Another Person’s Goodness

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues irritate me. Their reasoned, exhaustive work on morality makes it impossible for me to do what I want to do: Claim the high ground, declare that my idea of goodness is the only definition in existence, and paint anyone who disagrees with me as a self-centered, power-hungry jerk. But Haidt et al make a compelling case for the idea that other moralities exist.

If I’m going to truly understand goodness, I’m going to have to accept that fact (albeit with gritted teeth). When I’m not being annoyed by Haidt and friends, I’m thankful they have given me a way into other modes of thought. Hence, the purpose of this post is to dive into their work and through it to peer out of the eyes of folks who believe respecting authority, remaining pure and giving loyalty to one’s group are as important to goodness as compassion, caring and fairness.

Over the past week, I’ve been plowing through a number of Haidt’s articles on Moral Foundations Theory, which are available on his University of Virginia website. The quotes in this post are from a 2009 paper.*

Moral Foundation Theory, which was first proposed by Haidt and Craig Joseph in 2004, is based on the idea that humans construct morality out of five foundational impulses. These impulses are “psychological systems that enable people to perceive actions and agents as praiseworthy or blame worthy.” These five are:

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.

These foundational impulses theoretically work like slider switches on a sound board. A group’s definition of goodness — the moral “song” its members hear — depends on how it sets the switches of Harm, Fairness, Ingroup, Authority and Purity.

To put Moral Foundation Theory into context, the 2009 paper reports:

MFT was originally designed to analyze cultures, not individuals. It was not intended to be a trait theory, or a theory about political ideology. Rather it was created by two psychologists (Haidt & Joseph, 2004) who had worked with the anthropologist Richard Shweder on questions of morality and culture.

The theory is based on Haidt’s fieldwork in Brazil and India and Joseph’s work in Egypt. I find the multicultural nature of the theory’s origin to be one of its strongest selling points, especially for any search for goodness. I’d be failing in self-appointed mission if I didn’t consider the ideas of other cultures. I don’t have to agree with all these ideas; I do have to understand them, but I digress.

In the paper, the researchers sought to identify the way these five “switches” are set for Americans they identified as Secular Liberals, Libertarians, The Religious Left and Social Conservatives. These were among the more than 25,000 people who took the moral foundations quiz Haidt and his colleagues posted at

The results are both interesting and unsettling, at least for us liberals who like to believe we are open to anything. Liberals appear to only be able to hear two of the five foundational songs, while conservatives appear to be able to listen to the melody of all five.

Secular Liberals scored the highest on their affinity for Harm and Fairness and scored the lowest on concern for Ingroup, Authority and Purity. Liberals also had the highest scores on instruments designed to test for Openness to Experience and the lowest scores on Right-Wing Authoritarianism and Social Dominance Orientation.

Social Conservatives scored the lowest on Harm and Fairness and scored very high on Ingroup, Authority and Purity. They also had the lowest scores on Openness and the highest on Right-Wing Authoritarianism and Social Dominance Orientation.

Libertarians appeared to be a kind of hybrid of liberal and conservative, scoring lower on Harm and Fairness like conservatives, while scoring lower on Ingroup, Authority and Purity like liberals.

The Religious Left resembled liberals with high scores on Harm and Fairness, but shared conservatives high scores on measures of Ingroup, Authority and Purity.

Up to this point, my post has been as dry as any academic paper. (Many apologies.) But one of the delights of the 2009 article is its use of narrative, which gives us a chance to look through the eyes of others.

Secular Liberals are represented by a narrative composed by sociologist Christian Smith, and I have to admit this narrative resonates with me.

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.

For Libertarians, the researchers borrowed a narrative from a 1964 Playboy interview with Ayn Rand:

When I came here from Soviet Russian, I was interested in politics for only one reason — to reach the day when I would not have to be interested in politics. I wanted to secure a society in which I would be free to pursue my own concerns and goals, knowing that the government would not interfere to wreck them, knowing that my life, my work, my future were not at the mercy of the state or of a dictator’s whim.

Sounds very Tea Partyish, doesn’t it?

For The Religious Left, the researchers picked a passage from Jim Wallis:

The religious and political Right gets the public meaning of religion mostly wrong — preferring to focus only on sexual and cultural issues, while ignoring the weightier matters of justice. And the secular Left doesn’t seem to get the meaning and promise of faith for politics at all — mistakenly dismissing spirituality as irrelevant to social change. I actually happen to be a conservative on issues of personal responsibility, the sacredness of human life, the reality of evil in our world, and the critical importance of individual character, parenting, and strong “family values.” But the popular presentations of religion in our time (especially in the media) almost completely ignore the biblical vision of social justice and even worse, dismiss such concerns as merely “left wing.” It is indeed time to take back our faith.

I can “hear” about half of Wallis’ statement. Even though I believe in the critical importance of individual character, parenting and family, I find myself struggling with the words he uses. I don’t know enough about Wallis to know how he scores on the Gay Bash Meter,  but he certainly is embracing the language of those who see goodness in only one kind of family and only in their own group, which of course would fit with Social Conservatives high Ingroup scores.

For Social Conservatives, the researchers quote a narrative from Drew Westen’s  The Political Brain.

Once upon a time, America was a shining beacon. Then liberals came along and erected an enormous federal bureaucracy that handcuffed the invisible hand of the free market. They subverted our traditional American values and opposed God and faith at every step of the way … Instead of requiring that people work for a living, they siphoned money from  hard-working Americans and gave it to Cadillac-driving drug addicts and welfare queens. Instead of punishing criminals, they tried to “understand” them. Instead of worrying about the victims of crime, they worried about the rights of criminals. … Instead of adhering to traditional American values of family, fidelity, and personal responsibility, they preached promiscuity, premarital sex, and the gay lifestyle … and they encouraged a feminist agenda that undermined traditional family roles… Instead of projecting strength to those who would do evil around the world, they cut military budgets, disrespected our soldiers in uniform, burned our flag, and chose negotiation and multilateralism….Then Americans decided to take their country back from those who sought to undermine it.

That really sounds Tea Partyish. Can’t you just see the anti-Obama signs at the rallies? But I’m digressing again.

My search for goodness depends on a thorough understanding of other people’s ideas about morality. Even with all this detail, though, I still feel like I can barely hear the moral song of others.

For example, I struggle to understand what a life based on purity would be like. To me, purity is an issue of hygiene, not morality. The researchers explain that loyalty to the ingroup is about protecting one’s community, but I see the hard work of community as an outgrowth of compassion and fairness. Loyalty for the sake of loyalty seems ludicrous to me. And authority? If I had respected authorities for no other reason than the fact that they were authorities, I may have literally killed myself by now. As a lesbian, a woman and a writer, I’ve only survived because I’ve broken with authority.

But perhaps my personal story has made me deaf to some people’s songs. Maybe my quest for goodness is as much about curing that affliction as it is about understanding myself. I welcome the work of Haidt and his colleagues. They have finally made it possible for me to perceive the hymns of others.


*Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham, Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia; and Craig Joseph, Department of Psychology, Northwestern University, “Above and Below Left-Right: Ideological Narratives and Moral Foundations.” Psychological Inquiry, 20: 110-119, 2009.

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2 Responses to Another Person’s Goodness

  1. Darrell Icenogle says:

    I have been struggling, too, with Haidt’s moral foundations. I have been looking for ways to “reach across the aisle” to embrace purity, authority, and ingroup loyalty. It seems as though these values have pragmatic historical roots, e.g., purity for the sake of human health, authority for the sake of order and cooperative accomplishment, and loyalty for the sake of common defense, but the current religious right interpretations seem to spring from religious faith, and little more. They are values that need secularizing and updating before progressives can embrace them.

    Purity/sanctity, for example, is sniffed out by cultural conservatives with their disgust-o-meters, leading to their attitudes about sexuality and abortion. The idea of the sacred is defined by religious texts. But progressives have ideas about purity, too — the body as a temple, pollution of all sorts, including the pollution of our foods with chemicals, clean water and air, etc. Progressives usually think that the earth is sacred, that life is sacred, that all species are sacred. Nor do religionists have a monopoly on spiritual elevation. Examples of courage, compassion, virtuosity (e.g., yesterday’s Coates article) are uplifiting; we share with religionists the inspiration of music and art; we are elevated when we experience belonging, when we are beneficiaries of the generosity of others, and when we feel appreciated and understood.

    Belonging broaches into the realm of ingroup/loyalty. We are born with an instinctive desire to seek others like ourselves. This instinct is double-edged, but I don’t think most progressives would deny that they experience it. We simply define our ingroups differently — e.g., family, culture, communities of interest, artists, musicians, those with particular literary interests — rather than by race, religion, or geographic boundaries.

    The authority issue is the one I have thus far given the least attention to. Not being an anarchist, or even a libertarian, I think authority and order have intrinsic value. Authority comes in two flavors: the authority that comes with money and power, and the authority commanded by respect. I assume one’s value for compassion plays a significant role in one’s feelings about governmental authority, and compassion is easily overcome by selfishness in government. We have to find a secular moral foundation in our laws to prevent that, and it is perhaps democracy, our Constitution, and the Bill of Rights that have been the most successful experiment to date. Right now, though, it seems the forces of greed are gaining strength against the force of compassion.

  2. dianesilver says:

    As always, Darrell, you post a thought-provoking comment. If I’m reading you correctly, I think I’m coming from a slightly different place than you are. I don’t seek to “embrace” purity, ingroup or authority. I seek to understand these mind sets. I would also love to learn how to speak to purity/ingroup/authority people in a language they at least can recognize. They may never learn to hear me, but I think it’s worth a try.

    Also, thanks for the interesting review of these three conservative “songs.” I hadn’t thought about these concepts in that way.

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