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Moral Foundations and Social Tides

February 8, 2009

In a previous article (actually, I’ve written about it on a few sites), I wrote about my interest in Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory. To sum up, there are five moral foundations and depending on the kind of person you are, you might value certain of these more or less. People we might consider to be “liberal” (but I guess it’s not necessarily tied to any specific definition of “liberal”) tend to be grounded in moral foundations of care/harm and fairness, while people we might consider to be “conservative” might value authority, the ingroup, and purity/sanctity. However, the interesting thing is that you can see the different foundations manifesting in even the other groups.

Anyway, I was reading Talking Points Memo, and therein, Tom Hollenbach was discussing the notes for a book he is writing, The Genesis of Values. And he’s seemed to have combined social psychology with an eye for social trends in America and other nations to come up with similar ideas to how moralities take hold.

I don’t know if Hollenbach has read Haidt’s stuff, or what he thinks of it, but what intrigues me about Hollenbach’s notes (his is a lengthy note, but I think it’s a good one), is that it seems to confirm so much of what Haidt has said. Hollenbach, however, looks at the issue from the perspective that societies gain their moralities from an aggregate of the experiences the society’s members face, and that those individuals gain their personality in part from influences in their childhood. Hollenbach’s idea is that we can see certain economic or social trends that “breed” liberal thinkers (who might relate to the Care and fairness moral foundations of Haidt’s), conservative thinkers (who relate to ingroup, purity/sanctity, and respect/authority of Haidt’s), or even a third group of preconservative thinkers (who combine all five moral foundations).

I must admit, I only found Hollenbach’s page because it referenced the Mormon belt as one major conservative “holdout” in America. But I’m glad I stumbled upon the rest of the article.

The western regions of the country are more complicated. Today’s Republican party really has three geographic regions in which it is still very strong. They are the south, the great plains states, and the Mormon belt. The plains states have probably remained Conservative due to constant out-migration of more Liberal members to urban areas, and now have small populations. The Mormon region shows the same pattern as the south, going from Preconservative to Late Conservative. Mormonism began as an authoritarian polygamous sect with a significant history of violence. Polygamy is, pure and simple, sexual privilege for elite males, and is another clear marker of Preconservatism, like slavery. Mormonism today, however, is no longer polygamous, less violent and authoritarian, sexually repressive, and politically activist.

There’s a lot I want to talk about from this kind of idea (please read Hollenbach’s article too). I mean, I’ve talked in several places about this perceived “mainstreaming” of the church. There is this idea that the church is kinda moving away from its rich and colorful, but somewhat odd history. But you know, after discussing this idea with many others, I think there are limits to what is fair to say about this and what isn’t — it’s not really fair to say that the church is becoming purely sterile or that it’s becoming just like the evangelicals. However, perhaps it is fair to suggest that the church is maturing, and perhaps it’s maturing from Preconservatism to Late Conservatism. I guess I’d have to read more of Hollenbach to fully understand what these ideas entail.

I’m interested in if Hollenbach can provide a compelling account for how different childhood schemas lead to general social personality trends. As he would suggest, harsher times (like the Great Depression, World Wars, etc.,) “lead” to Conservative attitudes, and more stable times, (like post world war), encourage more Liberal attitudes. So, it isn’t necessarily true that the world in general is only moving from Conservative to Liberal or from religious to secular (even if some people might appreciate that more). Really, as we face economic crises, we still adapt, and it could be that conservative and religious attitudes are very healthy adaptations for rougher times.

I wanted to make a post about it (but I haven’t posted it yet), but when I look about the development of future trends (and in particular, trends I would like to see), I like to look at big sweeping things that really no one individual plays a part of. So it is very interesting and relevant if there is a hypothesis that can show how the World Wars shifted the personalities of people in such a way that it created a generation of people thinking a certain way. I’d be more interested to know: what are other kinds of events with such power? How will they affect currently growing and future generations? How will this credit freeze affect things? How has the Bush administration affected the development of a generation and how will the Obama administration?


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  1. I think it’s absolutely true that each generation learns moral lessons from its circumstances, and not just vague generalities (eg. “those who survive a disaster will be more conservative”), but also specific beliefs and practices.

    For example, young people today are far less likely to see virginity as an important component of “purity/sanctity” (than, say, my parents’ or grandparents’ generations), since modern contraception has meant that sex doesn’t have the real-world consequences it used to. I never got the moral lesson of seeing any of my friends get locked into disasterous shotgun weddings like earlier generations, so younger people get their “purity/sanctity” through hygene and foods.

    Also, I think that the current trend towards secularization (in the U.S.) is largely the result of the Religious Right (and foreign theocracies) getting enough power to discredit themeselves. See The Religious Right vs. young people.

  2. but interestingly enough, Chanson, is another new trend that the US isn’t just secularizing. While there are those who jump ship completely as a result of the Religious Right discrediting its own goals, there are also people who want to be “spiritual” or “Christ followers” without being a part of the organized hypocrisy that they see as representing Christianity as a religion.

    …If I had a dollar every time they said their “Christ following” was a “relationship” and NOT a religion…I’d buy a domain for Irresistible (Dis)Grace.

  3. I think it’s related. Organized religion has so discredited itself that even their most obvious constituency — people who want to believe in God (and Jesus) — don’t want to be associated with “religion”.

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