Moral Foundations

OpEdNews, March 12, 2014

Moral Foundations

By Richard Turcotte

It’s easy to ridicule much of what is … ridiculous. But if genuine cooperation to reach mutually beneficial solutions to increasingly-vexing problems on often more than just a national stage is still considered a useful practice, getting beyond the cheap shots must happen sooner rather than later.


No one has to search far and wide to appreciate how polarized we’ve become in recent years. Explanations abound. Too often, our debates with those on the "other side" of the ideological chasm are akin to having conversations with creatures from another planet; there’s absolutely nothing familiar to us about their world and what they consider reality.

It’s easy to ridicule much of what is … ridiculous. But if genuine cooperation to reach mutually beneficial solutions to increasingly-vexing problems on often more than just a national stage is still considered a useful practice, getting beyond the cheap shots must happen sooner rather than later.

Much of our intensely partisan and increasingly harsh, pointless, and ineffectual policy "debates’ can find origins and explanations in the Moral Foundations Theory proposed by Jonathan Haidt [author and currently a professor at New York University Stern School of Business].

As a way to at least open the door to a better/deeper understanding of partisan ideology’s influence in public discourse, the Moral Foundations Theory is a great place to begin.

We propose a simple hypothesis: Political liberals construct their moral systems primarily upon two psychological foundations–Harm/care and Fairness/reciprocity–whereas political conservatives construct moral systems more evenly upon five psychological foundations–the same ones as liberals, plus Ingroup/loyalty, Authority/respect, and Purity/sanctity. We call this hypothesis the moral foundations hypothesis, and we present four studies that support it using four different methods".[page 1029]
Across all four studies, liberal morality was primarily concerned with harm and fairness, whereas conservative moral concerns were distributed more evenly across all five foundations. These findings help explain why liberals and conservatives disagree on so many moral issues and often find it hard to understand how an ethical person could hold the beliefs of the other side: Liberals and conservatives base their moral values, judgments, and arguments on different configurations of the five foundations. [page 1040]

In and of themselves, these configurations aren’t "wrong’ any more than having green eyes is wrong. It’s our adaptation to and utilization of them that matters, and what we’re doing seems increasingly insane! Exacerbating already too-imposing-by-half problems shouldn’t be anyone’s go-to option.

It has become clear that the parties have separated on moral issues. As politics has become more about engaging the mass public (as opposed to an earlier era of patronage politics), the parties have adopted increasingly divergent moral positions.

The human psyche–complex and at times unknowable as it seems to be on occasion–is shaped by countless influences and manifests itself in equally countless ways. Understanding the motivations and beliefs which drive our behaviors rarely lends itself to simple and commonly-applicable explanations. The Moral Foundations Theory however, supplies us with a good starting point from which to draw in other emotional and psychological explanations to help craft a better–fuller–understanding of what we do and why.

A bit more about the Foundations:

The first two foundations are Harm/care (involving intuitions of sympathy, compassion, and nurturance) and Fairness/reciprocity (including notions of rights, justice, and what people owe to each other). These two foundations are generally concerned with the protection and fair treatment of individuals; they are therefore called the two "individualizing’ foundations. The other three foundations, in contrast, are called the "binding’ foundations because they generally support moral systems in which people are bound into larger groups and institutions. These foundations are Ingroup/loyalty (supporting moral obligations of patriotism and "us vs. them’ thinking); Authority/respect (including concerns about social order and the importance of traditions and role-based duties in maintaining order) and Purity/sanctity (including concerns about treating the body as a temple and living in a higher, more "divine’ way, versus a lower, baser, more carnal way).

Cultural/political debates are founded on differing assessments of what is and what is not "moral." From those specific motivations are formed arguments, beliefs, and principles about how best to create policies to protect/provide for ourselves and our fellow citizens. Simple enough explanation, isn’t it?

But it quickly becomes wildly complex in application when the decision-making process mixes in the not-so-easily-defined-or-understood emotional, cultural, ideological, personal, political, religious, and empirical factors which shape our decisions and actions. That many of those influences are not consciously chosen and adopted just adds to the fun. Who has time or the inclination to stop and evaluate those intricate subconscious influences and experiences?

And thus two of many dilemmas make their appearance:

Because morality biases us long before consciousness and reasoning set in, factual and logical argument are not at all a good way to get us to change our behavior and how we respond.

Liberals and conservatives don’t just differ in their opinions, they have fundamentally different ways of processing information, which in turn leads them to hold markedly divergent sets of facts.
Even more frustrating for those who view politics as a rational pursuit of one’s self-interest, facts don’t actually matter that much. We begin evaluating policies emotionally, according to a deeply ingrained moral framework, and then our brains often work backward, filling in — or inventing -"facts’ that conform to that framework.

Do any behaviors, policies, reactions, beliefs, etc., etc. each and all plastered across the media landscape fit with the above considerations? (Jonathan Haidt is on to something.) Not too difficult to understand why these conflicting approaches and perspectives can complicate policy-making and public debates just a wee bit".

Without appreciating the foundation from which we derive our own policies, we leave ourselves adrift and too-often isolated from peers who seek ultimate ends not all that different from our own. The failure, inability, unwillingness–call the reasoning what you will–for those of us on the Left to understand the emotional and psychological motivations of conservative principles and beliefs doesn’t help. I’m as guilty as the next in choosing to mock first, but until we can get past that tendency with all of its justifications, the wider the divide becomes.

Needless to say, the Right’s equally egregious approach in assessing the Left’s principles and beliefs contributes just as much to the polarization. It’s surely the easier path for both sides–shooting fish in a barrel–but are the snark-driven "victories" all that meaningful? Sure as hell they aren’t helping much.

(Adapted from two recent blog posts of mine. 1. 2.)

Submitters Website:

Submitters Bio:
Looking Left and Right: Inspiring Different Ideas, Envisioning Better Tomorrows Rich Turcotte is a retired attorney, former financial advisor, and now a writer. A lifelong Massachusetts resident, he also serves as Co-Chair of his Town’s Transportation Advisory Committee. Through his work, he hopes to encourage a new level of civility and understanding in public/political discourse by sharing observations about the ideologies which motivate our political, cultural, and energy supply debates. In addition to the two blogs he maintains at his new website (, Rich blogs about energy/Peak Oil at

He is the author of a new political suspense-thriller: The Tretiak Agenda. It’s available at Smashwords and Amazon.



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