|I used Autofocus to capture this tiger in India|
News reports documenting the killing of children tug deeply at our most basic impulse to care for the young and vulnerable. Many of us identify unfair treatment and at least give a nod of support to those who seek to remedy injustice. It is no secret that people disagree about the right way to solve social problems. Matters of right and wrong are the stuff of morality. And matters of right and wrong often connect people with similar religious and political beliefs.
I have drawn upon the research of Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues when writing about moral perspectives as formulated in moral foundations theory. The six moral foundations provide a useful way to consider various social-moral issues. In this post, I review the six moral foundations. In A House Divided, I applied these six foundations to show how different tribes of Christians argue about such divisive issues as birth control, abortion, and sex education.
I begin with a metaphor. The human moral response is like setting the focus on a digital camera. Many of us view life using autofocus. That works most of the time when we live in the culture where we were raised. But at other times, we need to reset the focus to a particular option or do the hard work of manual focus.
It turns out that most people draw upon a few options when arguing about morality. People have their favorite settings. Some use more than others. According to Haidt and his colleagues, liberals tend to rely on two or three settings—Care/Harm, Fairness, and sometimes Liberty. While not excluding these two or three options, conservatives may select from another two or three—Authority, Loyalty, and Purity.
Unlike cameras, when it comes to humans, we have powerful emotions like love, fear, and anger driving the arguments for right and wrong. Some of us hammer away at one or two points regardless of what others say. Unfortunately, when people latch on to a reason or two, they don't let go. Once committed, other reasons are ignored.
The Six Moral Foundations
1. Care/ Harm.
Caring is motivated by the complex emotion of love and affection. Loving parents also become very angry when perceiving threats to their families and loved ones. The natural love that embodies care and protection for children can be expanded to kinship groups and cultures. It is not surprising that family metaphors arise in religious and political writings.
2. Fairness and Justice.
We learn about playing fair as children. Those who break the rules are punished in various ways. Most learn it is wrong to cheat. Cheating and discrimination are close. People who seek justice may often use peaceful means yet righteous anger can flare and motivate more aggressive action.
Respect for authority is not only a strong moral impulse but it can be foolhardy to rebel in some settings. For some, the moral value of respecting those in authority is a core value. Feelings of respect for authority can be increased by feeling fear and awe. Disrespect can lead to powerful and destructive righteous anger toward the disrespectful. Look for words such as respect, deference, arrogance, pride, awe, humility and authority.
Loyalty is motivated by love and betrayal by hate. Some people constantly test the nature of their relationships in terms of loyalty and betrayal concerns. At the national level, betrayal is treason.
People are motivated to be free, independent and unbound. Laws, policies, and unwritten social norms can restrict where certain classes of people can live and what they can do. People celebrate the joy of freedom following oppression. Righteous anger leads to overthrowing oppressive regimes.
6. Purity, Sanctity/Impurity, Disgust.
Children learn early in life to clean up and avoid germ-infested matter. We humans have a built-in yuk response to various bodily fluids and other substances. It isn’t long until lessons about being physically clean generalize to call certain behavior or activities dirty, filthy, perverted, disgusting, and unclean. And it is not much of a leap to label people who engage in such behavior or activities as unclean, unworthy, disgusting, perverts, and so on. Religious and social rules as well as laws banning certain activities can be the result of motivations to purify a culture. In the extreme, righteous anger using the language of cleansing is a thinly veiled way of disguising the killing of people as a moral duty.
To find how we agree or disagree we must listen to the reasons given and pay attention to the power of emotion. But then we will still need a way forward by relying on principles and weighing consequences.
Haidt, Jonathan. The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment. Psychological Review 108 (2001) 814–834.
Sutton, Geoffrey W. A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2016. Also available on AMAZON.
Read a review of Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind.
Find more about examining cultures at this website