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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3 Comments for this entry

  • John B. Cannon

    I would actually say that liberal consumer politics, for example, take up purity / sanctity a lot. I used to enjoy nauseating my liberal friends by flaunting the fact that I eat McDonald’s, and, I don’t know, don’t recognize a moral difference between buying a cup of coffee at Starbucks vs. my local independent coffeeshop. (I happen to prefer independent coffeeshops aesthetically, but I won’t pretend that judgment is a moral or political one.)

    On module 3) – this account seems to be strangely missing race, ethnicity, and sexuality. The difference might be that ingroup loyalty for conservatives can be, by default, identified with Americanism as a nationalism – which carries by default all kinds of assumptions about the value of dominant social groups. In many subordinate social groups, ingroup loyalty to the group tends to be at least as important as loyalty to the abstraction of the nation. These folks tend to get grouped as liberals in discussions of mainstream political discourse, whether or not that is completely an apt description. Of course the red state / blue state “take back our country” form of liberalism would be a more classic example of what you’re talking about, a format basically in which mainly white liberals have contested conservatives’ claims to be the arbiters of nationhood.

  • Josh K-sky

    You’re right on in terms of purity/sanctity and consumer politics. Certainly any politics that has to do with food, most of which is on the liberal side, is going to be a politics of purity.

    That’s an interesting gap in module 3. I’m not sure it’s a fault of the model, though, because of the way that subaltern ingroup politics don’t actually contest mainstream (white) Americanism. About the “take back our country” business… well, they’re not really fooling anyone, are they? Haidt addresses the phenomenon of “Dissent is Patriotic” bumper stickers here. He’s not impressed.

  • John B. Cannon

    “subaltern ingroup politics don’t actually contest mainstream (white) Americanism” … could you say more? I’d argue that subaltern ingroup politics, especially in Black communities but also to some extent in other communities of color, do create a somewhat separate space for people in those groups – and sometimes, in the margins, for people outside those groups. That space is not always oppositional, but it can become oppositional at key moments and provide resources for self-preservation in the face of mainstream whitewashing.

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