As the civic life of America dissolves into partisanship and dysfunction, I cannot think of anything more worthy of study than Americans’ civic values. Jonathon Haidt’s recently released book, The Righteous Mind, Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, is worth reading for two impressive explanations: 1) how human brains make and justify value judgments with nearly instantaneous reflexes rather than with reason, and 2) why our species evolved ‘groupishness’ and how that insight can help us think constructively about politics and religion. A third promised point, however, was what drew me to the book. From his magazine articles, interviews, and video lectures, I knew that Haidt had developed a theory that humanity’s moral senses can be distilled into six basic “moral foundations,” much as our sense of taste can be parsed into sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami:
- authority/subversion, and
Haidt believes that differing emphases on these foundations cause our varying political beliefs. His research has found that liberals value ‘care’ and ‘fairness,’ while conservatives value all six foundations equally. Libertarians, obviously, value ‘liberty’ above any other foundation.
Humanity has been struggling to explain our moral sensibilities since we developed reason, so I am not terribly disappointed after reading the book to conclude that Haidt has not yet found morality’s Rosetta Stone. The Righteous Mind is an intriguing, rewarding read, but ultimately fails to make a good case for a universal, six-element morality matrix.
Like any other human, I come at his findings from my own moral home base. If these are the six universal moral taste buds, I should be able to describe any situation that evokes my moral outrage and find a reason for my reaction in at least one of Haidt’s moral foundations. Okay, let’s try it:
Mitt Romney’s tax returns revealed that he paid an effective tax rate of 15% on his income, which came from investments. That is lower than the rate paid by most paycheck-dependent families. Romney commented: “I pay all the taxes that are legally required and not a dollar more. I don’t think you want someone as the candidate for president who pays more taxes than he owes.”
Do you feel moral outrage at Romney’s comment? I do. But why?
Haidt would attribute my reaction to a ‘fairness’ violation and predict I would complain, “The wealthy and powerful are…gaining by exploiting those at the bottom while not paying their fair share of the tax burden.” I agree with that statement, but even if there was no one “at the bottom,” Romney’s remark reveals a blindness to his moral obligation to support our community. I recoil at his implicit message: “I pursue my individual interest (building my personal wealth), and care nothing about supporting the community (paying my taxes), and I expect everyone else to admire that and try do the same.”
The main element missing from Haidt’s theory, for me, is community. I value behavior that contributes to building, maintaining, and not-damaging the network of human interdependencies. All of us, rich and poor, depend on this network. It has a value separate from, and greater than, that of any individual. Triggers that set off my ‘community’ moral alarm include:
- not making contributions to the community as much as one is able, such as by tax avoidance or not voting;
- damaging the commons by actions such as vandalism, pollution, or appropriation of common resources for private gain;
- sowing civic discord, such as by promoting partisan conflict or lying about matters of public-policy interest; and
- damaging the mechanisms by which the community operates, such as by interfering with voting rights or by exercising power in ways that are not accountable to the community.
I feel so strongly about this value that if it was one of Haidt’s six, I would identify it as ascendant, the single value that in a conflict should trump any other.
Hearing this explanation, Haidt might then attribute my outrage at Romney’s behavior to a sense of ‘loyalty’ to my community or nation. And yet on his Moral Foundations Questionnaire (take it at YourMorals.org ), loyalty was my lowest score for any of the six foundations, lower that that among either liberals or conservatives. How could I score so extremely low on loyalty when I place such a premium on responsibility to community?
The problem is that for Haidt, loyalty is manifest in activities such as being “proud of my country’s history” or “conforming to the traditions of society.” Looking only for an American-flag decal, Haidt overlooks the loyalty expressed by my “Fox News Lies” bumpersticker. The underlying value for that bumper sticker: Community. Political lies rip at our civic fabric and impair our collective ability to make wise decisions.
Haidt’s writing is charmingly honest and accessible, so he does a good job explaining the evolution of his theory. In oversimplified terms, his matrix evolved as he worked to tweak it so that his disgruntled conservative subjects were satisfied by the scores they received. That’s a legitimate measure of accuracy when you’re studying subjective attitudes. Now, Professor Haidt, in the interests of service to our national discussion of political values, how about introducing a “community/individual” value, or at least parsing out ‘loyalty’ to capture service to one’s community (not just being proud of its history)? If you do that, my bet is that loyalty will shoot right to the top for people like me.
Note: I’ve added this book to my growing list of resources for talking politics with friends and neighbors.