Haidt’s Ethical Foundations Theory

An explanation of why people vote conservative or liberal.

Readership: All;

Chad Ragsdale: Why your conservative uncle votes differently than you (2020 October 26).

In this article, liberal Christian blogger Chad Ragsdale summarizes Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory (MFT), which helps to explain why people make certain political and ethical decisions.

Here, I’ve recycled some of what Ragsdale wrote covering Haidt’s theory (in green text), “translated” Ragsdale’s summary (in blue text), and added commentary on points I disagreed with (in black).

MFT identifies five distinct ethical values that inform our positions, attitudes, and actions.

  1. The Care/Harm foundation. This foundation is about our sensitivity towards suffering or those in need. It makes us despise cruelty and care for those who are suffering.
  2. The Fairness/Cheating foundation. This foundation is about justice. We want to shun or punish cheaters. On the other hand, we are drawn to those who practice altruism.
  3. The Ingroup Loyalty/Betrayal foundation. This foundation is about group identity. We don’t trust whose who are vastly different from ourselves, or who betray us or our group. This foundation makes us sensitive to signs that another person is (or is not) loyal to the interests of the in-group.
  4. The Authority/Subversion foundation. This foundation is about social hierarchies. We are sensitive to rank or status and are suspicious of those who undermine this order and/or condemn those who are rebellious.
  5. The Sanctity (Purity)/Degradation foundation. This foundation is about purity. According to Haidt, “It includes the behavioral immune system, which can make us wary of a diverse array of symbolic objects and threats.” In other words, this foundation makes us sensitive to those sacred people, things, and institutions which bind us together.

I disagree that these five dichotomies represent morality. Morality is based on the faithful discernment of what is good, right, best, or most appropriate within a given context. Just because a person hard-headedly sticks to one of these structures is not sufficient to constitute morality. Instead, I would describe MFT as an outline of different psychological sub-ethical values that are unique to individuals.

Haidt and his associates conducted research to determine how these foundations inform our politics. Here is what they discovered.

Strongly liberal people put a great deal of weight on the Care and Fairness foundations. The other three foundations are more of an afterthought. OTOH, strongly conservative people place much more weight on the In-group Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity (Purity) foundations. As you can see from the graph, conservatives do consider Care and Fairness, but the expression of these two ethical values tend to be reserved for family and close friends, and not extended to the general public as liberals are espoused to do. It stands to reason that the ethical decisions made by conservatives are more nuanced, and probably more morally responsible as well.

Ragsdale calls conservative ethics “complicated” and “complex”. He remarks,

“Do you notice how the foundations converge among strongly conservative people?  It turns out that strongly conservative people have a much more complex moral framework than strongly liberal people.”

No surprises there.

Ragsdale goes on to describe three anecdotal examples of how these foundations influence people’s decisions on (1) racial justice, (2) Trump’s border wall, and (3) same sex marriage.  If you’re interested in how MFT applies to those issues, then click on the link at the top.

Concluding Statements

Haidt’s theory explains why people lean conservative or liberal by underscoring five sets of ethical values and suggesting that different individuals place a different emphasis or method of expression on each one.  I found this theory to be insightful, and probably true.

In addition, agreement on ethical stance is an important consideration when vetting a potential spouse.

The outstanding question in my mind is why liberals would emphasize the Care and Fairness ethics to eclipse the other three.  To be generous, I can only guess that they’ve suffered an inordinate degree of cruelty and betrayal, and feel motivated to seek justice.  (I suppose this is why they’re called “Bleeding Heart” liberals.)  But being realistic, I know this is not entirely true, because many liberals lead very comfortable lives.  I tend to believe that liberals are fully convinced that either the world was never broken by sin, or that the sin of the world might somehow be ameliorated through social activism, one person at a time.*  If so, then a Calvinist liberal is somewhat of an oxymoron, because such is a denial of Christ.

That’s not what the Bible says!

For a liberal blogger, Ragsdale’s article is rather moderate.  As a professor of Christian apologetics and Biblical interpretation, Ragsdale takes a Christian stance, so it’s probably good for liberals to read, and it’s digestible for their fastidious tastes.

I’m calling attention to his blog because there is much to be gleaned, despite the liberal flavor. From reading some of his other work, I can sense that he has some prophetic gifting.  Of note, his post on Faith and Feelings (2019 January 11) is pretty good.

He has a following of over 2,500.  Perhaps he is called to speak truth to liberals.

* Here I am not saying that I don’t believe in the value of extending agape love to others.  But such efforts need to be undertaken with discernment and wisdom, and backed by personal conviction.  It should not just be motivated by a self-righteous desire to feel good and/or to be seen as a good person.

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About Jack

Jack is a world traveling artist, skilled in trading ideas and information, none of which are considered too holy, too nerdy, nor too profane to hijack and twist into useful fashion. Sigma Frame Mindsets and methods for building and maintaining a masculine Frame
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6 Responses to Haidt’s Ethical Foundations Theory

  1. Novaseeker says:

    Good post — the Haidt framework has been interesting since he first started talking about it a few years ago.

    I believe Haidt considers these preferences to be closely tied to innate personality types and formations. It’s likely that in some cases environmental factors enhance these personality aspects or perhaps shift people into one or the other type, but I think Haidt believes that most people more or less naturally fall into one or the other type, and this is why political type conflicts are so durable, regardless of the formal content of the ideologies that are in contest in any given context — that is, regardless of the substance of what is in conflict, in terms of either policy or ideology, one group tends to lean towards the care/harm and fairness side of things, and disregard authority/purity/tribe, whereas the other group takes a more holistic view.

    I’ve always seen Haidt’s analysis as fundamentally pessimistic, even though I am pretty sure he sees it neutrally and not pessimistically. That is, if these kinds of differences are wired, political conflict is not only inevitable, but it is also fundamentally unresolvable due to these differences. I suppose that can still work to bring about a creative tension in contexts where, despite these differences, there are substantive agreements about fundamental first things (this is kind of the situation that prevailed in the US prior to around 1960), where these inherent conflicts can create a creative tension without leading to unresolvable polarization of the kind we see today. However, at the same time, where such a fundamental, first things level agreement is lacking (as it is today), Haidt’s approach would suggest that there is more or less no way out of the current conflict because the base of it relates to inherent differences in personality and psychology, which are not easily malleable. Again, perhaps a way out is finding a new consensus on first things …. but I don’t see how that will happen anytime soon. Perhaps it does end up happening through generational attrition, however.

    f so, then a Calvinist liberal is somewhat of an oxymoron, because such is a denial of Christ.

    I think when people use that term they are speaking analogically. A Calvinist liberal isn’t a Calvinist Christian who has liberal politics. A Calvinist liberal is a liberal who has a Calvinistic type of approach to their politics — there is a mysteriously pre-annointed and self-selected elect which, by virtue of being members of such elect, is superiorly and uniquely graced such that it cannot, ultimately, err, and therefore it is righteous and best for them to lead. It is seen to be a secularized version, in other words, of the situation of Calvin in Geneva, and his conflicts with the Libertines and so on. Again, the idea isn’t that these are Christian believers, but that their approach to themselves, their position in society and unique righteousness, bears some parallels to an assumed reading of Calvin’s Geneva and believers there. A book which uses this idea, without using the term, is Jody Bottom’s book “An Anxious Age” (here: https://www.amazon.com/Anxious-Age-Post-Protestant-Spirit-America/dp/0385518811 ). As with any analogy, it is very inexact and can lead to misunderstandings if pushed beyond its usefulness, and, generally, will be ill-received by persons who are in the category utilized by the analogy because it will inevitably misdescribe them in critical ways.

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  2. cameron232 says:

    What he’s suggesting is that conservatives are more balanced, taking all these moral aspects into account. Liberals are unbalanced. If these different aspects of morality weren’t necessary, they wouldn’t have developed.

    This imbalance is being selected against and there won’t be many of them left in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. AngloSaxon says:

    I never understand why “liberals” care so much about fairness and being caring. Screams effeminate degeneracy to me.

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