Explaining the work of Jonathan Haidt

I have always been interested in politics but it has been really difficult for me to have a decent rational discussion on politics with most people. They way I explained it to myself, was that, people are too emotional when discussing about politics. The reason why they might be so emotional because their(or anyone for that matter) political ideologies develop mainly from the family in which they have been raised. So any aggression on their political beliefs is perceived as an attack on their familial values.

All this thinking changed when I read “The righteous mind” by Jonathan Haidt. I am not a religious person at all but if any book has come close to become the a bible for me, it is this book.

What is the theory ?

Haidt lays down 6 foundations which define the way we navigate through our lives, they are

  1. Care/Harm — evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of caring for children. This foundation also makes us more sensitive to signs of suffering and care for them. It also makes us despise cruelty.
  2. Loyalty/Betrayal — evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of maintaining and forming coalitions. It makes us sensitive to the signs of a person being a team player. It makes us trust and reward such people and shun, ostracise and maybe even kill those who betray us or our group.
  3. Authority/Subversion — evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of forging relationships that will help us within social hierarchies. it makes us sensitive towards people behaving(not behaving) appropriately within their hierarchies, given their status.
  4. Sanctity/Degradation — evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of living in a world of pathogens and parasites. It can make us wary towards a diverse array of symbolic objects and threats. It also makes it possible for people to feel objects to be endowed with irrational and extreme values which are both positive and negative and which are important to bind groups together.
  5. Liberty/Oppression — Makes people notice any signs of attempted domination. It triggers an urge to form alliances and over throw bullies and tyrants. It exists in tension with Authority/Subversion.
  6. Fairness/Cheating — Makes us sensitive to the law of karma. Makes people want to see cheaters punished and good people rewarded in proportion to their deeds.

What does it tell us about politics ?

Now for the interesting part. Depending on how much you value each of the foundation defines your political(and moral) ideology.

If you are a liberal(left aligned) your moral matrix looks like this: -

Taken from The Righteous Mind, J.Haidt, 2012

This tells you that a liberal most concern is for: -

  1. Care/Harm which goes in with liberals love towards victims, minorities and immigrants.
  2. Then comes Liberty/Oppression, i.e. they don’t like domination or authority. This also makes them dislike rigid hierarchies as seen from the feeble value on Authority/Subversion.
  3. The way liberals feel about Fairness cheating is that people should be rewarded in proportion to their struggles. That is if Bill Gates and I work the same no of hours and have similar skills we should be rewarded proportionately. This is also known as equality of outcome.

Liberals don’t care that much about the other three values.

If you are a Conservative your moral matrix would look like this: -

Taken from The Righteous Mind, J.Haidt, 2012

Conservatives care almost equally about all the values. Values of loyalty, authority and sanctity are crucial to a conservative.

They way conservatives think about Fairness is allowing people equal rights and opportunities so that they can succeed in whatever they want to. Conservatives don’t have any problems with disparities because they don’t believe everyone can have equal outcomes and they would prefer the government not interfering to get equal outcomes, hence a thin bar connecting the care/harm foundation.

As opposed to liberals are concerned about loyalty and sanctity and tend to shun people who don’t have appropriate respect for these values. Hence their tussle with liberals on the same.

Conservatives don’t like unrestricted immigration. A staunch conservative would want to stop immigration altogether.

If you are a libertarian your moral matrix looks like this : -

Taken from The Righteous Mind, J.Haidt, 2012

What strikes immediately is the unusually thick bar on Liberty/Oppression. Libertarians value individual liberty to the extreme. Any impingement on individual freedom is looked at as paternalistic. This is one of the reason why libertarians prefer unrestricted free markets and democracy, because it allows the maximum amount of individual freedom.

Another thing to notice is the fragile bar on Care/Harm. Libertarians are the least emotional of the three.

On loyalty,authority and sanctity libertarians side with liberals.

On fairness, libertarians side with conservatives.

The following schematic highlights the same: -

Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological

Dispositions of Self-Identified Libertarians

What about myself ?

I have a strong value for harm/care but probably not as much as a liberal. So that would place me in the conservative sphere.

I have a crucial place for individual liberty, but I do get that for any amount of social cohesion some amount of obligations(responsibility to society) and sacrifices(taxes) are necessary. So that would place me somewhere between a conservative/liberal and libertarian.

On the Fairness/Cheating foundation, I believe in the Conservative/Libertarian motto that we should try our level best, so that people can pursue whatever opportunity they want to. I don’t believe that we should aim for equality of outcome.

For the last three values. I would stand somewhere between a conservative and liberal/libertarian.

What can we takeaway: -

We live in a world of diversity of political ideologies. The 3 kinds of people described above are simplifications. Most people will have a mixture of 2 or three values.

If we don’t agree with the moral values of some people, moral foundation theory allows us to think why they are saying whatever they are saying. This will help us understand people better and help develop empathy towards others opinions.

This will be difficult, but it is necessary if we want to co-exist in a world of diverse people and ideologies

Let me know in the comments, the ideology that best describes you.

References: -

  1. Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Pantheon/Random House.
  2. Iyer R, Koleva S, Graham J, Ditto P, Haidt J (2012) Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Dispositions of Self-Identified Libertarians. PLoS ONE 7(8): e42366. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0042366

Lead Data Scientist at Merck Life Science. Philosopher, introvert, avid reader, amateur photographer and musician.