Death of Democracy III

Part 3: Morality That Divides Us

“I loathe nationalism.  It is a form of tribalism–the idolatry of the century”
~Cornel West

When many of us hear the word “morals”, we often withdraw, flinch, find someone else to talk to or another place to be.  In fact, morals, in the simplest terms, only refers to what we consider “good” (or “bad”).  All of us hold them (moral positions, that is).  We might not talk about them much (in a metacognitive, that is, self-conscious manner) but we express them constantly.


As proposed in previous posts—Death of Democracy Part 1 and Part 2—one of the primary causes for the demise of democracy in the United States is that we have become so divided that democracy can no longer function as it should.  In the 2016 keynote address to the American Psychological Association, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt presented some rather intriguing findings.  Citing statistics published by, Haidt said that over the past few decades we—common folk and the so-called political “elites” —have become more divided both politically and socially than we were during the Civil War!  (The data collection and collation associated with this finding is rather complex.  If you are interested, listen closely to the Haidt video).

Haidt at APA.PNG

Haidt describes the rise of “fractionation” of the “political elites” (politicians and others who operate in political circles). He cites the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as the beginning of the great migration of folks in southern states to the Republican Party.  This watershed event marked the beginning of a trend that would continue for decades.  Separation between us continued to grow through the 70’s and 80’s, reaching a critical mass in the 90’s.  During the (younger) Bush administration, the split became even worse.  During the Obama presidency, the bifurcation reached its highest levels ever.  According to Haidt, the socio-political split that has grown so vast within the electorate has been both triggered and sanctioned by an increasingly partisan Congress. Using the banner of political party as both a point of origin and as an excuse, we as a people have, with acceleration and profundity, willingly drifted toward what we perceive as our tribal identities. Wait!  We want to be divided?

Being With to Be Over

We enjoy “being with”.  “Withness” allows us to largely avoid the inevitable dissonance that occurs when we have to deal with people who, in some ways, appear different from ourselves. We tend to gravitate to similarity, toward homogeneity.  This is simply more comfortable.  However, as Mr. Haidt suggests in the video below:

If our goal is to seek a deeper understanding of the world, our general lack of moral diversity here is going to make it harder. Because when people all share values, when they all share morals, they become a team.  And once you engage the psychology of teams, it shuts down open mindedness.

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…even when we don’t have tribes, we make them because it’s fun…”
~Jonathan Haidt


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Some of us just like to be contentious, competitive.  We like to be able to talk smack about this or that.  We like to find a way to appear “one up”, to feel superior to another. This is basic hierarchy 101.  That my good is depended on your bad, that my gain is your loss, that my worth is dependent on your devaluation is a sad way to be in the world.  This is “zero sum”—success grounded in the loss of the “Other”.

We highly value being “with”. Too often, we value “being over” more than “being with”.  When we can be with AND be over at the same time, we tend to think we have found the epitome of social interaction.  Such is the nature of tribalism—being with our “kind” and wielding whatever power and control over other tribes that we can manage.

Similar to the position of cognitive linguist George Lakoff and others, Mr. Haidt proposes that we are not the rational creatures we would like to believe. Rationality represents a handmaiden for not a motivator of our moral positions.  We are inveterate believers, despite “anti-religious” protestations to the contrary.  First we believe, then look for a rationale to support our beliefs.

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In an interview regarding his book The Righteous Mind, Mr. Haidt admitted that while he began working on the book as a means of helping the Democrats after the 2004 presidential election (loss), along the way, his positions began to shift as he came to believe that “both sides” have completely valid reasons for their positions. He began to explore the roots of our more overt attitudes and behaviors.  Mr. Haidt suggests that the basis for maintaining the tribal divide we now experience is represented by a small set of moral parameters.  As a society with varied beliefs about the world, we adhere differently to these parameters (hereafter referred to as “dimensions” meaning “modes of measurement”).  Our differences about many if not most life situations can be seen in how we relate to this small set of moral dimensions.

Differing Dimensions of Morality

On the website (which you might want to investigate) Mr. Haidt and his partner polled roughly 30,000 people worldwide about their opinions regarding the appropriateness of each of five “moral” categories as shown in the graph.  According to this data, so-called “liberals” consider harm (which means we should do no harm to others and which Mr. Haidt sometimes calls “caring” ) and fairness as the most important dimensions of “good” and “bad”.  This left-leaning group tends to consider the other dimensions—authority, iHaidt Moral Dimensions.PNGngroup and purity—as far less important, if, indeed they should be considered “moral” categories at all.  So-called “conservatives”, on the other hand, highly regarded the lower three dimensions, sometimes higher than fairness.  While this first graph only reflects attitudes in the United States, considered internationally, the spectrum of morality defined in accordance with the Haidt schema does not differ widely from that of Americans. (For a much more thorough explanation of this data and its possible implication, see the video reference above or Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion). According to Mr. Haidt, “these are the five best candidates for what’s written on the moral mind”.

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If the data on which these graphs are based is reliable, if the questions used to collect this data has not unduly skewed the results, we can conclude that among most regions in the world (note that African nations are not included) refraining from harming others (caring) and some sense of fairness (justice) appear to represent universal dimensions of good and bad.  Problems arise when the other three dimensions begin to challenge and confound the pragmatic implications of caring and justice.

To What End?

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Mr. Haidt suggests that these moral dimensions are all necessary and that conservatives have a leg-up because they value all five dimensions.  Are all of these dimensions as described by Haidt and his team really necessary?  If so, for what?  To what end would we want to evaluate the morality of a situation in terms of ingroup/outgroup, for instance?  How does “authority” or “purity” define any situation from a moral perspective?  What do such ways of measuring life experience seek to accomplish?

Mr. Haidt has received considerable pushback from left-leaning individuals regarding his apparent tendency to admonish those same critics for their failure to respect the moral attitudes of more conservative folks.  Furthermore, Mr. Haidt’s proposals (called Moral Foundation Theory – MFT) has drawn some rather sharp criticism from the scientific community as well.  However, beyond explicit criticism and setting aside any general concept of morality for a moment, when we focus on democracy as our primary goal, then we must assess these so-called moral dimensions with an eye toward the natural plurality that democracy connotes.  What does MFT mean regarding We, the People?


A democracy, particularly in the United States, if effective, automatically includes and attends to the wide swath of diversity within the populace.  Such a democracy must focus on inclusion of individuals and groups rather than exclusion.  As a nation, we are very mixed in many ways.  To ignore or exclude specific groups in the name of notions like ingroup or purity undermines both the idea and function of the democratic ideal.    Advocating for such notions opens the door for the upset of the democratic necessity of balance between inclusion and contestation.  Inclusion, whatever that might mean, must be maximized in the face of constant contestation (the competition of teams). One begins to wonder why Mr. Haidt insists (and he does) that all of his proposed moral dimensions are important if their inclusion presents a detriment to democracy.


In fact, Moral Foundation Theory presents subtlety that is somewhat lost in the videos referenced here.  Nuances of various dimensions appear more evident in Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind. For instance, the “purity” dimension also represents the idea of sanctity—that certain elements of experience possess a sacred aspect which should elicit an irresistible, irrefutable reverence.  We might use purity, for instance, as a measure of the value of diet, food consumption (i.e., nix on sugar and other unhealthy stuff). Many left-leaning folks (and others) do just this.  However, when applied to people, particularly with the explicit intention of splitting those people off from some “main” group or in some manner rendering their social status and wellbeing as less than worthy of our concern, the lower three moral categories form a kind of “separation set” and represent the most crucial nails in the coffin of democracy.  As reported during the Yale conference on Democracy, the moral dimensions reported by Mr. Haidt are beginning to take precedence within American socio-political discourse over the ideals of democracy.

Still, these dimensions themselves need not present impediments to the U.S. democratic ideal.  Perhaps more important than whether a dimension is included is how we apply these dimensions in EveryDayLife.  To what end is each dimension included? What are our primary intentions in the way we vote, opinions about our neighbors or who we think should be permitted to enter the country, for instance?  What is our primary goal or set of goals?  If the goal is oneness—and for many of us it is not–the dimensions of which Haidt speaks we want separation.PNGpresent interpretations of life experience that differ if our goals differ.  Mr. Haidt says he discovered that “both sides have valid reasons” for their positions.  But does this notion of rationale not contradict Mr. Haidt’s own statements about passion preceding reason? If the goal is separation, identical considerations will result in potentially widely diverse outcomes.  If we want to remain separate, we will tend to focus on ways of carving up life experience such that we can remain separate; we will look for excuses to support separation.


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Perhaps Moral Foundation Theory contains some truth. This schema is certainly interesting and potentially quite useful in helping to understand why Americans are so deeply divided on so many issues.  Its utility in helping to forge a bridge between our current warring factions is somewhat more questionable. So how do we use this idea to our advantage?  What are the implications for the preservation of democracy we should consider?

Jonathan Haidt appears quite optimistic about humankind. He also firmly believes that “morality is the key to understanding humanity”. Furthermore, despite his warnings about team psychology and the almost inevitable devolution into tribalism, Mr. Haidt simultaneously appears to place a great deal of faith in groups.

“… if you focus…on behavior in groups of people who know each other and share goals and values, then our ability to work together, divide labor, help each other, and function as a team is so all-pervasive that we don’t even notice it.”

Yet herein lies the rub.  Lauding small groups essentially as a method of governance, at least on some scale, represents a worthwhile idea (one which will be both explored and advocated here in future weeks).  However, we still face the problem of our insistence on a “will to power” or a tribal “being over” mentality.  Clearly, the mechanism of change necessary for disengaging from the current strangle hold of partisanship is not represented by attempts to change the existing government.  Traditional implementation of democracy has continued and is likely to continue to fall short of true representation of We, the People.  Rather, we must focus on change in ourselves—we who, once brought to the socio-political table, must be more capable of transcending team psychology and present adeptness in expressing our common human identity.

Moral Roots of Humanity


As mentioned above, perhaps our reaction to the proposed dimensions described by Mr. Haidt is not so much inherent in the categories but in the interpretation and intentional application of them.  For instance, instead of stressing authority (which separates and stratifies factions of society) we could stress mutual respect, which applies equally to everyone. In such a case, “authority” becomes lateral rather than vertical and hierarchical. (Sounds a bit like We, the People, yeah?)  Instead of stressing in-group cohesion, we could focus on loyalty to humanity as a whole, thus drawing us together rather than separating us.  Such a focus could automatically re-orient many of us to an increased awareness of our environment, the planet we live on, and the general well-being of cultures that are not our own.  Instead of so-called group “purity”, we could focus on the sanctity of the human spirit and well-being, thus stressing the oneness of our life experience which transcends geographically, culturally and politically contrived barriers.  Instead of focusing on “the moral roots of liberals and conservatives” perhaps we would be better served to focus on the moral roots of humanity.

As Mr. Haidt attracts criticism across the political spectrum, you very well might disagree with much of what he proposes.  The good news, of course, is that rather than actively attempting to antagonize either pole of the socio-political continuum, Mr. Haidt appears to encourage construction of psycho-social and political bridges between us.  Furthermore, Jonathan Haidt might have latched onto a potentially crucial line of research that could form part of the road back toward a saner society. At least the intent, if genuine, is a good thing.

Perhaps Moral Foundation Theory is more appropriate as a diagnostic rather than prescriptive tool.  We might begin to use it, for instance, as a manner of parsing George Lakoff’s parental model as we explore methods of freeing ourselves from our own tribal biases and as guides for forging new constitutive identity components. We all are driven by our personal and collective sense of good and bad, right and wrong, truth and falsehood–by our morality.  Somehow, we must disengage our need to associate that morality with “we” (small “w”) and both apply it and become driven by its broader association with “We, the People”.  We need to find the wherewithal to rise above team identity to discover our true, personal human identity.  We have to begin to forge genuine meanings in our individual lives such that we each bring to the collective table a person worthy of inclusion in a group seeking to enhance itself rather than slowly devouring itself from the inside.  While this is no specific answer to our current predicament, it is a beginning.  In future weeks we will continue this line of inquiry.  Among other topics, we will seek to discover and construct synergistic ideas which we each might use to liberate ourselves from the need for tribal identities, to begin to rise to the challenge of answering the question posed by Victor Frankl, “what does life expect of us?”

For Further Reading:

Moral Foundations Theory: The Pragmatic Validity of Moral Pluralism (PDF) (by Graham, Haidt, Koleva, Motyl, Iyer, Wojcik, & Ditto).

Moral Development and Reality: Beyond the Theories of Kohlberg, Hoffman, and Haidt (by John C. Gibbs).

Inclusion and Democracy by Iris Marion Young