Issue #28, Spring 2013

Of Freedom and Fairness

The new culture war is about economic issues, and the side that better sells its idea of fairness will have the upper hand.

In 1943, Allied forces achieved a hard-fought victory in the North African campaign, captured Sicily, and began to fight their way up the Italian peninsula. Victories in places such as El-Alamein, Salerno, and Anzio gave America some confidence that the Allies would ultimately prevail in Europe. That confidence allowed the American public to shift more of its attention to the Pacific Theater. Popular magazines such as National Geographic began to publish more maps and articles about the Pacific because Americans suddenly wanted to know a lot more about Saipan and Leyte Gulf.

The same sort of shift is happening now for the left in America’s long-running culture war. From the 1980s until the birth of the Tea Party, most of the action was in the Social Theater, in which the religious right and the secular left waged an existential struggle for the soul of American society. Issues related to sexuality, drugs, religion, family life, and patriotism were particularly vexing, and many people over 40 can recall the names of battlefields such as Mapplethorpe, needle exchange, 2 Live Crew, and the flag-burning amendment. But the left won a smashing victory in the 2012 elections, including the first victories at the ballot box for gay marriage. These triumphs, combined with polling data showing the tolerant attitudes of younger voters, give the left confidence that it will ultimately prevail on most issues in the Social Theater. The power base of the religious right is older, white, rural Protestants, a group that immigration, demography, and urban renewal have consigned to play an ever-shrinking role in American presidential elections.

Both sides are now likely to shift several divisions and carrier task forces over to the Economic Theater of the culture war, where the single most important battle of 2012 was fought—the battle over marginal tax rates for the rich. The left won that battle on January 1, when the House of Representatives voted to raise tax rates for the rich, but victory in the overall war is far less certain. Economic issues such as taxation are moral issues—no less so than social issues like gay marriage—and neither side has full control of the key moral foundations that underlie economic morality: fairness and liberty. Both sides are vulnerable to being outflanked and outgunned. Both sides could use a detailed map of the moral ground on which economic battles are waged.

In this essay I offer such a map, showing the territory currently controlled by Democrats (equality and positive liberty) and by Republicans (proportionality and negative liberty). What remains up for grabs is “procedural fairness”: the integrity of the process by which we decide who gets what. Both parties are open to charges that they don’t want everyone to “play by the same rules.” Both parties have ways of answering this charge and persuading the broader public that its concept of fairness is the better one. The party that wins that point will have the upper hand in this new culture war.

The Six Foundations of Morality

My research in social psychology has focused on morality and how it varies across cultures. I conducted my early research in India and Brazil in the 1990s, trying to understand why so many cultures and religions moralize food and sexual practices—think of kosher laws, or the widespread condemnation of homosexuality—even when such behaviors don’t seem to harm anyone. Why do many cultures treat rules about food and sex as seriously as rules about murder and theft?

I conducted interviews to find out how people feel about harmless taboo violations—for example, a family that eats its pet dog after the dog was killed by a car, or a woman who cuts up her nation’s flag to make rags to clean her toilet. In all cases the actions are performed in private and nobody is harmed; yet the actions feel wrong to many people—they found them disgusting or disrespectful. In my interviews, only one group of research subjects—college students in the United States—fully embraced the principle of harmlessness and said that people have a right to do whatever they want as long as they don’t hurt anyone else. People in Brazil and India, in contrast, had a broader moral domain—they were willing to condemn even actions that they admitted were harmless. Disgust and disrespect were sufficient grounds for moral condemnation.

I had predicted those cross-national differences. What I hadn’t predicted was that differences across social classes within each nation would be larger than differences across nations. In other words, college students at the University of Pennsylvania were more similar to college students in Recife, Brazil, than they were to the working-class adults I interviewed in West Philadelphia, a few blocks from campus. There’s something about the process of becoming comparatively well-off and educated that seems to shrink the moral domain down to its bare minimum—I won’t hurt you, you don’t hurt me, and beyond that, to each her own.

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.

Moral foundations theory helped to explain the differing responses to those harmless taboo violations (the dog-eating and flag-shredding). Those stories always violated the Loyalty, Authority, or Sanctity foundations in ways that were harmless. My educated American subjects (who, in retrospect, I realize were mostly liberal) generally rejected those three foundations and had a moral “cuisine” built entirely on the first three foundations; so if an action doesn’t harm anyone (Care/Harm), cheat anyone (Fairness/Cheating), or violate anyone’s freedom (Liberty/Oppression), then you can’t condemn someone for doing it. But in more traditional societies, the moral domain is broader. Moral “cuisines” are typically based on all six foundations (though often with much less reliance on Liberty), and it is perfectly sensible to condemn people for homosexual behavior among consenting adults, or other behaviors that challenge traditions or question authority.

The Older Culture War

After the 2004 presidential election, in which gay marriage, abortion, patriotism, and other “social issues” had played a large role, I began to apply moral foundations theory to the American culture war. I wanted to find out if left and right in the United States were in some sense different nations, each with its own set of beliefs, facts, and values. Was it correct to say that liberal moral cuisine was based primarily on the first three foundations (which protect individuals), whereas social conservatives were offering a moral cuisine that drew on all six foundations, including Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity (which are more oriented to protecting a tight, binding moral order)?

To find out, my colleagues and I created a website at, where we posted more than 60 psychological surveys and experiments. More than 300,000 people have completed one or more of those surveys. When people register at the site, they indicate their political orientation on a seven-point scale running from “very liberal/left” to “very conservative/right,” with additional options for “don’t know” and “libertarian.” The results on our most basic survey, the “Moral Foundations Questionnaire,” support our basic prediction that liberals rely primarily on the first three foundations, whereas social conservatives use all six. People who identify as libertarian, or who say that they are liberal on social issues but conservative on economic issues, tend to look more like liberals—they have little use for the Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity foundations. Where these “economic conservatives” differ from liberals is in having much lower scores on the Care/Harm foundation—they dislike the “bleeding heart” attitude often seen on the left.

Everyone values the first three foundations, although liberals value the Care foundation more strongly. For example, they show the strongest agreement with assertions such as “Compassion for those who are suffering is the most crucial virtue.” But this difference on Care is small compared to the enormous difference on items such as these: “People should be loyal to their family members, even when they have done something wrong.” “Respect for authority is something all children need to learn.” “People should not do things that are disgusting, even if no one is harmed.” Those three items come from the scales we use to measure the Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity foundations, respectively. You can see how social conservatives, whose morality rests in large part on those foundations, don’t see eye to eye with liberals. Basically, liberals want to loosen things up, especially in ways that they believe will make more room for women, African Americans, gay people, and other oppressed groups to escape from traditional strictures, express themselves, and succeed. Conservatives want to tighten things up, especially in ways that they perceive will help parents to raise more respectful and self-controlled kids, and will assist the police and other authorities in maintaining order. You can see how those disagreements led to battle after battle on issues related to sexuality, drug use, religion, family life, and patriotism. You can see why liberals sometimes say that conservatives are racist, sexist, and otherwise intolerant. You can see why social conservatives sometimes say that liberals are libertine anarchists.

But then along came the Tea Party. It was an alliance among social conservatives and libertarians—two groups that are very different in terms of both morals and personality traits. They made common cause on economic issues—especially opposition to big government, the welfare state, and the high taxes required by such a state—and downplayed the social issues that would otherwise divide them. After 2009, the culture war therefore shifted away from the Social Theater, in which the battle is over the legitimacy of the Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity foundations, on which libertarians score very low—as do liberals. The battle has moved to the Economic Theater, in which the two sides agree that Fairness and Liberty are important, but disagree about what those words mean.

Is the shift temporary? I doubt it. If social conservatives separate from libertarians and the Republican Party tries to retake ground lost in the Social Theater, they’ll win only the occasional Pyrrhic victory, alienating women (as with the “vaginal probe” controversy of 2012) and young people. The millennial generation has been raised on a diet of tolerance, diversity, and a reluctance to make moral judgments. They do not remember World War II or the Cold War, which would have instilled in them a stronger sense of the need for national unity to face down external enemies. Instead, technology links them increasingly to young people all around the world, making it harder to inflame them with pleas revolving around Loyalty. They have little fondness for hierarchy and tradition, so it will be hard to woo them with appeals based on the Authority foundation. And they have no visceral sense of disgust at homosexuality, and have been socialized to be as inclusive as possible, so arguments about sexuality derived from Sanctity will fail to move them.

But the millennials also realize they are likely to get a raw deal when it comes to taxes and entitlements. They are well aware that previous generations borrowed heavily to subsidize their own retirement years, and left the generations to come holding the bag. They are likely to listen carefully to arguments about fairness, taxing, and spending from both parties. So let’s talk about the psychology of fairness.

Three Kinds of Fairness

Arguments about fairness are interminable in part because there are three different kinds, making it easy for left and right to talk past each other. First, we must distinguish between procedural fairness and distributive fairness.

Procedural fairness involves whether impartial and open procedures are used when decisions affecting the well being of others are made. Is the decision-maker impartial? Is the game rigged? Procedural fairness is crucial for the health of a democracy because when people have faith in the system, they are much more willing to accept outcomes that are disadvantageous to themselves. And when they think the system is corrupt, they are much more prone to join populist rebellions. Occupy Wall Street and many Tea Partiers (including Sarah Palin) agree that America suffers from crony capitalism—a direct violation of procedural fairness.

Distributive fairness, in contrast, refers to how we distribute stuff—benefits as well as burdens. Is everyone getting his fair share and doing her fair share? But there are two subtypes of distributive fairness—equality (everyone gets the same) and proportionality (all receive rewards in proportion to their inputs; this is sometimes called equity). This simple distinction can help us understand many of today’s most vexing controversies. Everyone endorses proportionality, but the left simultaneously endorses equality, even when it is in tension with proportionality. The right has no interest in equality for its own sake. Conservatives prefer proportionality, even when it leads to massive inequalities of outcome.

Issue #28, Spring 2013
Post a Comment

Tom Stringham:

It was interesting to see you delve deeper into political philosophy than you normally do.

How does moral foundations theory fit with these different kinds of liberty and fairness? Is there a way to test for each kind separately, when there's only one foundation for each? Or would there be enough extra information gained to justify separating them?

How much do you think positive (as opposed to normative) beliefs about the world influence these moral divisions? For example, many conservatives and most libertarians would probably express the positive belief that people (and often racial/ethnic groups, men as opposed to women) have naturally unequal abilities, while liberals would express the positive belief that people (and groups) are more or less products of their environment, with equal natural endowments. The second belief would obviously see injustice wherever outcomes differed. Or do you think that these positive beliefs are shaped more by moral tastes than the other way around?

Mar 18, 2013, 6:58 PM
Marc Rogers:

Under the guise of impartilaity, Dr. Haidt published an essay that is dissembling neutral and a facsimile of David Brook's "moderate Republicanism."

This essay is a political wolf dressed in lamb's clothes and once the veneer is revealed, the gnarled teeth of conservative partisanship are ready for mealtime.

Hiding under the cornucopia of political and psychological terms like proportional and procedural fairness and negative and positive liberty, Dr. Haidt twists into a skein the Democratic/liberal prospective while presenting the Republican/ conservative agenda as accepted truth.

This essay is an exercise in political propaganda for his conservative beliefs, using the science of the social sciences to give validity to his inherent and tendentious biases.

Mar 21, 2013, 6:04 PM
Erik Jay:

Mark Rogers. You're funny! Brooks would fulminate against this piece as much as you do. To Davey Boy you can correctly assign the usual epithets -- neocon, National Greatness conservative, Republican tool, whatever -- but one can engage Haidt much more ably than you do here. You make assertions only, and use basic terms incorrectly (perhaps it's a spelling error), but out of, oh, a sense of proportionality and fairness I believe you are entitled to another go at it.

And for crying out loud, lighten up, man. If the present slide into oblivion continues apace, you will need all that energy you're wasting on contentious persiflage.

You heard that right -- it was a real print publication, actually: Pedantic Monthly, the Journal of Contentious Persiflage. In that context, I love your comment. On the serious side, not so much, but it's been fun!

Mar 22, 2013, 11:58 PM
Mike Parziale:

Wow, that was a long article. I liked the part where the three types of fairness: (1)Procedural fairness, (2) Equality distributive fairness, and (3)Proportionality distributive fairness; and, different the three types of liberty: (1)Negative liberty and (2)Positive liberty were defined. The author nailed that well. I also liked the "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.

Then, towards the end of the article it started going into Obama and Romney and, frankly, who cares about them. The entire political process is bologna. Let's get rid of the three branches of useless, out-of-control government and replace it with fundamental law that actually satisfies the values of those on the left and the right at the same time. Compromise might mean creating a balance between "Democratic Territory" and "Republican Territory" in a reconstructed constitution that includes all types of fairness and liberty in differing proportions.

Apr 21, 2013, 10:56 PM
George Heath, R.N.:

In the proporionality scheme, where is someone like my wife fo 37 years, who is a quadriplegic and legally blind secondary to cerebral palsy? Her needs are bigger than charity could handle. It is like asking NASA to run on bake sales.

Sep 19, 2013, 7:44 PM
Charles Day:

I have been greatly impressed by your research into the Moral Foundations which separate liberals and conservatives. As a conservative (and libertarian on some issues such as drug decriminalization and prostitution) I find that many liberals seems to be operating on a moral basis of arrested development. Six moral matrices is surely a broader and therefore more rational basis than a dependence on only three of those matrices. I spent my youth protecting my younger brothers in spite of the fact they were often wrong while one of my brothers would help the neighbors beat up on his own siblings "because his brothers were wrong". I've accused him of a lack of loyalty for nearly 70 years. The biggest problem with many liberal programs are the unintended consequences of, for instance, LBJ's Great Society. Daniel Patrick Moynahan nailed the problems with that but no one listened and now we have to deal with the breakdown of the black family. And that just increases the liberal call for additional outpours of public wealth. I commend your analysis of the various territory staked out by liberals and conservatives but do not really see a final solution. I think we are stuck with the disparate moral foundations of both sides in this controversy. I think it was the same for thousands of years.

Apr 27, 2014, 1:57 AM

Post a Comment



Comments (you may use HTML tags for style)


Note: Several minutes will pass while the system is processing and posting your comment. Do not resubmit during this time or your comment will post multiple times.