have that is not just. This was a view of fairness that seemed to be characteristic of conservatives. (It’s easy to see how this conflicts with the line in the Communist Manifesto which says, “To each according to his need; from each according to his ability.” Liberals might like to believe that conservatives don’t care about fairness but in reality they have a different conception of it. For them, the liberal obsession with equality leads to unfairness by constantly taking from the successful to give to the unsuccessful; robbing the talented so that the less talented can prosper. Not only that but it is crippling the economic health of the country and undermining social order. 

The team also asked themselves whether the anger felt by liberals towards cheaters was the same as the anger they felt toward bullies and oppressors. They concluded it was not; rather, there was another moral foundation underlying these responses which they called Liberty/Oppression. They linked this to the mores of hunter-gatherer societies in which alpha males could become dominant and oppressive. With the development of weapons and language it became possible for a strong individual to be overpowered by a band of weaker rivals. Under these conditions early humans developed the abilities needed to unite in order to “shame, ostracise, or kill anyone whose behaviour threatened or simply annoyed the rest of the group.”

The Liberty foundation supports the activities of freedom fighters. The best expression of the awareness that is animated by the Liberty foundation is owed to Edmund Burke, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” It seems to me the liberals have now lost their interest in Liberty as in their view Liberty has been contaminated by a sense that it can be used to trample the rights of others (especially the weak). What liberals are now most concerned about is being Non-oppressive, hence their hypersensitivity to what may be oppressive to the weak and vulnerable. I shall therefore refer to Non-oppression as the liberal manifestation of the Liberty/Oppression foundation.

We see this particularly in the culture of Political Correctness. Those deemed to belong to vulnerable or powerless groups are to be afforded special consideration, even to the extent of deferring to their view of the world. They cannot be criticised or challenged about anything because that would be "oppressive". This attitude is extremely patronising.

The moral foundations team also recalibrated their measures of fairness to include more questions about proportionality. Previously they had been overwhelmingly focused on equality and human rights.

The liberal moral foundations form a triad. Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Liberty/Oppression.

In future I will refer to the liberal moral foundations as the liberal triad: Care, Fairness, Non-oppression. This triad leads liberals into all kinds of one-sidedness in their moral judgements. There is also a remarkable overlap between the liberal triad and the liberal template referred to in Part 3.

Moral Foundations in Islam

Different moral systems may define some of the key terms related to the moral foundations in radically different ways. We might think we're talking about the same things when we're only using the same words. For example, in Islam "peace" does not mean all people freely living their lives in harmony with all other people freely living their lives, it means all people living in total submission to the will of Allah. Allah's will is revealed in the Islamic scriptures and is codified in Islamic law, the Shariah.

Here's another example: "oppression" is defined by liberals as one group having dominance over another, with all the associated outcomes of inequality of wealth, status and opportunity. In the Islamic view, oppression is that which prevents Muslims fully living according to Allah's will, as set out in the Shariah. Shariah stipulates that absence of oppression for Muslims requires that unbelief (kufr) should be completely eradicated. This is one of the justifications for jihad, the violent subjugation or conversion of non-believers, for in order for such a state to exist all non-believers must be removed.

Not only does Islam define moral terms in radically different ways, it also is strongly weighted on the non-liberal moral foundations: Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, Sanctity/Degradation, whereas liberals have a moral triad based on the other moral foundations. Obedience to the dictates of Islam is strongly enforced and fatwas (religious rulings) are sought from religious authorities for all aspects of life. Loyalty to the group is strongly enforced, for example, apostasy is punishable by death (and recent rulings in the Muslim world (I'm writing in 2013) have reinforced this); Sanctities are also strongly enforced: we've seen the uproar over cartoons depicting Muhammad; uproar over Korans being mishandled; non-Muslims entering the holiest sites of Mecca can be executed as non-Muslims are seen as unclean.

It's interesting that the moral foundations underpinning Islam and progressive liberalism are both mutually exclusive and complementary. Could this help to explain the blind spot that liberals show towards Islam?

Whatever the truth about the origins of the moral foundations, they are evidence-based and powerful concepts for understanding our most deeply felt moral perspectives. In the next section I will begin looking at how we can apply the concepts elucidated in Parts 1 – 4 to unlock the liberal mind.