Why do we all have such a hard time agreeing on issues of politics, religion, and morality?
According to moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind, groups like liberals and conservatives operate on different “moral foundations” that make it fundamentally difficult for them to understand each other (although it’s not impossible).
One great metaphor in the book used to describe morality is that it’s “like a tongue with 6 different moral taste buds.”
But just like we all have the same taste buds yet different tastes in food, it’s also true that we all have the same moral taste buds yet different tastes in morality.
As a result different groups are more sensitive to different moral taste buds over others. This is a big factor that shapes the differences in our moral beliefs.
In the book, Haidt doesn’t attempt to define what is truly “right” or “wrong” – instead he takes a “fly-on-the-wall” approach and just observes people’s moralities as they are.
It’s difficult to have a fruitful discussion on morality, let alone change someone’s beliefs.
One recent study shows how we downplay scientific evidence that goes against our political beliefs. And another study shows how hearing evidence that goes against our beliefs can actually makes us cling to our beliefs even stronger.
Morality is deeply important to all of us. And by understanding how these 6 moral taste buds shape our moralities, it may be easier to see more from other people’s point-of-views and have more constructive conversations.
Here is a summary of each of these 6 moral taste buds and how they influence our moral beliefs.
One of the first moral taste buds is our “Care/Harm” instinct.
We’ve evolved to experience sympathy toward individuals who are in harm or suffering, and we are often driven to care for those in need.
This is especially true for our own family and children who we are evolutionarily wired to care for and protect, but it holds true for all types of victims (both humans and animals).
When we see a child being harmed, or a dog being abused, or commercials of children starving in third world countries, our “Care/Harm” instincts naturally kick in.
Most of us wish we could do something to help these victims, which is what makes “Care/Harm” a common and powerful moral taste bud among all cultures.
The next moral taste bud is our “Fairness/Cheating” instinct.
Fairness follows the simple principle “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” We build relationships on this law of reciprocity – and we usually continue to work with people who follow this rule.
But as soon as someone breaks that rule – or tries to “cheat” by getting their share without putting in their work – then we will likely see them as dishonest and immoral, and thus we won’t continue working with them.
This instinct has evolved from our ancestors who would work together to hunt for food and equally share their earnings. It’s also why groups will punish or ostracize individuals who try to cheat or “free ride” on the work of others.
In the same way, if a coworker gets you a gift for your birthday, you’ll probably get them a gift for their birthday. And if you didn’t, they probably wouldn’t get you a gift next year (and you’d probably look like a jerk).
The third moral taste bud is our “Loyalty/Betrayal” instinct.
This is motivated by our need to belong in a group, whether it’s based on our nationality, culture, religion, politics, or whatever.
This instinct helps us to form strong relationships and see beyond ourselves as just individuals. When a group is centered around a common cause, it can accomplish a lot more than a group which is less uniform and cohesive.
At the same time, this instinct can also cause us to be unnecessarily hateful toward people who aren’t in our group, especially those who betray the group and become traitors.
The loyalty expressed within the Republican and Democratic parties is one great example of how strong loyalty can become, and why both groups have a hard time compromising or seeing eye-to-eye.
Another common example of this instinct is within sports and games, which are a little less intense than the group competition we find within politics and religion.
Following our “Loyalty” taste bud can be important to living a morally satisfying life, but it doesn’t necessarily have to lead to war and strife with others.
An excellent book on the moral psychology behind politics and religion. The Righteous Mind describes why good and well-intentioned people have such a hard time seeing eye-to-eye.
The next moral taste bud is our “Authority/Subversion” instinct.
This is our desire for social order and hierarchy. In certain situations, we like for people to have more authority than others – and this tends to benefit everyone, especially when this authority is based on knowledge, experience, and merit.
We all respect authority in different situations. We recognize that a parent has some authority over their child, a teacher has some authority over their student, and a boss has some authority over their employees.
These different roles help keep societies organized and stable. If everyone was constantly subverting authority and disrespecting authority, we’d have a hard time getting things done. Chaos would ensue.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that all authority is good – or that authority can’t be abusive or oppressive. However, most of us have a moral taste bud for “Authority” to some degree, depending on the situation.
The fifth moral taste bud is our “Sanctity/Degradation” instinct.
This is our instinct to keep certain things pure and sacred. Religions often find sanctity in certain objects (Cross, Star of David, the Quran) and places (church, synagogue, mosque). While governments may find sanctity in the form of flags, national monuments, historical sites, and museums.
If you’re a devout Christian and you see someone burn a cross, your sanctity taste buds will likely kick in. Or if you’re a patriotic American and you see someone burn a flag.
These acts can often “feel wrong” because someone is destroying something that you find very meaningful and significant.
According to Haidt, our desire for “purity” first evolved to protect us from toxins, pathogens, and contamination. Searching for things that are clean (or protecting things from becoming “dirty”) helped us to not expose ourselves to things that made us sick.
Much of our morality today elevates this natural instinct to a more symbolic level. And even if you aren’t a devout follower of any particular religion or government, you probably still have a “Sanctity” instinct to some degree.
For example, think of a scenario where a man has sex with a dead chicken that’s been completely sterilized. There’s no harm done and no risk of disease, but it probably still “feels wrong” and “feels dirty” to you.
The last moral taste bud is our “Liberty/Oppression” instinct.
This is our instinct for autonomy and freedom. It’s a strong drive to overthrow bullies and tyrants who try to exercise too much authority over individuals.
During our evolution, if an “alpha” in our tribe became too powerful and abusive, members of the tribe would often work together to kill the alpha and begin a fresh new order.
The American Revolution and Civil War could both be good examples of groups banding together to overthrow unjust power over individuals.
In modern politics, the “Liberty” instinct is often echoed by “Don’t tread on me” and “Give me liberty” conservatives and libertarians who focus on the excessive powers of government.
You can also find the “Liberty” instinct among egalitarian and anti-authoritarian liberals and progressives who focus more on the excessive powers of corporations.
We all experience these moral taste buds to some degree. But different situations may trigger them in different ways – especially depending on who you are, what your culture is, and your overall “moral foundation.”
To understand your morality and the morality of others, it’s very helpful to keep all of these moral taste buds in mind.
If you find yourself strongly disagreeing with someone, it’s very possible that you are both responding to the situation with a preference for different moral taste buds.
The Righteous Mind is a really eye-opening book on politics, religion, and morality. It has given me some valuable perspective when approaching my own daily discussions on these subjects.
If you want to measure your own morality, check out Your Morals, where you can take a version of the “Moral Foundations” quiz. It will give you a score in all 6 categories.
Thinking of your morality in terms of these 6 moral taste buds can be very insightful to your own beliefs and preferences.
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