Tag: Jonathan Haidt

There Shall Be Five Moral Modules Everywhere Beneath the Sun

by on Sep.04, 2009, under Politics

The thought of cultivating solidarity as a precondition of collective action brings up a long-standing question for me about the work of Jon Haidt. Haidt describes five inherent moral modules — I first heard them discussed here — that structure morality as it is practiced around the world. The five modules:

1) Harm/care, related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. This foundation underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
2) Fairness/reciprocity, related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. This foundation generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.
3) Ingroup/loyalty, related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. This foundation 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.”
4) Authority/respect, shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. This foundaiton underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
5) Purity/sanctity, shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. This foundation 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).

In applying these modules to contemporary American politics, Haidt has proposed that liberals tend to dwell on modules 1 and 2, developing their politics around fairness and kindness, and conservatives base their politics on modules 3, 4 and 5. You’re not a real American, you don’t respect the flag, and don’t put that in your mouth. (Here’s a summary of Haidt’s work on politics.)

But module 3 and its analysis present a number of problems. For one, discussions of Haidt’s work tend to deride it. For another, written mostly before the rise of the Obamanation, they underestimate the degree to which liberals are capable of forming in-group/out-group moral judgments (still less toxic than the real right-wing love-it-or-leave-it efflorescences).

Now, I have no background in evolutionary psychology, comparative anthropology, or moral philosphy, not to mention precious little book-larnin’ of any kind, but I have always been struck by the paucity of understanding this discussion shows for the concept of solidarity. In-group loyalty strikes Haidt as an atavism, an emotion for policing who’s in and who’s out. But the success of social movements depends on it–or, perhaps, an expansive, apotheotic form of it.

It may be the case that solidarity operates as a synthesis of modules 2 and 3 — a dialectical purple moral module derived from the primary colors of reciprocity and loyalty.

Interestingly, in this 2005 Believer article, Haidt is claiming the existence of four moral modules, and in-group loyalty does not come up. I’d like to know how it emerged in his work.

Bonus: Take the Disgust Scale! Here are my results:


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