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Moral Foundations

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No one has to search far and wide to appreciate how polarized we've become in recent years. Explanations abound. Too often, our debates with those on the "other side" of the ideological chasm are akin to having conversations with creatures from another planet; there's absolutely nothing familiar to us about their world and what they consider reality.

It's easy to ridicule much of what is ... ridiculous. But if genuine cooperation to reach mutually beneficial solutions to increasingly-vexing problems on often more than just a national stage is still considered a useful practice, getting beyond the cheap shots must happen sooner rather than later.

Much of our intensely partisan and increasingly harsh, pointless, and ineffectual policy "debates' can find origins and explanations in the Moral Foundations Theory proposed by Jonathan Haidt [author and currently a professor at New York University Stern School of Business].

As a way to at least open the door to a better/deeper understanding of partisan ideology's influence in public discourse, the Moral Foundations Theory is a great place to begin.

We propose a simple hypothesis: Political liberals construct their moral systems primarily upon two psychological foundations--Harm/care and Fairness/reciprocity--whereas political conservatives construct moral systems more evenly upon five psychological foundations--the same ones as liberals, plus Ingroup/loyalty, Authority/respect, and Purity/sanctity. We call this hypothesis the moral foundations hypothesis, and we present four studies that support it using four different methods".[page 1029]
Across all four studies, liberal morality was primarily concerned with harm and fairness, whereas conservative moral concerns were distributed more evenly across all five foundations. These findings help explain why liberals and conservatives disagree on so many moral issues and often find it hard to understand how an ethical person could hold the beliefs of the other side: Liberals and conservatives base their moral values, judgments, and arguments on different configurations of the five foundations. [page 1040]

In and of themselves, these configurations aren't "wrong' any more than having green eyes is wrong. It's our adaptation to and utilization of them that matters, and what we're doing seems increasingly insane! Exacerbating already too-imposing-by-half problems shouldn't be anyone's go-to option.

It has become clear that the parties have separated on moral issues. As politics has become more about engaging the mass public (as opposed to an earlier era of patronage politics), the parties have adopted increasingly divergent moral positions.

The human psyche--complex and at times unknowable as it seems to be on occasion--is shaped by countless influences and manifests itself in equally countless ways. Understanding the motivations and beliefs which drive our behaviors rarely lends itself to simple and commonly-applicable explanations. The Moral Foundations Theory however, supplies us with a good starting point from which to draw in other emotional and psychological explanations to help craft a better--fuller--understanding of what we do and why.

A bit more about the Foundations:

The first two foundations are Harm/care (involving intuitions of sympathy, compassion, and nurturance) and Fairness/reciprocity (including notions of rights, justice, and what people owe to each other). These two foundations are generally concerned with the protection and fair treatment of individuals; they are therefore called the two "individualizing' foundations. The other three foundations, in contrast, are called the "binding' foundations because they generally support moral systems in which people are bound into larger groups and institutions. These foundations are Ingroup/loyalty (supporting moral obligations of patriotism and "us vs. them' thinking); Authority/respect (including concerns about social order and the importance of traditions and role-based duties in maintaining order) and Purity/sanctity (including concerns about treating the body as a temple and living in a higher, more "divine' way, versus a lower, baser, more carnal way).

Cultural/political debates are founded on differing assessments of what is and what is not "moral." From those specific motivations are formed arguments, beliefs, and principles about how best to create policies to protect/provide for ourselves and our fellow citizens. Simple enough explanation, isn't it?

But it quickly becomes wildly complex in application when the decision-making process mixes in the not-so-easily-defined-or-understood emotional, cultural, ideological, personal, political, religious, and empirical factors which shape our decisions and actions. That many of those influences are not consciously chosen and adopted just adds to the fun. Who has time or the inclination to stop and evaluate those intricate subconscious influences and experiences?

And thus two of many dilemmas make their appearance:

Because morality biases us long before consciousness and reasoning set in, factual and logical argument are not at all a good way to get us to change our behavior and how we respond.

Liberals and conservatives don't just differ in their opinions, they have fundamentally different ways of processing information, which in turn leads them to hold markedly divergent sets of facts.
Even more frustrating for those who view politics as a rational pursuit of one's self-interest, facts don't actually matter that much. We begin evaluating policies emotionally, according to a deeply ingrained moral framework, and then our brains often work backward, filling in -- or inventing -"facts' that conform to that framework.

Do any behaviors, policies, reactions, beliefs, etc., etc. each and all plastered across the media landscape fit with the above considerations? (Jonathan Haidt is on to something.) Not too difficult to understand why these conflicting approaches and perspectives can complicate policy-making and public debates just a wee bit".

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Looking Left and Right: Inspiring Different Ideas, Envisioning Better Tomorrows Rich Turcotte is a retired attorney, former financial advisor, and now a writer. A lifelong Massachusetts resident, he also serves as Co-Chair of his Town's (more...)

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It's admittedly much easier to lob verbal grenades... by Richard Turcotte on Wednesday, Mar 12, 2014 at 2:55:43 PM
Would better listening help?Followed by well reaso... by Daniel Penisten on Wednesday, Mar 12, 2014 at 11:12:39 PM
By all means let's continue to do exactly the same... by Richard Turcotte on Thursday, Mar 13, 2014 at 1:48:52 PM
It is obviously better if a dialogue can help sol... by BFalcon on Wednesday, Mar 12, 2014 at 11:59:32 PM
That's certainly the standard MO of our times. Sho... by Richard Turcotte on Thursday, Mar 13, 2014 at 1:48:29 PM
Well, what I propose is not usually listened to bu... by BFalcon on Thursday, Mar 13, 2014 at 10:16:54 PM
It'd not just the lobbed verbal grenades -- someti... by Stephen Cataldo on Wednesday, Mar 12, 2014 at 7:39:54 PM
I won't dispute the general overview you offer, bu... by Richard Turcotte on Thursday, Mar 13, 2014 at 1:42:23 PM
[With apologies - I cut and pasted the first reply... by Richard Turcotte on Thursday, Mar 13, 2014 at 1:47:40 PM
Ideological divides are based on differences in v... by Derryl Hermanutz on Wednesday, Mar 12, 2014 at 7:46:47 PM
Your questions are certainly understandable to any... by Richard Turcotte on Thursday, Mar 13, 2014 at 1:43:14 PM
It's about choices.  The choice isn't betwee... by Rick Koch on Thursday, Mar 13, 2014 at 5:50:04 PM
I see a flaw in the Moral Foundations Theory, beca... by E. J. N. on Wednesday, Mar 12, 2014 at 8:32:21 PM
I won't dispute the general overview you offer, bu... by Richard Turcotte on Thursday, Mar 13, 2014 at 1:44:51 PM
I understand your position because it reflects wh... by E. J. N. on Thursday, Mar 13, 2014 at 7:58:15 PM
You raise an interesting point, and I'm not even r... by Richard Turcotte on Saturday, Mar 15, 2014 at 11:19:01 AM
WOW! This fine article by Richard Turcotte has inc... by Daniel Penisten on Wednesday, Mar 12, 2014 at 11:04:00 PM
A better understanding by all of Jungian personali... by June Genis on Thursday, Mar 13, 2014 at 1:48:59 PM
I've been wondering about some of these ideologic... by Rick Koch on Thursday, Mar 13, 2014 at 5:23:14 PM
Haidt has indeed stated that those on the Right wo... by Richard Turcotte on Saturday, Mar 15, 2014 at 11:18:33 AM