Entries for month: August 2012

Black and White

I was stopped at a light yesterday, behind a car with a political bumper sticker, the kind that usually infuriates me. But this time, it didn’t. Instead, I found myself thinking reasonable thoughts like, “Oh yeah, that’s another example of someone with the positive value of _____, whereas my positive value is _____. “

That’s a very different experience for me. I used to get behind one of those cars and think, “How could ANYBODY think like that!!!”

The difference is that I just finished a book called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt, which is the most interesting book I’ve read in decades. It accomplished the same thing that my first book on psychological type did. It helped me see my own values as one of a series of equal values. It helped me understand people who have different values from mine, and to see their importance in the big picture. Besides understanding people better, it may help me work and communicate with them as well.

If you want to get the gist of the book, you can go to a web site called YourMorals.org, and answer the “Moral Foundations Questionnaire.”  The social psychologists who developed the questions did so after identifying five basic “morals” that seem to be found across cultures. They are…

  1. Care - makes us sensitive to signs of suffering and need, to despise cruelty and want to care for innocent victims.
  2. Fairness - makes us sensitive to indications that another person is likely to be a good partner for collaboration, makes us want to shun or punish free riders, cheaters and people who take advantage of us.
  3. Loyalty - helps us in forming and maintaining coalitions, makes us trust and reward good team players and punish those who betray us or our group.
  4. Authority - helps us forge relationships within social hierarchies, makes us sensitive to signs of rank or status, and to signs that other people are behaving properly given their position.
  5. Sanctity - helps us adapt to living in a world of pathogens and parasites, but has been expanded to include symbols of purity and sanctity which are important for binding groups together, i.e. flags, crosses, sacred places, people and principles.


After you fill out the questionnaire, you will see your results shown on a graph, showing which morals you place the highest value on. What is surprising is that your results will appear alongside the results of most liberals and conservatives.

The creators of the survey have found that liberals almost overwhelmingly stress the first two morals, care and fairness, and place very little importance on loyalty, authority and sanctity. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to place equal importance on all five morals, with none of them quite as high as care and fairness are for liberals.

In his book, Jonathan Haidt explains these results as two different ethics. Liberals have the ethic of autonomy, based on the idea that people are, first and foremost, autonomous individuals with wants, needs, and preferences. People should be free to satisfy these as they see fit, as long as they don’t hurt anyone, so societies develop moral concepts such as rights, liberty, and justice, which allow people to coexist peacefully without interfering too much in each other’s projects.

Conservatives, on the other hand, have the ethic of community, based on the idea that people are first and foremost, members of larger entities such as families, teams, armies, companies, tribes and nations. These larger entities require that people put aside their individual needs to serve the group, but they give people power that they would not have as individuals.

According to Haidt, when faced with moral questions, liberals are likely to ask themselves simply, “Does it harm anyone?” When faced with moral questions, conservatives are more likely to reference the rules and norms that hold their communities together, so some things are right even if they harm people and some things are wrong even if they don’t harm anyone.

Haidt also points out that people have an immediate and instinctive leaning toward autonomy or community, and only later do they look for justifications to support their leanings. That explains why you might have an “Of course this is wrong, how can anyone think its right!” reaction when your morals have been violated, and why so few people ever change their political preferences. It’s a lot like our personality preferences, because all of the evidence seems to point to the fact that we’re born with those as well.

Like the elegant theory of psychological type, The Righteous Mind made me marvel at the way we have evolved, so that different people specialize in the different jobs that need to be done. We suffer from confusion and conflict as a result of our “gifts differing,” but in the end, we keep getting closer to the ideal… strong, stable communities, where everyone’s individual rights are respected. 


Note: We make no claims on the validity or reliability of the questionnaires at YourMorals.org.

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