Moral Tastebuds and Culture War

Jonathan Haidt’s theory of moral foundations is one of the most interesting approaches to the ongoing social strife that I can remember. Here’s a basic explanation; read the whole article for an application as the battle space of the culture war shifts from the social to the economic. There’s even a fascinating WWII analogy!

To make sense of these cultural variations, I created a theory in 2003 called “moral-foundations theory.” My goal was to specify the “taste buds” of the moral sense. Every human being has the same five taste receptors – tiny structures on the tongue specialized for detecting five classes of molecules, which we experience as sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory. Yet our food preferences aren’t dictated just by our tongues. Rather, they depend heavily on our cultures, each of which has constructed its own cuisine.

In the same way, I aimed to identify the innate psychological systems that were given to us all by evolution, and that each culture uses to construct its unique moral systems. For example, you’ll never find a human culture that makes no use of reciprocity and has no conception of fairness and cheating. Fairness is a really good candidate for being a moral taste bud, yet cultures vary greatly in how they implement fairness. Consider this quote from the Code of Hammurabi, the ancient Babylonian legal text: “If a builder builds a house and does not construct it properly, and the building collapses and kills the owner, the builder shall be put to death. If it kills the owner’s son, the builder’s son shall be put to death.” You can see the psychology of fairness here, but this is not quite the way we’d implement it.

Drawing on the work of many anthropologists (particularly Richard Shweder at the University of Chicago) and many evolutionary biologists and psychologists, my colleagues and I came to the conclusion that there are six best candidates for being the taste buds of the moral mind: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Liberty/Oppression, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation.