The liberal progress narrative and moral foundations

As we elaborate in this article, we view the “five foundations” of morality as Level 2 psychological constructs that people use in the construction of Level 3 narratives, including their individual life stories, and the collective narratives that animate competing political ideologies. [. . .]

Consistent with the first graph in Figure 1, the liberal progress narrative makes extensive use of the Harm foundation (“suffering,” “misery,” “oppression”) and the Fairness foundation (“unjust,” “inequality”). There is no mention of ingroup or nation, and no mention of purity or sanctity. Authority and tradition are mentioned only as the sources of harm and injustice.

Above and Below Left–Right: Ideological Narratives and Moral Foundations (pdf)

Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham
Department of Psychology, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA

Craig Joseph
Department of Psychology, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, USA

Why do people vary in their views of human nature and their visions of the good society? Why do many people categorize themselves as “liberal,” “conservative,” “libertarian,” “socialist,” and so on? Some researchers try to answer these questions by starting with people’s self-identifications and then moving “down,” examining traits (such as openness to experience) that underlie and predict endorsement of an ideological label (see Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003, and Sibley & Duckitt, 2008, for reviews). In contrast, others find it more informative to move “up” from such labels, examining the network of meanings, strivings, and personal narratives that unite the individuals who endorse a label (e.g., Conover & Feldman, 1981; Geertz, 1964; Smith, 2003; Sowell, 1995, 2007).

These two approaches are quite obviously complementary. In this article we attempt to integrate them by using two theories that were designed explicitly for such cross-level work: Dan McAdams’s (1995; McAdams & Pals, 2006) three-level account of personality (dispositional traits, characteristic adaptations, and life stories) and our own Moral Foundations Theory (Haidt & Graham, 2007; Haidt & Joseph, 2004). In brief, we argue that the single dimension of left– right is indeed a useful construct that describes a network of Level 2 adaptations (such as right-wing authoritarianism) closely linked to Level 1 traits (such as openness to experience), but the study of ideology requires us to look at the Level 3 narratives of self and society that people construct and internalize as they develop, join groups, and share ideologies. Understanding these narratives may require moving beyond a single left–right dimension to better examine how specific ideologies provide meaning at both the individual and cultural levels. As we elaborate in this article, we view the “five foundations” of morality as Level 2 psychological constructs that people use in the construction of Level 3 narratives, including their individual life stories, and the collective narratives that animate competing political ideologies.

[. . .]

We both agreed wholeheartedly with Shweder’s dictum that “culture and psyche make each other up” (Shweder, 1990). Yet we also both recognized that the psyche was not a blank slate; it contained certain tools or building blocks, provided by evolution, which constrained and enabled the two-way co-construction of culture and psyche.We were influenced by Frans deWaal’s (1996) account of these building blocks—mostly emotional— in chimpanzees and other animals. We reviewed five works that took a “big picture” perspective on morality, including those by Shweder and de Waal, and we listed the virtues (or moral goods, or positive social appraisals) that appeared in any of these works. We did not aim to identify virtues that appeared in all cultures, nor did we try to create a comprehensive taxonomy that would capture every human virtue. Rather, we tried to identify the best candidates for being the psychological foundations upon which cultures create their moral systems.

We found five groups of virtues discussed by at least four of the five theorists. For each one, a plausible evolutionary story had long been told, and for four of them (all but Purity), there was some evidence of continuity with the social psychology of other primates. The five foundations are as follows:

1. Harm/care: basic concerns for the suffering of others, including virtues of caring and compassion.

2. Fairness/reciprocity: concerns about unfair treatment, inequality, and more abstract notions of justice.

3. Ingroup/loyalty: concerns related to obligations of group membership, such as loyalty, self-sacrifice and vigilance against betrayal.

4. Authority/respect: concerns related to social order and the obligations of hierarchical relationships, such as obedience, respect, and proper role fulfillment.

5. Purity/sanctity: concerns about physical and spiritual contagion, including virtues of chastity, wholesomeness and control of desires.

The moral foundations are psychological systems that enable people to perceive actions and agents as praiseworthy or blameworthy, but we don’t think of them primarily as individual-level traits. They are more like taste receptors of the moral sense: everyone has them, yet moral “cuisines” differ around the world. Different cultures build upon the foundations in different ways, and what they build is everything we would call moral life: values, norms, virtues, vices, institutions, even religions (which of course draw on many psychological systems besides the five foundations). We therefore do not and cannot measure the foundations directly; rather, we measure the degree to which individuals endorse and value the culturally constructed virtues and concerns built on one or more foundations. We created the Moral Foundations Questionnaire (MFQ; Graham et al., 2009) to do just this, using abstract assessments of the moral relevance of foundation-related concerns, as well as endorsement of more contextualized moral judgments. The foundations as we measure them with the MFQ are therefore most assimilable to McAdams’s Level 2 characteristic adaptations. Foundation scores do indeed correlate in meaningful ways with constructs at the first two levels, including lowlevel personality traits (e.g., scores on Purity/sanctity correlate r = .34 with disgust sensitivity), and more complex ideological constructs (e.g., scores on Authority/ respect correlate r = .65 with Right-Wing Authoritarianism). But as we will see, fully appreciating and understanding the varieties of moral experience will require integrating analyses at all three levels.

[. . .]

Ideological narratives have the great advantage that only a small number of major ones is circulating in a society at any given time. Many versions can be found in books (such as the campaign biographies of presidential candidates) and on political Web pages (such as nearly anything called a “manifesto,” or even sometimes a mission statement). Some scholars and movement leaders have done us the favor of extracting them and condensing them down to just a few sentences. Here we present four such narratives and show how they match the moral foundations settings shown in the four graphs of Figure 1. We recognize that each of our four clusters contains its own diversity, and we can be sure that many members of each cluster would reject the narrative we associate with it. Nonetheless, we predict that a larger number of participants in each cluster would endorse the narrative, would endorse that narrative more than the other three narratives, and would prefer to have their ideology expressed in this way, as a story that makes claims about what is right and wrong, rather than simply having themselves described by a series of psychological traits.

Cluster 1: Secular Liberalism

The sociologist Christian Smith (2003) observed that we are “animals whomake stories but also animals who are made by our stories” (p. 64). Smith described a variety of high-order, often unconscious narratives that organize identity and moral judgment at both the individual and group levels. One of these he called the “liberal progress” narrative:

Once upon a time, the vast majority of human persons suffered in societies and social institutions that were unjust, unhealthy, repressive, and oppressive. These traditional societies were reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation, and irrational traditionalism... But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality, and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression, and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies. [However,] there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation, and repression. This struggle . . . is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving. (p. 82)

Consistent with the first graph in Figure 1, the liberal progress narrative makes extensive use of the Harm foundation (“suffering,” “misery,” “oppression”) and the Fairness foundation (“unjust,” “inequality”). There is no mention of ingroup or nation, and no mention of purity or sanctity. Authority and tradition are mentioned only as the sources of harm and injustice.

2 comments:

20c38902-d3b5-11e2-847b-000bcdcb2996 said...

Don't think so.

The entire global warming and environmental narrative is about purity and sanctity. Consider, for example, the reaction to proposals to fertilize the blue ocean.

To protect Gaia (the spirit of the wild) from harm, they propose to murder six billion people.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the main story is that there is less disgust in the group "Liberals", or if the main story is more that Liberals have learned to use disgust centre for different things and have less capacity to respond to *actual* core disgusting stimuli (you could reverse this construction for Conservatives I suppose). These ideas could work together in that a lower neural resource for disgust in the group Liberals could result in them only learning a limited subset of disgust responses.

Look at the comments section of any leftwing Liberal newspaper (e.g. the Guardian), and you see huge levels of moral and interpersonal disgust towards the powerful classes or particular classes seen as supporting them (not that I am defending these people as actually good at their job and deserving of their position), which seem certainly at least on a par with those described by Conservatives. Left wing attitudes towards low education, low "culture", ignorance sexual conventionality also seem to treat them as disgusting and impure to a greater extent than among conservatives.