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.

1 comment:

  1. Yours is an excellent and well thought out article.
    I have long sought to understand the "liberal" mindset and how it is acquired. In spite of several articles and books on the subject, your seems to offer the best explination.

    The only thing I would take exception to, and I suspect you agree with me on, is the premises of the term "liberal mind" when "leftist progressive" would be more appropriate. The people are anything BUT "liberal"

    I also have to speculate on what the logical (or illogical) ends to the evolution of leftist progressive thought/action are. Although I don't have an answer, I suspect it is anarchy or a return to the law of the jungle where the strongest take what they will at the cost of all others.

    Consider the gun debate. Remember the saying that only in liberalism is a dead raped woman more ally superior to a live woman who had the audacity to shoot and kill a rapist.

    It never occurred to leftist progressives that those downtrodden women alone, may not have anyone or anything else to protect her. . all the gun free zones in the world would not stop a determined rapist or drug crazed robber.

    What good is any liberal theory if it fails a real world test as most all do. But alas, you can never convince a leftist progressive otherwise.


    Wesley Horton

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