Our moral palates
Not long ago, I described 3 particular ‘meta concepts’ that are present or emerging in the RSA’s work. These were:
(i) Mental complexity and adult development – the notion that there exists a ‘hidden curriculum’ of mental tasks in life that require a certain level of mental complexity in order to navigate effectively. Central to this concept is the importance of how we know, not just what we know, and of taking things as object that were once subject.
(ii) Cultural theory – the notion that there are, to varying extents, four dominant cultures at play in the world: egalitarianism, hierarchicalism, individualism and fatalism. Proponents of this theory argue that efforts to tackle major challenges usually need to embrace and draw upon a mixture of all of these (except fatalism). This is particularly true of ‘wicked’ problems, which unlike ‘tame’ ones cannot be addressed through ‘elegant’ but blunt solutions e.g. using only hierarchical sanctions to combat crime or individualist incentives to overcome climate change.
(iii) Values modes – the notion that most people fall into 3 predominant value groups: settlers, prospectors and pioneers. Which type best defines you depends upon the extent to which you are ‘inner directed’ or ‘outer directed’. The lesson for policymakers is that policies and political messages need to be tailored to fit each group, otherwise efforts at changing behaviour may prove fruitless.
As I mentioned in a previous blog post, the reason why I’m trying to identify these broader concepts is because they help us to make sense of the world, acting in a way as umbrellas for all the other minor lessons and rules that seek to guide our day-to-day actions. To put it another way, the likes of cultural theory, mental complexity and values modes offer maps of life’s terrain, whereas tit bits of information and the latest research insights only give a narrow set of directions to where we want to go, some of which often appear to contradict the paths laid out by others.
Since posting that blog, I had a chance to read Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Righteous Mind. This, I believe, may act as a contender for a 4th spot in the guidebook of meta concepts. Haidt’s book is an extraordinarily rich account of the origins of moral psychology and a revealing exploration of how the different states of our moral minds are able to shape group behaviour and drive divisions in political and religious communities.
Trying to distil the book’s contents into a single line or two is an impossible task, but his central thesis can be broadly understand as follows: there exist in the world a variety of intrinsically-borne ‘moral matrices’ that have helped to bind people into successful groups, but which have also left us divided on lots of different issues. When Haidt talks about ‘moral matrices’, he is referring to the different assortment of ‘moral foundations’ – what might be colloquially termed as morals or values – that each individual or group has. To put it in simpler terms, Haidt draws parallels between moral foundations and taste receptors; just as everybody has different preferences of flavours, so too do they have their own distinctive moral palates.
Moral Foundations Theory, as it is formally known, identifies 6 particular moral foundations that make up our moral matrices, some of which are more prevalent than others. Each of these are summarised in the table below.
Drawing upon the data gathered on his research website YourMorals.org, Haidt argues that liberals tend to have moral matrices that are built with only 3 of the Foundations – Care, Fairness and Liberty – whereas conservatives have moral matrices that rest upon all 6. As a result of the sheer breadth of their moral palates, the messages and policies of conservatives are more likely to resonate with a wider segment of the population than are those of liberals (or liberatarians).
The Righteous Mind goes on to explore many issues in depth, but the Moral Foundations Theory alone is likely to have sizeable implications for the way in which we seek to pursue political, social and economic progress. We are already seeing, for instance, how the left are attempting to tap into people’s Fairness foundation receptors (a sensitivity for proportionality, not just equality). Think Labour’s recent internal debate about introducing conditionality within the welfare state. Conversely, witness how Mitt Romney’s speech to the GOP convention was littered with phrases that were intended to prompt people’s Care foundation (it will be interesting to see what comes out when Obama gives his own speech in a week or so’s time).
I imagine the Moral Foundations Theory could also be a useful resource beyond the world of political messaging and grand policymaking. For example, could it tell us anything about how to make behaviour change initiatives more effective? Or about how teaching methods could better support children with different moral dispositions?