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Moral foundations: how and why do moral judgments vary across the political spectrum?

In recent years, a growing body of research has been investigating the role of morality in the formation of political attitudes and the association between individuals’ moral beliefs and political ideology.  

In particular, Jonathan Haidt’s thesis allowed us to discover the importance of moral intuitions in building our political identity: by constructing his Moral Foundations Theory, Haidt detected the six underlying moral principles that shape our politics.  

Intuitions come first  

Using the metaphor of the elephant and its rider, Haidt explains how moral intuitions and emotions rise automatically and instantaneously and how moral reasoning then provides ex post ad hoc justifications for initial emotional reactions. Rejecting Plato’s rationalism and embracing Hume’s philosophy, Haidt argues that our mind is like a rider (representing reasoning) on an elephant (representing intuition): as the elephant first leans towards a certain way of feeling, the rider then fabricates explanations to justify the original inclination of the elephant. Therefore, as reason becomes the servant of passions, strategic reasoning is bound to follow intuition.  

From Homo Economicus to innateness  

Opposing the view according to which we are Homines Economici, namely that we make life’s choices like shoppers in a supermarket with plenty of time to compare products, Haidt argues in favor of innateness. He believes that our brain is, to some degree, organized in advance of experience and that we are born with some innate moral principles that subsequently  produce distinct values across different cultures and political classes.  

Introducing the Moral Foundations Theory  

Eventually, Haidt identifies six moral foundations underpinning our moral matrices, which are references, to different extents, to both the political left and right: 

  1. Care / Harm foundation  

It’s the natural predisposition to care for the vulnerable that comes from the maternal instinct of keeping children safe.  

In politics, this moral foundation is used by both liberals and conservatives but to different extent: as Democrats tend to trigger this module to protect innocent victims (such as asylum seekers and weak segments of the population), Republicans evoke this feeling in order to get you to care about who sacrificed for the group (such as veterans).

  1. Fairness / Cheating foundation  

It’s the impulse towards proportionality that comes from the desire to enjoy the rewards of cooperation without being exploited by free riders.  

In politics, it explains criticisms of conservatives against liberals’ policies for a more equal redistribution of resources, viewed as undeserved benefits for those who refuse to work and rely on the government’s help to pay their debts. 

  1. Loyalty / Betrayal foundation  

It’s the innate predisposition to uphold cohesive coalitions, despising traitors and honoring loyal teammates, as a result of the adaptive challenge of forming and maintaining alliances to face attacks from rival groups. 

In politics, the left has often troubles in connecting with voters who rely on this notion, since liberals promote universalism and refuse nationalism. On the other hand, the right promotes a strong sense of community and it is therefore able to elicit an emotional response arguing in defense of one’s own country and against external enemies. 

  1. Authority / Subversion foundation  

It’s the urge to respect and advocate hierarchical positions that comes from the need to organize society and forge beneficial relations.  

In politics, anything that is constructed as an act of obedience/ disobedience, respect / disrespect and submission/ rebellion is a trigger of this foundation. Liberals, in contrast to conservatives, also encounter difficulties in relying on the Authority foundation, because they endorse ideas such as equality and self-determination principles which are completely in contrast to this ethic.   

  1. Sanctity / Degradation foundation  

It’s shaped by the feelings of disgust and contamination that evolved from the need to avoid pathogens and parasites. Furthermore, human beings, because of their omnivorous nature, have always been driven by two opposite feelings: neophilia, namely the attraction to new things, and neophobia, namely the fear of new things, two sentiments which are extremely exploited in the political field.  

  1. Liberty / Oppression foundation  

It’s the trigger of feelings of resentment towards who dominates and restricts liberty and freedom of individuals that causes people to band together to resist tyrants and bullies. In politics, this principle supports revolutionaries’ moral matrices, egalitarian views, and antiauthoritarianism.  

Eventually, Haidt claims that conservatives were able to take advantage of most of these moral foundations,achieving a political advantage. Conversely, liberals, relying primarily on Care, Fairness and Liberty foundations, struggle to connect to voters’ who count on other moral principles and have a narrower variety of ways to engage with citizens.  

How morality produces different attitudes towards policies for wealth distribution: a practical example  

Relying on the Moral Foundations Theory, the research conducted by Professor Peter Meindl examines whether different forms of distributive justice are positively associated with different moral foundations. The results shows that there exist two sets of distributive justice beliefs: Equality/ Need and Equality/ Merit. These two sets reflect the different perspectives on the ultimate goal of society and on the concept of power. People who believe that wealth should be redistributed in order to achieve an equality and need-based distributive justice consider the ultimate goal of society to be the maximization of the well-being and happiness of citizens. Conversely, people who believe that wealth should be redistributed in order to reward hard-working individuals, make merit the guiding principle of redistributive policies, valuing it as the best way to achieve power within a society.  

To sum up, research and new theories seem to be oriented towards a new interpretation of the phenomenon of political polarization: the division we experience is caused by different understandings of concepts such as the final goal of societies and by different moral foundations. Therefore, recognizing the validity of unfamiliar moral matrices could help avoiding divisions in the political debate and reducing the tension between political beliefs. 

Sources and references:

  • Zaid Jilani; March 2, 2020; “How Do Your Morals Shape Your Politics?”

  • Book: J. Haidt; 2012; “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion”

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