This post is part of an ongoing series looking at the level of conscious control humans have over their political thoughts and decisions.
The first part of this series examined areas of political thought that are predominantly unconscious: our genes, coupled with unperceived environmental cues, have a significant effect on our political thoughts and behaviors, going as far as to influence our votes.
Next I’ll be examining how our conscious thoughts are informed by more fundamental cognitive functions, such as morals and frames, which are semi-conscious; that which we are aware of and able able to articulate but rarely override.
But first, some background.
Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist at New York University, has done groundbreaking work in identifying the various foundations that guide our moral, and by extension political, thought. Each of us evaluate moral behavior on a six-channel moral equalizer of sorts, interpreting information we receive from the environment through our various moral filters (you can check out your own moral profile at yourmorals.org).
The foundations are:
1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]
3) Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.
4) Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It 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.”
5) Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
6) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It 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 my original post in this series I mentioned that:
…we often find that when we come across someone who disagrees with us, especially on political issues, they aren’t just wrong; something about the way they are thinking must be off, or at least different, compared to ours.
That difference can often be chalked up to differences in the settings of our individual moral equalizers. For instance, a person’s position on marriage equality will depend largely on the degree to which they prioritize the fairness or sanctity foundation. Those who oppose marriage equality aren’t being bigots for the sake of being bigots (OK, some of them are), they are wired differently than us; they are thinking in fundamentally different ways.
Moving into this week, I’ll walk through some current issues with the six moral foundations, along with the unconscious factors discussed earlier this week, in mind. From immigration reform to Obamacare, our political discourse is structured in moral codes. Deciphering these codes provides insight into what we’re thinking, what the other side is thinking and how we can better communicate to solve real moral issues.