Moral Foundations theory and political processes

Moral Foundations theory is an important body of research that has generated significant findings. It belongs to a somewhat larger category of research about morality that has these features:

  • Many individuals are asked for their moral judgments of hypothetical or historical cases. (See this test, for example.)
  • The data from these individuals is analyzed to identify latent factors that statistically predict many people’s specific answers. Respondents may not be aware of the latent factors or even endorse them when they hear them, yet these factors are said to explain (statistically, and maybe causally) their actual judgments.
  • Some factors are found to be common across cultures and to have adaptive value for human beings as a species that evolved through natural selection. These factors are named “foundations.”
  • Variation among human beings depends on which of the foundations are more important for different groups. This is a structuralist theory, akin to Claude Levi-Strauss or Noam Chomsky. For structuralists, surface-level diversity results from variation in a finite set of underpinnings.
  • In ambitious versions of this method, morality is the list of foundations. Morality is what we think it is because of how we evolved. To debate the value of the various foundations or to argue for a different principle is pointless. There is no way to know the truth of moral claims, but science can reveal the foundations of our moral psychology, so those alone are real.

Despite my interest in learning from the specific findings of Moral Foundations research, I harbor many objections, summarized here. In this post, I would like to elaborate on one concern.

We human beings make individual judgments about cases and decisions. That’s what the data-collection of Moral Foundations Theory models. But we do many other things that also shape values. For instance, we buy things, which causes more of those things to be made and sold. We participate in bureaucratic institutions that manage themselves through chains of command, policies, and files. We join and quit groups. And we govern by making laws and policies at all levels.

As Owen Flanagan writes in The Geography of Morals (2016), “Moral stage theory conceives moral decision-making individualistically. The dilemmas are to be solved by singleton agents. This is ecologically unrealistic. Committees at hospitals decide policies on organ allocation; government agencies deliberate about monetary policy; officers deliberate about costs and benefits of military operations; and friends talk to friends about tough decisions.”

I’ll focus on political decisions, although we should also consider markets, bureaucracies, friendships, scientific disciplines, and other social forms.

People make laws and other rules to prohibit, regulate, tax, subsidize, and mandate various behaviors. These rules directly influence how we act and may also affect our values, if only because many of us display the Moral Foundation of “Authority.”

One might think that rules and laws are made by people who implement their moral judgments, which are influenced by their individual Moral Foundations. Laws would then simply be aggregated Moral Foundations.

Not so, for these reasons:

  1. An important determinant of the actual law is the choice of who gets to make it. That choice is often made by people other than those who do the governing. Millions of voters choose a president. A president plus 51 US Senators decides who sits on the Supreme Court (one opening at a time, spread over decades). In making these choices, people are not focused on the specific cases or controversies that come before the Court. Top of mind for a president may be finding a justice who can be confirmed, who impresses the electorate, and who is young enough to serve for a long time. These are different considerations from moral judgments about cases, but they shape the actual law. (Here I use a democratic example, but a dictator is also chosen, often by a military junta or by party cadres.)
  2. When multiple people make laws, they don’t do so by judging in isolation and then aggregating their votes. A secret vote may mark an important moment in a political process, but it is almost never the only moment. It usually follows argument, persuasion, and mobilization; and sometimes groups decide without voting at all. Communication plays an important role. But when we communicate, we are not merely expressing our moral judgments of concrete cases. We may be doing many other things: trying to go along with the group, trying to stand out, trying to look (or be) impartial or moderate, trying to waste time on a point of disagreement to prevent attention to a different topic that we fear (filibustering), trying to set a precedent for other topics, supporting someone else so she’ll help us later (logrolling), saying something to irk someone in particular, enjoying the sound of our own voices, and so on. Our moral judgment of concrete issues may be an input, but only one among many.
  3. The procedures for making collective decisions influence the outcomes. For instance, almost all procedures favor the status quo because it takes energy and agreement to shift it. Therefore, a group can live with a law or policy that every individual would prefer to change. This is common and it implies that law often fails to reflect the private opinions of the majority–even when everyone has an equal say, which is vanishingly rare.
  4. One way that laws and policies shift is that subgroups successfully advocate for changes, based not on abstract judgments but self-interest. I don’t think that attitudes toward sexual orientation changed over the past half century because the broad public decided to reconsider their views. I think sexual minorities felt compelled to take their struggles into the streets, the ballot booth, and the courts and won some significant victories. The resulting policies then began to change attitudes. (A different kind of example: girls’/women’s sports got a huge boost from Title IX, which originated when Congress rejected a mischievous amendment to exclude sports from civil rights legislation–a backdoor way to enact a policy that has changed everyday attitudes toward gender.)
  5. Often the subject of political or legal debate is not whether individuals should do specific things: marry, steal, take drugs. It is about our collective stance toward social constructs: the United States (or Russia), Christianity, the family, a forest. These things have histories, they are complex and internally inconsistent, and they reflect laws or norms that people have formed over time. Often we are not asked to assess concrete actions but big abstractions that embody, among other things, many previous concrete actions taken by many people for many reasons. A major question is what story we should tell about a large construct.

For these reasons, empirical moral psychology cannot stand on its own without institutional/political analysis. Moral Foundations Theory is strongest when it aims to predict how people will individually react to a situation that raises issues so general that it resembles the problems that confronted our prehistoric ancestors on the savanna. The theory is least helpful for explaining why the same group of people might change its stance toward a specific topic, as we see with sexual orientation since 1969.

See also Jonathan Haidt’s six foundations of morality; an alternative to Moral Foundations Theory; moral thinking is a network, not a foundation with a superstructure; and against methodological individualism.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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