Moral Foundations Theory

It is one of the signs of our political times that many–if today not most–arguments about policy e.g. economics, history, social policy and women (especially about the role of women in society!) are based not in rational analysis but in competing beliefs about what is good and right for the world. As a moral psychologist, Jonathan Haidt researches the question in his book The Righteous Mind of “why good people are divided by politics and religion” through his model of “moral foundations,” which describes how we make decisions in terms of biologically evolved moral “modules” which determine our allegiances, associations and rational justifications of our moral proclivities prior to any act of reasoning we might use to justify our leanings after the fact.

The book first establishes the current neurobiological understanding of the role of thinking in the debates with the insight that for all thinking, “intuitions come first, reasons second.” He uses the metaphor of the elephant and the rider to describe how the rider of our thinking may believe it steers the elephant of our moral intuitions, but when we look at the results of research into decision making we see that it is invariably the elephant which moves first, with the rider leaning in the elephant’s direction after the fact and using reason to justify its leaning post hoc.

What, then, is the basis of our decisions? Haidt has discoved six moral foundations:







Around the world, liberals, he has found, base their morality and their political orientation on the first three foundations. Conservatives are based roughly equally in all six foundations, while liberterians constellate almost entirely around the Liberty/Oppression module with a smattering of a conservative version of Fairness/Cheating thrown in to round things off.

Even more intriguing is Haidt’s understanding of the origins of our moral leanings which, he finds, e.g. through the studies of twins, are less learned than they are biological predispositions. What we believe, how we see the world, what we feel strongly about, and how we vote is largely due to our biological predispositon to some or all of the modules which universally make up the foundations of our moral intuition.

What moral foundations theory helps me, for example, to do is to experiment in my own self-reflective processes more consciously with the orientation to those moral foundations which I have less of a natural affinity to. For example, as a modern, European, self-employed networker, the moral foundation of Authority/Subversion plays no role at all in my moral leanings. Yet I recognize the importance of healthy authority in child rearing, community organization, company leadership, and in many decision making processes. And my experience of the 60’s has helped me to understand how anti-authoritarian rebellion can cause Harm, the downside of a moral foundation of Care which is very important to me indeed.

In my business dealings with Arab and Asian cultures, understanding and respecting the Loyalty/Betrayal module or the Sanctity/Degredation module can be critical to the success of both business and social relations. Haidt provides a good map to go exploring with, and adventure is guaranteed, especially for people like myself operating with only a part of the total foundation we share as human beings.

The final conclusion which Haidt arrives at for himself, however, and the recommendation he gives to resolve the impasse in current debates, falls entirely too short of where I thought he might be going. In an impulse to quantitative completion, Haidt argues that liberals and libertarians might have something to learn from the conservative orientation simply because the conservative moral landscape involves all six moral foundations, whereas the liberal involves only three and the libertarian only two. More, Haidt seems to argue, must be better.

But the fact that our brains have evolved these six modules cannot, in my evolutionarily inspired view, automatically mean that having any version of one of these modules active is better than not having it operating at all. For example, in liberals, the Sanctity/Degredation module plays almost no role in responses of moral intuition. For the conservatives it does. But the current conservative version of Sanctity/Degredation issues is rooted in religion at the developmental level of a mythical consciousness. Liberals, in their more secular/scientific approach to life, have little patience for mytholgocially-based imperatives. Does that mean that liberals lack the Sanctity/Degredation module? That would seem to be unlikely, since even if through evolution certain brains focus less on the second triad of foundations than others, too little evolutionary time has passed for the second triad to have atrophied completely in the liberal brain. Liberals, I would think, respond just as intensely to the issues of life from the Sanctity/Degredation module as conservatives–but differently. As Haidt also notes, the counterculture interest in spirituality, meditation, alternative medicine and natural foods had a “purity” aspect which would seem to fit well to the Sanctity/Degredation need (ridiculed, interestingly, by conservatives–perhaps because it reminds them of the irrationality of their own versions of the Sanctity need). To take another example, the liberal rejection of patriarchal authority as arbitrary and discriminatory would seem to express in mature liberals a need for authority more suited to a complex, networked world, not the rejection of the Authority/Subversion impulse as such.

At, a website run by Haidt and a number of academic colleagues, one can participate in a plethora of surveys to get a profile of one’s own moral orientation among a host of other topics loosely related to politics and morality. The few I have filled out so far put me pretty much where I expected, in the liberal/libertarian moral range.

However, many questions left me feeling caught in both/and or neither/nor dilemmas, so that I answered them without feeling my orientation had been grasped. For example, I am both socially liberal and fiscally conservative, a values-orientation closer to what the Economist uses as its moral foundation than any of the parties in the US. Then I am complexity and network-oriented and not socially communitarian, which the questionnaires seem unable to distinguish from a socially liberal perspective. And while I am strongly fairness-oriented in the conservative sense of personal responsibility and reward for performance, I can’t imagine a context in which performance could operate effectively which was not created through the regulatory policies of an intelligent social community and efficient government bureacracy, again a moral orientation which the questionnaires did not seem to be able to grasp (though as I learn more, I may discover how they do include such perspectives).

In sum, Moral Foundations Theory could enable us to explore the world’s moral landscape more fully, providing an objective framework for issues which most of us argue over intuitively, passionately, unconsciously and increasingly irrationally. I find it already helping me to develop a more objective perspective on these conflicted issues.

What I miss is a developmental model of the moral modules. As Haidt himself seems to argue, a module represents a biological predisposition, not an orientation to a particular content. How the needs of the module are fulfilled is a question of personal and cultural development. I suspect, for example, that liberals have as much spiritual potential as conservatives in their biological substrates. But dogmatic religious beliefs and behaviors are not suited to activating the Sanctity/Degredation module of a scientific or pluralistic consciousness. I would love to experience what would happen if the religions were to update their versions of Sanctity so that a scientific consciousness could relate to them, or political leaders were to emerge who understood how to exude authority which enables networked communities and so potentially activate the Authority/Subversion module in liberals.

I suspect we have a way to go…

America’s Strangely Ambivalent Relationship to Competence

We’re on vacation, so I’ve had some much yearned for time again to do some reading and peruse the blogscape for mental stimulus. Following a tweet from Richard Florida titled “Is Meritocracy a Sham?” which caught my eye, I landed at a blog called The American Interest, at what looks to be a conservative site strong on religion, and the article by Walter Russel Mead reviewing the book “Twilight of the Elites” by Christopher Hayes.

The book attacks the liberal and secular elites, graduates mostly of Ivy League Universities, who run government, and focuses on the fact that the social democratic vision of society held dear by “technocratic progressives” has not been realized.

Mead writes that:

“the technocrats were — and are — committed to the concept of rule by the best and the brightest. This is not a temporary stage on the road to a higher and ultimately more equal stage of society to gentry liberals. It is a natural division of power and responsibility based on innate differences in human beings. Gentry liberals believe that people who score high on SATs, do well in college, and get through the PhD process are, well, smarter than people who don’t do those things and that society will be better off if the dumb people get out of the way and let the smart ones make the important decisions. (And the unimportant ones too — like how big a Slurpee should be.)”

The problem with the technocrats is that they have been corrupted, and serve not the interests of democracy, but those of their own power. Such an insight would not be remarkable, as the old adage that power corrupts would simply be confirmed yet again, with the attendant question to be raised of how one is to cope with the current iteration of corruption to strengthen democracy should one find the claim to be true.

What gave me pause, however, was Mead’s analysis of the cause:

“This has to do with another dimension of today’s American meritocracy that I think is deeply problematic: atheism.”

Now, as someone who grew up and studied next door to the American system, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by such a religious suspicion of the secular, but Mead expresses it in a way which shows how far conservatives have gone in giving up all pretence to modernity to push a religious agenda:

“But caveats and cautions aside, there are certain consequences of success in a meritocracy that put people, and especially American people, without a strong religious faith at great risk, and I think we can see today in American life some of the consequences that come when a powerful but to some degree godless social elite lacks the spiritual resources and vocabulary that would better equip it for its role…. The first problem is arrogance.”

To sum up, Mead seriously argues that without God, one cannot be moral, and that Jesus himself was the first to fight and win against the meritocrats of his day:

“From the standpoint of the Gospels. much of Jesus’ public career was a struggle against the meritocratic social and intellectual elites of his day. Yet his attitude wasn’t simple demagogic populism. Over and over again he speaks of his respect for the knowledge that they have, but insists repeatedly that while it is indispensable, it is also worthless unless your heart is right. And you can’t make your heart right by study or achievement. For your heart to be right, you must be born again. You must look outside yourself, your education, your offices and your honours. Your “merit” on its own doesn’t stand. Only the merit of another can give life and meaning to who you are and what you do.”

Being on vacation, and having nothing better to do that get involved in a theologico-political debate, I added a couple of posts to the lively comments thread, at first tenuously testing the waters:

Tom K says:

July 1, 2012 at 6:48 pm

“The argument hinges on how we judge merit. That people with high SAT scores helped to engineer the financial crisis does not make believers the better candidates for positions of responsibility. The nuggets of wisdom contained in the world’s religions are embedded in so much mythological thinking that it takes a fine mind and strong character indeed to emerge from a religious education with well developed judgement rather than as an ignorant instrument of blind faith.

People of merit come from all walks of life. We need people in positions of responsibility who are outstanding at what they do, who can reference a lifetime of learning and experience in their area of expertise, who care, and have a record of good judgement. All of these criteria are independent of religion (without excluding a religious background). We should have had enough by now of people whose claim to fame is that they are as ignorant as he next guy but somehow good because of their faith.”

A few posts in the thread later I realized that I had missed the point, that not intelligence per se was under attack so much as the lack of its subordination to revealed truth, so I added:

Tom K says:

July 2, 2012 at 11:30 am

“@59 Russel, it seems more likely that religious morality codifies evolutionary achievements like empathic attunement and reciprocity than that it originates them through a revelation. Our increasing knowledge of our biologically social nature makes revelation not superfluous, but one more fascinating and valuable if somewhat dated expression of our nature. We have a loving God because we are by nature moral, not moral because of a God.
@ 63 exactly …:-)”

The “@63 exactly” refers to the 63rd post’s comparison of the whole thread to Hesse’s Glasperlenspiel.

But not quite satisfied, I thought I would break a lance for the evolutionary-psychological supercession of revelation thinking:

Tom K says:

July 2, 2012 at 8:26 pm

“Kris@88 From a psychological perspective, all gods are projections of our own developmental states onto an outside world. What we fear or worship is of our own creation, reflecting the degree to which we are able to integrate our unconscious processes into conscious self-awareness.

The theist-atheist distinction is not helpful to my thinking, and is but one more dichotomy we can overcome. But I agree with LukeLea@89 that the monotheistic God is one of our singular cultural achievements, and is the basis for most of the great achievements of Western philosophy and politics.

Beginning around the time of Hamurabi (if I remember my history correctly), and then increasingly in the stories collected in the Hebrew Bible, we see the emergence of a subjective, self-aware narrator, able for the first time to move freely through narrative perspectives of self, other, community and objective world. We also see the emergence of psychological dynamics for the first time in descriptions of our relationships, ranging from the psychopathological Yahweh of the book of Job to the attempts to deal with intrapsychic conflicts through self-refective treatments of myths of creation, fall and sin in Genesis, and the gorgeous subjectivity of the Psalms.

We in the West gave the name God to our often overwhelming conciousness of subjectivity (which today from a neuropsychological perspective we would e.g. call the “Self” which comes to “Mind” as an emergent phenomenon of our increasing neurological complexity).

The experience of our subjectivity through the God of the sermon on the Mount as love which, in its capacity to trust and believe all things and not be disappointed, marks a milestone in the development of human consciousness to wherever we are heading, and a great step forward over the fatalistic tragedy expressed in the consciousness e.g. of Greek theater.

At the beginning of modernity, the consciousness of subjectivity is then distilled and liberated from its theological frame of reference by modern idealist philosophers, and becomes the spiritual essence of social organization through democracy and human rights in the West (here I am thinking of Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, and the American founding Fathers).

Part of the drama of the theist-atheist dichotomy (which also gives this thread the Glasperlenspiel quality which makes it so entertaining), is that as we move in our social and economic organization away fom subject-object relations to network-flow architectures and processes, there is just no point anymore in a divine symbol of the subjective self. In a world of science and complexity, we tend to find concepts, hypotheses and heuristics more helpful in understanding reality than symbols and beliefs. Respectful attention to our gods can help us to develop our subjective consciousness at certain stages of our psychological development (the movement through the mythological stage), and help us to understand our historical roots. But it is not an end in itself, just a possible step along the way…”

…and then:

Tom K says:

July 2, 2012 at 9:04 pm

“Kris@88 Thanks for your question, and to answer it more directly, research shows that we are biologically social creatures in our empathic attunement to one another. We are naturally moral because we naturally care about one another. (A lovely summary of the research is in Rifkin’s Empathic Civilization). We are also easily overwhelmed, frightened and traumatized. Our dysfunctional attempts to cope, mirrored in our dysfunctional divinities, are part of our learning process of being human.”

(end of self-citations)

Eric from Texas gave a welcome nod to the larger post (somebody was responding:-)). But then I gave up. There are brilliant posts from wonderfully learned people in the thread, together with examples of the terrifyingly unconscious authoritarianism we know well enough from the history of religious power. It was all like walking through an asylum–voices are involved in heated conversations trying each to convince the other of their rightness, but common reality remains elusive.

We are becoming a world of parallel universes, operating right beside each other, without any points of contact.

I am so thankful to be living in a secular society…

So… back to the Caipirinias 🙂

The Value of Culture

Part of the big shift which is taking place in business and society derives from a fundamental breakdown in what one could call a piecemeal or single issue approach to life. One of the most common responses of politicians, businesses, but also everyday people to the increasing complexity of life is to focus on the one facet of their reality which they think they understand, and then to push for changes for the better. Single issue strategies are vulnerable to compensating feedback, however, and are never productive in complex systems for the system as a whole. But they are downright dangerous when they are raised to the level of a social ideology. It is, for example, one of the central tenets of market fundamentalism that the striving of individuals to optimize their personal gain results in greater wealth for everyone. Within a properly regulated market system, this is often true. But when the strategy individuals use to lever up their personal gain is to export the costs of their strivings to the system by trashing regulation, everyone becomes poorer, as the system becomes corrupt and collapses from misuse.

In my early days as a consultant, I remember doing sales projects in which managers pushed for improvements in revenues or margins, ignoring the effects on customer relationships or employee motivation. One pharma sales representative told me the story of how, when her managers tried to increase sales by mandating higher doctor visit ratios, one doctor’s receptionist blocked her by claiming he wasn’t in. She saw patients going in and out of his office, but when ignoring the receptionist she stormed in to see him, she found the doctor climbing out of the ground floor window of his office to go to lunch so that he wouldn’t have to run the gauntlet of sales reps stalking him in the waiting room.

Just learning the ropes, I never failed to be surprised at the surprise of managers about the unintended consequences of their piecemeal actions. Later, I learned to be unsurprised at the subsequent blame game and reframing of the facts to explain why things had gone wrong. What never happened, however, was that someone stopped to reflect on the big picture. That was not how they thought, or were incentivised.

What I learned through this and many other experiences was that a single issue focus in a complex world is a recipe for disaster.

As individuals, we easily fall prey to a combination of baser instincts (fear, greed, power, envy…), and simple-mindedness (magical thinking, immediate gratification, results obsession, fundamentalism…), which mixed together lead to disaster. Only cultures–for certain historical periods and for a time in some companies–are able to ameliorate the effects of our baser individual tendencies, by providing the framework of social norms and formal rules, common vision and shared experiences, which help to focus our minds towards, and make our individual behaviours productive of, some healthy common purpose.

In his new book, Boomerang, Michael Lewis explores the nature of several western cultures as mirrored in the financial crisis. Put in a dark room with the endless amounts of money provided by the credit bubble, what, he asks, did the people of various cultures want? What follows is a wonderfully vivid description of various experiences of cultural failure. The behaviour of bankers in Iceland, Greece, Ireland, and Germany all exposed shadow sides of their cultures. But Lewis seems to have used the failure of others to prepare for his insights into those at the heart of the crisis in America, as exemplified by California. What Californians wanted, he writes, was a free lunch, and they were willing to bankrupt the state they depend on though a combination of high wage demands and tax revolts to get it.

Thomas Friedman seems to pick up in his new book, That Used to be Us, where Lewis leaves off, describing the formula of social commitments and formal rules which made America great (education, infrastructure, imigration, R&D, and regulation–all government sponsored), and how it is that its downfall started when the people collectively took its eyes off the cultural ball after the fall of the Berlin Wall, becoming complacent, and enabling baser individual strivings at the expense of the common good in the magical fantasy that history had come to an end with the victory of free market economics and the American way. It is in the global South and East that people have learned the positive lesson of America’s rise. He writes that Singapore and China, for example, have become successful by focussing on culture, building a collective framework designed to channel individual striving to enable general progress.

For Friedman, it is not only the focus on culture which he hopes Americans will recover, but an understanding that the project of culture itself has changed. What is needed today to create value in the shifting landscape of production is for people to become “creative creatives” and “creative servers” (as opposed to routinized drones). Innovation is the key, and the path we find behind the door when we open it is one of continuous personal and cultural transformation. Value in the flat, IT networked world, he argues, is created through three faculties: critical thinking, communication, and collaboration, and success depends on the continuous reinvention not only of what we do, but of who we are.

To add value, it would seem, we need only foster the “Three C’s.” It is not possible to do so on any significant scale, however, in a cultural vacuum. The war of simple-minded positions in America mirrors the failure there of the social contract. Greek prolifigacy, Italian gridlock of stakeholder interests, and the Germans’ still unresolved ambivalence about political power describe just some of the cultural challenges facing the West, if it is master the shift. Nothing is more destructive of creativity than corrupt and stupid institutions, as individual creatives are of little use to a society which cannot integrate the processes and the results of their work into the fabric of its social life.

Today, creating value depends on the creativity of people. However, what is effective in developing creativity is not to train skills, but to create environments which enable people, and to support them with insight and mentoring to master the challenges they take on. That is why training and coaching only have a collective effect as a contribution to cultural development, and why it is cultural development for institutional innovation on a global scale that we need to invest in and make our contribution to.

The Psychology of Transformation

“Alas, two souls beat within my breast!” groans Faust, as he struggles to reconcile competing interests in himself—and so Goethe describes the existential condition of us all: we are not one with ourselves! Personal identity is not monolithic, but is the negotiated result—minute for minute—of a complex relationship of often competing psychological parts within our own self. Skill in managing our internal dialogues and arriving at viable conclusions is the precondition for managing conflicts in our environment. But self-awareness training is not part of our schooling, with the consequence that we live out our unresolved issues unconsciously and mostly destructively with each other in the world.

To the extent that we remain unconscious of the self-divided nature of our human condition, we project internal conflicts onto others and the world, to fight them there as if they had nothing to do with ourselves. That is why so many “wars” are doomed from the start to failure, for the problem to be solved lies not “out there,” but rather in the lack of awareness of its causes in ourselves, so that the war is an expression of the problem, not part of the solution. The war on drugs, for example, blinds us to the problems of a society so devoid of meaning that large parts of its population would seek criminal profit or hallucinatory escape from it (witness the destruction of young lives through imprisonment for drug offenses which would be non-issues in other countries). The war on crime lets us act as the just avengers, as if we had no part in creating the criminal environment we feel we need to protect ourselves against (as, for example, the walled-in white enclaves in apartheid South Africa, or gated communities in the US). The war on fundamentalism reverses cause and effect in dealing with the blowback (e.g. Blowback, Chalmers Johnson) we reap from earlier Realpolitik policies of supporting “useful bastards” in the interests of power, about which many people in the world are understandably hostile. The potential list is as endless as the issues facing humanity. We are ourselves the hell we face. Salvation lies not in “winning” whatever war one is in, or in escape to a literal heaven, but in transforming the thoughts and feelings through which we create the world we live in.

The origin of humankind’s self-division lies in brain evolution, in which, according to Antonio Damasio, “self” has come to “mind” through the development of consciousness of our body processes. For Damasio, consciousness is a physical event, which would be both inconceivable and meaningless without the body as its basis. Mind strives, like all of unconscious life, to maintain a viable balance in the body in the face of a changing environment–a process which biologists call homeostasis. Our body, for example, maintains an internal temperature of 36.8 °C regardless of external temperatures, adjusting as needed up to temperature limits it can no longer cope with. The “self” Damasio describes takes this life process as a blueprint to the next level of complexity in creating society and culture. Likely, self came to mind as an evolutionary advantage, allowing human beings to engage in farther reaching social relationships which improved our collective chances of survival. As mind strives to maintain physical homeostasis, so the “self” is focussed on maintaining what Damasio calls sociocultural homeostasis.

Where physical homeostasis happens automatically, sociocultural homeostasis requires active intervention. To maintain our collective balance, we must bring what we think, feel, and do, both individually and as a society, into consciousness. Consciousness expresses itself through syntactical language, in which a subject describes its awareness of an objective world separate from itself, and a complex orientation in time, through which we orient our present in a context of our awareness of a past and future. Both syntactical thinking and awareness of time show the ability of consciousness to reflect upon itself as something added on to immediate experience. Even more significantly, consciousness brings with it the ability to intervene in its experience, and so to become an active force in its own evolutionary development.
The moment we become conscious of space and time, we can change what takes place in them. For example, human beings are the only animals that live in two worlds: the world of facts, and the world of meaning. Meaning is generated by the “frame” in which we view facts. As George Lakoff describes, by “reframing” the debate about facts, we change the way we experience them. What happens in time, also, is subject to conscious influence. Not only can we imagine the “future” in a way which will influence the way it becomes, but we can view past experience through “frames” which change our memory of what took place (“it is never too late to have a good childhood”).

The world our “self” has created is full of wonders. However, the limits of our practical imagination are also becoming brutally apparent. The world of meaning can become a war zone itself, as conflicting cultural values fight it out over which meanings guide consciousness. Conscious influence over our experience of space and time requires that we take responsibility for creating the sociocultural homeostasis that enables our collective survival and development. Looking at the results we generate, we are but infants in our playing with the frames that determine the way we live (the influence of political action committees, talk radio and television, paid scientific research results, and the marketing of brand illusions are just a few of our failures).

The problems we are now experiencing globally are a wake-up call to an unconscious society and culture. A path to greater competence lies in learning techniques to constructively change the way in which “self” maintains its balance, and to make them central to our educational programs, leadership training, political processes and social dialogues.