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During the past year, I was very involved in the Obama campaign as a local volunteer. As such, issues constantly came up that forced me to question why I supported or opposed them. Is it right? Is it wrong? Doesn't it depend on a lot of other things? I needed to feel I understood them internally. Only then, could I use them as talking points to potential voters in my neighborhoods. I constantly asked myself how the conservative right could be so diametrically opposed to what I believed. I don't consider myself to be unusually liberal. In fact, I'm very conservative is some things. But, how could they feel so absolute and certain that they held the high ground morally? It was frustrating. I can't think that way. That's the title of my very first diary almost two years ago.

I pondered the possible reasons. Some insight came after listening to a Bill Moyers program with Jonathan Haidt. In it...

Bill and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt talk about the psychological underpinnings of our contentious culture, why we can’t trust our own opinions, and the demonizing of our adversaries. Compromise becomes a dirty word.

At last some insight. Social psychology is not my area of expertise. I am a teacher and scientist. Logic and clear thinking are a big deal for me. I saw none in the way our political system was behaving. Haidt pointed out how people are basically very similar when it comes to the guideposts they use as foundations for moral judgement and behavior. But, they differ significantly on which of those foundations are held in highest importance to them. It is testable and measurable.

Granted, this information is not new. Haidt has spoken about it on TED, among other places, since 2008. Diaries about it are here on Kos. Do a search with Haidt and you find several. I would like to show you what I found in looking into this issue of moral foundations. More below the squiggle.

Jonathan Haidt is part of a collaboration of social psychologists who study morality and politics. Their web site is interesting. Their studies are useful for ethics classes and seminars. They use it to test theories of moral psychology. A goal is to promote understanding across the political spectrum. They want to understand why morality varies greatly across cultures, yet still shows many similarities.

The group originally identified 6 moral foundations they felt were present in all cultures.
(Taken from their website. Emphasis is mine.)

 1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

  2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]

  3) Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.

  4) Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it's "one for all, and all for one."

  5) Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

  6) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).

Their research applied the moral foundations theory to the political cultures of liberals and conservatives. Liberals rely heavily on the Care/harm foundation. Liberals also rely on foundations from the Fairness/cheating and Liberty/oppression. Conservatives, especially religious conservatives, tend to base their moral decisions on all six foundations. The last three of Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, and Sanctity/degradation are very important to them.

The group at developed a questionnaire to measure the moral profile of people. You are encouraged to visit and participate at this link at The definitions and terms used in the foundations evolved some over time. Currently, the questionnaire measures 5 of the 6 foundations listed above. They are now described as Harm/care, Fairness/reciprocity, Ingroup/loyalty, Authority/respect, and Purity/sanctity.

Word spread about the questionnaire as the story about their research appeared in newspapers, blogs, magazines, and across the internet. People noticed and clicked on links to go to and do the survey. A large body of results were collected from a wide variety of sources. Those sources with an internet presence could be tracked. Web servers keep track of referring traffic. analyzed the data collected and compared it to the source of the traffic. They assumed...

If the pattern holds among people who read the New York Times, people who come from conservative blogs (a minority, but there are some), people who read the Houston Chronicle, people who find the site by typing 'morality quiz' into a search engine, and people who read Libertarian magazines....then it is likely that the pattern is somewhat robust.  Of course, these patterns are all among internet samples, so it would be fair to say that if this pattern of liberal-conservative differences holds among all these groups, then it is fairly robust amongst the type of people who use the internet to read about news or politics.
What kind of results were they able to chart? How trustworthy were the results?

The questionnaire ranks you from 1-7 on a scale of very liberal to very conservative based upon your responses. From the results published in September 2009 by a blog at Data Science and Psychology, it appears to show a consistent trend across sources from liberal to conservative. Liberal individuals rely heavily on the first two moral foundations of Harm and Fairness. Less on Ingroup, Authority, and Purity. Conservative individuals rely more equally on all five foundations. Harm and Fairness are actually less important than Ingroup, Authority, and Purity.

My Own Results of the Questionnaire

Last October 22, I decided to take the survey myself to see where I fit compared to liberals and conservatives. It was about 40 questions in length. I used the version on the web site of They ask for a login in order to keep track of results. Listed there are also many other studies open to your participation. You can also find web addresses of versions of the moral foundations survey via your search engine that don't need login.

First, based upon the 5 foundations and results from 4,382 liberals and 12,950 conservatives, my green bar results are high for the first two foundations like other liberals. And, they are lower for the next three. No surprises here.

In this chart, my results in green, four items looked more closely at different types of fairness. Conservatives are expected to score higher in the first set of bars about proportionality ("Employees who work the hardest should be paid the most.") Liberals are expected to score the highest on questions about equality in the second set of bars ("A fair society would be one in which everyone ended up with roughly the same amount of money.") The third and fourth sets of bars show responses to questions about liberty and the importance of private property. I seem to value private property a lot. I wonder why.

So, have I addressed my original quandary I wrote about two years ago. Yes, I understand better that the two groups approach moral decisions differently. All of us use the same set of foundations to base our moral decisions upon. But, there is a big difference in the emphasis liberals place on the first two of Harm and Fairness. Conservatives don't value them as highly as belonging to the right Ingroup, respect for Authority, and Purity of intention. Those differences are where the conflicts and frustration come into play. My bottom line in conclusion...

I still can't think that way.

Thanks for coming along today. I'm glad to have thought this through out loud with you.

Originally posted to Jim & Melanie in IA on Sun Jan 13, 2013 at 07:00 AM PST.

Also republished by Courtesy Kos.


What is your most important moral foundation?

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Comment Preferences

  •  According to Jon Haidt... (19+ / 0-)
    ”Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible.”

    Predicting is hard...especially the future. ~ Y. Berra

    by jim in IA on Sat Jan 12, 2013 at 06:32:23 PM PST

  •  I've been following Haidt's work. (9+ / 0-)

    Very interesting to tease apart the components of morality.  Harm/care is most important to me, followed by fairness/equity.

    Republished to Courtesy Kos.

    Thank you, Jim.

    I always prefer to believe the best of everybody, it saves so much trouble.

    by Joy of Fishes on Sun Jan 13, 2013 at 08:07:35 AM PST

  •  I'm glad you wrote this (5+ / 0-)

    I remember reading about this a month or so ago and thinking it made a great deal of sense.  Now it seems to be backed up by independent samples.

    The last axis is the one I find hardest to grasp.  I mean I understand it intellectually but I find it hard to emotionally grasp that people really feel that way.

    "We are normal and we want our freedom" - Bonzos

    by matching mole on Sun Jan 13, 2013 at 09:38:45 AM PST

  •  Excellent, in-depth diary. I will need (6+ / 0-)

    to take that survey.

    I do have a slight criticism of your poll. My ideal answer would have been "Harm/care for all sentient beings" -- not only "those dear to me". By limiting it, you skewed my answer to #2 (fairness) -- and judging by the poll results, others may have done the same.

    Thanks, though, for this otherwise excellent diary!

    Climate activists unite: we need a symbol. A name. A vision. Join the discussion.

    by Eowyn9 on Sun Jan 13, 2013 at 09:43:39 AM PST

  •  Jim, I clicked on this diary because (5+ / 0-)

    it was you.  I may never skip any of your diaries again!

    This is very interesting.  I took two of the surveys and have bookmarked the site for further action.  My own rankings both did and did not surprise me depending on the foundation.  Some self-analysis is in my plans.  Well, more than usual anyway!

    Everybody, soon or late, sits down to a banquet of consequences. -Robert Louis Stevenson, novelist, essayist, and poet (1850-1894)

    by Spirit of Life on Sun Jan 13, 2013 at 01:11:47 PM PST

  •  I attended a lecture conducted by Mahatma (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jim in IA, Melanie in IA, foresterbob

    Gandhi's grandson, Arun Gandhi. That was over ten years ago, now, but I found it memorable. He said a number of things that remained with me, but the one I was reminded of by your diary was the idea that, in the West, truth is regarded as something that can be possessed. Owned. By contrast, in the East, truth tends to be regarded as an ideal to be pursued, but never fully attained. I think we can see that in the great judgmentalism that pervades our society.The incidents of purity tr0lling that take place disputing every nuance and triviality. The assumption carried by evangelicals - knowing NOTHING of our beliefs - that the truth they carry is superior to any truth we may hold, the safeguards they have constructed to insulate their 'faith' from any possible competing truth.

    If it ever happened before in human history that these mechanisms have been carefully manipulated for pure political advantage, as they are now, I have not been able to discover it. Conservative programs of indoctrination are exceptionally well thought-out and executed. Like nothing we have ever tried, or are likely to try. I may write a diary about it, myself.

    Fine job, and most thought-provoking, too! Thank you.

    "The opposite of war isn't peace, it's CREATION." _ Jonathan Larson, RENT -9.62, -9.13

    by BeninSC on Sun Jan 13, 2013 at 07:30:05 PM PST

  •  I also thought of myself as conservative ... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jim in IA, Melanie in IA, foresterbob

    in some areas.  I do believe that wealth should not be distributed equally and that debt is not a good thing and should be avoided, if possible.  However, I also believe that there should be as level a playing field as possible (i.e. people should have a decent safety net - including health care - that would allow them to exist, even if they are unsuccessful) and that austerity is dangerous in a recession.  Also you don't cut back on reasonable disaster relief.  In the current political climate this makes me a flaming liberal!

    On the other side, being a scientist and educator, I have a tendency to respect reality, as best we can define it, in the form of empirical evidence.  I also detest the worship of money and power - they are only tools and should be used carefully.  Wars should, in my opinion, only be fought to defend the country and to fulfill the agreements we have made as part of the international community. Thus Conservatives have totally left me long ago.  In essence I used to be an Eisenhower Republican (although I did not always agree with his foreign policy).

    Loyalty can be overdone!  What do you think about those were were loyal to Hitler?  Loyalty in my book needs, like authority, to be earned.

    •  You raise very familiar points. I agree. (3+ / 0-)

      Seems it was ok in years past to have more eclectic and diverse views about issues of life. Discussion and decisions benefitted from that broader mix of thinking. Yes, there were strong differences. But, the general goal was to work out the best and most pragmatic solutions.

      Today, we have hunkered into tight and isolated groups. The only exchanges between them seem to gain no agreement. There is a lot of guerrilla warfare. Sabotage is common. It is ugly and celebrated on the right as an important moral foundation. Defeat the enemy at all cost.

      It makes me sad and angry. We are all capable of much higher behavior.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I appreciate them and you for making them.

      Predicting is hard...especially the future. ~ Y. Berra

      by jim in IA on Mon Jan 14, 2013 at 08:35:15 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

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