Politics and morals


Jonathan Haidt has analysed the moral foundations of people’s political orientations. To fully explain people’s political allegiances, attention also needs to be given to the ‘tactics of assignment’. Proponents of deliberative democracy can learn from studying moral foundations.


Jonathan Haidt is a psychologist who has investigated the foundations of people’s morality. In his engaging and pathbreaking book The Righteous Mind, he draws on a wide range of evidence to argue that morality has six main foundations: care, fairness, liberty, authority, loyalty and sanctity. Previously I commented on how this framework applies to whistleblowing.


            The ‘care’ foundation means caring for others, an extension of the instinct to care for children, necessary in human evolution for the survival of groups. Care in a contemporary political context means concern for those who need assistance, such as people who are poor, disabled or abused. This care foundation inspires support for government welfare services such as unemployment payments.

Haidt applies his framework to US citizens, with a surprising conclusion. He finds that libertarians rely especially on single foundation, liberty, which means opposition to domination. Libertarians oppose government controls, and taken to extremes this leads to surprising conclusions: they may oppose drug laws, environmental regulations and even taxation. A principled libertarian trusts in individuals and markets to solve social problems.

Liberals in the US – which might be called progressives or leftists elsewhere – draw heavily on three moral foundations: care, fairness and liberty, with care as their foremost value.

Finally there are US conservatives. The more a person follows a conservative line, in Haidt’s assessment, the more likely they are to rely on all six moral foundations in roughly equal measure. Conservatives are influenced by authority, loyalty and sanctity more than are libertarians and liberals.

One measure of where you stand on the liberal-conservative continuum is openness to new experiences. If you are stimulated by new foods, new ideas and people from different cultures, you are likely to be at the liberal end of the spectrum. Haidt notes that within universities, liberals greatly outnumber conservatives.


One important consequence of differences in moral foundations is that people do not fully understand what drives others. Unless you realise that libertarians prioritise liberty in their assessments of right and wrong, it can be hard to figure out how they come to their judgements.

Haidt has a message for liberals: conservatives have an advantage in political engagements. Conservatives, drawing more equally on all six moral foundations, can understand where others are coming from. However, liberals, emphasising just three foundations, cannot as easily understand the passions of conservatives, because for liberals the roles of authority, loyalty and sanctity are less salient.

A conservative, for example, may react viscerally to the act of defacing the American flag. This is a violation of a sense of sacredness that underpins emotional responses and consequently shapes viewpoints. A liberal might think, ‘it’s just a piece of cloth, so what’s the big deal?’ The liberal simply does not rate stamping on a flag (a violation of sanctity) as anywhere comparable to stamping on a person’s body (a violation of care).


Haidt says there is something to learn from conservatives, for example the value of traditions. More generally, he argues that politics needs to be based on mutual understanding. In particular, liberals need to better understand what drives conservatives so that each of them can move beyond pointless arguments that are based on deeply felt, but sometimes unrecognised, emotional responses.

The rider and the elephant

Haidt, like other psychologists, finds it useful to think of the mind as composed of two components. One is intuitive, fast and judgemental. Haidt calls this component the elephant. The other component, which is reflective, slow and strategic, Haidt calls it the rider.

Elephant and Rider

            The intuitive side of the mind is very useful for day-to-day life, making quick evaluations that enable survival. If you see an object rapidly coming towards your head, it is better to duck immediately rather than first try to calculate its trajectory. The rational part of the mind carefully considers evidence and options and is more suited for evaluation and long-term planning.

Haidt uses the labels elephant and rider because, according to the evidence, much thinking operates by the elephant making a quick judgement and the rider working out a way to justify it. There are some ingenious psychological experiments showing how the power of rationality is used to justify gut reactions, sometimes involving elaborate intellectual contortions. Those whose rational powers are more developed may actually be better at developing rationalisations for pre-made judgements. The rider usually follows the elephant’s preferences.

Applied to politics, this means that a lot of political argument is just a sideshow, because evidence and arguments are mainly used to justify positions based on intuitive judgements, themselves related to the six foundations of morality. The metaphor of the elephant and rider helps to explain why so few people change their minds when exposed to new evidence. More commonly, they ignore or dismiss the evidence, or find ways to undermine it. This is a feature of the phenomenon called confirmation bias, in which people look for evidence to support their current views and ignore, dismiss or criticise contrary evidence.


Assigning moralities

A question Haidt does not systematically address, though he is aware of it, is why moralities are assigned in particular ways and not others. For example, in relation to sanctity, why should someone care more about desecration of the US flag than, for example, the California flag or the UN flag? In terms of the fairness foundation, why should someone get more upset about welfare cheats than about inherited wealth?

There are big differences between the US and Europe in how some moralities are assigned. For example, in the US, people who have never been employed may not qualify for unemployment payments. In many European countries, universal unemployment insurance is taken for granted, and is far more generous. Does this mean that in the US, the fairness foundation is more important than the care foundation? Probably not: a better explanation is that US citizens have been conditioned to think about welfare in a different way than Europeans.

This is apparent in the US debate about ‘socialised medicine,’ which means universal health insurance. Many in the US see this as a dangerous idea, presumably appealing to the foundation of liberty, namely resistance to government domination. In Europe, universal health insurance is seen as normal, and appeals to the foundations of care and fairness.


            Another example is transport. It is well known that US transit systems — trains and buses primarily — are limited in service, low in quality and expensive compared to many European systems. In the US, the car reigns supreme, a symbol of independence and freedom, appealing to the liberty foundation. But what about roads? The US interstate highway system, built in the 1950s onwards, was the largest public works program in the world. Yet no one in the US talks about ‘socialised roads’ or even castigates trains and buses as ‘socialised transport’. Admittedly, some libertarians would like to privatise the road system, but they are a tiny minority.


            To explain the peculiarities of how moralities are assigned in different ways, Haidt refers to moral entrepreneurs, public relations people and political operatives. A moral entrepreneur is someone who tries to stir up passions about a topic. Anti-abortionists, animal liberationists and sellers of deodorants all are trying to persuade others to think and act a certain way, and doing it by linking their special concerns to moral foundations. Anti-abortionists and animal liberationists each appeal to the care foundation, but with very different objects of concern, while deodorant advertisers appeal to the sanctity foundation, trying to induce people to buy deodorants to prevent or disguise allegedly disgusting body odour.

Loyalty to what?

Moral entrepreneurs are active in all things political. Patriotism is a prime example, linked to the loyalty foundation. Early humans lived in small groups, comprising dozens to a few hundred individuals. Maintaining loyalty to this group often made the difference between life and death for group members, so in evolutionary terms it makes sense that human minds are primed for loyalty. As Haidt expresses it, loyalty is an aspect of the first draft of the mind.

But loyalty to what? Why should a mental preference for loyalty to small human groups be assigned to a country, sometimes with millions of people, in what we call patriotism or national pride? Why not loyalty to one’s nearest one hundred neighbours? Or why not loyalty to the entire human species? Or maybe loyalty to life more generally, in a type of pantheism?

The answer is that identification with one’s own country is cultivated in all sorts of ways, many of them so obvious as to be unnoticed. In school, children are taught about their country’s history, often in biased ways. Students in Australia learn much more about Australia — usually good things, sometimes bad things — than about Brazil or Ethiopia. Then there is the media, reporting national news as a priority. In sports coverage, it might be reported, ‘Australia took a lead over India’. Yes, it’s cricket, and nothing really significant perhaps, but it reinforces thinking about the world in terms of countries.



Winston Churchill’s comment that ‘democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried’ is often quoted. The system of government commonly called ‘democracy’ has taken on a type of god-like status. Indeed, it appeals to the sanctity foundation in many people who follow politics.

The media provide a steady diet of news about government policies, government crises, politicians and elections. It might be said that politics is one of the world’s leading spectator sports. Nearly everyone has an opinion.

Politics is indeed a spectator sport in an important sense: most people are spectators, not participants. Aside from occasionally voting and talking to others about politics, most people have no greater involvement. In terms of participation, electoral politics is quite low. Just as it is misleading to refer to a ‘sporting nation’ when many unfit citizens interact with sports only as spectators, it is also misleading to refer to ‘democracy’ when most citizens are passive spectators of rule by politicians, not to mention unelected lobby groups who serve the interests of the wealthiest 1%.

For these reasons, my co-author Lyn Carson and I prefer the expression ‘representative government’ over ‘democracy’. Historically, there have been quite a number of political systems with much greater direct participation in decision making, for example in ancient Athens.

For those who support greater participation, for example through referenda, town meetings, consultative forums, community representatives on planning bodies, and randomly selected policy-advising bodies, the challenge is how to move from representative government to participatory democracy. In Haidt’s terms, current attachments of fairness, authority, loyalty and sanctity are to the system of voting and elections — representative government — and not to more participatory processes.

This is not an easy task, to say the least. Representative government is taught to school children, is taken for granted in media coverage, is touted as the solution to autocracy, and is regularly legitimated through voting and elections, in which voters give their implicit consent to the system of rule.


The occupy movement challenged the system by pointing out the complicity of governments and corporations in serving the wealthy at the expense of the majority – the 99%. Representative government in many countries has become a tool of powerful groups and serves their interests regardless of which party is in power. The occupy movement had a presence on the streets of many cities around the world, but in the US was subject to police harassment. Challenging the system in a direct, open way can be a risky business.

Attaching to participatory politics

Many people have developed strong beliefs in the superiority of representative government and the impossibility of participatory democracy. Their moralities have become assigned to one particular moral matrix, namely a configuration of moral assessments. Voting is seen to be fair, and so is the election of rulers, even though having money and connections is crucially important to electoral success. Few people think it is unfair that most people have no hope of being elected to office.

On the other hand, some moral assignments are more compatible with participatory processes. For example, in countries where juries for trials are selected randomly, this is seen as fair — as a way of selecting an unbiased cross-section of the population to hear evidence from two sides and to make a considered judgement. That trial juries are seen as fair shows that the fairness foundation might be assigned in a different way in politics. Randomly selected groups of citizens might be brought together, provided with information about a controversial issue – such as town planning or nanotechnology – hear from experts and partisans, discuss the issue among themselves and reach a consensus. Such groups are called policy juries or citizens panels. Hundreds of such panels, in several different countries, have been formed and have deliberated on a wide range of issues. The challenge is to get more people to think of these sorts of processes as the epitome of fairness, rather than voting.


Participatory democracy can come in various forms, for example referendums and popular assemblies, which complicates the challenge of encouraging people to think of them as viable alternatives to representative government. Another important factor is deliberation, which means careful consideration of arguments, often in discussions with others, as in juries. Only some participatory processes are deliberative: referendums often are not, being determined more by campaigning, advertising and slogans, whereas citizens panels are.

Advocates of participatory and deliberative alternatives can learn from Haidt’s research on moral foundations. Rather than trying to convince people through information and logical argument that participation and deliberation are good things, it is likely to be more effective to come up with ways to get people to sense in their guts that these alternatives are valuable and worth supporting.

Probably the best advertisement for participation is the experience of participation itself. Many of the people chosen randomly to serve on citizens panels find it incredibly engrossing and satisfying: they feel they are doing something worthwhile and become committed to the process. The same applies to experiences in workers’ councils, neighbourhood meetings and social action groups. The occupy movement, for example, provided on-the-ground training in participatory politics.

The implication is that ‘doing democracy’ – namely participating in groups or processes that involve direct decision-making – is a powerful way to promote participatory alternatives to representative government. The challenge is to make these experiences as satisfying as possible, thereby building commitment to the process, without getting too fixated on changing things immediately. This is the familiar dilemma of task functions and maintenance functions within groups. Achieving the group’s goal is important, but so is maintaining good relationships within the group, as the basis for commitment and long-term survival.

Taking a lead from Haidt, promoting participatory alternatives needs to pay more attention to what affects people’s moralities — their senses of care, fairness, liberty, authority, loyalty and sanctity — and figure out how to reassign moral foundations to participative and deliberative processes. There is nothing automatic or inherent in patriotism or a belief in the superiority of representative government. Alternatives are possible; the question is how best to promote them.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Lyn Carson for valuable comments on a draft.

The politics of American Sniper

 Am Sniper-sniper

Recently I saw the film American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood, screenplay by Jason Hall. The film is a dramatisation of the life of Chris Kyle, the most deadly military sniper in US history, with 160 officially credited kills over four tours of duty in Iraq. Kyle is played by actor Bradley Cooper. Here I examine the perspective presented in the film without entering debates about how accurately it portrays Kyle and his actions.

Part of the film shows fighting in Iraq, with visually compelling recreations of combat conditions. The other part of the film shows Kyle before and between his combat tours. He grew up in Texas, learning to shoot from an early age. Lacking direction in his life, he was galvanised to join the military after seeing television reports of the 1998 bombings of US embassies in East Africa. He joined the Navy and did SEAL training, and we watch Kyle going through the arduous exercises involved. Meanwhile, he meets his future wife, and they go on to have two children.

After each of his combat tours in Iraq, Kyle becomes more estranged from suburban life back home. He switches off from his wife and children. It seems that, compared to combat, civilian life is insipid and almost pointless. Kyle is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, and prone to violent outbursts in inappropriate situations. He volunteers to return to Iraq despite his wife’s appeals for him to stay home with his family.

Eventually a psychologist helps Kyle by putting him in contact with other war veterans, who have horrendous physical and psychological wounds. Kyle finds purpose in supporting some of these veterans, coaching them in shooting in a forest location. American Sniper thus is in part a film about the human consequences of war for soldiers, and the need to support survivors to recover from their trauma.

The combat scenes in the film show why Kyle found civilian life so inadequate. Combat is about life and death, about loyalty and comradeship, about defending one’s country from enemies. It is here that American Sniper buys into a conventional mythology about US war-fighting.

Am Sniper-desolation

9/11 and Iraq

Early in the film, Kyle and his wife are horrified as they watch television news of the 9/11 attacks on the US Trade Towers. The next thing we see is Kyle in Iraq, a marksman supporting troops undertaking dangerous door-to-door searches for insurgents. The unstated implication is that being in Iraq had something to do with the 1998 bombings and the 9/11 attacks.

George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and others in the US government justified the 2003 invasion of Iraq with two main deceptions. First, they claimed that the Iraqi government was obtaining weapons of mass destruction: nuclear, chemical and/or biological weapons. However, no such weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq; the intelligence claiming they existed was fatally flawed. Secondly, Bush implied that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. However, there was no decent evidence that the Iraqi regime had any connections with al-Qaeda. To the contrary, the regime was secular and opposed to al-Qaeda.

In American Sniper, Kyle and his team have the goal of opposing al-Qaeda in Iraq, and this group was certainly part of resistance to the US occupation. But the presence of al-Qaeda in Iraq was a consequence of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, not a justification for the invasion.

The film frames the Iraq conflict from the US perspective. US troops are shown fighting an unscrupulous enemy willing to torture and murder collaborators. The enemy insurgents are mostly anonymous. However, they also include women and children who carry explosives intended to kill US troops.

Reporting violence

Karen Cerulo wrote an insightful book titled Deciphering Violence. She analysed media reports of violence — murder, bombings, massacres, invasions — and classified the texts into four sequences: victim, performer, contextual and doublecasting.

deciphering violence

An example of a victim sequence is the headline “Three children killed by terrorists”. In this sort of sequence, the reader is more likely to identify and sympathise with the victim, so these sequences are likely to be used when the violence is seen as illegitimate. An example of a performer sequence is “Police shoot wanted man”. In a performer sequence, the reader is more likely to identify with the perpetrator of violence, and these sequences are likely to be used when violence is by legitimate authorities. There is much more to Cerulo’s nuanced analysis, but this is enough to appreciate the distinction between victim and performer sequences.

In American Sniper, the perspective is nearly always that of Kyle or other US troops. As viewers, we see the battle from their point of view, and watch their weaponry cause dozens or hundreds of deaths. The film mostly uses performer visual sequences and thus operates as a US-military-sympathetic prism on the Iraq war.


            Imagine a different perspective, from the viewpoint of an Iraqi. During and after the 1991 Gulf war, Iraq was subject to international sanctions that prevented import of goods, including medical supplies and sanitation equipment. The result was that something like two million Iraqis died in the two decades subsequently due to disease and malnutrition. Some call this genocide, because the massive death toll was known to the outside world but the sanctions were maintained nevertheless.

Then came the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It was not endorsed by the UN: it was illegal according to international law. The rationales for the invasion were shown to be false.

From an Iraqi point of view, their country was being invaded — and some Iraqis were fighting back with whatever weapons were available. US and Iraqi troops were killing civilians, and torturing some of them, most famously in Abu Ghraib prison.

The invasion of Iraq was justified on false claims. After Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled, why were US troops still there? An Iraqi perspective might portray Kyle as a foreign killer, part of an illegal and illegitimate occupying force.

Kyle in the film says he is defending America, and that the alternative is confronting the enemy in San Diego or New York. This seems almost a caricature of arguments for “defence” by invading a faraway country, one whose military had no capacity of threatening the US.



American Sniper has been a tremendous commercial success, grossing more than $500 million. Presumably some of its popularity in the US is due to its congruence with US-centric perspectives on war-fighting, with US troops as the good guys fighting evil opponents. A different sort of film, Iraqi Sniper, would be unlikely to receive such an enthusiastic response in the US.

I had better make my view clear. I’m an opponent of war and terrorism, and have long advocated nonviolent action as a better option. I was opposed to Saddam Hussein’s regime, and also opposed to an invasion to overthrow it. It would have been far more humane and effective to promote nonviolent action by Iraqis to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

However, nonviolent action is mostly invisible in Hollywood films. American Sniper is an excellent war film, but it is a war film, fitting squaring within the genre. It is based on the assumption that war, despite its horrific consequences, is a necessary evil. That assumption needs to be challenged.

PS There are many other critical reviews of American Sniper, some by US veterans, for example Brock McIntosh.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Paula Arvela, Kathy Flynn and Mark Richardson for helpful comments.