In chapters 7 and 8, Haidt describes in detail his account of our innate “moral foundations”—a relatively small set of fundamental psychological mechanisms that underlie and produce our moral intuitions. In previous chapters, he has argued that moral judgment is driven primarily by moral intuition—that the intuitive dog wags the rational tail—and that our moral intuitions cover more areas of life than just harm and fairness. It is now time to get specific. Just what are these fundamental, innate sources of moral intuition, and how can we show that we really have them?
This topic is important because if there is really a serious case to be made that (a) our moral judgments are driven largely by our moral intuitions, and (b) our moral intuitions are strongly shaped by genetically hardwired “modules” that first evolved in our Pleistocene past, then our moral intuitions are cast in a new light. For one thing, any status they may have been thought to have as final arbiters of moral questions is drastically undercut. Intuitions on this view turn out to be, not repositories of cultural wisdom, much less oracular voices of moral reality, but rather crude behavioral impulses that facilitated survival and reproduction among our hunter-gatherer ancestors; for example, by inhibiting us from killing our children or mating with our siblings or eating bacterially infected meat. Given such origins, these impulses should not be trusted implicitly; they need to be evaluated by some other, rationally defensible standard. For another thing, if certain moral judgments result in some important part from the influence of genetic moral modules, it is important to know exactly which they are and something about their evolutionary status and origin, in order to evaluate those moral judgments. For example, recall Hayek’s claim (seconded recently by David Rose in The Moral Foundation of Economic Behavior) that the morality of “solidarity and altruism” is a genetic atavism appropriate to our hunter-gatherer past (and appropriate to family life still today) but totally inappropriate as a standard for the “extended order” of market-based, large-scale societies.
At the outset of his discussion, Haidt makes an important qualification to his claim that we have innate “moral foundations.” Namely, we should not think of the genetic fixation of the moral foundations in a naively inflexible way, as though the inheritance of a module for Loyalty were like the inheritance of blue eyes. A Loyalty module can’t be like blue eyes, because what loyalty means and how it is expressed is in large part culturally determined. Loyalty to one’s group may be a universal feeling, but how and when and how much it is expressed differ from one culture to another. There may even be some cultures where it is largely suppressed. So, Haidt says, we should be wary of the “hardwired” metaphor. “Prewired” might be better. Or again, he advises us to think of the role of genetics in determining brain functioning as like writing the first draft of a book. The brain does not come into the world tabula rasa, but nor is it written out complete. Instead, the genetic code writes a first draft of the brain, and subsequent drafts and rewrites take place throughout development.
I will describe the moral foundations that Haidt proposes, commenting as I proceed. I don’t find all of them equally plausible. I also think that in certain cases he may be running together propensities that should be regarded as separate modules. (I should say for the record that I am not a fan of “module” talk, which Haidt adopts from evolutionary psychology, of which I am also not a fan. But since nothing in his theory depends on there being literally any such modules—as Haidt acknowledges—his module talk may be taken as metaphorical, and I will say no more about it.)
The Care/Harm Foundation. Haidt names each moral foundation with a single word expressing its essence followed by a second term naming a contrast. So care—concern or compassion in response to suffering—is the essence of the Care/Harm foundation, implying an abhorrence of harm. Haidt argues that Care/Harm originally evolved to motivate mothers to care for their children. This is why we respond to cuteness, especially of children, with tender feelings. As genetically and culturally evolved and articulated, it motivates caring and kindness in general. Through the influence of culture, its triggers can be expanded vastly beyond concern for children to encompass everything from baby seals and beached whales to famine victims half way around the world. I have no particular comment on Care/Harm. It seems like a slam dunk. Goetz, Keltner, and Simon-Thomas mount an extended defense of compassion as an innate moral emotion in this Psychological Bulletin article, and they are very persuasive.
The Fairness/Cheating Foundation. Haidt initially interprets the fairness impulse (following Robert Trivers) as centered on reciprocity. “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” What is fair is that, if you have scratched my back, I return the favor at some point. Cheating is taking advantage of the things others do for you and not reciprocating. Haidt argues that Fairness/Cheating evolved to enable people to take advantage of the benefits of cooperation. We evolved to play tit-for-tat in the Robert Axelrod sense: be initially cooperative but maintain a sharp eye for cheaters and punish or at least withhold future cooperation from them. Though he doesn’t explicitly refer to it, Haidt seems to allude in his talk of looking out for cheaters to a classic study by Cosmedes and Tooby (“Cognitive Adaptations for Social Exchange”). His discussion does not make clear whether he takes Fairness/Cheating to include willingness to cooperate even when there is little reason to expect reciprocation and willingness to punish even when the cost of doing so is greater than any personal benefit one can expect to derive. There is good reason to think that cooperation cannot evolve without these latter impulses, which make people into what Herbert Gintis and Samuel Bowles (and their co-authors) call “strong reciprocators,” but they are not endorsed by Trivers, Axelrod, or Cosmedes and Tooby. From its roots in reciprocal cooperation, Fairness/Cheating expands to encompass people getting what they are due more generally, whether this is construed as equal or proportional shares, with people who are thought to be getting unfair shares typically accused of some form of cheating.
As I said, the above is Haidt’s initial account of Fairness/Cheating. It is the way he looked at Fairness/Cheating as recently as his 2007 paper (with Craig Joseph), “The Moral Mind.” But in 2008, he decided he had made a hash of it. He was especially impressed with feedback from readers in which, on the one hand, justice concerns seemed to have little to do with equality, and on the other hand, concerns about equality seemed to have little to do with reciprocal cooperation. So he modified the theory. First, he changed the emphasis of Fairness/Cheating to drastically reduce concern with equality and enhance the element of proportionality. Fairness/Cheating still has its roots in reciprocal cooperation, but its subsequent elaboration is now in the direction of “just deserts”—that people should reap what they sow. It is the idea of karma. Moreover, Haidt took to heart research showing that Trivers’s essentially self-interested concept of reciprocity is inadequate to explain large-scale human cooperation. In particular, without an intrinsic desire to punish cheaters, large-scale cooperation has little hope of being sustained. Thus, innate righteous anger against people who take without contributing assumed greater importance in the Fairness/Cheating foundation. (In other words, Haidt moved toward the concept of strong reciprocation.)
Second, he added a new foundation, Liberty/Oppression. The essential impulse here is hatred of bullies. Haidt notes that among chimpanzees, alpha males aren’t really leaders. They don’t provide services to the group, they just take what they want and back up their privileges with brutality. And they aren’t respected, only submitted to, and it sometimes happens that their subordinates team up and defeat and even kill them. The early ancestors of humans may well have been similar, but gradually among them an equalitarian social practice evolved. This may have been stimulated by the development of tool use, especially weapons such as spears, which greatly reduce the effect of mere brute strength in determining the outcome of a fight. Another factor that may have been important for promoting egalitarianism is the development of language, which enables punishment to take the relatively safe and effortless form of gossip and whisper campaigns, and which would have facilitated coordinated action of the kind needed to gang up on a bully and ostracize or even kill him. Thus may have evolved the egalitarianism for which hunter-gatherers are famous. And however it evolved, the ethnographic evidence seems clear that hunter-gatherer egalitarianism is a fact (see Kelly, The Lifeways of Hunter-Gatherers). Hunter-gatherers do not permit any person to get too high, presumptuous, or full of himself without a take-down. As I say, Haidt interprets the essential impulse here as freedom from oppression and hatred of oppressors. Thus, Haidt thinks that the concern of contemporary libertarians and some conservatives with government “tyranny”—infringement of personal liberty—is rooted in the Liberty/Oppression foundation. But so is the concern of contemporary liberals with equality and “social justice,” which sees the roots of inequality in the predatory and oppressive behavior of elites (and believes that capitalism is a predatory and oppressive system). Liberal concern with racial discrimination, colonialism, glass ceilings, etc., also jibes well with the Liberty/Oppression foundation, and indeed seems much better explained as emanating from Liberty/Oppression than from a primary impulse to equality.
This is Haidt’s account of Fairness/Cheating and Liberty/Oppression as refined in The Righteous Mind, but I think there are still problems. Particularly with regard to Fairness/Cheating, it seems to me that he is mistaking concern for norms and norm violation with concern for proportional justice. Just because people take certain behaviors as norms and desire to enforce those norms does not mean they believe in karma or that norm adherence constitutes justice in any stronger sense, and it certainly doesn’t mean they believe that rewards should be commensurate with contributions. The latter idea—which is what I mean by proportional justice—seems relatively abstract and advanced, actually, rather than innate and primitive. I don’t know that there’s much psychological evidence that people just take naturally to the idea. Justice as equality, on the other hand, does have some backing as an innate primitive. Alan Page Fiske, in his book, Structures of Social Life—one of Haidt’s mentors, whom he still cites frequently—makes a strong case for what he calls “Equality Matching” as a basic structural principle of human relationships. Equality Matching is suitable for governing relations among peers. It consists of requiring more or less exact parity in decision making, division of work and goods, gifting, favors done and received, and so forth. Thus, Equality Matching requires that everyone have an equal say in decisions; democratic voting; equal distribution of goods; turn taking for goods that can’t be divided; assignment by lot of indivisible rewards, honors, responsibilities, jobs, etc.; that gifts or favors be returned in kind and in equal amounts; and so forth. Fiske argues that although Equality Matching is not applied to all aspects of social life in any society, it is applied to some in practically every society. It thus has a claim to be a human universal. Also, young children adopt Equality Matching as a norm, becoming obsessed with making exactly equal divisions of cookies, chores, and whatnot. Haidt acknowledges this but argues that children grow out of it and gradually adopt proportionality instead. However, this seems weak, especially if his evidence for this comes from WEIRD children. If proportionality is cultural, late childhood is exactly when we should expect it to be adopted.
Thus, an innate equality structure along the lines of Fiske’s Equality Matching seems more plausible than an innate proportionality structure. I say “structure,” by the way, because what is in question here is something more cognitive than emotional. Equality Matching is a concept, not a feeling (and this would be true of proportionality as well). This is different from Care/Harm, which does seem to be primarily a feeling (compassion). Thus, not all moral foundations have the same psychological make up.
But equality (or proportionality) is not all that is at issue in Fairness/Cheating. I said that I think Haidt mixes up the justice issue with norm psychology. Norm psychology—treating procedures as norms, getting angry when they aren’t obeyed, desiring to punish norm violators, and so forth—is ubiquitous and important, and it is not just about justice or reciprocity. People treat the right way to make a basket or process tubers or draw a face as normative, get angry when such norms aren’t obeyed, attempt to correct or instruct violators, etc. This is a critical human psychological trait that explains how it is that beneficial cultural practices can be maintained even when, as is often the case, people do not fully understand (or do not understand at all) the benefit they produce. As such, it is a critical element in the explanation of how our species accumulates elaborate and sophisticated culture. (For more on this, see the work of Joseph Henrich; for example, his new book, The Secret of Our Success. For a single study showing that children as young as 2 years of age grasp and attempt to enforce conventional norms as such, see Rakoczy et al., “The Sources of Normativity.”) So, norm psychology is not a moral foundation, but it is a foundation, and it is a sine qua non of moral thinking. I think it deserves a special place on the list for this reason. A lot of the behavior that Haidt describes as being rooted in Fairness/Cheating I would say is really due to norm psychology.
I have less trouble with Liberty/Oppression than with Fairness/Cheating, but I would be more comfortable if Haidt presented more hard evidence for its reality. The evolutionary story about the taming of alpha males and our species’ progressive self-domestication (taken from Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest) makes sense, but I would like to see some experimental evidence that narrows down exactly what this impulse is supposed to be. In particular, it seems to me that oppressor hatred and the leveling impulse aren’t the same thing. Just from personal introspection, I have no problem believing that oppressor hatred is a strong impulse, and possibly pretty basic. (But that’s not what I would call hard evidence!) And all by itself this can probably account for most of what Haidt attributes to the Liberty/Oppression foundation. But this is not the same as the leveling impulse that I associate with hunter-gatherer egalitarianism. The latter is a desire to pull down anyone who gets too proud, too high, too successful; it does not require the target to have his boot on someone’s neck. It seems to me that we can see evidence of such an impulse in certain sorts of behavior that are common in our society, and I have often wondered whether it might not be explained as a genetic holdover from our hunter-gatherer prehistory. But of course, I’m just wondering; this would have to be investigated.
The Loyalty/Betrayal Foundation. This is the impulse to maintain in-group cohesion and identity; to identify with one’s own family, clan, tribe, team, nation, race, profession, club, or whatever; to reduce differences with in-group members and exaggerate differences with out-group members. Haidt cites the famous Robbers Cave study as evidence, and there’s lots more where that came from. Loyalty/Betrayal produces the morality of in-group loyalty (think Cosa Nostra), patriotism, certain forms of military heroism and personal sacrifice, and demonization of traitors.
The Authority/Subversion Foundation. This is the impulse to respect and legitimize hierarchical relations of authority. Authority/Subversion makes us hypersensitive to signs of respect and disrespect, obedience and disobedience, submission and rebellion. Authority/Subversion produces the morality of respect for authority and noblesse oblige. Such moralities are evidenced in military organizations and some families, and in the social relations of many cultures. It can be difficult for WEIRDos to recognize hierarchical relations as anything but power relations, which are thus to be regarded as inherently exploitative and oppressive and anything but moral (see the Liberty/Oppression foundation). However, hierarchical relations aren’t necessarily exploitative (however much superiors in a hierarchy may sometimes take advantage of their position). Such relations, where legitimized, are a two-way street. The higher ranking persons have authority, but they also have responsibility (for norm enforcement, dispute adjudication, aid and care for subordinates who are on hard times, and other forms of leadership). As Haidt says, “people who relate to each other in this way have mutual expectations that are more like those of parent and child than those of a dictator and fearful underlings” (167). The benefit, when this works well, is coordinated action. It is hard to see a military organization working as a democracy. Haidt’s evidence for all this is mainly to cite Fiske’s anthropological work (and some work with chimpanzees). I think Fiske makes a pretty good case.
The Sanctity/Degradation Foundation. As the Care/Harm foundation is rooted in the emotion of compassion, Haidt says that the Sanctity/Degradation foundation is rooted in the emotion of disgust. Originally, disgust evolved to help our ancestors solve the “omnivore’s dilemma” of finding a proper balance between willingness to try novel foods and wariness of foods that are not yet proven safe. It may also have evolved to motivate ground dwellers in fairly large groups to care more about hygiene and sanitation. A significant fact about disgust is that it is transferrable by contact: what has been touched by a disgusting object or person becomes itself disgusting. Thus, disgust originally evolved to motivate people to avoid things that are likely to be pathogenic. Its basic triggers are things like rotting flesh, feces, scavengers such as vultures, and open sores. But its triggers can be culturally expanded to include many things, including out-group members and people low in the social scale (“the great unwashed”). Disgust is the emotional foundation of the moral ideas of pollution, stain, miasma. It is also (according to Haidt), paradoxically, the ultimate source of our sense of the sacred. For, the idea of pollution suggests its contrary, purity. The sacred is the pure, that which must be kept from pollution and degradation at all costs. It is the infinitely valuable. When we speak of the sanctity of human life, the Sanctity/Degradation foundation is in action. Sanctity talk is in decline in the West. There are still Westerners who think of virginity as sacred, for example, but they are outliers. However, as Haidt points out, we can still see Sanctity/Degradation at work in biomedical debates over abortion, physician-assisted suicide, and stem cell research. If the only moral principles driving people’s moral judgments were utilitarian concerns about suffering or preference satisfaction, or deontological concerns about rights or autonomy or the infliction of harm, it’s hard to see how there could be much controversy over these questions. But there is serious moral controversy—the abortion debate is about much more than simply whether a fetus can feel pain—because Sanctity/Degradation intuitions are potent, even in the West.
This brings us to the end of Haidt’s list of moral foundations, but I want to suggest that there may be one more: Fiske’s Communal Sharing. This is the concept of all working together for a shared purpose, without keeping particular track of who contributes what or who removes what from the common pool. Many married couples operate this way, and nuclear families more generally, as well as probably many small shops and undertakings. Think of kids building a tree house. Fiske finds that in small-scale societies, such as the Moose (pronounced MOH-say) that he studied in Burkina Faso, Communal Sharing structures many more activities than we are accustomed to in the West, including most of the farming (and they are an agrarian people). In “The Moral Mind,” Haidt and Joseph consider Communal Sharing to be encompassed under the Loyalty/Betrayal foundation. But as Haidt currently explains Loyalty/Betrayal, it is about maintaining in-group identity, unity, and cohesion—it’s about loyalty—not sharing. There can be strong in-groups without Communal Sharing, and there can be Communal Sharing without a very cohesive group (as in the tree house example). Communal Sharing is also not the same as concern with equality. The idea of equality implies separate individuals who require equal shares, equal turns, an equal say, and so forth. Communal Sharing is just the opposite, since it requires that shares not be counted and at its extreme hardly recognizes people as individuals, as opposed to members of the communal group. Meanwhile, there is good reason to think that helping and sharing is a basic human impulse. Haidt spoke in an earlier chapter of the work of Kiley Hamlin, who found that infants and toddlers spontaneously prefer agents who are helpful and dislike agents who hinder others. Also, children as young as their second year of life spontaneously help others (for example, by picking up and providing a reached-for object), share food, and provide information (Warneken and Tomasello 2009). Moreover, their motives for such behavior are not for extrinsic rewards such as praise or cookies, nor are infants so much motivated to provide help themselves as they are to see that the other person is helped (Hepach et al. 2013). Thus, pitching in and helping communally, without counting how much any particular individual gives or takes, is a natural mode of social relation. In many different contexts, determined differently from one culture to another, this is thought of as “right” behavior and keeping tabs is thought of as mean-spirited. Surely this sort of concept explains the impulse to set up utopian communes, large and small. I also think it explains a great deal of charitable giving (as a principle separate from compassion). It also seems to underlie moral principles such as, “If someone sues you for your shirt, give him your coat also.”
So Haidt has six moral foundations: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Liberty/Oppression, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation.
I myself would suggest a more expansive list, including as many as nine: Care/Harm, Equality Matching, Norm Psychology, Liberty/Oppression, Social Leveling, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, Sanctity/Degradation, and Communal Sharing.
One last point ought to be mentioned, which is the application of these principles to politics. Haidt devotes a lot of space to this. His most important point is that social conservatism is impossible to understand without the help of Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation. It is conservatives who stress duty to country, patriotism, respect for parents and for leaders, the sanctity of life, of marriage, and of the family. Liberals have a way of dismissing these principles, and social psychologists have a—rather shameful, actually—history of trying to use their “science” to pathologize their conservative political opponents, rather than take their claims at face value and attempt to understand them on their own terms. One of the more salutary features of Haidt’s work is that he calls out this behavior for what it is and urges psychologists to do better. Haidt’s description of a 2008 essay he wrote deserves quoting at length:
I titled the essay “What Makes People Vote Republican?” I began by summarizing the standard explanations that psychologists had offered for decades: Conservatives are conservative because they were raised by overly strict parents, or because they are inordinately afraid of change, novelty, and complexity, or because they suffer from existential fears and therefore cling to a simple worldview with no shades of gray. These approaches all had one feature in common: they used psychology to explain away conservatism. They made it unnecessary for liberals to take conservative ideas seriously because these ideas are caused by bad childhoods or ugly personality traits. I suggested a very different approach: start by assuming that conservatives are just as sincere as liberals, and then use Moral Foundations Theory to understand the moral matrices of both sides.
Haidt’s basic analysis is that the moral view underlying contemporary liberalism relies almost exclusively on just three moral foundations: Liberty/Oppression, Care/Harm, and to a lesser extent, Fairness/Cheating. The moral view underlying conservatism, by contrast, makes heavy use of all six. The use is not always the same, of course. For instance, as noted above, what is taken to constitute oppression differs considerably between liberals and conservatives. And there are variations of emphasis. For example, the Care/Harm foundation is more important to liberals than to conservatives. Nevertheless, the morality of conservatism draws from a considerably richer palate of moral tastes than does liberalism. Liberalism sounds just one or two moral notes, and this, Haidt argues, puts liberalism at a disadvantage when it attempts to appeal to everyday people, especially less educated people who haven’t had most of their moral taste buds cauterized by NPR and university courses in left wing ideology. He recommends that liberals try to broaden their appeal.
He presents data from over 100,000 survey participants in the U.S. that shows very persuasively that endorsement of the Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating foundations is positively linearly related to endorsement of liberal ideology, while endorsement of Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation is positively linearly related to endorsement of conservative ideology. (This experiment was done before Liberty/Oppression had been distinguished from Fairness/Cheating and Fairness/Cheating had been converted from a concern with equality to a concern with proportionality.) The slope of the lines for Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation are twice as steep as those for the other two foundations, and all five lines more or less converge to the same level at the “Very Conservative” end of the scale (Fig. 8.2, p. 187). In other words, conservatives employ all five of the measured moral foundations at a reasonably high level. The difference with liberals is that liberals use Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating (understood as equality) even more, and they don’t use the other three foundations much at all.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Haidt’s system makes crystal clear the way in which libertarians are different from conservatives. For, libertarians of course don’t typically care about the Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, or Sanctity/Degradation foundations any more than liberals do. But they share with conservatives a relaxed attitude toward Care/Harm. They thus show a distinct profile on Haidt’s set of moral foundations. They also suffer, from a PR perspective, in attempting to promote their views in the public sphere. Even more than liberals, they are lacking in easy and natural ways of hooking people’s moral intuitions. This may also be why it is so easy to portray libertarians as amoralists. Haidt and colleagues published a long study on libertarian morality fairly recently, which I hope to comment on soon.