Review : Liberals and Conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations – 1/2

Graham, J., Haidt, J., & Nosek, B. A. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. Journal of personality and social psychology,96(5), 1029. This paper by Jesse Graham, Jonathan Haidt & Brian Nosek (University of Virginia) uses Moral Foundations Theory  (MFT) to test whether liberals and conservatives give different weightings to 5 sets of moral intuitions. The 5 moral intuitions tested in the paper are (the latest version of  MFT has 6 foundations with one for Liberty being added):

  1. Harm/Care
  2. Fairness/reciprocity
  3. Ingroup/loyalty
  4. Authority/respect
  5. Purity/sanctity

Their conclusion is that liberals and conservative do in fact place different weightings on each of these moral intuitions.  Liberals strongly favour the moral intuitions of Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity in their decision making while conservatives rely on a more balanced weighting of all the moral intuitions.  Hence giving rise to distinct types of moral reasoning which are fundamentally different in their decision architecture.  Consequently, as political groups become more polarised the ability of individuals in one group to interpret the moral reasoning of individuals in another group becomes increasingly difficult.  Even when the ultimate goal is the same. The key insight is that what one moral reasoning type may regard as rational decision making another moral reasoning type will consider irrational due to different moral starting points.  From an economics point of view this is very interesting because the existence of heterogeneity in decision architecture is contrary to the accepted view all individuals in society are homogeneous, subject to environmental variability in endowments (wealth, ability, time, location etc.).  One of the objectives of my research into how parents choose schools is to show that there are in fact distinct decision making types that form identifiable heterogeneous groups using different decision architectures.  These economic types will be identified using linguistic analysis of exploratory interviews, along similar lines to the text analysis method used in this research paper.  Graham et. al. use the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count Program (LIWC) to analyse liberal and conservative church sermons to tease out the latent moral foundations indicated by the words used.  I will be applying Latent Semantic Analysis as the principle method of analysis and use LIWC and topological analysis as comparison methods. Political views are considered to be multifaceted and that individuals sit along a continuum between liberal and conservative beliefs. There is a strong propensity for clustering where groups become polarized as individuals synchronize with in-group beliefs.  Liberals tend to be more optimistic and have a more open approach to the world while conservatives are generally more pessimistic and constrained with a preference for authority, institutions and traditions.  The authors of this paper propose that one of the main reasons for the strong difference in moral foundations between liberals and conservatives is that for liberals morality is “first and foremost about protecting individuals” from harm and inequity.  Liberal morality is grounded in the tradition of philosophers “from Kant through Mill to Rawls” where justice, rights & welfare take centre stage.  This “ethic of autonomy” (Shweder et al. 1997) is the moral domain of the Western elites and unusual for its absence in other cultures where the focus is the “ethic of community” and an “ethic of divinity”.  The ethic of community includes moral judgements on obedience, duty, cohesiveness and institutions while the ethic of divinity includes moral judgements on issues such as purity, sanctity, and suppression of carnal instincts. If one assumes that there are evolutionary selection pressures on these various behavioural traits, it raises the interesting question about why liberal behavioural traits came to dominate in Europe, or at least live in a balanced co-existence with conservatives? Based on a previous paper by Haidt & Joseph (2004) they try to provide “evolutionary explanations of the related psychological mechanisms” and identify the moral foundations of Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity as providing “two clear matches”.  Harm/Care has its roots in the evolution of empathy as described in de Waal’s study of primates (2008) and Fairness/Reciprocity  in reciprocal altruism dynamics present in animal behaviour (Trivers 1971).  Additionally, I would add that Authority/Respect clearly has its evolutionary roots in mating behaviour with the dynamics associated with alpha-males and mating dominance.  While Ingroup/Loyalty has its evolutionary roots in Kin-Selection (Smith 1964).  The evolutionary basis for Purity/Sanctity is provided by Haidt in his book “The righteous mind” (2012) as being linked with disease avoidance behaviour. Though I also suspect there maybe a strong connection with behaviour associated to parental certainty (Coall & Herttwig 2010), especially since many societies are fixated on virginity as a form of purity.  The additional 6th moral foundation of Liberty in MFT evolutionary basis is mostly likely linked to a preference for mating with individuals who are not kin-related.  This may have evolved as a uniquely strong human trait given our evolutionary bottlenecks and the risks of inbreeding.  The demise of the Neanderthals, our nearest evolutionary cousins, may have been due to excessive inbreeding during ice-ages. (test: libertarians should really dislike their siblings!) To make the assertion that these moral foundations have an evolutionary basis requires that these behavioural traits are heritable.  They use the research of Keller et. al. (2005) and McCourt et. al. (1999) to show that these types of behavioural traits are moderately heritable. Though they do not take a deterministic view of genetic inherence has on an individual’s development preferring Marcus’ (2004) position that “genes create the first draft, and experience later edits it”.  The brain is pre-organised but remains malleable to experience. This application of MFT to liberal/conservative preferences and moral judgements also raises the interesting question whether there is a distinct difference between political and moral philosophies? Socialism and communism are normally associated with the left but necessarily “privilege the welfare of the group over the rights of the individual”.  This may explain why socialist and communist experiments in the East resulted in brutal & restrictive regimes.  If moral foundations of a society are built on an ethic of divinity or an ethic of community, socialist political systems could become brutal totalitarian regimes like Cambodia’s Pol Pot and what we see today in North Korea.  While capitalist systems without an ethic of autonomy quickly become fascist regimes.  While Graham et. al. don’t view political and moral foundations as being distinct, they nonetheless “do not think of political ideology – or morality – as a strictly one-dimension spectrum.”  Personally, political systems don’t automatically arise from moral foundations but rather the effectiveness of political is dictated by the moral foundations of the individuals involved. That is, the problem of inappropriate political institutions being imposed on groups of individuals with moral foundations that are ill suited for that particular system. A nation may need to progress through political structures with a more authoritarian nature, reflecting moral foundations placing a high weight on hierarchy and in-group loyalty, before becoming a democratic state.  Specific examples where there was a successful transition from capitalist dictatorship to democracy would be South Korea and Taiwan.  Alternatively, it is possible that Japan adopted democracy too early leaving the country vulnerable to shadow militarism due to strong preferences for hierarchy and in-group loyalty.  Leading the country onto a militarist path at the beginning of the twentieth century which had none of the checks and balances of an overt dictatorship supported by a Western-styled professional public service and legal system. I will follow up with a separate second post with discussion of the linguistics methods used by this paper. Below is an example of Graham et. al.’s experimental results. Haidt figure1 ====================================================

Coall, D. A., & Hertwig, R. (2010). Grandparental investment: Past, present, and future. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33(01), 1-19.

Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Random House LLC.

Haidt, J., & Joseph, C. (2004). Intuitive ethics: How innately prepared intuitions generate culturally variable virtues. Daedalus, 133(4), 55-66.

Keller, M. C., Coventry, W. L., Heath, A. C., & Martin, N. G. (2005). Widespread evidence for non-additive genetic variation in Cloninger’s and Eysenck’s personality dimensions using a twin plus sibling design. Behavior genetics, 35(6), 707-721.

McCourt, K., Bouchard Jr, T. J., Lykken, D. T., Tellegen, A., & Keyes, M. (1999). Authoritarianism revisited: Genetic and environmental influences examined in twins reared apart and together. Personality and Individual Differences, 27(5), 985-1014.

Marcus, G. (2008). The birth of the mind: How a tiny number of genes creates the complexities of human thought. Basic Books.

Shweder, R. A., Much, N. C., Mahapatra, M., & Park, L. (1997). The “big three” of morality (autonomy, community, divinity) and the “big three” explanations of suffering. Morality and health, 119-169.

Smith, J. M. (1964). Group selection and kin selection. Nature, 201, 1145-1147.

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