In this 2007 New Yorker Conference presentation, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt presents his fascinating research identifying 5 distinct psychological foundations of moral sentiments. (I touched on Haidt’s work briefly in a previous post.) In Haidt’s model, self-identified liberals use fewer values (care/harm & fairness/justice) in making moral judgments than do conservatives (who also employ measures of ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity).

These differences explain why liberals are in general more tolerant (much more is allowed when only harm & fairness are at stake) than conservatives, making liberal philosophy much more conducive to a diverse, pluralistic society. However, it also reveals the blind spot liberals have to the limits to productive freedom and the importance to social integrity that “conservative” values bring.

I am curious how this research fits within the framework of “Integral Politics“. While Haidt does not speak of these values as developmental in any way, they can easily be construed to fit within the psycho-social developmental models (like that of Lawrence Kohlberg) employed by integral theorists, with the sacred/profane distinction associated with primitive power god belief systems, the restricted in-group/outgroup identification associated with tribal/ethnocentric “us vs. them” thinking, the deference to authority linked to traditional conformist culture, and the concept of justice representing a more abstract, rational understanding of individuals as autonomous, rights-bearing entities, and the the harm/care dimension reflecting a postconventional universal compassion.

Haidt believes in the primacy of moral intuition rather than reasoning in making moral judgments, leading me to suspect he does not embrace the developmentalist project. He instead argues that these moral sentiments are biologically conditioned by our mammalian brains or socially selected in response to cultural exigencies. In this presentation, Haidt gives an explanation for U.S. voting patterns (a proxy for liberalism/conservatism) based on exposure to cultural diversity as determined by geography. This explication supports at least an adaptationist understanding of these value systems, with a liberal justice-based morality proving more adaptive to diverse cultural milieus than conservative values. A quick look at ethnic conflict around the world would tend to support that view.

Regardless of whether these values fall within a developmental spectrum or lie on a horizontal plane, Haidt’s research does support the integral project on two counts: (1) As he states explicitly, the “liberal value” of justice must provide the overall framework of social relations to ensure the protection of individual rights and allow individual freedom; (2) the “conservative values” must not be jettisoned unthinkingly, but held as additional constraints on acceptable behavior in order to preserve the integrity of society and maximize the possibility for individual human flourishing.

In the interests of full disclosure, here are my results from the“Moral Foundations Questionnaire” instrument on, a research collaborative among Haidt & 4 other social pyschologists. (My scores are green, the average liberal is blue, the average conservative red.)