Moral Foundations, Identity and Gifts

Moral Foundations, Identity and Gifts

At the King’s University in Edmonton, where I was a theology student, they have a tradition I’ve come to appreciate. That is, a tradition of holding an Interdisciplinary Studies conference twice a year.

This past January, the question posed was, “Can we maintain our identity and welcome the gifts of others?” The keynote speaker Scott Bader-Saye explained that doing so involves seeing differences as blessings and gifts, being hospitable and curious enough to discover those blessings, developing courage, and knowing that the Christian story understands difference as necessary for flourishing.

The part that really stuck with me was that being curious and hospitable may lead to discoveries in “moral foundations.” This idea comes from Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt, a social psychologist, outlined six moral foundations, which are shared across cultures to varying degrees. He was concerned about increased polarization along political lines in the U.S. and decreasing bipartisan cooperation. Why were people seeing themselves as more divided from each other than seeing themselves as having common ground?

The six moral foundations are: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. The first word in each pair is the positive value you want to increase, and the second word is the negative aspect that you want to decrease. To some extent everyone agrees on the six moral foundations. Liberals were emphasizing the first three, and conservatives were emphasizing the last three, but had ways of appealing to all six. Liberals tended to ignore the last three, so they weren’t able to reach people to the same extent.

For example, liberals interpret fairness as equality and tend to be in favour of taxing the wealthy and distributing wealth more evenly. They feel responsible broadly to make up for an uneven playing field. Conservatives interpret fairness as proportionality: people should be rewarded in proportion to what they deserve. They should able to keep what they have earned and should not have to give it to people who did not earn it. They feel responsible for themselves and those closest to them.

A couple of years ago, I had a moral cross-cultural experience in the U.S. when a young friend of the family asked me, “Why should I love my neighbour?” I hardly knew what to say, because him even asking this question was already so outside my moral matrix that I was flabbergasted. Eventually I said, “Because God told us to.”

I now wonder if this answer, based on an appeal to God’s authority, would have made any sense to him as a libertarian (a view I was then unfamiliar with). Haidt’s moral foundations give us a framework for talking about what we value. They help us see that our own moral matrix is not the only way of seeing things and that we may have more in common with others than we assume.