Category Archives: emotions

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.


            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.

PS I’ve applied moral foundations ideas to several other topics:

Understanding protest

James Jasper’s book Protest provides a valuable introduction to a type of activity around us all the time.

Rally in Baghdad, 2008

I recently read James M. Jasper’s book Protest: A Cultural Introduction to Social Movements. It is written to be used as a textbook, but in an engaging style. I found it a useful refresher covering issues I’ve studied for many years.

Reading about any topic can make you more likely to notice relevant examples, and so it was for me in reading about protest. On the day I finished reading Protest I received an email from Antoon De Baets of the Network of Concerned Historians: PEN International Writers in Prison Committee reported on the 30-month prison sentence received by a Paraguayan writer, Nelson Aguilera. His crime: alleged plagiarism! According to the PEN Committee, experts say no plagiarism was involved, so obviously there must be some other factor involved – a connection between the complainant and the prosecutor. Recipients of the appeal were invited to write to the president of Paraguay. It is a type of protest, along the lines of the efforts of Amnesty International.

Nelson Aguilera

            Then there was an appeal from my union, the National Tertiary Education Union, to send letters to politicians to stop passage of legislation to deregulate fees at Australian universities. It is a typical pressure technique.

I also had just finished providing assessments concerning the Navco database of nonviolent challenges to governments. Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan carried out a path-breaking study comparing nonviolent and violent challenges to repressive regimes (as well as secession and anti-occupation struggles). They compiled a database of 323 struggles between 1900 and 2006. In their 2011 book Why Civil Resistance Works, they showed that anti-regime struggles were far more likely to be successful if they relied primarily on nonviolent methods such as rallies, strikes and boycotts. Furthermore, this conclusion held up regardless of how repressive the regime was: nonviolent action is just as effective against the most ruthless governments.

Erica is now updating and augmenting the database. She sent me and various others a list of over 100 additional nonviolent anti-regime struggles, some in the years since 2006 and some from earlier years that were not included in the original database. There were cases from Algeria and Armenia through to Western Sahara and Yemen.

Landless Workers’ Movement, Brazil, 2005

I had to try to judge whether each struggle was maximalist (seeking to change the government), constituted a campaign, was nonviolent (rather than violent), was successful or unsuccessful, and warranted being in the database. This was a challenging exercise, because quite a few of the cases did not fit neatly into the target categories and because online information was less than ideal. The exercise certainly made me aware of the remarkable capacity of citizens to organise for major political change, using an eye-opening variety of techniques with amazing courage against brutal governments. And in many of the cases, these brutal governments lost the struggle.

Jasper’s book

covers a standard set of topics: defining social movements, the role of meanings in their operation and presence, the wider social context, recruitment, maintaining operations and momentum, making decisions, interactions with other players, and winning/losing. Jasper’s cultural approach has a couple distinctive features. He emphasises the roles of meanings for participants, such as how they see themselves; these meanings draw on beliefs and images in the surrounding culture. Associated with this, he emphasises the role of emotions in social movement dynamics, an area in which he is a pioneering researcher.

James M Jasper

            Jasper also brings to his treatment his special interest in dilemmas: choices that movement activists need to make that involve difficult trade-offs. An example is the organisation dilemma:

Protesters face many choices about how much to formalize their operations through rules, fundraising, paid staff, and offices. Formalities like these help sustain activities over time, but they can also change those activities. The goal of sustaining and protecting the organization appears alongside its original mission, and more time is devoted to raising funds and expanding staffs. In some cases, the survival of the organization becomes the primary goal. Members may then grow cynical about staff salaries, the paid trips leaders take on official business, large and lavish offices. Laws governing the operation of officially incorporated organizations – especially their tax-exempt status – constrain their tactical choices. Organizations are like other strategic means: they always have the potential to become ends in themselves … (p. 82)

One thing that comes across strongly in the book is that activism isn’t all that easy. Movements don’t start or continue by accident: lots of committed people work to bring an issue to public attention, pressure governments or directly implement solutions.

Of special interest are social movement organisations (SMOs). Some well-known examples are Greenpeace and Amnesty International, and there are thousands of others. SMOs are not the same as social movements, which typically incorporate multiple SMOs, independent activists and supporters, and occasional participants. Movements are also more than people and organisations. They involve knowledge, beliefs, assumptions, symbols and many other intangibles.

Occasionally I read a letter to the editor saying, “Where are the protests about X?” where X might be street violence, discrimination or aggression in a foreign country. The letter writers are often decrying what they see as double standards: if environmentalists are protesting about whaling, why aren’t they protesting about land degradation? I assume few of these letter-writers have ever tried to organise a rally. If they had, they would realise how much effort it requires – especially the effort to convince people to attend – and even then a rally does not automatically translate into media coverage.

People who have been involved in social movements often have a deep understanding of how they operate and what they are up against. So what is there for them to learn from Jasper’s book? The advantage of a straightforward, well-written text is putting personal experiences in context. After all, there are hundreds of different social movements, with quite a few commonalities but also a number of differences.

Personally, I found it useful to go through Protest as a refresher about the basics, and an update concerning theoretical developments that might offer insight into movements.

Nonviolent action

On only one point would I differ significantly in emphasis. Jasper distinguishes between two categories of protest methods, calling them “nice” and “naughty.” Nice protest methods operate within the system and accepted by authorities, for example lobbying, voting and petitions. Naughty methods include wildcat strikes, massive rallies and assaulting police: they transgress norms about normal or proper political behaviour, and are seen as threatening.

What this distinction misses is the expanding body of research on nonviolent action, which refers to non-standard methods of social action that do not involve physical violence against opponents. (Nonviolent protesters often suffer violence from police and others.) Methods of nonviolent action include rallies, strikes, boycotts, fasts, sit-ins and setting up alternative political institutions, among others. The dynamics of nonviolent action have been studied in some depth, and diverge in significant ways from the dynamics of violence. For example, police violence against peaceful protesters is likely to generate public outrage, whereas police violence against violent protests is not – even if the police violence is much greater. The choice is not just between naughty and nice but also between violence and nonviolent action.


In the late 1970s, I was active in the Australian anti-uranium movement, and after a number of years started reading social analyses of the movement, and was most disappointed: there was nothing I felt I didn’t already know. This convinced me that there’s nothing quite like being in a movement to understand movement dynamics. However, that was a long time ago, and research into social movements was far less developed than it is today, and I don’t recollect any overview with many insights such as Protest.

Social movements are central to many of the advances that we take for granted today, including overcoming slavery, preventing nuclear war, and challenging racial discrimination and the subjugation of women. I recommend Jasper’s Protest both for movement participants to get a broader view of what they are part of and for outsiders who want a sense of what really goes on in movements.

Brian Martin

Feeling good when others suffer

The emotion of schadenfreude — joy in the pain of others — is widespread but has some dangerous associations.


Imagine that your favourite team is about to play a crucial match, and you hear the news that the other team’s star player has suffered a serious injury during training. You might feel sorry for the player but you also might initially feel a surge of pleasure about the improved prospects for your team.

Another scenario: you have been striving hard at work to be chosen for an important assignment, but are frustrated by a talented rival. Your rival suffers a setback due to a family crisis. You are outwardly concerned but may feel some satisfaction in the turn of events.

Your next-door neighbour is outwardly successful, with a prestigious high-paying job, a large house, fancy car and immaculately presented family. By comparison, you are not nearly so well off. Imagine your feeling when a news report reveals that your neighbour has been the victim of a swindle and will have to downsize.

These are examples of the emotion called schadenfreude, a German word meaning pleasure resulting from someone else’s pain. To learn more about it, I recommend Richard H. Smith’s book The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature (Oxford University Press, 2013). Smith describes, in an accessible manner, research on schadenfreude, providing everyday examples drawn from popular culture, for example The Simpsons.


Although schadenfreude is often experienced, it is seldom acknowledged publicly or even privately. It is not seen as proper to gloat over someone else’s pain, so in many cases this is a secret emotion. However, there are some circumstances in which schadenfreude is more acceptable and freely expressed: when the other person seems to deserve their suffering.

Smith describes the US television programme To Catch a Predator in which men were enticed, through online conversations, to visit a house where they expected to meet an underage person, possibly for sex. The house was rigged with numerous cameras and the men were filmed as they were informed that their activities and responses were being recorded for broadcast on television. For the men, this was close to the ultimate in humiliation: they were being exposed on national television as likely paedophiles.


Smith notes that paedophilia is so universally reviled that it seems acceptable to revel in the acute agony of these men. They are suffering and many audience members feel it is only fair. Yet the background to each man’s visit was omitted from the program. Some of them may have been victims of child sexual abuse, and there was no explanation of what led up to their visit, nor any proof that they were guilty of paedophilia. The program was set up to enable viewers to enjoy the men’s humiliation, a spectacle called humilitainment.

The example of To Catch a Predator is just one example of what Smith calls the dark side of human nature. Humans are constantly comparing themselves to others, and improve their self-esteem when they come out on top. Studies show that when assessments of personal qualities are subjective, most people think they are better than average. For example, nearly everyone thinks their sense of humour is above average.

Social comparison is almost universal, and when people peg their self-image by comparisons, it is a short step to envy, a toxic emotion. Envy is the resentment and ill will felt when observing that someone has something — money, possessions, talent, good looks, fame — that you don’t. Few people like to feel inferior. Envy often includes a wish for the envied person to suffer or be brought down. This sets the stage for schadenfreude.


It is one thing to be secretly pleased when someone else suffers, because you feel better about yourself, and another to take action to bring about another person’s suffering. Smith, to probe the darkest aspect of these emotions, considers the actions and emotions of Germans during the Nazi occupation of Europe, in particular their attitudes towards the Jews. At the time, many Jews were highly successful, disproportionately filling the ranks of doctors, lawyers and media proprietors, so it is plausible that their high social standing evoked envy. However, few people like to admit to envy, so Hitler and other Nazis instead devalued the Jews — including with furious condemnations — thereby providing a pretext for harming them. Smith provides some telling bits of evidence suggesting that schadenfreude was one of the emotions involved in the genocide of the Jews.

He is also careful to note that in ordinary circumstances, envy is held in check and does not lead to actions to hurt others. To provide a more positive note, Smith gives some examples of individuals who have learned how to rise above any suggestion of schadenfreude. He tells of a man he knew, widely esteemed by others, who never said an ill word about anyone.


In psychology, the “fundamental error of attribution” refers to a widespread mental process of assuming that the behaviour of others reflects their inner purpose. If someone makes some nasty comments, we may assume they have a hostile personality. Yet there are often explanations for behaviour based on circumstance. The other person may be physically ill or suffering extreme stress, which could help to explain their comments.

When our own poor behaviour is involved, we readily blame it on external factors. The fundamental error of attribution involves interpreting actions by others differently than our own.

This is pertinent to schadenfreude. Our own misfortunes, we may feel, are unfair or due to circumstances beyond our control, but the misfortunes of others are attributed to their own flaws. To overcome the tendency to think this way, it is useful to try to think of possible external causes for others’ behaviour. The man who Smith knew learned to do this, and hence did not join in the usual gossiping about the foibles and misfortunes of others.

Smith offers as an exemplar Abraham Lincoln, who early in his career learned the wisdom of not condemning others and subsequently showed amazing restraint in his comments to them. After General George Meade won the battle of Gettysburg but failed to follow up by pursuing the Robert E. Lee’s army and thereby winning the civil war then and there, Lincoln was immensely frustrated, especially because he had futilely appealed to Meade to pursue Lee’s army. Lincoln wrote a letter to Meade expressing his distress at his shortcoming — but he never sent it, and it was found in Lincoln’s papers subsequently. To have sent the letter would have pained Meade but to no purpose.


The Joy of Pain is valuable because it tackles a topic seldom probed outside the scholarly literature. Without being pointed, it can encourage the reader to reflect on emotions and behaviour in a new light, taking into account social comparisons and the toxic consequences of envy.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Sharon Crozier-De Rosa and Roger Patulny for useful comments.