Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Moral foundations and Loyalty

I post a lot about this Penn State scandal in large part because it offers a way for us to examine critically some important themes in our lives and in our time — especially authority, fidelity, justice. I’d like to revisit something we talked about on my old blog: the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s theory […]

I post a lot about this Penn State scandal in large part because it offers a way for us to examine critically some important themes in our lives and in our time — especially authority, fidelity, justice. I’d like to revisit something we talked about on my old blog: the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s theory of moral foundations, and how it informs the way we interpret events and act.

Haidt’s basic idea is that our interpretive frame depends not so much on reason as on prerational emotional dispositions. As he writes:

Moral Foundations Theory was created to understand why morality varies so much across cultures yet still shows so many similarities and recurrent themes. In brief, the theory proposes that five innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of “intuitive ethics.” Each culture then constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world, and conflicting within nations too. The foundations are:

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. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulate the theory in 2010 based on new data, we are likely to include several forms of fairness, and to emphasize proportionality, which is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]
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 foundation 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).

This post is going to be kind of long, but I encourage you to keep reading, because the implications of Haidt’s work are pretty fascinating, instructive, and revealing. Before going on, I strongly suggest going here and taking the short online assessment of your own moral foundations. It’ll help you understand better what follows.




What you see above is how I scored on the test. The blue bar is the average score across the field registered by Liberals. The red bar is the average scored by Conservatives. The green bar is my own scores. When I first saw these results, I understood at a deep level why I had had the intense reaction that I did to the Catholic sex abuse scandals. Look at my Harm and Purity scores (“purity,” Haidt explains, is associated with concepts of sanctity), and look at my Authority score. I was confronted with the idea that the institution I most looked to as a guardian of Purity/Sanctity, an enemy of Harm, and the primary moral Authority, had acted in ways shockingly contrary to those concepts by facilitating and covering up the sexual violation of children. And — this is the key — I have a very low Loyalty score, much lower than the average conservative, and even lower than the average liberal. For whatever reason, the kind of deeply felt fidelity to the in-group simply isn’t present in my own psychology. I am far less anchored to the idea of loyalty to the in-group than most people, and my reactions to the violation of the principles of Harm and Purity/Sanctity were bound to be overwhelming. It’s no wonder, then, that I lost my Catholic faith and departed from the Church; staying put had become psychologically untenable. It’s hard for me to convey how depressed and poisoned I felt there at the end. I bring this up not to open that debate again — so don’t start — but only to explain the psychological foundations of my moral conclusions and actions.

Haidt has focused on how we can understand the opinions and conclusions of Liberals and Conservatives based on these emotional dispositions. Here’s an article explaining the thinking and the implications behind this. Excerpts:

Jonathan Haidt is hardly a road-rage kind of guy, but he does get irritated by self-righteous bumper stickers. The soft-spoken psychologist is acutely annoyed by certain smug slogans that adorn the cars of fellow liberals: “Support our troops: Bring them home” and “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”

“No conservative reads those bumper stickers and thinks, ‘Hmm — so liberals are patriotic!’” he says, in a sarcastic tone of voice that jarringly contrasts with his usual subdued sincerity. “We liberals are universalists and humanists; it’s not part of our morality to highly value nations. So to claim dissent is patriotic — or that we’re supporting the troops, when in fact we’re opposing the war — is disingenuous.

“It just pisses people off.”

The University of Virginia scholar views such slogans as clumsy attempts to insist we all share the same values. In his view, these catch phrases are not only insincere — they’re also fundamentally wrong. Liberals and conservatives, he insists, inhabit different moral universes. There is some overlap in belief systems, but rences in emphasis.

In a creative attempt to move beyond red-state/blue-state clichés, Haidt has created a framework that codifies mankind’s multiplicity of moralities. His outline is simultaneously startling and reassuring — startling in its stark depiction of our differences, and reassuring in that it brings welcome clarity to an arena where murkiness of motivation often breeds contention.

He views the demonization that has marred American political debate in recent decades as a massive failure in moral imagination. We assume everyone’s ethical compass points in the same direction and label those whose views don’t align with our sense of right and wrong as either misguided or evil. In fact, he argues, there are multiple due norths.

“I think of liberals as colorblind,” he says in a hushed tone that conveys the quiet intensity of a low-key crusader. “We have finely tuned sensors for harm and injustice but are blind to other moral dimensions. Look at the way the word ‘wall’ is used in liberal discourse. It’s almost always related to the idea that we have to knock them down.

“Well, if we knock down all the walls, we’re sitting out in the rain and cold! We need some structure.”


Haidt’s research reveals that liberals feel strongly about the first two dimensions — preventing harm and ensuring fairness — but often feel little, or even feel negatively, about the other three. Conservatives, on the other hand, are drawn to loyalty, authority and purity, which liberals tend to think of as backward or outdated. People on the right acknowledge the importance of harm prevention and fairness but not with quite the same energy or passion as those on the left.


Of Haidt’s five moral realms, the one that causes the most friction between cosmopolitan liberals and traditionalist conservatives is purity/sanctity. To a 21st-century secular liberal, the concept barely registers. Haidt notes it was part of the Western vocabulary as recently as the Victorian era but lost its force in the early 20th century when modern rules of proper hygiene were codified. With the physical properties of contamination understood, the moral symbolism of impurity no longer carried much weight.

But the impulse remains lodged in our psyches, turning up in both obvious and surprising ways. You can hear strong echoes of it when the pope rails against materialism, insisting we have been put on Earth to serve a loftier purpose than shopping until we drop. It can also be found in the nondenominational spiritual belief that we all contain within us a piece of the divine. (Although it’s sometimes used in a tongue-in-cheek way in our society, the phrase “my body is a temple” is reflective of the purity/sanctity impulse.)

“The question is: Do you see the world as simply matter?” Haidt asks. “If so, people can do whatever they want, as long as they don’t hurt other people. Or do you see more dimensions to life? Do you want to live in a higher, nobler way than simply the pursuit of pleasure? That often requires not acting on your impulses, making sacrifices for others. It implies a reverence — which is a nonrational feeling — towards human life.”


Not surprisingly, Haidt’s data suggests purity/sanctity is the moral foundation that best predicts an individual’s attitude toward abortion. It also helps explain opposition to gay marriage. “If you think society is made up of individuals, and each individual has the right to do what he or she wants if they aren’t hurting anybody, it’s unfathomable why anyone would oppose gay marriage,” he says. “Liberals assume opponents must be homophobic.

“I know feelings of disgust do play into it. When you’re disgusted by something, you tend to come up with reasons why it’s wrong. But cultural conservatives, with their strong emphasis on social order, don’t see marriage primarily as an expression of one individual’s desire for another. They see the family as the foundation of society, and they fear that foundation is dissolving.”

Haidt doesn’t want religious fundamentalists dictating public policy to ensure it lines up with their specific moral code. Even if you perceive purity as a major-league issue, it doesn’t have to be on steroids. But he argues it is important that liberals recognize the strength that impulse retains with cultural conservatives and respect it rather than dismissing it as primitive.

“I see liberalism and conservatism as opposing principles that work well when in balance,” he says, noting that authority needs to be both upheld (as conservatives insist) and challenged (as liberals maintain). “It’s a basic design principle: You get better responsiveness if you have two systems pushing against each other. As individuals, we are very bad at finding the flaws in our own arguments. We all have a distorted perception of reality.”


In his quest to “help people overcome morally motivated misunderstandings,” Haidt has set up a couple of Web sites,www.civilpolitics.org and www.yourmorals.org. At the latter, you can take a quiz that will locate you on his moral map. For fun, you can also answer the questions you think the way your political opposite would respond. Haidt had both liberals and conservatives do just that in the laboratory, and the results are sobering for those on the left: Conservatives understood them a lot better than they understood conservatives.

“Liberals tend to have a very optimistic view of human nature,” he says. “They tend to be uncomfortable about punishment — of their own children, of criminals, anyone. I do believe that if liberals ran the whole world, it would fall apart. But if conservatives ran the whole world, it would be so restrictive and uncreative that it would be rather unpleasant, too.”

The concept of authority resonates so weakly in liberals that “it makes it difficult for liberal organizations to function,” Haidt says. (Will Rogers was right on target when he proclaimed, “I don’t belong to an organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”) On the other hand, he notes, the Republicans’ tendency to blindly follow their leader proved disastrous over the past eight years.

I’ve quoted this Miller/McCune article at length because I’m afraid you might not read it. I hope you will, though.  You might also wish to read Haidt’s own essay about Why People Vote Republican.  Remember, he writes as a scientist whose own views are atheist and liberal. Excerpts:

Diagnosis is a pleasure. It is a thrill to solve a mystery from scattered clues, and it is empowering to know what makes others tick. In the psychological community, where almost all of us are politically liberal, our diagnosis of conservatism gives us the additional pleasure of shared righteous anger. We can explain how Republicans exploit frames, phrases, and fears to trick Americans into supporting policies (such as the “war on terror” and repeal of the “death tax”) that damage the national interest for partisan advantage.

But with pleasure comes seduction, and with righteous pleasure comes seduction wearing a halo. Our diagnosis explains away Republican successes while convincing us and our fellow liberals that we hold the moral high ground. Our diagnosis tells us that we have nothing to learn from other ideologies, and it blinds us to what I think is one of the main reasons that so many Americans voted Republican over the last 30 years: they honestly prefer the Republican vision of a moral order to the one offered by Democrats. To see what Democrats have been missing, it helps to take off the halo, step back for a moment, and think about what morality really is.


This research led me to two conclusions. First, when gut feelings are present, dispassionate reasoning is rare. In fact, many people struggled to fabricate harmful consequences that could justify their gut-based condemnation. I often had to correct people when they said things like “it’s wrong because… um…eating dog meat would make you sick” or “it’s wrong to use the flag because… um… the rags might clog the toilet.” These obviously post-hoc rationalizations illustrate the philosopher David Hume’s dictum that reason is “the slave of the passions, and can pretend to no other office than to serve and obey them.” This is the first rule of moral psychology: feelings come first and tilt the mental playing field on which reasons and arguments compete. If people want to reach a conclusion, they can usually find a way to do so. The Democrats have historically failed to grasp this rule, choosing uninspiring and aloof candidates who thought that policy arguments were forms of persuasion.

The second conclusion was that the moral domain varies across cultures. Turiel’s description of morality as being about justice, rights, and human welfare worked perfectly for the college students I interviewed at Penn, but it simply did not capture the moral concerns of the less elite groups—the working-class people in both countries who were more likely to justify their judgments with talk about respect, duty, and family roles. (“Your dog is family, and you just don’t eat family.”) From this study I concluded that the anthropologist Richard Shweder was probably right in a 1987 critique of Turiel in which he claimed that the moral domain (not just specific rules) varies by culture. Drawing on Shweder’s ideas, I would say that the second rule of moral psychology is that morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way.

At one point in his education, Haidt lived in India:

My first few weeks in Bhubaneswar were therefore filled with feelings of shock and confusion. I dined with men whose wives silently served us and then retreated to the kitchen. My hosts gave me a servant of my own and told me to stop thanking him when he served me. I watched people bathe in and cook with visibly polluted water that was held to be sacred. In short, I was immersed in a sex-segregated, hierarchically stratified, devoutly religious society, and I was committed to understanding it on its own terms, not on mine.

It only took a few weeks for my shock to disappear, not because I was a natural anthropologist but because the normal human capacity for empathy kicked in. I liked these people who were hosting me, helping me, and teaching me. And once I liked them (remember that first principle of moral psychology) it was easy to take their perspective and to consider with an open mind the virtues they thought they were enacting. Rather than automatically rejecting the men as sexist oppressors and pitying the women, children, and servants as helpless victims, I was able to see a moral world in which families, not individuals, are the basic unit of society, and the members of each extended family (including its servants) are intensely interdependent. In this world, equality and personal autonomy were not sacred values. Honoring elders, gods, and guests, and fulfilling one’s role-based duties, were more important. Looking at America from this vantage point, what I saw now seemed overly individualistic and self-focused. For example, when I boarded the plane to fly back to Chicago I heard a loud voice saying “Look, you tell him that this is the compartment over MY seat, and I have a RIGHT to use it.”


Religion and political leadership are so intertwined across eras and cultures because they are about the same thing: performing the miracle of converting unrelated individuals into a group. Durkheim long ago said that God is really society projected up into the heavens, a collective delusion that enables collectives to exist, suppress selfishness, and endure. The three Durkheimian foundations (ingroup, authority, and purity) play a crucial role in most religions. When they are banished entirely from political life, what remains is a nation of individuals striving to maximize utility while respecting the rules. What remains is a cold but fair social contract, which can easily degenerate into a nation of shoppers.

The Democrats must find a way to close the sacredness gap that goes beyond occasional and strategic uses of the words “God” and “faith.” But if Durkheim is right, then sacredness is really about society and its collective concerns. God is useful but not necessary. The Democrats could close much of the gap if they simply learned to see society not just as a collection of individuals—each with a panoply of rights–but as an entity in itself, an entity that needs some tending and caring. Our national motto is e pluribus unum (“from many, one”). Whenever Democrats support policies that weaken the integrity and identity of the collective (such as multiculturalism, bilingualism, and immigration), they show that they care more about pluribus than unum. They widen the sacredness gap.

Haidt goes on to suggest how Democrats can improve their chances by understanding first that they really do see the world in fundamentally different ways than most of humanity — this, by valuing Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity so strongly over the other three concerns. In this way, Western liberals are outliers not only on their own country, but on the great mass of humanity. Haidt suggests that rather than reacting as if conservatives are idiots and the only way they can get people to vote for them is by tricking them, liberals should rethink and reformulate their principles in ways that make sense to people who also value Purity/Sanctity, Authority, and Loyalty.

Haidt also seems to believe pretty strongly that liberal cultural and political theory doesn’t appreciate the profound psychological and social need to value Purity, Authority, and Loyalty. Without them, societies cannot thrive over time. As Haidt says, a society that only believes in those three things, and devalues Harm/Care and Justice/Reciprocity, would be a miserable, inhuman place. We have to live in balance.

Now, how should we apply Haidt’s insights to analyzing the Penn State situation? It seems clear to me that an overemphasis on Loyalty has badly distorted the community’s moral vision. For example, it caused many people — first of all Paterno and the university’s top leadership, but also his most ardent defenders — to diminish Harm/Care and Justice, and to invoke Authority and Purity as a way of supporting the football program. That is, a rightly balanced moral vision would have understood that the real offense to Purity was the football program’s abuse of children, and that the real challenge to Authority was in the way Paterno and the Penn State leadership exercised their authority in this matter.

That said, I can recognize that my own inability to share the same basic impulse to in-group Loyalty distorts my own analysis of what should be done. I don’t agree with you who say that loyalty to Penn State football is forever poisoned, and must be renounced. As Pennsylvanian friends have been pointing out to me. to say that this is about “just football” is to completely misunderstand the role Penn State football and Joe Paterno plays in the collective emotional and psychological life of this region. We get nowhere by scorning that, and in fact miss the good that such Loyalty can bring about, in terms of social cohesion and affirmation. Yes, that Loyalty helped bring about this disaster, but anyone who thinks the solution is to excise Loyalty is asking the impossible, and even demanding something destructive. The way forward is for people to understand and to accept how the virtue of Loyalty became a vice, because the object of Loyalty was, in the end, immoral (that is, the good of the Team rather than Justice for people Harmed by it).

Any Loyalty that comes at the cost of the principles of Harm and Justice is bound to be tainted. But any insistence on the triumph of the principles of Harm and Justice that demands people refuse the principles of Loyalty, Authority, and Purity will not get very far — nor, arguably, should it. It doesn’t make emotional sense to me that people’s sense of Loyalty to Penn State and to JoePa is preventing many of them from seeing the moral stakes here. But Haidt helps me understand that I, personally, perceive Loyalty much differently from most people. If I want to understand this situation better, I have to recognize my own cognitive bias here. If I want to contribute in any way to making things better, instead of just destroying them, I am going to have to think about how people at Penn State can see that true Loyalty to the Penn State community requires not saying, “My team, right or wrong,” but saying, “My team was wrong, and I’ve got a duty to make it right.” An overemphasis on tribal Loyalty can be and usually is destructive, but if we destroy the natural care in people for the principle of Loyalty, it will come at a tremendous cost that we don’t easily comprehend.

The solution to the Penn State crisis (and, I would say, the Catholic sex abuse crisis) is to rebalance the relationship among the principles of moral foundations. Help people see that the community can be redeemed through repentance and rebalance. Understand that Loyalty to the community requires a re-Sanctification (that is, purification), and an understanding of how Harm and Justice were perverted through the misuse of Loyalty and blind deference to Authority. In this way, Authority can be restored. Without it, that’s not going to happen. That’s why it was so important that the Trustees cashiered Paterno and the university president. That’s why it’s so important that no bishops, with the possible exception of Bernard Law, have not been.

UPDATE: Here is the transcript of an excellent talk Haidt gave last year at an Edge conference. In this passage, he talks about a recent scientific paper that said the study of psychology is highly biased by American moral norms — that is, by assuming that there is something universal about the American way of perceiving the world, when in fact it’s not only highly particular, it’s highly unusual:

All four comparisons point in the same direction, and lead them to the same conclusion, which I’ve put here on your handout. I’ll just read it. “Behavioral scientists routinely publish broad claims about human psychology and behavior based on samples drawn entirely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic societies.”  The acronym there being WEIRD. “Our findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans. Overall, these empirical patterns suggest that we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature, on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin and rather unusual slice of humanity.”

As I read through the article, in terms of summarizing the content, in what way are WEIRD people different, my summary is this: The WEIRDer you are, the more you perceive a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships, and the more you use an analytical thinking style, focusing on categories and laws, rather than a holistic style, focusing on patterns and contexts.

Now, let me state clearly that these empirical facts about “WEIRD-ness”, they don’t in any way imply that our morality is wrong, only that it is unusual. Moral psychology is a descriptive enterprise, not a normative one. We have WEIRD chemistry. The chemistry produced by Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic societies is our chemistry, and it’s a very good chemistry. And we have every reason to believe it’s correct.

But Haidt goes on to quote another recent paper that argues reason is primarily a weapon we use to argue in favor of what we already intuit is true. What’s so interesting — and I think respectable — about Haidt is that he holds on to his secular liberal beliefs while admitting that they are rather extreme compared to how most of humanity lives. And this makes him skeptical of his own biases as he does cultural analysis. What his insights say, though, about Authority is fairly unsettling, you have to admit.