Jonathan Haidt is one of the most important thinkers of our time. I feel I can offer that statement without qualifying adjectives because he was, so far as I know, the first person to appropriately combine two of the most powerful ideas of the Enlightenment: rigorous Empiricism and the Theory of Moral Sentiment.

Haidt’s creation, Moral Foundations Theory, asks an extremely important meta-ethical question: what rubrics or heuristics do we use to resolve moral questions or to make moral judgments? That, in itself, isn’t a new question. For me, the best pre-Haidt account of the sources of Ethics is Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self in which the Catholic philosopher makes a compelling case for moral frameworks based around sources of value or “hypergoods”. In other words, each of us has some set of abstract Forms in comparison to which we form all value judgments. If “Health” is a hypergood for a particular individual, then they will value highly things like exercise and clean living.1

This bears interesting resemblance to Haidt’s much more rigorous, much less philosophical work, in which he actually tries to determine empirically what our sources of value are and what mental heuristics we use to form our moral sentiments. It’s an interesting and important project, but even more interesting are the results. Haidt’s experiments (which you can learn more about and participate in at the Moral Foundations Theory Homepage) have found six primary sources for human moral values. They are:

1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]
3) Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.
4) Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”
5) Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
6) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).

This is an interesting result in and of itself, but what’s even more striking are the differences in which various groups emphasize which moral foundations. In the political sphere, Haidt &co. found that Liberals a strong propensity to understand moral questions in terms of Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating, while conservatives showed a more balanced orientation towards all of the various moral foundations. As one might imagine, Libertarians were extremely skewed towards Liberty/Oppression. (For more on these interesting political differences, see Haidt’s excellent summary of his findings in this essay on the Moral Foundations of Occupy Wall Street.)

This, to me, is perhaps one of the most important concrete conclusion’s of Haidt’s work. Which is the main reason why I’m very excited that it is the focal point for Haidt’s new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. The large political divides in every Western democracy are, at least in part, differences in values. Actually, they’re much more fundamental than that, because they’re differences in moral axioms. Liberals, conservatives, libertarians, statists, anarchists, etc. often differ not only in their ideas, but in the sources of their value. Whether you call them “hypergoods” or “moral foundations”, the fact remains that one of the reasons we disagree is because when presented with the same moral question, we break out entirely different tool kits to help us resolve it.

Personally, I’m very excited about Haidt’s new book, and I look forward to hearing more of the results of his research. He’s already done an incredible service to the cause of human understanding and self-reflection, and I hope his contributions continue for many years to come.


Disclosure Notice

1 I have a theory that many modern discontents are caused by a profusion of hypergoods. Our globally connected world means that we get exposed to the extolations and value judgments of so many people that we begin to try and adopt too many hypergoods. And so we end up feeling like we have to be Healthy and Green and Wise and Civil and Religious/Areligious and Thrifty and Wealthy and Relaxed and Hard-Working and and and… This leads to huge conflicts in our judgments of value meaning that we can’t do anything without feeling at least a little bit guilty about it. Because no matter what we do, we’ll be in violation of one of the many hypergoods we’ve acquired. Interestingly enough, this ends up in practice turning into the same kind of neo-Puritans that H. L. Mencken mocked in American society a century ago.