Moral Foundations

Posted by Beetle B. on Wed 26 October 2016

Notable was Haidt’s criticism of amateur evolutionary theorists: They pick a trait and see if they can find a story that explains it.

A module is a discrete, specific “switch” in the brain that is triggered by patterns that are or were important for survival (e.g. some animals have an inborn fear of snakes).

The original trigger in this example would be seeing a snake.

The current trigger is seeing anything resembling a snake (e.g. a belt in the grass).

Cultures can shrink or expand current triggers.

We all may have the same modules, but each of us may use different modules to decide/judge something. Many moral controversies are due to different groups using different sets of modules to assess the situation (e.g. spanking for disobedience).

The Foundations of care, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity

Homo Economicus is the “economic” man. Behind every act of altruism, heorism and human decency is either selfishness or stupidity. It is a very poor model of humans.


The old view of innateness: To prove anything is innate, you have to show it is found in all cultures and tribes of the world.

His view: Traits can be innate without being universal or hardwired. The brain is like a book. The first draft is written during fetal development. No chapter is empty or complete. During childhood, it is refined.

The Care/Harm Foundation

Political parties and interest groups try to make their concerns be triggers for your moral modules.

Liberals score higher on the “care” foundation.

The Fairness/Cheating Foundation

The selfish gene: A gene that influences an animal only for the purpose of spreading the gene.

Can selfish genes explain altruism? Towards kin, yes. Towards non-kin? This is/was a challenge for evolutionary theorists. Then in 1971, Trivers published the theory of reciprocal altruism. We are nice to people we do not know in the hope of reciprocity. And memory allows us to stop being nice to those who do not repay.

Tit for tat”: No strategy has beaten this one in simulations.

For the leftist, fairness correlates with equality (taxing the rich to benefit the poor). For right wing, it means proportionality (wealth in proportion to the amount of work we put in). So fairness as a foundation can be confusing.

The Loyalty/Betrayal Foundation

The male mind appears to be innately tribal. They enjoy doing things that lead to group cohesion and success in conflicts between groups.

Male college students get more cooperative if the challenge is framed as a competition against someone else. Females, though, tend not to change their behavior for this.

Loyalty matters to both genders, but in different ways. For males, it is towards teams and coalitions. For females, it is to 2-person relationships.

Warfare is older than private property or agriculture.

Original trigger: Anything that tells you who is a team player and who is a traitor.

Sports is an extension of the current trigger. It is to fill the need for loyalty.

The Authority/Subversion Foundation

Languages embed respect for authority - some much more than others (French or Urdu use of “you”). Honorifics is an example.

Authority is not just about power or oppression. It includes maintaining a social order and ability to teach beneficial norms and rules.

The Sanctity/Degradation Foundation

Many animals innately know what to eat. Humans need to be taught. Omnivores can eat just about anything. The problem is that this makes them prone to disease (worms, etc). Not as big a problem for creatures with innate culinary tastes.

So humans have a conflict:

  • Neophilia: An attraction to new things (new type of food can be appetizing)
  • Neophobia: A distrust of new things (new type of food is feared because it can make you sick)

Liberals score higher on neophilia. Conservatives score higher on neophobia.

Disgust is a purely human emotion. Other animals react to a bad smell or taste, but only humans extend that to “who has touched what”.

Original trigger: Any sense that detects the possibility of harmful pathogens (smell, etc).

Current triggers are extremely varied across cultures/eras and are expanded. A common one is to members of the outgroup. For example, the fear of immigrants is lower when overall disease is generally lower.

tags : trm, morality, Haidt