B. The Two Poles

In his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt identifies six “moral foundations,” innate, universally available psychological systems that form the basis for what Haidt calls “intuitive ethics.” His six foundations are: “care/harm,” “fairness/cheating,” “loyalty/betrayal,” “authority/subversion,” “sanctity/degradation,” and “liberty/oppression.” Haidt depicts the six “moral foundations” as dimensions along which the ethicality of a given action can be measured. For example, if an individual assesses an action using the care/harm foundation, she determines where the action falls along a spectrum that runs from care (positive) to harm (negative). If an individual assesses an action in terms of the loyalty/betrayal foundation, he determines where the action falls along a spectrum that runs from loyalty (positive) to betrayal (negative). And so forth.

Haidt presents particular evolutionary stories about how each foundation could have independently evolved, each corresponding to an adaptive challenge humans would have encountered in the course of evolution. For example, the care/harm foundation, Haidt reasons, is rooted in the needs of parents to care for vulnerable children. Such needs would have given rise to a kin selectionist dynamic of the sort identified by Robert Trivers. By contrast, the sanctity/degradation foundation, Haidt suggests, arose from a health need: the need “to keep oneself and one’s kin free from parasites and pathogens” (p. 125). This concern was then transmogrified into an abstract concern about spiritual purity.

Possibly the most significant contribution of Haidt’s study is a data pattern. Using the internet, Haidt and colleagues have administered, to tens of thousands of individuals, questionnaires designed to determine the relative weightings of the different moral foundations in people’s moral judgments. For example, subjects are asked:

“When you decide whether something is right or wrong, to what extent are the following considerations relevant to your thinking?”

Whether or not someone showed a lack of loyalty.

Whether or not someone cared for someone weak or vulnerable.


“Please read the following sentences and indicate your level of agreement or disagreement.”

Chastity is an important and valuable virtue.

One of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal.


Subjects are also asked about their political sentiments and affiliations. The results are graphed as follows:

(Note that Haidt arrived at the sixth of his moral foundations, “liberty/oppression,” only after the data that compose this graph had been gathered. Thus, we abstract from that moral foundation here.)

It’s hard to miss the pattern. Liberals base moral judgments primarily on just two foundations, care/harm and fairness/cheating, while conservatives base moral judgments on all five, with loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation rising above care/harm and fairness/cheating at the far right end of the spectrum.

What to make of this pattern? Haidt takes a kind of anthropological perspective, making no judgment about the relative merits of the differing foundations (though he himself, as a living breathing human being, evidently takes a “Durkheimian utilitarian” view). The foundations, in Haidt’s view, are simply integral aspects of being human, each independently evolved and present in varying degrees in each of us. It just happens that some people are especially heavily influenced by the care and fairness foundations, while others are fairly evenly influenced by all the foundations, but give relatively less weight to care and fairness than do liberals.

My take is somewhat different. The most obvious thing about Haidt’s data is the pattern of covariation. People who score high on care/harm, for example, also tend to score high on fairness/cheating but low on sanctity/degradation. Similarly, people who score high on loyalty/betrayal also tend to score high on authority/subversion, etc., but lower on care/harm than those who score high on fairness/cheating. Etc. Given the massive volume of data involved, these patterns of covariation are not coincidental. Thus, it would seem sensible to try to extract factors that underlie the agglomerations of moral foundations observed in individuals.

A serious exploration would require a factor analysis. However, tentatively and on strictly theoretical grounds, I would propose two underlying factors: the two moral orientations described in the previous section. Individuals with a “liberal” moral orientations seek justification for moral claims largely through external metrics (e.g., fairness, the amount of harm or well-being caused by a given action), while individuals with a “conservative” moral orientation rely much more heavily on intuition.

The logic of the hypothesis is as follows. Care/harm and fairness/cheating are in principle measureable and universally justifiable criteria of ethicality and thus cohere with a market-pricing/rational-legal mindset view of the world. By contrast, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation are essentially gut-level criteria of ethicality; they manifest the relatively intuitive orientation toward morality that we might characterize as commitment-based morality.

To reference these two orientations more easily, we need names. For the care and fairness orientation, I’ll use “well-being.” That is, I shall claim that people primarily concerned about care and fairness are, at bottom, primarily concerned about well-being. The relationship between well-being and care is obvious, while that between well-being and fairness, though perhaps not 100% overlapping, seems close enough. Most of us, at any rate, would probably associate fairness with well-being. For the more intuitive criteria of ethicality, I’ll use the term “commitment,” as each of the three more “conservative” foundations appears to manifest an evolved means of maintaining social commitment in the face of temptations to defect.

The lynchpin of the analysis is the fact that these broad orientations are logically inconsistent. If, as a moral agent, one is principally animated by concerns about well-being, there will be times when one’s moral predilections conflict with commitment-based morality. Obedience to authority, for example, will conflict with concerns about well-being whenever an authority figure commands one to harm another. Bonds of loyalty and concerns about sanctity will lead to similar conflicts. Similarly, if one is more heavily pulled by commitment-based moral intuitions than by concern about well-being, one must at times discount concerns about harm and fairness. Such concerns may indeed quite simply lie outside one’s frame of reference in some circumstances. As noted, most humans exhibit both care-based and commitment-based moral orientations in some degree. I would argue, however, that with the rise of market pricing (or the rational/legal mindset), people are increasingly compelled to take a “stance” with respect to these broad moral orientations, i.e., quasi-officially embrace one or the other in forming their moral/political identities. In particular, as the market pricing rational/legal mindset increasingly pervades social interactions, justification for behavior increasingly requires reference to external metrics or ideologies. Individuals are thus increasingly compelled to choose one orientation over the other.

In sum, well-being-based morality predominates on the liberal side of the spectrum, while commitment-based morality predominates on the conservative side. Political liberalism—the use of reason and science to develop public policies that benefit society as a whole in accordance with principles of care and fairness—is historically recent, a creature of the rise of market pricing. Although the core moral intuitions that inform conservatism are deeply-ingrained species traits, conservatism as a self-conscious political movement exists primarily as a reaction to the threat to sacred (commitment-based) values posed by the rational-legal mindset. Hence, conservatism is no less recent than liberalism.


The appellation “moral” pertains to actions that (a) are products of choice, (b) have social effects of some kind (either as signals of commitment or because of their effects on others’ well-being), and (c) have apparent costs that exceed their apparent benefits to the individual who undertakes them. The word “apparent” in the latter condition is important, as people are often lauded for their moral actions, and thus, the long-term benefits of such actions to an individual may exceed the costs. What appears to be necessary is that there be at least some sacrifice of near-term benefits, i.e., within a time-frame in which the individual could plausibly be tempted to act otherwise.

The purpose of morality is to reconcile the sometimes opposing interests of different members of society, enabling cooperation. Given that humans have both free will and interests that don’t necessarily coincide, to realize the potential nonzero sum gains that come from cooperation, we require assurance that individuals will act in ways that don’t undermine cooperative endeavors. How can we be sure, for example, that a business partner will live up to a commitment upon which a cooperative partnership depends? The answer is by assessing the individual’s overall disposition.

In a proximate, short-term sense, it doesn’t greatly matter what the partner’s motives are for living up to an agreement. It could be rational self-interest, commitment-based emotion, or care-based emotion. The bottom line is assurance that he or she will behave in an appropriate way and not undermine the relationship on which the benefits of cooperation depend. However, from a longer-term perspective, the underlying motive for cooperative behavior matters. If one is motivated strictly by self-interest, then, when conditions change, one’s behavior may change. By contrast, if one is motivated by loyalty or care, then one’s behavior should be relatively invariant to circumstances. Hence, our obsessive interest in the “type” of person one is. For good Darwinian reasons, we’re constantly seeking to determine the “moral character” of fellow human beings.

Moral motivation: signal versus concern

Motivations for moral acts are complex, covering a broad spectrum that ranges from simple heartfelt concern to unvarnished cupidity. It is also often difficult to discern the “real” motives for moral actions. At a psychological level, humans typically view their actions as motivated by simple concern. However, it is evident that moral behavior often has a payoff to oneself that goes beyond the simple satisfaction of seeing a situation “righted.” The two poles of moral motivation may be defined as “concern” at one end and “signal” at the other, where “concern” pertains to acts that have no chance of being observed, i.e., are undertaken strictly for “noble” reasons, and “signal” characterizes acts undertaken strictly to signal commitment, without any actual underlying heartfelt concern. Nearly all moral actions are a complex combination of the two. One does something nice for another, which gives one a happy feeling because one cares about the individual; but one also receives praise for the act, entitling one to favor and respect.

Nearly all moral actions are probably motivated by some combination of “signal” and “concern.” But it would be useful to set out the parameters of what constitutes an action motivated strictly by one or the other. To qualify as strictly motivated by “concern,” an action must have no possibility of yielding a benefit to the agent who performs it. Thus, one example may be an act that is unobserved. Here, however, we get into muddy waters, since, if one repeatedly engages in unobserved moral actions, there is a high probability that one will eventually be found out, i.e., observed engaging in such actions. It is thus in one’s interest to have a disposition to engage in such actions, even if many specific acts will never be observed. One may repeatedly send money to relief organizations, unobserved, but over time, this habit will likely emerge, and one will receive one’s just approbation.

A stronger case for an action motivated strictly by “concern” would be sacrificing one’s life for others or for a cause. However, even this may reduce to having a disposition that statistically yields a probable or expected benefit, if not to the individual, then to one’s genes. For example, falling on a grenade to save the lives of one’s comrades can perhaps be seen as reflecting a disposition that overall, since most people will never encounter a situation where saving lives requires self-sacrifice, is likely to benefit the individual. And even if individuals don’t generally benefit from such a disposition, there is a reasonable chance that their genes will, as, through most of human history, some of the comrades saved would have drawn from the same gene pool as the one who saves them. Alternatively, the spared comrades could, and most likely would, be fellow tribes-people, whose survival is likely to benefit one’s kin, even if one does not oneself survive.

Examples of actions motivated strictly by “signal” appear to be more plausible than actions motivated strictly by “concern.” Politicians kissing babies, the cordiality of business partnerships, alliances between nations or mob families, following rules of etiquette, etc., may all involve form for form’s sake, i.e., may be consciously undertaken as pure “signal,” without any underlying sincerity.

More often, however, actions motivated by “signal” are sincere, although their signaling nature may be only partially understood by the agent who performs them. The commitment-based moral foundations identified by Haidt fall, to a significant degree, into the “signal” category. Whatever may be one’s subjective motivations (however sincere one’s intentions) in acts of loyalty[1], obedience, and sanctity, loyalty is largely about showing commitment to one’s fellows, obedience is largely about showing deference to one’s superiors, and sanctity is largely about showing purity and nobility to the larger society. In all cases, the point is to signal that one’s behavior follows a certain predictable pattern that is consistent with, or beneficial to, the interests of others in the society. They are signals of the type of person one is, of one’s basic disposition.

I believe Haidt is correct in identifying a “conservative advantage” in appealing to voters, but I don’t think it arises from the wider array of moral foundations conservatives draw on, as Haidt contends, but from the gut-level nature of the moral foundations conservatives emphasize—those that manifest morality as signal. Haidt is no doubt right that moral orientation plays a key role in the types of public policies people espouse, but it is crucial to distinguish between the sets of rules and norms established by morality, when it operates as a signal, and those established by public policy.

Public policy, like morality, is a means of reconciling conflicting interests. Unlike morality, public policy is vast in scope, applying to entire societies, not just communities. Additionally, public policy is inherently utilitarian, as it concerns the development of bodies of policies and laws that apply to society as a whole, with all its competing interests, in a fair manner. Thus, public policy necessarily involves tradeoffs and compromises, particularly in a society as large and diverse as that of the United States. Forming policies that achieve this end should be a dispassionate, even scientific affair. Morality is involved, but it is morality of the concern variety.

By contrast, moral rules—particularly those identified with the moral foundations associated with conservatism—generally take the form of principles issued by an authority of some kind. Hence, they are not products of trade-offs or compromises. Prior to the formation of political entities beyond the tribal level, it was functional for communities to have moral norms of behavior that prevented conflicts of interest. And to enforce such norms—norms that are fundamentally devoid of a rational basis—it was essential that people be emotionally compelled to follow and enforce them. The problem is that, as the relevant scope of application of such norms has expanded beyond the tribal level, the emotional impetus behind the imposition of communal morality hasn’t disappeared. And it is this emotional impetus that is the driving force behind conservatism in public policy. It is the gut-level, visceral nature of conservative political positions that creates the “conservative advantage” that Haidt identifies.

When conservative politicians say that “military spending should be raised” or that “taxes should be cut” or that “abortion should be outlawed” or that “gun ownership rights should be protected” or that “murderers should be executed” or that “illegal immigrants should be deported” or that “markets should be free,” etc., in each case, they are making assertions that require no justification, no debate about trade-offs. Underlying the sentiments expressed in each case is inviolable principle. In the case of military spending, provided there are threats to the nation (and there always are), more is always better, security being imperative (even a kind of sacred value). As the only “optimal” amount of security is maximal security, there is no question of “trade-offs.” In the case of taxes, as long as government is “too big” (and it always is), taxes should always be cut. Discussion of the “right” level of taxation, so that society can obtain the government services it needs without imposing too onerous a burden on taxpayers, gets little play in conservative political rhetoric. Abortion is “murder” and thus always wrong, full stop. Gun ownership rights are “enshrined” in the second amendment of the Constitution and hence inviolable, end of story. Murder is seen, somewhat understandably, as uniquely heinous and thus as qualitatively different from other crimes; hence, no compromise or trade-off is acceptable, and retribution should be in-kind. Illegal immigrants use our resources to which they are not entitled; hence, none should be admitted into the country or granted citizenship.

What about free markets? Conservative insistence on “free markets” is almost certainly psychologically similar to conservative views about defense spending, taxes, abortion, gun control, capital punishment, and illegal immigration. Like these others, it is an assertion of absolute principle, one that can be easily evoked in speeches and political debate, no justification required. Also, as with red lines in general, the notion of free markets provides a convenient way of identifying the enemy: anyone who would interfere with “normal” market processes, e.g., through regulations or redistributive policies.[2]


[1] Loyalty, it may be fairly said, can merge with concern. However, there is a difference. Loyalty, abstractly understood, denotes commitment for commitment’s sake to one’s group or team. One may act out of concern for one’s group members, but then one is acting on the basis of concern, not the abstract value of loyalty.

[2] Some writers, Pinker included, appear to have identified conservative advocacy of free markets with greater attunement to the principles of modern economics and thus market pricing. For example, in Better Angels, Pinker writes, “And now for a correlation that will annoy the left as much the correlation with liberalism annoyed the right. The economist Bryan Caplan also looked at data from the General Social Survey and found that smarter people tend to think like economists (even after controlling for education, income, sex, political party, and political orientation). They are more sympathetic to immigration, free markets, and free trade, and less sympathetic to protectionism, make-work policies, and government intervention in business” (p. 663). Yes, the cited study controls for political party and political orientation, and yes, pro-immigration views don’t exactly mesh with conservative politics. But why should the findings of this study annoy the “left,” if Pinker isn’t associating the free market advocacy of economists with that of conservatives?

There are two problems with Pinker’s apparent association between the free market advocacy of economists and that of conservatives. First, there is almost certainly no specific relationship between thinking “like an economist” and IQ. Rather, thinking “like an economist” requires abstract reasoning ability, which is correlated with IQ. If a similar study were conducted with a dependent variable like “thinks like a physicist,” “thinks like a biologist,” “thinks like a statistician,” or even “thinks like a sociologist,” it seems plausible that a similar correlation with IQ would emerge. All of these ways of thinking require abstract reasoning ability, and abstract reasoning ability is correlated with IQ. There’s nothing unique about economics in this respect.

The second problem with Pinker’s association of economics with the political right is that the free market advocacy of many (especially neoclassical) economists and that of most conservatives come from very different places. Modern economics is all about trade-offs; conservative political views are not. The fundamental objective of modern economics isn’t free markets per se but maximization of social welfare. (Thus, the moral underpinning of most economic analysis is a care-based utilitarian ethic.) One can see social welfare geometrically in a simple supply-demand diagram: it is the space to the left of the quantity coordinate, bounded from above by the demand curve and from below by the supply curve. This space is maximized (hence, social welfare is maximized) by the price-quantity combination represented by the point of intersection between the supply and demand curves. Through painstaking work over about a century, economists developed an analysis showing that, given certain strong assumptions, a free market tends to endogenously produce (i.e., gravitate toward) the social welfare optimum. In other words, market forces tend to push price and quantity toward the point of intersection of the supply and demand curves. What are the strong assumptions that guarantee this result? Broadly: (1) perfect competition (an infinitude of price taking agents on the demand side and no barriers to entry on the supply side); (2) rational expectations (agents utilize all available information to make decisions that maximize their self-interest); and (3) no externalities (no effects on third parties not involved in market transactions). In the real world, as every economist knows, all these assumptions are massively violated. Nevertheless, in the abstract, most economists believe that the “market solution” provides a center of gravitation toward which a market economy, left to itself, tends to move. As the “market solution” is seen to reflect powerful, systematic forces, it provides a benchmark relative to which policy interventions can be evaluated. Is the market solution necessarily the preferred solution, in a typical economic analysis? Usually not. Economics papers are typically motivated by some perceived imperfection or distortion that policy, in a way specified by the analysis, can set right. In other words, economists typically advocate some kind of policy intervention that produces an equilibrium that is not the market equilibrium.

As noted above, conservative insistence on “free markets,” by contrast, is almost certainly psychologically similar to conservative views about defense spending, taxes, abortion, gun control, capital punishment, and illegal immigration. It is an assertion of absolute principle.

Broadening the Frame by Matt Carlson