A couple of years ago, I read the book “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt. For those unfamiliar, it introduces the concept of Moral Foundations Theory, which emerged from Haidt’s research into the origins of morality. It argues that there are five (maybe six) key pillars to what might be termed evolved morality, and that this is a “first draft” of ethics that is built into human beings at a fundamental level. That first draft is then revised as we develop in a complex social environment.
I’ve been thinking about it again lately, as I recently came across a counter theory based on the importance to moral philosophy of Mind Perception, which argues for a simpler model where any transgression is a conflict between intentional agent (an oppressor) and suffering patient (a victim). This “dyadic” framework rejects the pluralist view of morality.
Given how central morality is to the emotional impact and practical management of limerence (I may have mentioned it a few times already), it struck me how useful it is to analyse these ideas to better understand yourself and the people that you share the world with. It’s valuable for making sense of the experience of limerence, but also for planning a purposeful future.
Bluntly, if you aren’t aware of your own moral blind spots it will be hard to understand your own drives, find fulfilling work, and live harmoniously with others.
Let’s do some delving.
The Foundations of Morality
The developers of moral foundation theory argue that there are six pillars to intuitive ethics:
If you are curious about your own moral framework, you can take a test online.
Haidt’s work has had most impact by highlighting that the relative weighting of the six foundations varies dramatically with political alignment. Political liberals prioritise the Care and Fairness foundations and view the other foundations as trivial, or even morally suspect. Political conservatives consider all six foundations to be important.
The counterargument of the “mind perception” theory is that only the first pillar (care/harm) has validity. The remaining pillars are either derivatives of the first, or not components of intrinsic morality at all. From this perspective, causing intentional harm is the basis of all immoral acts – everything else is socially constructed. I’m guessing that Haidt would consider this an attempt to formalise “liberal morality” as universal morality.
How people make moral judgements
This academic argument about the basis of morality mirrors the political polarisation of US society, and I think it has extraordinary explanatory power.
For someone with a highly liberal disposition, only the first two foundations matter. Ideas about in-group loyalty, duty to country, sinning against God’s law, chastity, and deference to authority are not only irrelevant to morality, they are hazardous. (Purity is a bit less clear, as liberals do have moral concerns about contamination of food and the environment, but far less so about carnal acts).
For someone with a highly conservative disposition, all the foundations matter. While they do value care/harm as a guiding principle, they also value loyalty, duty, faith, and self-control (especially sexual). When it comes to fairness, they tend to see it more as a question of proportionality than simple equality.
Haidt illustrates this difference in moral foundations with the thought experiment of committing an act that is “impure” but in which no one is harmed. He gives the emotionally shocking example of someone using the body of a dead family pet to sexually gratify themselves. They didn’t kill the animal, they dispose of the body responsibly afterwards, and no one witnesses or even knows about the act.
People generally have a strong emotional response to the scenario (which obviously triggers feelings of disgust and contamination), but it takes some cognitive effort to explain their objections on the basis of formal ethics, rather than moral intuition.
In general, very liberal people find the act nauseating but not explicitly immoral, as it leads to no suffering or unfairness. In contrast, conservatives strongly condemn the act, on the basis that it reveals appalling spiritual corruption. That someone cannot restrain themselves from indulging such a gross perversion of the sexual impulse shows they lack decency, temperance, and respect for sanctity.
Once you understand the roots of these moral differences, it becomes a lot easier to understand how good people can disagree so vociferously – not least because they are operating on different definitions of “good”. I’m not interested in debating whose moral foundations are correct – the internet proves how unproductive that is – so let’s just agree that both sides have merit.
As if these differences in worldview were not challenging enough, they are often worsened by the very human tendency to take moral shortcuts.
Conservatives frequently take the shortcut of deferring to faith or tradition as a moral rulebook, rather than wrestling with the complexities themselves. From a liberal perspective, this outsourcing of moral authority is dangerous, because it can be exploited by bad actors. A clear example of this attitude is a popular quote in atheist communities, from Steven Weinberg:
Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.
Setting aside the fact that it shows a surprising lack of imagination (as if good people haven’t done evil through ignorance, delusion, coercion, desperation, or plain stupidity), it does capture the idea that blindly following authority can lead to great harm.
Equally, from a conservative perspective, the liberal failure to consider all six moral foundations is just as reckless. An example would be judicial leniency towards violent criminals (on the basis of compassion and concerns about inequality), releasing them to create public disorder, threaten community safety, and prey on more innocent victims.
Each side sees the other as morally negligent, and they’ve both got a point. Their moral shortcuts, while convenient, overlook the complexities of social life.
Limerence and moral judgements
OK, so all this rumination about how people see the world is interesting and all, but is it useful? Can this knowledge help us make better decisions about love, limerence and purposeful living?
The first benefit of moral reflection is understanding yourself better. What moral framework are you operating from, and how does that influence your sense-making when it comes to limerence? Inevitably, your attitudes when falling into limerence will be shaped by your ethical beliefs – most obviously when it is limerence for an unavailable LO, or if you are already committed to someone else.
If you strongly favour the care/harm model, then you will see limerence largely from the perspective of the dynamics between the people involved. When it comes to fantasising about intimacy with LO, testing the boundaries of propriety, or entertaining an emotional or physical affair, your moral intuition will focus on who is suffering most. Your thoughts are likely to be occupied by questions about whose feelings should be prioritised, whose desires are justified, who has power over whom, and what loyalty means when a relationship is in difficulty.
In contrast, if you have more a pluralist moral foundation, you will also look at limerence in terms of duty, responsibility, fidelity, and sin. That would mean shame and obligation become important factors in how you think and feel about yourself and the situation. While that might seem like a positive influence in keeping you “honest” it can also be a negative if it keeps you bound to a toxic relationship.
The second major consideration is how a significant other (SO) would interpret the morality of limerence. If you are in a committed relationship, your SO may be operating from a different moral framework than you. This could be a cause of friction in the relationship anyway, but if you are limerent for someone else, it will become very obvious.
If they see loyalty as essential (regardless of the quality of the relationship) and you do not, then conflict is inevitable. They may consider even covetous thoughts as being a personal betrayal, and sinful. If you do not, then it will be hard to make progress in negotiating the future.
Understanding your own moral framework, understanding your SO’s moral framework, and then respecting each other’s beliefs as valid (and motivated by a desire to be good), will diffuse a huge amount of the tension. You will be able to predict differences of opinion, emotional flashpoints, and moral provocations.
You may discover irreconcilable differences, but at least you will not be arguing from a position of ignorance about each others motives.
The final benefit of understanding the moral frameworks of yourself and the people around you, is that it helps in planning for a purposeful life. Most obviously, understanding yourself will allow you to better predict the jobs or activities that you will find most fulfilling. Less obviously, understanding how your morals compare to others can help you find your blind spots.
It’s an interesting exercise to reflect on how your moral foundations were formed. To give a personal example, before I had learned about Moral Foundations Theory, I struggled to understand conservative thinking. How could anyone be so laid back about inequality? Surely, they must be motivated by selfishness (as my liberal tribe claimed)? It wasn’t until I started to understand the moral foundations that I lacked that I realised the subtleties of “fairness”.
Equality and proportionality are both expressions of fairness. One comes from a perspective of compassion (rich people should share their wealth with poor people), the other from a perspective of responsibility (people who work hard should not be forced to support people who don’t). If I’m honest, my previous beliefs about equality emerged from the moral shortcut of sorting rich and poor into the intentional agent and suffering patient categories of “mind perception” theory. I now understand conservative people better.
All this adds up to a more expansive perspective on the social world. When you realise the breadth of moral thinking, it makes it easier to find compromises, seek common cause, and engage constructively with people who are different from you. That’s important, because most purposeful work requires cooperation.
Communities are essential to success, and are composed of complicated people with different temperaments. Effective cooperation with different people means that even if you can’t agree, you can at least disagree in a good faith, without giving in to resentment or hate.
And that can help you get a lot more good done.