Haidt’s “Dark Morality”

MSNBC.com’s science section has an interesting although brief report on some thinking by Jonathan Haidt, whose work I’ve mentioned before:

Dark morality
University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt blows my mind with his theory of dark morality – which is a social-science parallel to dark energy and dark matter. When it comes to morals, everyone agrees that we should whenever possible avoid harming people and provide care for the needy. The same goes for issues of fairness and reciprocity (“Do unto others…”) Haidt calls these “visible morals,” analogous to the 4 percent of the universe that we can see.

But those represent just the tip of the iceberg: Most of the mechanics of morality have to do with three “dark morals”: in-group loyalty, respect for authority, and issues of purity and sanctity. This is what accounts for qualities such as patriotism, conformism and taboos about food and sex. (Haidt drew a laugh when he noted that conservatives tend to focus on sex, while “liberals are getting increasingly concerned with food.”)

Haidt’s online research, conducted through YourMorals.org, indicates that liberals put a high value on morality having to do with harm and care, fairness and reciprocity – but not on the dark morals. The more conservative you are, the likelier you are to value all five moral dimensions roughly equally, as shown in the graph accompanying this blog posting from Ethan Zuckerman.


Haidt says conservatives might be on the smarter track, at least if you size up things the way Charles Darwin did more than a century ago. In Chapter 5 of “The Descent of Man,” Darwin delves deeply into the role of morality in natural selection:

“… When two tribes of primeval man, living in the same country, came into competition, if (other circumstances being equal) the one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would succeed better and conquer the other.”

“The kind of morality Darwin is talking about here is dark morality,” Haidt said.

As a Buddhist I try not to cling to a particular political viewpoint, recognizing that both liberalism and conservatism (the traditional, not the modern nutty kind) have strengths and weaknesses. An awareness of Haidt’s research would a good corrective to the arrogance that some liberals feel towards conservatism. Of course it would help if more modern conservatives stopped embracing ignorance and dogma and became better acquainted with the history of their own tradition…

10 thoughts on “Haidt’s “Dark Morality””

  1. An observation that I made on modern conservatives and liberals on these sorts of issues is that liberals tend to be individualistic when it comes to morals (matters of harm and fairness can be construed as accentuating personal liberty, maximizing it for the greatest number of people) but corporate/communal when it comes to economic issues. Conservatives on the other hand are corporate/communal on morals but tend to be more individualistic on the economic matters. This reflects their approach to government. Conservatives would like to see the adult industry censored making it hard for the general populace to access it while liberals view this as a matter of personal liberty. Liberals would like to see the government provide an economic safety net for pretty much everyone while conservatives tend to increase personal economic responsibility with all the risk entailed.

    1. I’d agree with that observation. Liberals tend to be more communally inclined when it comes to economics and also to social welfare issues because they focus strongly on the ethical dimension of fairness. Conservatives, I think, tend to factor personal responsibility into their calculations of fairness, so they tend to see poverty or having problems as a personal issue arising from personal choices (even when sometimes it’s not, although of course sometimes it is) and then it becomes unfair for those who are doing well (they’ve of course succeeded because of their personal virtues, like frugality and hard work) to be required to contribute to the less fortunate. And I think that’s why conservatives are more individualistic when it comes to economic matters. The besetting sin of liberalism, I’d argue, is letting people off the hook for irresponsible behavior, while that of conservatism is callousness in not recognizing the genuine problems many people have as they work hard and exercise frugality in a system that is weighted against them.

      Although I tend to “lean left” I try not to identify with either liberalism or conservatism. One day I’ll finish a piece of writing I started about Buddhism, nihilism, eternalism, and politics. One problem is that as I got into the writing I realized there are vast holes in my knowledge of political science. There are in fact way more holes than fabric in my understanding of that discipline.

  2. On the side and out of curiosity, what do you mean by “eternalism”? I know of a couple of uses for that term but I’m not sure how either one would fit the context above.

  3. Hi Rob,

    Both nihilism (ucchedavada) and eternalism (sasvatavada) are technical Buddhist terms relating to views of the self. Nihilism is the view that the self dies with the body, while eternalism is the view that there is an unchanging and eternal essence that persists after death. Over the years I’ve come to recognize that the terms also can be understood in terms that are more politically applicable. Nihilism can refer to the fact view the human personality and its behaviors are socially created and that bad traits can therefore be “socially engineered” out of existence (the left wing view) while eternalism refers to the view that these things are “hard wired” and have to be kept under control by means of social control (the right wing view). I’m convinced in fact that these two views are at the root of both liberalism and conservatism.

    1. I read the Wikipedia article on process theology and this part certainly resonated: “A characteristic of process theology … was a rejection of metaphysics that privilege ‘being’ over ‘becoming.'”

  4. Of particular relevence is that process theists speak of God as having a static pole and a dynamic pole (I’m not sure that “pole” is the correct term, especially since I don’t recall anyone satyrizing the view calling it’s conception of God “bipolar”).

    I’m not really a fan but they did have some good criticisms of traditional theism that emphasized the metaphysics of changelessness (going back to Plato and Aristotle) to a degree that I believe conflicts with the personhood of God and God’s willingness to be affected by humans.

    This whole idea of change as more fundamental than static being, I’m neutral. Maybe, maybe not.

  5. In Buddhist interactions with other philosophies, it was often pointed out that there was a problem with the idea of an unchanging soul or God — an inability to interact. If something is truly unchanging then it can’t be affected by anything or affect anything. An unchanging God can’t interact with his creation, for example. Most often this was talked about in terms of the notion of an unchanging soul, but the same principle would to apply to any hypothetical unchanging entity.

  6. These are all good, thought -provoking points. But I wonder to what extent the thrust underlying both conservatives and liberals might be less towards maximising happiness than moving away from fear. I’m not a Buddhist, but I appreciate that Buddhists are concerned with questions of how fear affects our thinking and behaviour, so you might be able to shed some light on this.

    I wonder why conservatives might include questions of individual responsibility into their concept of fairness in economics, but less so in morality? Perhaps because economic achievement gives one direct control over the world in the way morality does not. Therefore ( perhaps conservatives think) it is good to have an inner locus of control, as this reduces fear. ) So you have the conservative view of socity as a sort of ‘stern father ‘ ( as I think Lakoff suggests) teaching its children to stand on their own feet. The alternative way of reducing fear would be to externalise the locus of control to a benign third party–a nurturing mother / nurturing society, which is similar to the liberal view of what society should be. ( Lakoff, as far as I recall, in his ‘mother / father’ scenario, does not seek to relate this distinction to primal distinctions in the way we might attempt to reduce fear.)

  7. Hi Cestrian,

    Sorry for the long delay in replying, but I’ve been in Ethiopia for the last few weeks and internet access was rare, and when it existed it was slow.

    There’s a very interesting article in Psychology Today that relates to fear and political orientation, and it details studies showing that conservatives are more fearful and desire strong social structures to help them feel safe. It’s a must-read article, in my opinion.

    Actually there’s not a lot of canonical teaching in Buddhism about fear. Compared to craving or ill will it’s hardly mentioned at all, although Perfection of Wisdom texts tend to talk about how the bodhisattva stands fearlessly, unsupported by concepts (which means he doesn’t cling to ideologies — itself an interesting pointer about what a Buddhist approach to politics would entail). I think a point implicit in those kinds of doctrinal statements is that an existential fear leads us to define and limit ourselves through craving and clinging, and that sometimes that clinging is to ideas, including political ideas.

    Anyway, liberals seem to experience less fear, which suggests that it’s not likely that both political wings are equally ways of dealing with fear. It must be a factor in both ideologies, but not to the same extent, I’d imagine. Despite the faux tolerance and naïveté you see amongst some liberals, I think they’re genuinely less afraid of diversity, of dialogue with enemies, and of change.

    You ask, “I wonder why conservatives might include questions of individual responsibility into their concept of fairness in economics, but less so in morality?” I think conservatives tend to have a different concept of individual responsibility from liberals, seeing (for example) an inability to live an economically productive life more as a failure of personal responsibility and less as a product of social forces outside of individual control. Conservatives are fond of pointing to people who made something of themselves despite disadvantages, and I think they’re often right to do so — too many people blame circumstances and fail to take responsibility for themselves. But I’m muddying the waters, perhaps, by taking a work ethic as my example of moral behavior, since this deals with both economics and morality.

    Another, perhaps better, example would be homosexuality, where conservatives tend to assume that sexual orientation is a choice — a personal failure. Liberals tend to jump on any evidence that homosexuality is inherent (genetically determined, or at least influenced), and that discriminating against homosexuals is therefore unfair because they are being targeted for something that is outside their control, much as victims of racism are.

    I’m still dreadfully tired from my trip, so I hope this isn’t too incoherent. I’m embarrassed, to be honest, to speak on issues of political science while being largely ignorant of the field.

Comments are closed.