Musings on Moral Theology (3)

White River State Park, Indianapolis, Indiana

Note from CM: Our Ordinary Time Bible Study in Philippians will be switched to Fridays, to allow three days at the beginning of week to cover other topics.

• • •

Musings on Moral Theology (3)

Moral psychology can help to explain why the Democratic Party has had so much difficulty connecting with voters since 1980. Republicans understand the social intuitionist model better than do Democrats. Republicans speak more directly to the elephant. They also have a better grasp of Moral Foundations Theory; they trigger every single taste receptor.

• Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind

Jonathan Haidt’s second great contribution in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, is his work on Moral Foundations Theory. His succinct metaphor for his overall conclusion is:

The righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors.

Unlike some in the history of moral philosophy who tried to boil down morality into a single universal maxim, such as Kant’s categorical imperative, Haidt came to see that such approaches were “oversystematized and underempathized.” He instead concluded that David Hume’s ” pluralist, sentimentalist, and naturalist approach to ethics was more promising,” and he began using the metaphor of our various taste receptors to describe the variety of moralities that make up “the righteous mind.”

He started by recognizing five foundations of moral psychology (Haidt added a sixth later):

  1. The Care/Harm Foundation: “makes us sensitive to signs of suffering and need; it makes us despise cruelty and want to care for those who are suffering.”
  2. The Fairness/Cheating Foundation: “makes us sensitive to indications that another person is likely to be a good (or bad) partner for collaboration and reciprocal altruism. It makes us want to shun or punish cheaters.”
  3. The Loyalty/Betrayal Foundation: “makes us sensitive to signs that another person is (or is not) a team player. It makes us trust and reward such people, and it makes us want to hurt, ostracize, or even kill those who betray us or our group.
  4. The Authority/Subversion Foundation: “makes us sensitive to signs of rank or status, and to signs that other people are (or are not) behaving properly, given their position.”
  5. The Sanctity/Degradation Foundation: “includes the behavioral immune system, which can make us wary of a diverse array of symbolic objects and threats. It makes it possible for people to invest objects with irrational and extreme values—both positive and negative—which are important for binding groups together.”

The following chart shows the results when Haidt had listed and was exploring peoples’ responses to the first five of the foundations:

He found that those who consider themselves more “liberal” or “progressive” place high value on the first two foundations and very little on the latter three.

In contrast, those on the “conservative” end of the spectrum valued all five. Haidt concluded that this gave conservatives an advantage in American political discourse, because it allowed them to speak to a broader set of moral values.

We’ll look into these foundations (and a sixth, which Haidt added after further reflection and research) next week. But the main takeaway from this is as follows:

  • People who consider themselves on the “liberal” end of the spectrum (I prefer “progressive”) care instinctively most about care and fairness.
  • Those on the “conservative” end also care about these values, but they define them somewhat differently. For example, liberals define “care” in terms of those they deem marginalized or victimized whereas conservatives may emphasizing caring for those who have sacrificed for the good of the group (i.e. veterans). Also, whereas liberals define “fairness” in terms of equality, conservatives do so in terms of proportionality — each getting what he/she deserves.
  • Liberals are not so concerned about loyalty, authority, and sanctity, but these are hallmarks of conservative instincts.

If you’d like to test this for yourself, go to, where you can take a number of tests to find out how your “moral mind” works and build up your own unique personal “moral profile.”

44 thoughts on “Musings on Moral Theology (3)

  1. Personally, I love Kant’s categorical imperative. I wouldn’t completely swear by it, as with all good things, a grain of salt goes a long ways. To “boil it down” to this by itself is obviously too simplistic to be a completely workable solution. But I find it highly useful for moral reflection and giving perspective in situations of difficult determinacy.


  2. I think you are thinking about power-dynamics in terms of force and violence. A nasty little secret is that force and violence work uncommonly well. Ask the Cathars. Oh, wait. There aren’t any Cathars, are there? Wonder why.

    “Killing is the answer to everything. No more person, no more problem.”
    — Josef Stalin, Dictator


  3. I make the following observations re Trump & Duterte:
    1) Duterte’s methods are also those Imperial China used to stamp out opium. No more druggies, no more problem.
    2) Trump has a track record of being awed by hypermasculine “Tough Guy” types. And Duterte comes across as “Strong Leader”, Hypermasculine and Tough.
    3) Trump Tower II (formerly the White House) has come down HARD on continuing the War on Drugs. Especially since state after state is legalizing (and quasi-legalizing) marijuana. The DEA’s reaction is to Double Down on the War on Drugs (Get TOUGH!), and have a Tough Guy fan in Trump Tower. This has caused a lot of problems in states where pot is becoming legal. Legal pot dispensaries are getting robbed left & right because they have large amounts of cash income they cannot deposit because banks are afraid of getting RICOed by the Feds for Drug Money Laundering.
    4) And the Christians go “HAYYYYYY-MENNNNNN!” In my experience, some of the most rabid fanboys of the War on Drugs have self-identified as Christians. After all, it’s a Moral Crusade.


  4. Most *actual* problems in life when one asks WWJD the answer is Crickets.

    The translation of Crickets: “Quit whinging and figure it out.”


  5. oops, meant to say ” I would NOT classify such people as ‘hypocrites’ because they are living out what they have endured.”


  6. Hi MULE,
    that ‘chart’?
    I have a split, myself, being drawn to the ‘progressive’ side; but also taking an interest in the areas of nexus of the other groups . . . . . I think it was the comment about caring for veterans as priority that spoke to me, yes.

    But I do think this, having observed quite a bit on different blogs, that some are not ‘comfortable’ with ‘caring’ or ‘fairness’ as such, but view those traits instead as ‘phony’ and ‘nicey’ . . . . . so I have thought that indicated they might not have had such happy lives and have known a great deal of torment from people that ought to have cared for them when they were vulnerable . . . . . . so now, any signs of ‘kindness’ and their hackles go up and they need to find places (or create places) to be where they can be ‘open’ in their negativity and not encounter any pushback.

    I would classify such people as ‘hypocrites’ because they are living out what they have endured. But I do think they don’t see happy people as ‘honest’ . . . . . . perhaps because they haven’t been happy themselves. Does this make any sense?

    People who have suffered, if they grow bitter, don’t trust ‘happiness’.
    People who have suffered, who were given a chance beyond being tormented at very young stages in their formation, might actually be able to go beyond that suffering into a greater strength of purpose that is positively oriented and hopeful. My opinion, yes. And something I have observed for a time.


  7. > … when the discussion turns to Kant …

    I tend to get very sleepy. That man could play winding definition games on a level unto himself.


  8. I’m able to suspend my belief, and accept a compartmentalized methodological atheism if it helps me to understand how things work. I think most contributors and commenters on this site are up to that task too. God’s world is one in which the tools of science, like the human senses, can find no trace of him; it seems to me obvious that, if he exists, then he wants us to proceed with our investigations as if he didn’t.


  9. Robert my point is not really what you or I think . It’s what Haidt thinks. Can we accept his conclusions without buying into his initial assumptions? My perception is that most people on this site would not agree with his assumptions.


  10. As an aside, when the discussion turns to Kant et al, I can’t resist responding:

    Up with Spinoza, down with Kant!


  11. While those in power (mis)use morality to keep it, it can’t make any sense to make them the authors or morality or that morality’s principle purpose, if only because if that were the case it would be a futile, indeed counterproductive, method of maintaining control.
    If those in power are inventing or driving morality then imposing it on those ruled would be to expend effort and political capital enforcing arbitrary additional rules over and above the more basic “do as we say or we kill you” necessary minimum to retain power.
    Rather, using morality in this way only make sense if it is to provide as it were “added value” justifying the authorities’ control. Morality must preexist as a well recognised objective good for the authorities to be able to take it and distort it in the guise of “upholding” it as a means of bolstering their power (Nietzsche notwithstanding).


  12. Morality is a many splendored thing! We must contend with intentions and motivations we would never suspect within ourselves. Without the negative energy coursing through our systems the positive energy would lose its force. Hence the thorn in the flesh. “The secret is that only that which can destroy itself is truly alive.” C.G. Jung


  13. I’m talking about doing the best we can.

    I’d say a big breakdown occurs at this point. Not all agree that we should even do the best we can. Sometimes “it’s good enough” works for many.

    They don’t like if you ask “it’s good enough…for who?” Because now you’re drawing attention to racism or other systemic issues. Which pricks them as that is dynamically opposed to Jesus.

    It’s good enough for me, not thee. Blessed are you for wanting.


  14. This last comment was uncharitable, and mean. I myself am not a great advertisement for whatever hybrid form of Protestantism I profess. Forgive me for that one, Mule, and know that I have been remembering you and your family in my prayers.


  15. Hi RICK RO.
    I’m the ‘Canada’ girl but not while there is still hope. If Mueller gets shot down and still there is no response, I will lose hope. If Gen. Kelly helps restore some sense of dignity to our White House, in spite of all odds, I will continue to hope. My patriotism goes deeper than ‘sides’ . . . . . . our family’s blood has been shed for this country. But Canada was the homeland of my father of blessed memory and his people, and I love Canada dearly also. As far as I know, it has not abandoned its ‘mosaic’ unity, although tensions flare there from time to time. The Canadian blood runs strong in my veins, and I honor my father’s heritage. But my mother was an American of good family, with a paternal ancestor that came to this land on the Furtherance from England, and whose great uncle McGilbray Ausbon was wounded in the Civil War. The blood of a civil war sniper soaked into the wood of the central hall in the home where my grandmother lived as an infant . . . . the stain remains where he fell and died . . . . . my cousin perished in honorable service to his country in Viet Nam. . . . .

    I do believe this country will survive the present crisis as long as there is some shred of honorable patriotism remaining in our land, and I think there is. I have much hope for better times. But I know I could never pretend to be ‘a good German’ in a country where blind ‘loyalty’ trumped honor. It’s not in my DNA. 🙂

    So how does this relate to the present discussion? Maybe some gut instinct . . . . some genetic memory that guides or at least calls to me ? Whatever that instinctive reaction is to the present crisis in our country, I choose to think it connected to the health of my very soul. It goes that deep. 🙂


  16. I must say, Mule, some of the things you say don’t make for an attractive advertisement for Eastern Orthodoxy. Fortunately, we have Dana to redress the bad impression.


  17. You know damn well that I’m not waxing hagiographic over perpetrators of rape. Did you know that before his election Duterte himself made a joke about the rape of an Australian missionary who was first sexually assaulted and then killed during the government siege of a prison? Human beings are not pathogens; but if some human beings could qualify as pathogens, Duterte would certainly be among them.


  18. –> “The distinction is much more about the Vision of what a moral society looks like.”

    Exactly. And that’s why ideas like “The Benedictine Option” pop up. Or why people say, “If so-and-so gets elected, I’m moving to Canada.”


  19. Fortunately, He has reservoirs of noblesse and virtu upon which to draw, which is why His government has such an effective “affective” branch.

    How to get the “efficient” branch of His government to the same level is, frankly, something of a challenge.

    Duarte himself seems to enjoy a high level of support among his countrymen. He was democratically elected,wasn’t he? When I was reading about the role that –disgust– plays in moral psychology, discussion of the way certain groups or ideologies trigger the disgust response in the same way that the presence of pathogens in the environment did stuck with me. Maybe the level of drug violence in the Philippines got to the point where people stopped caring about the carriers of the pathogen.

    Are there pathogens? What are the vectors? How can the pathogens be eliminated from the social environment without damaging the unsuspecting carriers? Would you consider Duarte’s victims (think of an MS-13 member raping middle school girls) as among those among whom you’d find Christ?

    My hat’s off to you, then. Damn, that’s a lot farther than my moral imagination can stretch at the present.


  20. The fact is that no Jesuit fought with the Guarani tribe in their battle against the Portuguese, and none disobeyed their bishop, who supported the Portuguese colonizers, to die with the tribe. So it is good to re-imagine this scene without the Jeremy Irons character, without the Robert De Niro character, without the monstrance bearing the Blessed Sacrament and leading the procession.

    among the people
    only the wind is blowing
    as Christ goes with them


  21. I would describe Christ on the cross as being in full “suck it up” mode. He’s still sucking it up today, among those who themselves choose to, or have no choice but to, “suck it up”. Refugees, political prisoners, civilians in Raqqua with American bombs falling in their heads, victims randomly chosen by ISIS-inspired gunmen on the streets of Paris, and their like, their number uncounted.


  22. I think you are thinking about power-dynamics in terms of force and violence. A nasty little secret is that force and violence work uncommonly well. Ask the Cathars. Oh, wait. There aren’t any Cathars, are there? Wonder why.

    But power does not have to depend on force and violence. Watch Dr. Haidt’s TED talk – the authority axis does not depend on coercion, but is actually more effective when it is accompanied by respect and deference; what Walter Bagehot spoke of when he discussed the branches of the government into the “affective” parts, that which engages the affection of the people, and the “efficient” part, the nuts and bolts of what happens in Parliament and the Cabinets.

    Duerte and his surrogates are what you get when the churlishness [I use the word in full awareness of its etymology] rules the people, and they can no longer be “affected” by visions of noblesse and virtue. It devolves then into what you described recently as “full thug”, and your alternatives devolve into suck it up or shoot back.


  23. In connection with this: I have nothing but admiration for the Filipino citizens and elected officials who continue to publicly criticize Duterte and the brutality and unlawfulness of his “war against drugs”. They are putting their own lives on the line, and they know it; I only hope that I would have as much courage in their place. In them, I see Jesus Christ.


  24. I can accept that it is the result of what appears to be an unguided, purposeless evolutionary process, but I cannot accept that it is actually so. If it is, then not only the process but the universe is unguided and purposeless; which means that it is not a creation, and there is no God. I believe in God as loving creator of everything, so I cannot believe that anything is unguided and purposeless, or that anything leads nowhere meaningful.

    That doesn’t necessarily mean that I believe God created evolution; I don’t. Evolution describes the way living things develop in the world God created, but the process is not a thing that one might create or not create. It’s what happens, and it may be what necessarily happens in any universe suitable for life. That means that I believe God operates within constraints. As C.S. Lewis wrote somewhere, God can do anything that is actually something, but a circle cannot be a square as long as it remains a circle; nothing God can do about that.


  25. “defining what morality consists of…”

    Well I haven’t read the book but Haidt seems to be operating on the premise that whatever morality is, it is the result of unguided, purposeless evolutionary processes and not because of a moral law imposed from above. Is everybody good with that? Because it is going to change your view of what’s possible. Can we accept his conclusions without buying into his assumptions? Seems worth asking.

    It occurs to me that this kind of discussion is a peculiar aspect of democracy. Moral confusion as a sign of liberty. Stalin didn’t care what anybody thought about morality.


  26. …..likely happen, but not a good thing. Order in this sense is nothing more than the power to coerce, and the ability to make those you are coercing pretend that you’re not coercing them.


  27. But, as an example, if you look at what president Duterte is doing in the Philippines, trying to reestablish traditional order by exercise of brutal and indiscriminate vigilante violence and extrajudicial execution against those claimed to be drug addicts or involved in drug trafficking, you get a glimpse of how such efforts to impose order may themselves be the source of anarchy. Duterte will end by making his society more lawless and less ordered rather than more; in fact, he already has done so. Duterte is the anarchist, masking himself as order.

    At this point, given our global, transnational information culture, the attempt to put the facade back on and reconstitute traditional power-dynamics narrated as morality will be much harder than it was in the past. Even in as tightly controlled a society as North Korea, information leaks in from the outside through miniaturized communications technology, and much forbidden communication occurs across boundaries as a result. Of course, if there’s a global failure of such communications technology, and we move back into a pre-modern situation, what you describe is likely to happen.


  28. Order always reestablishes itself – anarchy is unsustainable. Of course, the reconstituted order is likely to be far harsher than the order that preceded it, but that’s usually been the case historically.


  29. I’m talking about doing the best we can.

    Once the disorder behind the appearance of order in the power-dynamics of traditional morality are revealed far and wide, it’s impossible to resume the facade without a tremendous exercise in social violence, and even then I’m not sure it can be reestablished; probably not. But that is what many in this country, and indeed around the world, are opting for right now. As a Christian, I refuse to go down that path.


  30. I think Nietzsche was substantially correct when he said morality has mostly involved the exercise of power by dominant social groups and the rationalization, legitimization and perpetuation of their use of that power by way of an ethical meta-narrative that keeps things as they’ve “always been”. If we are concerned to make morality more than that, have to use every tool in the box to unmask the actual power dynamic behind morality in every situation, make access to power as diffuse as possible, and power-enfranchise as many people as possible. The reason why it has been impossible to identify and define morality is because we have not arrived at the place where it actually exists; it’s a work in progress, built on the genetic predisposition we as a species have toward being highly socialized and highly empathetic. Universalization (or its reasonable approximation) of the exercise of power traditionally held by a few small groups is the only way toward the realization of morality in human affairs.


  31. Gosh, Robert, I just dunno. In politics, as in so many other things, the perfect is the enemy of the good. Just as I would prefer a society of hypocrites to an anti-society of openly rapacious and feral bastards, there is a lot to be said for order camouflaging disorder to open chaos and anarchy with no pretensions.

    Since our Lord decided it was to our benefit to go away, it appears to be our responsibility to do the best we can.


  32. > that have “always” (now there’s a loaded word!)

    Ha! Yes. Often enough “always” references an astonishingly brief period of time.


  33. >Defining such axis can create the appearance of order, but once you nose down into anything specific it gets very messy again.

    Yes. The appearance of order and real order are not the same thing. As a progressive, I say that sometimes (not exactly how much) disorder looks like order and/or is disguised as order. Conservative thinking does not want to delve below the surface to see if what has traditionally been called order is actually order; it prefers to take things at face value, accepting the traditional evaluations and narratives that have “always” (now there’s a loaded word!) been placed on them.


  34. > What philosophers like Kant are trying to do is identify…

    I would add that their failure is notable.

    > Progressives and conservatives may have different emphases, but they are
    > identifyingly talking about the same thing

    No, because it isn’t about finding moral truths. The distinction is much more about the Vision of what a moral society looks like. That is not at all the same thing as finding truths. If you push people a little to describe their Ideal I believe you will learn more about their politics than if you ask them about their Values. [Aside: if you try this you will likely find that people keep trying to retreat back to values statements. Because they are inherently vague and thus safer? In any case it makes for a great conversation.].


  35. This sounds to me as if this could describe reality pretty accurately.

    It is in the same vein as George Lakoff’s quasi-famous [and frustrating] book “Moral Politics”. Mr. Haidt’s axis model certainly has more room for nuance and complexity than Lakoff’s often obtuse parental model.

    My only caution would be that all these things are stacked upon a stack upon a stack; and unwinding them easily goes astray, and we end up talking past each other. These statement, for example, “Liberals are not so concerned about loyalty…”, well, Loyalty TO WHAT? As a Progressive I actually hear a lot about Loyalty, but to different things than when I dwelt primarily in more Conservative circles.
    Or the statement: “each getting what he/she deserves” – there are values buried beneath that as well, in addition to different readings of history.
    Or the statement “who have sacrificed for the good of the group” also sits atop a pile of value and assumptions of its own – for example, I would push back against someone automatically giving veterans [or the military entirely] such an appellation.

    Defining such axis can create the appearance of order, but once you nose down into anything specific it gets very messy again.

    That we carry in our own definitions to terms like loyalty, deserve, sanctity, etc… makes it very easy to say the same things without the same meaning. Books [including novels] have been written about each of these terms alone.

    A break down of any of one of his axises, at the right table, could consume many delightful pub-hours; resulting in a tip which would send the waitress home happy.


  36. Haidt seems to be interested in describing people’s actual views on morality in psychological / sociological terms rather than either defining what morality consists of, or what is or is not objectively moral. What philosophers like Kant are trying to do is identify what the underlying property or thing we are talking about when we talk about morality. Progressives and conservatives may have different emphases, but they are identifyingly talking about the same thing: the trouble is, what actually is it?


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