Haidt & Mooney, Moral Foundations & Spiral Dynamics

This post is the third in my series about Haidt’s newest book, The Righteous Mind (here is the previous post, second in the series).

I was watching a video of Jonathan Haidt speaking about compassion in respect to the moral values of liberals and conservatives. I’ve already criticized Haidt elsewhere in the first post in the series (basically, Haidt has many seemingly unquestioned premises that bias both his research data and his theoretical interpretation). In this post, I want to shift my focus somewhat. The second post in the series focused more on the cognitive research and I’ll continue that discussion while using the issues of criticism as entry points into Haidt’s theory.

* * *

To begin my analysis, the following is an insight that came to mind (my thoughts about cognitive research, although placed in the context of Haidt’s theory, is more directly inspired by my reading Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain). There are two pieces of data that superficially appear contradictory, but on closer inspection may represent expressions of the same fundamental thing:

  1. Research shows that liberals are more willing to challenge authority and so lack the submissive attitude of unquestioning respect toward authority which is common among conservatives. For example, more liberals than conservatives state they’d be willing to slap their own father. ‘Openness’ is the main psychological trait that correlates to liberalism. What ‘openness’ is about is cognitive complexity, capacity for cognitive dissonance, intellectual curiosity, desire to experiment and explore, etc. But ‘openness’ also relates to being less inclined to fall into motivated reasoning (confirmation bias, backfire effect, etc)… on issues related to politics, anyway. I’ll point  out the obvious fact that ‘openness’ can’t operate while submitting to authority.
  2. The other aspect is that polling data shows liberals are the only demographic (in the US) with majority support for compromise. Similarly, Democrats of the past several decades show more bipartisan support than Republicans, no matter which party controls the presidency. Also similarly, Pew data shows that “Solid Liberals” (liberal across the board) don’t state a majority positive view of Obama (while Democrats back in the 80s showed majority support of Reagan), but the corresponding category of conservatives showed a strong majority (around 70%) stating a negative view of Obama. So, conservatives are more polarized against liberals than liberals are against conservatives (which means conservatives are more prone to partisanship than liberals). Polarization, it turns out, doesn’t take two to tango… or else, to extend the metaphor, conservatives are by far leading the dance.

Maybe it is precisely because of willingness to challenge authority that liberals are also more willing to compromise, and maybe liberals willingness to challenge authority even among their own is what creates a less partisan attitude. Liberals don’t identify as much with narrowly defined groups and so don’t get stuck as much in the us versus them mentality (their group identity being larger with greater inclusivity, more loosely defined with more porous boundaries). Submitting to a specific authority might allow you to work better with all others who are part of your group, but it will also make it more difficult to work with all others who are outside of your group (a very important point to keep in mind in relation to the diverse multicultural society of a liberal democracy). It could be that liberals are resistant to authority for the very reason they sense how unquestioned authority has great potential to create divisiveness. Liberals are more sensitive to divisiveness in itself (which might relate to research Jost did about liberals being less happy because of their awareness of and sensitivity to inequality and unfairness). Plus, liberals probably dislike divisiveness for what it leads to, specifically how it can close down rational independent thought (which might relate to research about how social stress and fear can cause liberals to react with a more conservative attitude, thus at least temporarily suppressing their preferred liberal-mindedness).

So, despite liberals willingness to challenge authority, it is maybe unsurprising that liberals demonstrate the most respect to those they see as having fairly earned authority such as scientists (intellectual-minded and social-minded meritocracy rather than social Darwinism and hierarchical role-playing)… or maybe its just that liberals are attracted to authorities who are liberal-minded for such authorities aren’t the kind that promotes divisive groupthink. I’d emphasize the aspect of my argument asserting that, for liberals, fairness is closely connected to the idealization of rational independent thought (i.e., higher rates of ‘openness’ and lower rates of motivated reasoning about politics).

Jonathan Haidt, however, argues that humans aren’t primarily rational. I would agree in a general sense, but he is conveniently ignoring an important fact. Relatively speaking, liberals are more rational than conservatives when it comes to political issues (or so the research shows it to be the case in liberal democracies like the US). This is significant since the political issues that provoke the strongest motivated reasoning are always mired in moral issues, all of politics ultimately being inseparable from morality. In practical terms, this doesn’t necessarily mean liberals are more well informed for that has more to do with education and there are plenty of well educated conservatives; but what it does mean (as shown by research; read Mooney’s book for a helpful summary) is that liberals are less misinformed while conservatives are more misinformed. The odd part is that conservatives are more misinformed to the degree they are informed, what is described as the “smart idiot” effect. This also relates to how conservatives and experts (well educated conservatives fitting both categories) are most prone to the backfire effect which is when challenging info causes someone to become even stronger in their opinions.

The failure of the liberal ideal of rationality isn’t necessarily a direct failure of liberalism (either as an ideology or a predisposition), rather it could just be a failure of liberals being forced to live with conservatives and authoritarians who don’t share this ideal (in fact, often stridently oppose it and seek to undermine it). Ignoring authoritarians, conservatives do have many other wonderful strengths and conservative-mindedness has many wonderful benefits to society (such as appreciating the importance of social order, ability to remain focused and persistent, practical knowledge on how to lead and organize effectively, talent with emotionally persuasive rhetoric, etc); however, the Enlightenment ideal of objective rationality isn’t one of them, at least not in terms of being resistant to motivated reasoning about politics, most specifically not political issues that are implicated in emotionally-laden moral values (which includes almost all political debate these days, the culture wars still going strong).

Related to a limited view of rationality, an inherently conservative view, Haidt promotes a limited view of compassion that favors conservative moral values. He emphasizes parochial compassion which he considers conservative: “think locally, act locally”. What he ignores is that much of conservative politics is non-local to the extreme such as hyper-nationalist patriotic support of global military dominance (some might even say imperialism) with its concomitant military-industrial complex and international “free trade” corporatism. So, the conservative vision of parochial compassion might be more accurately stated thusly: “think locally, act globally”. On the opposite side, he also ignores how much liberals argue for localism: grassroots democracy, advocacy for community-mindedness and an environmental sense-of-place, the “buy local” movement, community gardens, etc. The evidence would seem to prove the liberal claim that thinking globally fits perfectly fine with acting locally.

Haidt’s confusion here might be that he is paying more attention to conservative rhetoric than conservative behavior, an important distinction Corey Robin clarifies in his book The Reactionary Mind (which I’ve written about previously). This connects to an aspect of Haidt’s research that I was wondering about. Is Haidt testing for which moral values people state they believe in? How does he determine someone isn’t merely stating what they think they should say? And how does he determine to what extent those statements are genuine versus hypocritical?

This is a fair consideration for social conservatism has been correlated to authoritarianism (low ‘openness’, high ‘closure, strong need for security and social order, submissive to authority, etc) and authoritarians have been measured as rating high in hypocrisy. In light of the research on motivated reasoning, it would be easy to speculate that conservatives might show more hypocrisy with political issues which means their stated values might not perfectly correspond to their actual behavior.  I personally think actual behavior is more important than stated values, and so I’d rather have a theory that accounts for actual behavior. Haidt uses his research to conclude conservatives are more balanced between all moral foundations, but obviously this may not mean conservatives are more balanced in how they act according to their stated values.

* * *

I’ll now return to my thoughts related to the video of Haidt’s talk.

Haidt mentioned one very interesting piece of data. Oxycontin is related to feeling good and feeling love. One might think that this would open one up to a larger sense of empathy and a more inclusive sense of self. However, Haidt claims the research shows that high levels of oxycontin actually reinforce the experience of an in-group and an out-group. As such, even though it increases an experience of love, this positive feeling is directed toward one’s group and not to perceived outsiders.

I don’t know the research, but I suspect that this general trend would show much disparity if it were broken down between conservatives and liberals. We already know that empathetic concern shows a massive difference (see here) and so one might suspect that oxycontin would simply exaggerate this difference. Liberals’ greater empathetic concern for strangers is unlikely to be lessened or disappear because of oxycontin, unless there is something about oxycontin that I don’t understand. Going by the research I do know about, I’d suggest liberals may be the exception to the rule of oxycontin-motivated groupthink (maybe even having the complete opposite effect). Closing the ranks on one’s love-fest might be easier, especially for conservatives. I would just add that it isn’t necessarily inevitable and probably isn’t an equally likely tendency for all people (i.e., not fundamental enough to human nature for it to be made a cornerstone of the entire moral foundations theory).

Let me explore further the issue of comparison and the differences in how it manifests. In an attempt to prove conservative morality superior in society, Haidt refers to research showing conservatives give more than liberals: give more money as donations, give more blood, etc. I’ve heard this many times before, but it doesn’t stand up to analysis. Besides problems with how liberalism and conservatism are defined, there are too many confounding factors that aren’t controlled for and too many aspects that are ignored. It seems to be more of a result of cherrypicking data according to a partisan agenda. The following are some issues and questions I’d bring up in formulating a counter-argument:

  • The younger generation is the most liberal generation alive (along with being the least religious) and they also have extremely high rates of volunteering, although obviously being young they don’t have much excess money to donate. Older people, on the other hand, are more financially secure and more conservative (including more conservative when they were younger).
  • Liberals are more supportive of public services and the taxes that pay for them. Blue states give more money in federal taxes than do red states, and this ends up supporting red states that receive more money from federal taxes than blue states. Blue states have a net loss and red states a net gain. The reason for this is that the red states have more poverty and so red states end up spending more federal money paying for their own local public services and infrastructure. The poor are better off in blue states than in red states (less poverty, less income inequality, less health problems, less high school dropout rates, less teen pregnancies, etc.) which means, no matter the amount of charity, the poor are better served by the collective decisions of liberal communities.
  • Conservatives may give more to churches, but how much of that money simply goes back to benefit the giver through paying for church costs and for proselytizing and for the promotion of political causes? Also, how is tithing fundamentally different than a club fee? Conservatives say taxes aren’t charity, but in a democracy taxation is a public decision. Conservatives say that taxation is coercion by force, but churches implicitly or explicitly threaten your soul to eternal damnation if you don’t obey God’s command about tithing.
  • Liberals quite likely choose to buy more products that donate money to non-profits, but even in paying more for such products this isn’t considered charity. Liberals probably are more likely to work for non-profits and for government agencies helping those in need. Liberals may give more in time than in money because they are more likely to choose careers related to helping people, and much of the help they give might not be recorded.
  • Some argue the data shows rich conservatives give more than rich liberals, but maybe rich conservatives are simply more interested in getting tax breaks from charity giving than liberals. Is it really charitable if part or most of your motivation is about getting a tax break? How much of this is a difference in people giving money that doesn’t get recorded such as if they aren’t interested in reporting it for a tax break? Since the Bible tells Christians to pray in secret, maybe many Christians (liberal Christians?) and those similarly inspired choose to give in secret. Are conservatives actually giving more? Or is it that conservatives are reporting they give more and/or reporting more of what they give? How accurate and representative are the public records about donations of money, time, services, blood, etc?
I could list even further criticisms and questions, but I think I made my basic point. Besides, others have already done a good job of questioning and criticizing (some of the comments at the following links are worth reading as well):

Poor methods invalidate conclusions
By branstrom

lies, damned lies, and statistics
By Richard Bennett “truthinista”

Who’s More Charitable – Liberals or Conservatives?
By Michael White

Who gives more, the right or the left? Studies of conservative and liberal giving disagree with Arthur C Brooks
By Storytellersrus

Concerns About Arthur Brooks’s “Who Really Cares.”
By Jim Lindgren

Haidt’s Righteous Mind
By cognitivedissident

Who gives
A new book appears to show that religious folks, mostly conservatives, are more charitable than secular liberal types — until you look closely at the numbers
By Christopher Shea

Ethical Conduct in the Moral Right
Are religious people really more ethical than atheists?
By Nigel Barber, Ph.D.

Are religious people more ethical in their conduct? II
Does religion make people donate more to charity?
By Nigel Barber, Ph.D.

Bowling for God
Is religion good for society? Science’s definitive answer: it depends
By Michael Shermer

The last link is particularly relevant to Haidt’s talk. And here is the relevant part:

“Is religion a necessary component of social health? The data are conflicting. On the one hand, in a 2005 study published in the Journal of Religion & Society–“Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies”–independent scholar Gregory S. Paul found an inverse correlation between religiosity (measured by belief in God, biblical literalism, and frequency of prayer and service attendance) and societal health (measured by rates of homicide, childhood mortality, life expectancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and teen abortions and pregnancies) in 18 developed democracies. “In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD [sexually transmitted disease] infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies,” Paul found. Indeed, the U.S. scores the highest in religiosity and the highest (by far) in homicides, STDs, abortions and teen pregnancies.

“On the other hand, Syracuse University professor Arthur C. Brooks argues in Who Really Cares (Basic Books, 2006) that when it comes to charitable giving and volunteering, numerous quantitative measures debunk the myth of “bleeding heart liberals” and “heartless conservatives.” Conservatives donate 30 percent more money than liberals (even when controlled for income), give more blood and log more volunteer hours. In general, religious people are more than three times more generous than secularists to all charities, 14 percent more munificent to nonreligious charities and 57 percent more likely than a secularist to help a homeless person. In terms of societal health, charitable givers are 43 percent more likely to say they are “very happy” than nongivers and 25 percent more likely than nongivers to say their health is excellent or very good.”

Even assuming it were true that conservatives give more, it’s possible this data means that conservatism both causes more problems and does more to solve the problems caused. More liberal societies tend to have fewer social problems in the first place (look at the cross-cultural data that compares various data to income inequality: here, here, and here) which might mean liberals prefer spending time and resources on effectively solving problems at the root, rather than treating symptoms. This issue of social problems in conservative communities is the point made by the guy who speaks right after Haidt’s talk, but as I recall Haidt didn’t offer any rebuttal or acknowledge in any way the merit of this data. What the guy pointed out in response to Haidt’s talk is that the greatest problems are found in red states, the precise places where conservative morality has its greatest influence and hence should demonstrate its greatest merits.

That is what I would call damning evidence. If conservative charity actually helped those in need and fundamentally solved social ills, then you would expect to see the complete opposite of what the data shows (see here, here, and here). All in all, measuring donations may not be the best way to measure moral good and social benefit — for the reason that showing what an ideological demographic collectively gives can hide the data about the real world consequences of their ideology in terms of what it takes away; in the case of conservative ideology, what is taken is this: freedom from high rates of poverty, violence, disease, etc. Even if measurements of donations is a proxy for moral intentions, it wouldn’t therefore necessarily follow that moral intentions are a proxy for ethical results… the road to hell and all that.

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This is where the rubber meets the road, wherever that road may lead.

I’ve found that even when I share this data that conservatives don’t necessarily give it much credit. They are often more concerned about principles than about results, or to put it another way the results they are most interested in is that of defending their moral values (social order — i.e., authority and conformity — probably being the most central). For example, the fact that countries banning abortions end up increasing the number of abortions overall is irrelevant or less relevant to many social conservatives for abortion is a moral issue rather than a pragmatic issue (mothers harmed by illegal abortions are simply receiving their deserved punishment, sadly ignoring the potential harm to the fetus if the pregnancy continues to full term after the botched abortion and, furthermore, ignoring the increased economic health costs that will be paid by society).

This connects to my last post about Haidt which distinguished between conservative moral intuition and liberal ethical reasoning. I would further argue that the liberal tendency to compromise and the larger liberal sense of empathy relate to liberals being more focused on measurable results for society (over authority, social order, and group cohesion). This is the standard liberal defense of pragmatism. For conservatives, if their values are undermined, then any other result doesn’t matter or else is less relevant for in their minds breakdown of their conservative moral order inevitably means breakdown of all social order (imagining any other possibility is beyond the scope of their moral vision). The abortion issue isn’t really about abortions for conservatives, rather it’s about family values and a specific cultural vision of how society should be organized — meaning how such moral order by way of the power of authority can be used to enforce social order (even if that requires creating laws to limit and control human behavior, sometimes even when casualties are incurred and the majority of citizens are against it, the War on Drugs being an example).

Conservatives are less bothered by persistent social problems for they assume the world is imperfect and, in the case of conservative Christians, they assume humans are born sinners. In this worldview, life isn’t fair and that is just the way it is, always has been and always will be. It isn’t fundamentally a matter of who is more charitable, rather what purpose charity serves. For conservatives, the value of charity shouldn’t be judged according to it solving what they perceive as insolvable problems. Conservatives don’t even agree with liberals about what is a problem. For example, consider sexuality. The problem isn’t about teenage pregnancy, STDS, or whatever. The problem is unmarried people having sex in the first place, thus acting against conservative moral values which challenges and undermines conservative social order. Such things as pregnancy and STDs, if anything, are the solution to the problem for as consequences of immoral behavior they are seen as self-created punishments and theoretically they are also deterrents, although their role as punishment doesn’t necessitate they effectively accomplish deterrence.

As I’ve explained previously:

“The purpose of condemning sexuality isn’t about whether people are actually able to follow the rules perfectly. The rules are there to create conformity through guilt and punishment. And they work. They suppress the individual for the sake of social order. The moral rules are red herrings that distract away from the fundamental issue. Maybe that is part of the power of such morality. People obsess over the surface details and the underlying motivating force can work unconsciously.”

Most liberals probably don’t disagree that this moral methodology accomplishes its goals, although many would say it’s immoral to use rhetoric to hide what they perceive as the real agenda. To liberals, this may seem like dogmatism forming the groundwork for authoritarianism. But to conservatives, they would claim this is being principled and would argue that liberals don’t understand (as Haidt argues, liberals supposedly lack an intuitive understanding of morality). In the conservative worldview: right is right, wrong is wrong. Conservatives see liberals’ moral pragmatism as moral relativism, and this is why liberal values often aren’t perceived as moral. Even Haidt doesn’t acknowledge all of the primary liberal values and so of course he doesn’t include those unacknowledged values as part of his moral foundations.

In the end, it comes down to conservative order and authority (i.e., closure) versus liberal freedom and egalitarianism (i.e., openness) which at least partly translates to moral principles vs ethical results. The question is as follows: Is the success of a society determined by how that society conforms to a particular vision of moral order or by how a particular vision of moral order conforms to society? Or to put it another way: Is the goodness of a moral ideology determined by how well human behavior conforms to social values or how well social values conform to human nature? Which then leads to another question: Do we want a society based on unquestioned authority or based on questioning democracy? This is the choice we face when put into stark terms of either/or which is the terms that conservatives prefer, but liberals (and others who are more liberal-minded) are left to wonder if there might be another way. Is balance between conservatism and liberalism possible? Or else could at least cooperation be made feasible? If there is another way, how would liberals ever be able to persuade conservatives out of their black and white thinking (all or nothing, this or that, us vs them)?

Jonathan Haidt seems liberal-minded in attitude and idealism, whether or not he identifies as a liberal. He is arguing for the liberal position in advocating for his own sense of liberal-mindedness (not that he necessarily describes it that way), but oddly he tends to emphasize the conservative perspective (or rather what he perceives as the conservative perspective) in his theorizing about compassion and moral foundations. I’m not sure what to make of this. Is he overcompensating for a sense of guilt about his former liberal bias that he has spoken about? Or is being contrarian in order to goad his mostly liberal audience toward questioning their own assumptions?

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In reading Jonathan Haidt’s views, I feel frustrated. He continually uses liberal values and viewpoints to criticize liberalism. He offers some important insights and yet simultaneously increases confusion. It’s unclear if there is a net gain in what he offers. This is shown in the annotation added by Bruce Gibb to an article written by Haidt. Gibb’s annotations are helpful because he is bringing in the developmental framework of Spiral Dynamics which points out the greatest weakness of Haidt’s theory.

From his description of himself, Haidt sounds like he began as a young man with a sense of morality centered in a more individualistic/liberty orientation, what Spiral Dynamics calls the orange value-meme (vmeme for short); and so he naturally felt in conflict with the hierarchical/law-and-order blue vmeme that seeks to suppress individuality and fights against increasing individual liberty. In striving to live up to the liberal ideals he found in anthropology, he used his strong liberal sense of empathy to develop a social-oriented green vmeme worldview where it became possible for him to understand the social-oriented blue vmeme worldview. From the green vmeme, he no longer took personal offense at blue vmeme’s criticism of orange vmeme; in fact, green vmeme also is critical of orange vmeme, although from the opposite side; but his lack of understanding of Spiral Dynamics caused him to conflate blue vmeme’s criticisms of individualism with green vmeme’s criticisms of individualism.

This causes Haidt to criticize modern liberalism (Enlightenment ideals, often labeled as classical liberalism) from a post-modern liberal perspective. The confusion this creates is that he seems to think that by criticizing liberals he will help build a bridge of understanding for blue vmeme conservatives, but this sadly shows a lack of insight. Lower vmemes by their nature can’t understand higher vmemes in the way that a child has to first develop language skills before they can attempt to understand science. Development builds in stages where each state is built on previous stages. This is why Haidt can understand blue vmeme from his greater stage of personal development, but green vmeme by itself doesn’t allow him to understand why blue vmeme can’t understand his own viewpoint. It would require he develop even further to understand the limits of green vmeme in the way he understands the limits of orange vmeme. Green vmeme wants to bring people together in mutual understanding, but that isn’t what blue vmeme wants.

If Haidt understood Spiral Dynamics, he would understand that lower vmemes are inevitably in conflict with higher vmemes but not necessarily the other way around. Modern society can’t solve its problems by returning to a pre-modern worldview. Such social problems can only be solved by transcending and including through further development. Blue vmeme is the thesis, orange vmeme is the antithesis, and green vmeme is the synthesis. However, if we start with orange vmeme as the thesis, then green vmeme is the antithesis; but blue vmeme can’t offer any insight about the relationship between orange and green, instead synthesis must be sought in yellow vmeme which is the next stage of development.

Transcend and include is the key. It was because Haidt transcended the conflict of blue vs orange that he was able to include blue vmeme into his more comprehensive worldview. However, because orange vmeme is prior to green vmeme, the former is as resistant to green vmeme as to blue vmeme and so this antagonism disallows green vmeme to as easily include orange vmeme. It’s because blue vmeme has been so severely weakened by modernity that it can feel less threatening to someone centered in green vmeme or higher. Afterall, most people these days don’t have to worry about suppression of free speech and the burning of heretics, factors that were quite common during the heyday of blue vmeme dominance.

Another confusion is that Haidt isn’t able to see how much society has changed in recent centuries. He still sees the liberal movement as centered in individual-oriented orange vmeme whereas like Haidt the liberal movement has actually shifted its center to green vmeme. Along with this shift of liberalism, the conservative movement has shifted its center increasingly out of blue vmeme and into orange vmeme. This is why liberals defended free market capitalism and libertarian values in centuries past and yet no longer as strongly defend them, often criticizing them instead. It is rather conservatives who have taken up the former position of liberals, although blue vmeme religion has slowed down this shift and created a cultural divide within the conservative movement. The modern conservative movement of blue vmeme meeting orange vmeme is what has created fundamentalism (orange vmeme literal-mindedness serving blue vmeme religion) and reactionary conservatism (blue-vmeme nostalgia serving as rhetoric for orange vmeme individual liberty).

The vmemes should be differentiated from specific ideological groups and movements. When modern politics began, conservatism was centered in blue vmeme and ever since the rhetoric of the conservative movement has held closely to this sense of their own collective past. However, as liberalism shifted out of orange into green, it created an opportunity (a necessity even) for conservatives to use orange vmeme to attack the green vmeme of liberals. The differentiation that must be made in terms of conservatism (specifically reactionary conservatism) is the differentiation between the blue vmeme rhetoric of the culture wars and the orange vmeme choices that dominate Republican policies. It’s not enough to define conservatives (or liberals) according to their own rhetoric.

Let me explain the value of Spiral Dynamics. It doesn’t limit the ideological movements to where they began centuries ago. It explains how and why the main ideological movements have changed so much, within the movements themselves and in the relationship between them. Therefore, it allows us to consider the value memes on their own merits. It is true that blue values of strong social order are important, but we don’t need to return society to a center in the blue vmeme in order to include those values. We should be careful to not limit conservatism to just blue vmeme. Like development in individuals, development in movements is diverse and complex. As a society develops, the population of that society needs to develop as well.

* * *

I’ll end with a defense of the liberal values of intellectuality: logical debate, higher education, academic scholarship, scientific method, etc. In doing so, I want to build my own bridge toward conservatism and the bridge I’ll build is through the Enlightenment ideal of the “rational actor”.

This ideal represents the historical beginning point of liberalism and often a helpful meeting point between liberals and libertarians (along with libertarian-minded conservatives), but this ideal has most recently been taken up by conservatives as they explore ways to adapt conservative values to modern society. Traditional Christianity saw people as irrational, specifically in terms of Original Sin and how the fallen nature of mankind disallows people to act in their own best interest, hence the necessity of the church to act as guide and authority and hence the necessity of individuals to place their blind faith in God. Modern Christians, however, have been transformed by modern values of individualism. Conservative Christians will now more often use the belief in the “rational actor” as a way to impose a moral order that once would have been imposed by church authority and divine fear. They’ll argue that we must allow people to suffer the consequences of their own choices which implies that people are potentially capable of making good choices, an assumption that the early Christian church did not share. The pre-modern theology of Original Sin has been translated into the modern idea of selfishness, the perceived sin of individualism. Conservatives feel this pull between blue vmeme traditionalism and orange vmeme modernity, and these two vmemes are simply in too much conflict at this point in our societal development.

Liberals, on the other hand, see the idea of a “rational actor” in more secular terms. To the degree they believe in it, they would see its strongest manifestation in the science and in academia, the two main pillars of knowledge and learning. It is through liberal faith in Enlightenement ideals that liberals can reach out to libertarians and other more rational-minded people on the right. However, this liberal faith in the intellect has been shaken for politics and science have shown how shaky is the ground upon which stands the ideal of the “rational actor”. This is the main theme of Mooney’s recent book about the research on motivated reasoning. Nonetheless, liberals don’t want to give up on this ideal for no better ideal has yet been found to replace it. Even in its imperfection, it is our best hope for maintaining what democratic advancements we have gained as a society. The conservative attack on Enlightenment ideals has shaken the confidence of liberals and caused the more moderate and intellectual conservatives to flee the conservative movement or at least to grow weary of the divisiveness of the culture wars. In recent decades, conservatives took hold of the reigns of power and having created a new order through reactionary conservatism they aren’t sure they like what has resulted. In response to the loss of power, liberals in recent decades have been doing some serious soul-searching.

As a liberal-minded critic of orange vmeme hyper-individualism, I appreciate the importance of the blue vmeme fear about breakdown of social order. Conservatives and liberals alike have good reason to fear the collapse or degeneration of our society. However, there is one thing that liberals understand that conservatives have yet to fully comprehend: Social order in a liberal democracy such as America is dependent on the Enlightenment ideals so fiercely defended by liberals. Fortunately, a growing number of conservatives are beginning to figure this out and they are becoming less tolerant of the anti-intellectualism promoted by the radicalized religious right. The insight that liberals have is that the creation of “rational actors” in a democracy doesn’t happen by itself. It is very difficult and costly to create a population of educated and informed citizens who are able to act responsibly and choose rationally, but the destruction of this democratic process of citizen-making can be quite easy as it typically is easier to destroy than to build.

What liberals like Mooney point out is how conservatives are unaware of their own lack of rationality about politics. This is a dangerous situation, both for the lack of rationality and the lack of awareness. How do we collectively solve a problem that much of the population doesn’t understand when part of the problem is that very same lack of understanding? A democracy is a difficult way to run a society. Freedom doesn’t come cheap. If you don’t care about freedom, it can be simple for a dictator  or an elite to enforce order through military might and social oppression. Social order isn’t necessarily difficult to attain, but social order without freedom can only be maintained by keeping the population submissive through fear.

Despite conservative doubt about modern society, I’m fairly sure most conservatives don’t genuinely want to return to a pre-modern society ruled by a blue vmeme regimented hierarchy. Either conservatives will learn to appreciate Enlightenment ideals or our society will fail. In order to convince conservatives of this dilemma, liberals need to realize that conservatives by nature are less prone to the type of thinking promoted by Enlightenment ideals. The value of science and higher education, the worthiness of intellectual fairness and curiosity, all of this needs to be translated into conservative terms and thus made to mesh with the conservative predisposition. What conservatives are great at is defending the status quo of a society, and so what liberals need to do is assist in making the standards of rational thinking the new status quo of our society. The liberal-minded need to convince the conservative-minded that the intellectual traditions and institutions are indispensable in maintaining social order.

Haidt, in pointing out the weakness of rationality, isn’t helping. We liberals already know the weaknesses of rationality and that is precisely the reason we defend rationality. It’s in fact liberals, more than conservatives, who deeply and profoundly understand the problems that ensue from anti-intellectualism and motivated reasoning. Humans are capable of rationality as long as society and its institutions put great value on rationality and put great effort into defending it. Mooney shows very clearly the misinformation that is created when a large portion of our society cynically embraces an anti-intellectual worldview. Haidt is completely wrong in arguing that liberals should be more like conservatives in embracing a more ‘intuitive’ understanding. If Haidt were to read Mooney’s book and took the data seriously, he couldn’t make such a dangerously naive argument.

* * *

I have a hard time determining what all of this might mean for the moral foundations theory promoted by Haidt. It might be true that there is a basic set of moral foundations. However, it also might be true that as Spiral Dynamics theorizes such foundations might themselves be built on other foundations which in turn are built on even earlier foundations.

Haidt is arguing for blue vmeme as the ultimate foundation of human nature and society, but according to Spiral Dynamics there are multiple vmemes prior to that stage of development. Why does Haidt pick the blue vmeme as his choice for where society should center itself? If the most fundamental is assumed to be the best, why not instead pick as the center one of the earlier vmemes such as red, purple, or beige? On the other hand, if “transcend and include” is a truth of development, shouldn’t we instead seek a collective centering in the higher vmemes where a more integral social order would become possible?

24 thoughts on “Haidt & Mooney, Moral Foundations & Spiral Dynamics

  1. There is much here, much I disagree with and much I agree with, but I want to point this out: ” liberals are more rational than conservatives when it comes to political issues.”

    Isn’t this an oxymoronic statement given the position Republicans have at defining the debate and liberals being largely unable to define their position in the public sphere? Is not this rationality actually irrational as it based on a conception of human interaction that is fundamentally false? I suspect this is the case.

    Furthermore, you are confusing political and policy issues here, they are not the same. The willingness to compromise is good policy, but for reasons above it is bad politics. In fact, if one takes a barometer of the political moves of most Democrats, then compromise itself can be seen as an issue. This was my concern with the framing and reification of liberals as a type which conflates orientation and belief. This is a problematic move as it hides definitions. Haidt’s book and Mooney’s book (Mooney is actually someone who I have had significant dialogue and defended in the blogosphere) can be read against each other here, but both actually commit this framing issue. However, Mooney’s book being focused on nebulous liberals and conservatives, but on neurology of Republicans make it a little sound despite Mooney’s liberal bias (he does have one as he has ignored issues in which there is some irrationality on the liberal side such as purity in regards to organic food and localvorism which really dealing with differences in geography and supply chain).

    Now that said, I found your questioning about the vmeme fascinating, and informative and I think maybe the questions you ask at the end (although I actually reject meme theory as none-science as do many biologists) a useful way of asking questions that get to the foundational categorization problems. I am going to have to think more on this, but I really think you are onto something here and want to see you develop this more.

    • “Isn’t this an oxymoronic statement given the position Republicans have at defining the debate and liberals being largely unable to define their position in the public sphere? Is not this rationality actually irrational as it based on a conception of human interaction that is fundamentally false? I suspect this is the case.”

      That is the central theme explored by Chris Mooney. The trick is not just being rational but promoting rationality. It does little good to be rational in a non-rational political conflict. It is necessary to first change the debate to a rational framework. Mooney seems to have faith that this can be accomplished by liberals becoming better storytellers. I agree that there is great power in stories and it would be nice to believe that stories grounded in truth are even more powerful.

      “Furthermore, you are confusing political and policy issues here, they are not the same. The willingness to compromise is good policy, but for reasons above it is bad politics. In fact, if one takes a barometer of the political moves of most Democrats, then compromise itself can be seen as an issue.”

      I’m not sure that I’m confusing them in that I think the connection between them is real to an extent, but it is true that they don’t always go together. The willingness to compromise is bad politics in the present situation because those with such willingness aren’t those who are wielding the most power right now, aren’t those who are controlling the political narrative. However, there have been times in history where willingness to compromise became more dominant and so I would assume that our present situation is temporary. Wisdom comes with knowing when compromise can work and when it can’t. The agenda of the liberal-minded should be to create scenarios and social conditions where compromise is both possible and desirable.

      In looking at the research, it is clear that both nature and nurture play massive roles, unsurprisingly. It is the environmental factors that give me hope. It’s not just a matter of being born with a predisposition.

      I was thinking about one study in terms of my own life. My parents are conservatives of a Christian variety. My mom is a more moderate traditional conservative who holds no ideological dislike of government or government programs such as public schools. My dad is more of a mix between a libertarian and a neocon. Compared to right-wingers, my parents are relatively liberal-minded. However, the psychological aspect would be complex. My mom probably has a more standard conservative predisposition, the genuine resistance to change that is perceived as too radical and too fast, but my dad doesn’t have a standard conservative predisposition and he probably would test a bit higher on ‘openness’.

      As I see it, what made my parents conservatives originally was their growing up in conservative Indiana where their childhood and young adulthood was defined by the 1950s vision of nuclear family and small town America, my dad in fact grew up in the town that at one time was officially declared “Small Town USA” (in 1943 by the Department of Defense). My parents were old enough that they didn’t personally experience much of the counterculture movements or the radical politics of the 1960s through the 1970s. However, my grandmother (my dad’s mom) was into all things New Age and got my parents into such things as the Unity Church which I was raised in. My parents were somewhat liberalized by their association with so many liberals, but then my dad got a job in South Carolina and my parents became influenced back toward conservatism. My dad found it humorous that many of his SC conservative friends considered him a secret liberal simply because he wasn’t a typical Deep South right-winger. My parents ultimately are Midwesterners and have that Midwestern sense of moderation.

      What has made me contemplate this so much is that all 3 of their sons became liberals (or, ignoring the ideological label, at least liberal-minded), although only my oldest brother might be more of a diehard Democrat (my second oldest brother and myself being more left-liberals or liberal left-wingers). In retrospect, it seems somewhat predictable that this happened. My dad’s family clearly has strong traits of the liberal predisposition and I’m sure my brothers and I inherited some of the genetics behind those traits. Even though I barely new my dad’s mom since she died when I was a little kid, the stories my parents tell of her remind me a lot of my own behavior.

      More importantly, though, it seems to me that my parents did a pretty good job of ensuring their sons became liberals. They raised us in the most liberal Christian church that probably can be found in the US and they raised us in liberal college towns (even Columbia, SC was massively multicultural with a major military base and integrated public schools which I attended). I came across research showing that kids who grow up in multicultural environments tend to grow up to be more socially liberal. My brothers and I bear out the truth of that study.

      Another study I came across made particularly clear the connection between genetics and environment. They were able to trace some of the liberal predisposition to a single gene, but that gene by itself didn’t determine liberalism. A person with that gene only expressed more liberalism if they had lots of friends growing up. So, a sociable environment (experiencing many different kinds of people?) activated the gene to express as liberalism.

      My point for sharing all that is to show how much environment influences ideology, something I’m sure you already knew. I was thinking about this in context of the willingness to compromise. It is the environment that creates the possibility and probability of compromise on the social/political level, but it is also the environment that helps determine whether the people thus influenced express a predisposition open to compromise. In liberal environments, the liberal predisposition is more likely to work effectively because a liberal environment helps to form the liberal mindset itself.

      The question is: How much control do we have over this? Fukuyama has written about cultures of trust. There has been some studies done on this and cultures of trust seem to make it easier for people to effectively work together, especially on the large scale. Supposedly, Northern European countries tend to have stronger cultures of trust and they also tend to have more liberal/left-wing politics. The difficulty is those countries have cultures that evolved naturally over centuries. It’s likely the physical environment that helped form the social environment for colder climates would require stronger cultures of trust for the simple necessity of survival, especially in centuries past when these cultures were first forming.

    • “This was my concern with the framing and reification of liberals as a type which conflates orientation and belief. This is a problematic move as it hides definitions.”

      I must admit to being slightly confused in reading this. In my mind, the research and discussions of research causes me to feel less concern in this regard. So, I’m not clear what is motivating your concern or precisely what it is. Maybe you could explain some more using specific examples of contemporary studies. I’ll offer the sources of my own view and you can see what you think.

      First, let me point out to some of the books I’ve found enlightening:

      Personality and the Foundations of Political Behavior
      by Jeffery J. Mondak

      Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics
      by Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler

      The Authoritarians
      by Bob Altemeyer

      Second, ideology is obviously confusing, but I’ve found the most clear discussions of ideology often are found in the psychological literature. The kinds of doubts and criticisms you bring up are precisely the type of issues that scientists themselves discuss. For example, I came across a great survey of the research done on ideology by Jost, Federico, and Napier (“Political Ideology: Its Structures, Functions, and Elective Affinities”, published in 2012). I could offer you some passages from it, but the discussion is so detailed and extensive that it would be difficult finding a single passage that was representative. I’ll just say that the authors discuss the issues involved in defining the terms, measuring the factors involved, determining correlations, and meta-analyzing the data. I would highly recommend reading it for yourself. Here is the PDF:


      Third, I’d point out the reason why I prefer Mooney over Haidt. As I understand, Haidt is using self-reported labels. This is obviously problematic as you realize. I don’t mind research having been done this way, just as long as there is other research using other methods that confirm that research. In the case of Haidt’s research, I don’t know if any studies have been done on the moral foundations that use some other measure besides self-reported labels. That is the difference with the study Mooney did with Chris Everett Young where they were measuring ideology in multiple ways. Here is what Mooney writes about it in his book:

      “Openness to Experience is Still Strongly Related to Political Liberalism. First, we were able to reconfirm a key relationship between personality and politics discussed earlier in this book. In our study, Openness to Experience was linked with liberalism of every type, no matter how we measured it—that is, with social or moral liberalism, economic liberalism, liberalism based on self-identification and by party affiliation (with Democrats versus Republicans), and a couple of other measures.

      “But what do we mean by “linked”?

      “In a popular book like this one, it would be off-putting to get too deep into the statistical nature of the relationships that we found. And yet at the same time, we know many readers will want some details. So let us briefly try to make everybody happy, with one sweeping explanation of what these kinds of findings mean. (Warning: we are entering wonk land again.) For the most part, our study was correlational, not causal. That means we detected a variety of correlations, which are statistical measures of associations between two variables that range from −1 to +1. A correlation of 1 or −1 means the two variables are perfectly associated, either positively or negatively. In other words, if you know a person’s measure on one variable, you know precisely the person’s measure on the other. A correlation of 0 means that knowing a person’s measure on the first variable gives you no clue whatsoever as to his measure on the second. Stated in these terms, Openness correlated at 0.25 with fiscal liberalism, and negatively at −0.28 with authoritarianism (among other findings). So what does a correlation of .25 mean?

      “Imagine that there is some great, unobserved “source” of commonality between two variables. When this source pushes a person toward the positive side of variable A, it also pushes that person, in exactly the same amount, toward the positive side of variable B. If two variables both drew 25 percent of their variability from this common source (and, obviously, each variable drew 75 percent of its variability from other unobserved sources that were unrelated to the sources of the correspondingly unexplained 75 percent of the other variable) then the two variables would be correlated at 0.25.

      “That might not sound like much. But in this kind of research, which involves huge amounts of purely random measurement error as we try to gauge a person’s “level of Openness” or “level of liberalism,” correlations verging on .3 are quite convincing, and, we think, easy to detect in the “real world.” In other words, it’s relatively easy to meet 10 average conservatives and 10 average liberals and intuitively pick up personality differences that make for a correlation with ideology of .25 or .3. (We’ll bet you agree.) And our study picked up just such differences.

      “In fact, not only did we find a positive correlation between Openness and fiscal liberalism (among other measures of liberalism) and a negative correlation with authoritarianism, but these findings were strongly statistically significant. In terminology familiar to scientists, we might say that Openness was correlated with liberal fiscal ideology at a significance level of p = 0.002, and negatively with authoritarianism at p = 0.0006.

      “For the non-pros, what that means is that, if these two variables actually somehow aren’t related (if their correlation is truly zero, so that we could only have found these correlations in our unique sample by accident), then we would expect to have to collect 1000 samples of similar size to get two additional findings of an association that strong or stronger for Openness. And for authoritarianism, we’d have to collect 10,000 samples of similar size to “find” 6 more associations that strong or stronger.

      “That gives us good confidence that the finding is not accidental, but is a result of real differences between liberals and conservatives. (Please note that we will report results in this same format—providing first a correlation, and then a level of significance—throughout this chapter. When we say “r = .2” that means the correlation between two variables was .2, on that scale of −1 to 1.)

      “Thus, the idea that conservatives—economic ones included, and maybe even especially—are less Open or flexible in their cognitive style, continues to receive strong support.”

      Mooney, Chris (2012-03-22). The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science–and Reality (Kindle Locations 6433-6475). John Wiley and Sons. Kindle Edition.

      • There was one thing that I thought would interest you that is from the paper by Jost, Federico, and Napier: symbolic vs operational aspects of political ideology. What this means generally is that self-identified ideological labels will tend to invoke abstract ideological responses (i.e., symbolic), but such self-identifications may or may not correlate to actual policy positions. This is why most Americans support many key liberal policies while not identifying as liberal. What this means in reference to Haidt is that he is only measuring symbolic ideology which makes his tendency from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ even more problematic.

        “Since the time of the pioneering work of Free & Cantril (1967),
        scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic
        and operational aspects of political ideology (Page & Shapiro
        1992, Stimson 2004). According to this terminology, “symbolic”
        refers to general, abstract ideological labels, images, and categories, including acts of self-identification with the left or right.
        “Operational” ideology, by contrast, refers to more specific, concrete, issue-based opinions that may also be classified by observers as either left or right. Although this distinction may seem
        purely academic, evidence suggests that symbolic and operational
        forms of ideology do not coincide for many citizens of mass
        democracies. For example, Free & Cantril (1967) observed that
        many Americans were simultaneously “philosophical conservatives” and “operational liberals,” opposing “big government” in
        the abstract but supporting the individual programs comprising
        the New Deal welfare and regulatory state. More recent studies
        have obtained impressively similar results; Stimson (2004) found
        that more than two-thirds of American respondents who identify
        as symbolic conservatives are operational liberals with respect to
        the issues (see also Page & Shapiro 1992, Zaller 1992). However, rather than demonstrating that ideological belief systems
        are multidimensional in the sense of being irreducible to a single
        left-right continuum, these results indicate that, in the United
        States at least, leftist/liberal ideas are more popular when they
        are manifested in specific, concrete policy solutions than when
        they are offered as ideological abstractions. The notion that most
        people like to think of themselves as conservative despite the fact
        that they hold a number of liberal opinions on specific issues is
        broadly consistent with system-justification theory, which suggests that most people are motivated to look favorably upon the
        status quo in general and to reject major challenges to it ( Jost
        et al. 2004a).”

      • “This was my concern with the framing and reification of liberals as a type which conflates orientation and belief. This is a problematic move as it hides definitions.”

        I really really would like to know what you mean by this, Skepoet. Our entire disagreement about the social sciences hinges on what you what you say here, but I’m not quite sure what you are saying. The way Mooney and Everett measured ideology fits ever possible way ideology is defined according to how it is used in our society: self-identified/self-reported label, party affiliation, social/moral, economic, etc.

        It doesn’t seem to me that any definition is being hidden. The research began with the normal definitions of ideology that would be understood by almost any person, and then uses those definitions to measure against possible correlations to personality traits. How is that framing and reification?

        If you met someone who self-identified as a liberal, who voted Democrat, who supported both standard social/moral and economic liberal positions, etc, wouldn’t you assume they were actually a liberal in the normal use of that term? If you wouldn’t, why not? If we can’t define words according to how they are commonly used (both by average people and professional researchers), then ideological labels are absolutely meaningless.

        As you know, I have criticisms of self-identified conservatives who support liberal positions because such people end up undermining the useful meaning of ideological labels. Nonetheless, such people who incorrectly or confusedly use labels still are just a minority, although with Pew’s “Solid Liberals” they are a significant minority (9%) that should be taken into account. The commonly accepted definitions of these terms are understood and used by the majority. Most people who self-identify as conservative actually mean that they support conservative positions, and the vast majority of conservatives vote Republican. It is true that, however, liberals are less partisan in their voting Democrat but even there most liberals do vote Democrat.

        I must admit your criticism (stated here and elsewhere) makes me feel very frustrated. I want to understand your criticism, but from my perspective it doesn’t make much sense at this point… unless you are able to explain it further in light of what I have offered.

    • “However, Mooney’s book being focused on nebulous liberals and conservatives, but on neurology of Republicans make it a little sound despite Mooney’s liberal bias (he does have one as he has ignored issues in which there is some irrationality on the liberal side such as purity in regards to organic food and localvorism which really dealing with differences in geography and supply chain).”

      I would recommend that you check out Mooney’s book. In it, he dedicates an entire chapter to an analysis of how motivated reasoning plays out among liberals. He picks a couple of popular issues that he discusses in detail such as nuclear power and fracking. He also mentions and discusses to varying degrees other issues as well from vaccines to genetically modified food.

      Mooney isn’t denying that liberals ever fall prey to motivated reasoning, but he is arguing that it is to a lesser degree because of certain traits that protect against it and simply because liberalism is more aligned the scientific community. It points out how it is more common for liberals and those on the left in general to criticize other liberals about incorrect views related to scientific data.

      For example, here we are, two people on the left, civilly debating these issues. I’m fairly sure that both of us would measure high on traits like ‘openness’ and other traits generally correlated to the liberal ideology.

      Mooney is arguing that discussions such as this are less common among conservatives. One of the great sins (according to Reagan) was for a Republican to attack another Republican, but there is no corollary to his on the left. That is the weakness of the left, we are too often divided against ourselves because of too much independent-minded criticalness.

      In writing about motivated reasoning, it seems to me that Mooney was being extra careful to avoid motivated reasoning in his book. From his perspective, being a good liberal means not just being critical of conservatives but also being critical of oneself and being critical of other liberals. I share this liberal viewpoint, whether or not I choose to identify as a liberal.

    • “Now that said, I found your questioning about the vmeme fascinating, and informative and I think maybe the questions you ask at the end (although I actually reject meme theory as none-science as do many biologists) a useful way of asking questions that get to the foundational categorization problems. I am going to have to think more on this, but I really think you are onto something here and want to see you develop this more.”

      I don’t have any strong opinions about meme theory in general. As for Spiral Dynamics, I find it interesting as a compelling theory, but I also have many doubts and criticisms. It’s obvious to me that human development has a massive impact on both individuals and societies. What is less obvious to me are how these stages play out in different ways, exceptions abound.

      My thoughts on Spiral Dynamics are partly an expression of my thoughts on ideologies and the limits of them. Liberal-minded are people open to the new and novel, people who seek to promote change and progress. However, specific social conditions and specific historical contingencies will cause this predisposition to express differently. Spiral Dynamics seems to offer a way of making sense of the shifting nature of ideologies and predispositions.

      In some ways, I don’t think ideologies make any sense without this kind of understanding, whether Spiral Dynamics or some other similar model. Corey Robin was trying to explain it in another way and he does help to elucidate the problem, but he is forced to simply conclude that conservatives (since the beginning of modern politics) have always been reactionary conservatives.

    • That offers a good example of some of the problems I have with Haidt. First, he too easily goes from complex data to simplistic conclusions. Second, he is prone to jumping from ‘is’ to ‘ought’.

      Also, Haidt admits that as a younger man he was a Democratic partisan. Partisans in general probably measure lower on many of the liberal-minded traits such as ‘openness’. I’m not a fan of partisans, no matter the side. I utterly hate politics as team sports. Haidt may have given up his Democratic partisanship, but the type of thinking that made that possible maybe still motivates his theorizing and opinionating.

      Haidt is an intelligent guy and I don’t think his research is entirely unworthy. I just feel wary of it. There are too many confounding factors he doesn’t take into account. I wish he was more cautious in his approach. In analyzing his theory, it takes too much effort trying to disentangle what is useful from what is less than useful.

  2. I was perusing various papers on the psychological research. I came across this:


    I’d seen this kind of data before. Basically, it shows personality traits are represented unevenly across regions of the US. For some reason, people with certain personality traits tend to cluster in the same areas. It could be genetic clustering or it could be the social environment. Either way, it implies a relationship to regional cultures and hence regional differences in politics.

    It makes me wonder whether culture and ideology can ever be fully disentangled. I also wonder how personality traits may or may not connect with Spiral Dynamics, specifically in terms of the relationship between the individual and the collective.

    I even pointed out this geographical trait data in my very long post about the differences between the North and South (if you look to the very end of the post, you’ll see the mapping of the data):


    Here are the relevant links from that post:





    This kind of data makes me wonder exactly what is being talked about when people speak of culture. For example, I’m willing to bet that the research on “cultures of trust” relates to research on “openness to experience”.



    The opposite of a “culture of trust” is a “culture of anxiety”.


    I would assume that the former would predispose people to think more liberally and the latter more conservatively.

    An atmosphere of fear (such as media images of 9/11) can even make liberals respond more conservatively in terms of supporting conservative policies and submitting to conservative leadership. A permanent atmosphere of fear (such as in an authoritarian society or a society involved in a long period of war or civil unrest) could create a permanent conservative mindset even in those who otherwise would express strong liberal-mindedness.

    So, to consider the opposite scenario, is it possible that a “culture of trust” might cause some conservative-minded people to think and act more liberally? If so, how would such a culture be created? Take the Northeast and West Coast as examples. What about those regions encourages higher rates of ‘openness’ in their populations?

    Here is a discussion of the relationship between culture and psychology:


    World Values is another interesting way of looking at culture in context of the social sciences:



  3. Skepoet – I had a thought that might interest you. I’ve previously mentioned data about communists in communist countries measuring higher in authoritarianism, but in liberal democracies communists measure lower in authoritarianism.

    What this means is that in liberal democracies most left-wingers will measure higher for the same traits as liberals. For example, instead of authoritarianism, communists in liberal democracies would measure higher in ‘openness.

    My reference point is North America and Europe, the regions that presently are liberal democracies and are the regions where most of this research has been done. So, in this context, the research on liberals would be equally applicable to left-wingers. That is how I tend to think about it. As such, Mooney’s book isn’t just about ‘liberals’ in the strict sense but should be thought of more in terms of the generic ‘left’. This is what I typically mean when I speak of liberal-mindedness.

    This makes sense in terms of the research on authoritarianism which has tended to find the opposite of this in the trait of egalitarianism. In countries like the US, it is liberals and left-wingers who are most concerned about egalitarianism. I would connect egalitarianism to the idea of positive freedom.

    Negative freedom, however, seems more dubious in its opposition to authoritarianism since it is less concerned about social oppression and prejudice that exists beyond the level of the individual, in particular less concern from upper class individuals who are more likely to espouse libertarian views of negative freedom. There is some research I’ve come across that shows libertarians don’t share either the conservative fear of strangers/outsiders or the liberal empathy toward strangers/outsiders. Instead, libertarians express more of an attitude of indifference toward strangers/outsiders.

  4. Here is a comment I wrote to another commenter of a review of Haidt’s book:


    In my post, I mentioned numerous problems with the charity data, whether you find those problems interesting or not (you’ve shown no evidence of having even read my criticisms at the linked post). Either way, it’s not really that important to me. I also pointed out that there were even further problems with the interpretation Haidt offers even if the data were correct. It’s obvious from a brief consideration of the data that there is plenty of room for doubt and plenty of room for diverse interpretations. Starting from that uncertain data, speculating on it to prove one’s argument is hardly a worthwhile activity… beyond the simple enjoyment of philosophizing.

    My criticisms of Haidt are deeper than the data, mostly having to do with assumptions and biases. I’ve explained those criticisms in so much detail at this point that either you agree with me or you don’t.

    As Haidt argues, no one is likely to be convinced about morality by logical argument and so the objective data ultimately becomes irrelevant in light of that assumption Haidt makes. According to this assumption, you either come to Haidt’s theory already agreeing with it or already disagreeing with it. If Haidt is correct about people’s lack of rationality about morality, Haidt would have convinced more people by writing a novel or a play than by presenting a rational argument based on data acquired through the rational scientific method. I disagree with Haidt’s assumption about rationality, but given Haidt does make that assumption rationally arguing about Haidt’s theory is pointless.

    Haidt’s theory is very speculative. Rationally speaking, there is no particular reason to favor Haidt’s theory over all the other theories about morality. All you can say is from an intuitive perspective it is an elegant theory and an interesting perspective, but that could be said about many other theories as well.

    Haidt chooses particular data to argue for his theory while ignoring or downplaying other data. I’m not saying his theory is necessarily wrong, but it is far from being proven correct. A lot more research needs to be done before any clear conclusions can be made. I think Haidt is speculating too far ahead of what the data strictly allows for. I mean this in that other theories could account for the data in other ways. So, talking about Haidt’s theory as a given seems unhelpful to me.

    • In a number of ways, I see Haidt’s theory as self-defeating. He is using conservative arguments to criticize liberals, but he offers these arguments from a liberal-minded perspective motivated by liberal-minded concerns. So, his mostly liberal audience probably feels annoyed or frustrated and the few conservatives who come across his theory most likely will either not understand or care.

      He wants everyone to just be able to get along. This is what liberals want with their strong tendencies toward egalitarianism, openness, compromise, and cooperation. But conservatives don’t care as much about such things and so the basic thrust of his argument falls on the deaf ears of the average conservative.

      At the same time, he dismisses rationality. In relationship to truth-seeking, rationality is one of the few things that can trump the other tendencies of liberals. Most liberals will compromise about many things but not about truth. His dismissal of rationality will, of course, appeal to the very few number of conservatives who happen to notice his theory. But his majority liberal audience will feel affronted that one of their core moral values is being dismissed as being moral at all.

      In trying to create a liberal-minded compromise, Haidt ends up sacrificing liberal values at the altar of an argument for a conservative viewpoint (parochial compassion, constrained rationality, etc). I think he realizes that liberals are more willing to sacrifice for a compromise and so he favors the conservative side hoping to win over conservatives to a truce of mutual understanding, but most conservatives don’t prioritize mutual understanding for it isn’t central to their moral worldview. Haidt’s good intentions lead to a conclusion that satisfies neither side.

      The main justification Haidt has in speculating so far beyond the data is in order to seek out a theoretical foundation for compromise and cooperation. However, if his theory fails in regard to these goals, what is the justification for so much otherwise unnecessary speculation? Scientifically-speaking, a simpler theory closer to the data (and more inclusive of data beyond his own research) would fit better the rule of parsimony, i.e., Occam’s Razor. Haidt has to decide whether he is presenting a scientific theory or cultural commentary because there are different standards for each.

  5. One other comment I made on a different review gets at an important issue about being careful in ascertaining what can and can’t be concluded from research by determining how strongly that research is supported in the context of the larger field of research:


    “I don’t know if Haidt thinks the weight given to the various moral foundations is generally prior to different styles of thinking, but I don’t think it matters to his theory. It might be an interesting and important question is some other ways, though.”

    It matters a lot, actually. If there are moral factors that are more fundamental than the moral foundations or otherwise exist causally prior, then that would mean there is a foundation below the moral foundations and so Haidt’s theory is less foundational than the name implies.

    One way to explore this issue would be for factor analysis to be applied to Haidt’s moral foundations. This is what was done with trait theory. Factor analysis is a helpful way of disentangling invalid aspects of a theory.

    Another helpful method would be meta-analysis. The problem with moral foundations theory is that there doesn’t appear to be a lot of research done using it as a model and correlating it with other research models. More research would need to be done first before meta-analysis could be applied.

  6. Thanks for the exhaustive treatment of this subject, Benjamin. I’m especially grateful for the bit re charity vis-a-vis ideology, which will serve to moderate my kneejerk tendency to talk up conservative charity: I promise to read the references more completely before picking up that scepter again: in any case, I’ll do so more tentatively, if at all.

    >Another helpful method would be meta-analysis. The problem with moral foundations theory is that there doesn’t appear to be a lot of research done using it as a model and correlating it with other research models.

    Meta-analysis, sure: or, rather, simply other teams that are converging on similar ideas, say. I think there are many problems with MFT, and you’ve dealt with some of them here. And even though I think it’s a helpful model, especially for many people, I look forward in the future to dealing with the down sides half as much as I’ve dealt with the advantages in the context of speaking with conservatives- very tired of the one-note samba aspect of praising a “broader palette” of morals, which feels like a thin gruel to this liberal at this point. I remember someone decrying the lack of a definition of morals in the whole ‘Righteous Mind’. I personally feel that’s a HUGE downside of this work- not just because of the technique of avoiding a reference point, the manipulation of it, but because of his ability thereby to pretend as if he popped on the scene in the late ’80’s (‘Picture me in India…’) to construct moral theory for society. It’s not just ridiculous, it’s functionally disingenuous. No review of alternatives, moral philosophy history, etc. I]d give any graduate paper that tried such a thing a C without reading it, as the best it could do. And anyway, morals, in a very real sense, are simple, but they’re treated in a relatively narrow framing here that provides both advantages and disadvantages. I was supposed to meet him on Monday for a discussion (we had a tentative I’d set up with him in January) and couldn’t because he became so busy with the popular attention. A good thing (I had what I needed already by then, actually), but a telling one in this sense: a nice, clear message is being handed a simple-minded public, with no ‘on the other hand’ in sight. He’s up to 9 morals or so now, by my count, from roughly 5+ a couple of years ago, by including liberal and conservative versions of liberty, fairness and purity (it’s silly to conflate distinct ideological values as the same thing because one can sorta-kinda use the same term in both cases). This is an emerging empirical set of studies that need a broader foundation of work, probably by others, to be helpful to me at this point…which gets me to a final gripe for now: there’s almost certainly very useful work, right out of their own studies, that show great usefulness in a ‘meta-morals’ idea, i.e., that there are two statistically pertinent, overlapping fundamental morals, if you will, a liberal/care one and a conservative/order one, that drives most of the ideological variance in the results.

    Ravi Iyer does useful thinking at polipsych.com: Jesse Graham is also super smart, and is a bit aslant of Haidt’s work in useful ways. And shame on me for not knowing others better.

    • I truly appreciate that you went to the effort of reading my “exhaustive treatment”. A personal failing is my tendency to write overly long blog posts. I realize few people will read something like this, but I feel compelled to write in such a detailed fashion. I can’t help myself.

      I don’t know what meta-analysis would offer, but it seems like a fruitful method in other areas of research. Meta-analysis helps give a larger context of understanding. Any single study may be misleading, biased or plain wrong. The scientific method is most useful when enough research has accumulated that meta-analysis becomes possible.

      I agree that MFT can be useful. I’m just a contrarian. When I see a bunch of people defending something, I feel compelled to look for its weaknesses and limitations. So, you should always take my critcisms with a grain of salt. My criticism doesn’t necessarily imply dislike or unappreciation.

      I would particularly recommend taking my criticisms of conservatives with a grain of salt. For me, my personal respect for my conservative parents (and all they have taught me) always acts as an opposing force to any criticism I might make toward conservatism in general. I understand and appreciate conservative moral values. I would even go so far as to say that I’m conservative in certain important ways… such as being wary of radicalism and revolutionary rhetoric.

      “He’s up to 9 morals or so now, by my count, from roughly 5+ a couple of years ago, by including liberal and conservative versions of liberty, fairness and purity (it’s silly to conflate distinct ideological values as the same thing because one can sorta-kinda use the same term in both cases).”

      Social science in general is such a young field that any and all theorizing at this point isn’t completely helpful. There is just too much left unknown which creates endless room for speculation in all directions. I would completely concur with the conflation problem. Making accurate and useful distinctions is the standard any theory should aspire toward, and hence it is the challenge of theorizing when so much remains unknown or unclear.

      “This is an emerging empirical set of studies that need a broader foundation of work, probably by others, to be helpful to me at this point…which gets me to a final gripe for now: there’s almost certainly very useful work, right out of their own studies, that show great usefulness in a ‘meta-morals’ idea, i.e., that there are two statistically pertinent, overlapping fundamental morals, if you will, a liberal/care one and a conservative/order one, that drives most of the ideological variance in the results.”

      The meta-morals idea is an awesome perspective. I commend Haidt on taking this perspective. I think he is on the right track in doing this kind of research. My criticisms are ultimately more about his theorizing which I feel is too speculative and yet simultaneously too constrained. This past decade of research has opened up a can of worms which will take a long while to sort out. I’m willing to bet that this next decade or so of research is going to completely alter our way of thinking. As a liberal-minded fellow, I find that exciting.

      “Ravi Iyer does useful thinking at polipsych.com: Jesse Graham is also super smart, and is a bit aslant of Haidt’s work in useful ways. And shame on me for not knowing others better.”

      I’m always on the look out for new views and new takes on old views and just generally new voices offering fresh perspective. The social sciences are a vast field. It’s hard to keep up with even one small area of research. I think I’ve heard of Ravi Iyer, but I don’t recall in what context. I’m not sure about Jesse Graham. My memory isn’t always the best about names and such.

      • <The meta-morals idea is an awesome perspective. I commend Haidt on taking this perspective. I think he is on the right track in doing this kind of research.

        I wasn't clear. Haidt's not doing this work- the idea is from a discussion I had with Colin DeYoung, a brilliant researcher who sees it as at least as pertinent a set of facts, and who is at least as convinced as I am that this list of "moral foundations" is like watching amoebas blob out and divide. The simplicity of the idea is not very pop, though- much cooler to talk about loyalty, etc., which introduces errors and conflations, but has the advantage of being less statistical and general. In the end, I suspect a meta-moral approach may provide usable guidelines and reference in the real world- as you say, we'll see about this social science thing, we will.

        • I was misunderstanding you.

          I think Haidt’s intention is toward a meta-morals perspective, and it was his intention that I was commending. However, I would agree with you that the moral foundations theory is a very rough working model, at best.

          Many people have been seeking meta perspectives in various ways. Wilber’s integral approach with AQAL is meta. Still, I’m not quite sure what you mean by “meta-moral”. I’ll have to check out Colin DeYoung. Are there any good sites or articles?

          • Fortunately, Dr. DeYoung keeps all his pertinent papers available online- very nice. http://www.tc.umn.edu/~cdeyoung/Publications.htm . He doesn’t have anything published about meta-morals, and there’s not much to understand at this point: we were just making a general point, one that, as you said, Haidt makes as well in a way. Statistically, it’s quite accurate to say that there are two morals- it explains a very large amount of variance, so that 5, or 6, or 9 buys one little or nothing: if you have high levels of loyalty, you also have high levels of sanctity, respect for authority, negative liberty. Neither of us really know what to do with that high correlation empirically, though I think that those two meta-morals are essentially as close as we’ll get to a conserved/concentrated, scientific, on-the-paper grasping of liberalism and conservatism, two concepts that are decidedly not political in their essence. The supposedly expanded moral set of conservatives is one thing manifesting severally. I think it’s just the personality traits we discussed, their disparate (and stably so) genetic existence. These traits are quite particular, and we do clump along them: it’s not really a continuum between, say, low and high Openness/Intellect, low and high Conscientiousness. Combined with particular differences in Emotional Stability and Agreeableness that I also think are there, and any other aspects outside of personality theory per se, a set of differences that results in one side being more one thing morally, and the other the other thing, with a lot of shared ground. Fleshing it out into more categories is helpful in some ways, just as it’s helpful to look at the personality traits that are causing the moral differences- but it’s not really very helpful statistically to do what they’re doing in MFT, which I think is important.

            In personality theory, though there are some negative correlative relationships between traits when analyzing groups of people, I think it’s safe to say that there is no requirement for those correlations in individual cases- that’s a common belief among scientists. Maybe a fundamentalist personality psychologist would say that Jesus was high on all 60+ traits (expressed positively) within the Big 5, that that’s what perfection in a human means. I think there’s something to that- anyway, that’s my general perspective when it comes to personality approaches with ideology. If you have another way of thinking about it, I’d like to hear it. So Haidt’s general ‘get with these other morals, guys’ approach I’m all for. He’s ignoring the liberal morals and largely ignoring the disadvantages of the conservative moral emphasis, but we have an advantage: we know the advantages of our own approach, and we’ve been delineating the problems of the conservative moral approach via research in painful detail already.

            What’s missing, because Haidt’s not explicitly personality-driven, and because Haidt is not strong prescriptively, is anything like an acknowledgement that if personality underlies morals, then we can’t just get with the program of enlisting any potential advantages of conservative moral approaches: we don’t understand the program from over here in our moral world- can’t understand, if you will, a world where that other meta-moral is emphasized so much. At first blush, the whole business seems immoral. We even know they’re immoral in certain settings. Haidt’s saying those morals aren’t immoral per se, that we hurt from their absence in other settings, which is a very good message for us on the left. But then the sliver of ergo he offers is just horrible: it’s the Nike pledge, the ‘just do it’ message. Which I find ridiculous. What-hold out for more money when someone offers to pay you to slap your dad? I find the end part of the book, where he blithers around about what to do about it, as useful as suggesting I should buy more cleaning products and become a NASCAR fan.

            At the end of his book, the last paragraph, Haidt says something I read as ‘maybe someone will figure out what to do with this stuff, because I sure can’t’. I think that, from there, it’s a cultural anthropology effort for us, if you will: we study the other, starting with leftists studying the right, of course. We don’t understand them because we don’t have their traits, but we make the effort, with an underlying assumption that there’s an important neutratlity here, i.e., that their strength in certain traits we’ve bred out of ourselves implies advantages that we have a very difficult time seeing. I see that effort paralleling the kind of understanding you gained of your parents, and what I’m trying to do for people with this book I’m writing about conservatives. From there, we can begin to take a look at our liberal weaknesses, which is a business like looking at a bald spot in a couple of mirrors- tough and speculative, easy to ignore existing ills and therefore nonconsciously refute them. After that comes prescription, and I think it’s both highly individualistic and decidedly non-political. Maybe some liberals really should consider going to one of those everything-is-one churches of theirs, if they have existential angst, or if they want to talk to invisibles, like I do. Maybe they should insist the family eats together more often, or be more convinced of the value of punishment in certain situations, or find a ‘be here now’ book that helps them stop whining about where their life is going during business hours at a perfectly decent job somewhere. I don’t know. That’s why I emphasize hanging around them: it rubs off in nonlinear ways that I find useful. I’m around conservatives all the time: I can definitely get too much of it, but I usually have the opposite problem. I’m a little like you somewhat personality-wise, and that’s not going to magically transform, but I can blunt the worst edges of my traits by playing anthropologist with these guys, by putting on my monocle and watching while they reach for the cereal and pour. That effort has nothing to do with political persuasion, or even politics to me: I don’t see it making me more centrist, or more anything politically. It does make me a better person. I can say that pretty definitively. And it makes me happier. One value, quite far down the list, is that that I’m much better at talking about politics with them.

            They’re alien and interesting and useful to me. It’s also true that they could get us all killed if they screw this thing up, that they get major things wrong politically and personally all day every day. I just have absolutely no interest in giving up on the former simply because the latter is true.

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