Article Jan 28, 2015

The 6 moral foundations of politics

“You can’t legislate morality,” the old saying goes, a statement that purports to be common sense, until you begin to realize you can’t not legislate morality. All legislation is passed within a moral framework of ethical ideals and moral considerations.

Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion lays out six moral foundations of politics. For each foundation, Haidt explains how the left and the right diverge on political applications.

1. The Care/Harm Foundation

This foundation makes us sensitive to signs of suffering and need. In order to maximize care and minimize harm, we enact laws that protect the vulnerable. We punish people who are cruel and we care for those in suffering. The left relies primarily on this foundation (and the next one), while the right positions it within a broader matrix of concerns.

2. The Fairness/Cheating Foundation

This foundation leads us to seek out people who will be good collaborators in whatever project we are pursuing. It also leads us to punish people who cheat the system. People on both the right and the left believe in fairness, but they apply this foundation in different ways. Haidt explains:

“On the left, fairness often implies equality, but on the right it means proportionality – people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes” (161).

3. The Loyalty/Betrayal Foundation

All of us, whether on the right or left, are “tribal” in some sense. We love the people on our team, and loyalty makes our team more powerful and less susceptible to our failure. Likewise, we have a corresponding hatred for traitors. Those who betray our “team” for the other side are worse than those who were already on the other side.

Though Haidt sees both left and right as being tribal, he recognizes “the left tends toward universalism and away from nationalism, so it often has trouble connecting to voters who rely on the Loyalty foundation” (164).

4. The Authority/Subversion Foundation

Authority plays a role in our moral considerations because it protects order and fends off chaos. Haidt explains:

“Everyone has a stake in supporting the existing order and in holding people accountable for fulfilling the obligations of their station” (168).

Not surprisingly, the right values this foundation, while the left defines itself by opposing hierarchy, inequality, and power.

5. The Sanctity/Degradation Foundation

No matter the era, humans have always considered certain things “untouchable” for being dirty and polluted. The flipside is that we want to protect whatever is hallowed and sacred, whether objects, ideals, or institutions.

People on the right talk about the sanctity of life and marriage. People on the left may mock “True Love Waits” and purity rings, but they frequent New Age grocery stores, buy products that cleanse them of “toxins,” and warn against human degradation of the environment.

6. The Liberty/Oppression Foundation

This foundation builds on Authority/Subversion because we all recognize there is such a thing as legitimate authority, but we don’t want authoritarians crossing the line into tyranny. Both the left and the right hate oppression and desire liberty, but for different reasons.

The left wants liberty for the underdogs and victims (coinciding with their emphasis on Fairness/Cheating). The right wants liberty from government intrusion.

Conclusion

Haidt believes the left relies primarily on the Care and Fairness and Liberty foundations, while the right appeals to all six. I think he’s right.

On a somewhat related note, one of the fastest ways I can tell if someone leans right or left is by asking a simple question: “What is the bigger threat to our country today: big government or big business?” Those on the left almost always see the government as protecting against big business, and those on the right almost always see the big business as fighting governmental overreach.

Originally published at The Gospel Coalition