Moral Foundations Theory, The theory in practice.

If you’ve been following the first two videos in this series, you now have a pretty good grasp of Moral Foundations Theory. But what does it all mean in practice? In this video, we are going to give a short example.

I recently saw the following exchange in my Facebook feed:

A libertarian, let’s call him LIBERTARIAN #1 said:

To all the workers out there: Happy Tax Freedom Day! If you pay the same amount of taxes as the average worker in this country, then today is the day that you are starting to earn money for yourself and not for the state. From January 1st until the present date, you have been working to finance the state. Congratulations!

To which a LEFT-WINGER replied:

Oh, that’s a lot of money which I could have used to line my own pockets. Or rather, which I could have used to pay for private insurance, private hospitals, private educational institutions, road pricing, security guards and so on, all of which I wouldn’t have a chance in hell of navigating sensibly in your libertarian dream society. And which I probably wouldn’t be able to afford with my (otherwise not too shabby) academic salary. So no thank you – go ahead and celebrate your tax freedom day, but in the meantime I’ll be celebrating that I get to live in one of the world’s richest and best-functioning countries, where we take care of our weak and disadvantages. I’ll happily pay my taxes, thank you.

At which point another libertarian, let’s call him LIBERTARIAN #2, replied:

It’s cool that you don’t feel like you’re capable of taking responsibility for your own life. But does that mean it’s OK to force others to live the way you want them to live?

The left-winger then replied:

I don’t wish to dictate to anyone how they should live their life. And you know what? I actually believe that this country is one of the countries in the world with the greatest opportunities for people to achieve their dreams and getting live the life they want. Regardless of which parents brought you into the world, whether they were rich or poor, you will have a chance in life because of the social programmes we have.

To which our friend LIBERTARIAN #2 replied:

You say that you wouldn’t be able to afford the services which are currently given as hand-outs to you by the state so therefore you are happy that they are financed through taxes. In other words, other people are forced to pay for things that benefit you. If that’s not dictating other people’s lives, then I don’t know what it is.

Predictably, this ended their exchange. So what happened here?

A metaphor that Haidt and others often use is that the six moral foundations are like the different taste receptors we have in the mouth – sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and so on.

In different videos, we explained how left-wingers have a care and fairness-based morality while libertarians have a liberty-based morality. So what happened here?

LIBERTARIAN #1 said: Today we celebrate liberty. Hooray for liberty!

The LEFT-WINGER then said: But what about care and fairness? How is it fair that someone should be poor just because their parents were poor?

Then LIBERTARIAN #2 comes into the thread and says: Enforcing care and fairness encroaches on liberty. That’s tyrannical.

The LEFT-WINGER then replies with an appeal to human well-being and care for the weak, that doesn’t answer the libertarian’s objection about it being an encroachment on liberty.

But on the other neither hand, nor does the libertarian address the left-winger’s concerns about fairness and care.  Both are just sticking to the moral foundations that are the most important to them.

So in reality, the exchange was more like this:


But what about fairness and care?


No, fairness and care!

No, liberty!

So if we return to the taste receptors metaphor, it’s like one guy only liking sweet things and another guy only like sour things.