Saturday, April 25, 2009

The complication of moral foundations

I just read a fascinating story about the different moral foundation assumptions of US liberals and conservatives. According to the writer being discussed, Jonathan Haidt, these differences are also reflected in some overall differences between cultures, as well as social classes and political groups within cultures.

He argues, based on quite a bit of empirical research as well as some interesting theorization of his own, that people on different sides of a number of arguments are basing their reasoning on different moral assumptions or foundations. Consequently, many times we are left wondering how any decent person with good values could think what the other side thinks.

According to his research, the main assumptions or value bases are concern about harm to those who are vulnerable, fairness to all (or to whoever the person responding is most worried about), loyalty to your group or nation, respect for authority, and concern about bodily, moral and other purity. In the USA, most liberals are concerned about the first two and most conservatives are more concern about the last three. He thinks that to make discourse and policy-making fairer and more effective, people on either side need to understand that people on the other side are basing their arguments on values that are important to them and not easily dismissed by the other side. The same applies to many differences between cultures. If you want to see the article
that summarizes this, and has links to the original research, it is at

There is also a link to a site where you can take a test which compares your own moral assumptions or bases to the averages of both liberals and conservatives.

I took it and was interested to find out that I was slightly more concerned even than most liberals about fairness and harm, but that I was only slightly less concerned than most conservatives about loyalty, authority, and purity. You can see a bar graph of my scores and the comparisons here.

So I find that I am both liberal and conservative, depending on the issue. I could even sense that as I took the test. "Well, this item is going to make me look liberal (or conservative, depending)." I also have the sense, for myself, that this is dynamic. I probably would have been much less concerned about authority when I was 20. After raising three kids and teaching a lot of others, I find that I want people to learn how to understand and respect authority at least initially, until they are old enough to think it through well. I think I might also see the value of both loyalty and purity a bit more now than I did when I was younger, too. They strike me also as important things to value until you avoid some of the naive teenage reactions that can pretty much destroy your life and are experienced enough to make decisions with a longer view.

If you want to see how you rate, take the moral foundations questionnaire at