Social Values And Moral Intuitions

My study of Millennials seeks to contribute to the long line of research on the psychological underpinnings of belief systems. In response to the rise of fascism and to the Holocaust in Europe, psychologists identified an authoritarian personality syndrome that inclines people to desire a society organized in chains of authority and obedience, to hold prejudiced and hostile attitudes toward ethnic and religious minorities, and to adopt traditional gender norms and condemn homosexuality. Eighty years of research has shown that these attitudes – social hierarchy, ethnocentrism, sexism — do tend to cluster, held together in a sense by the “glue” of an authoritarian personality style. Researchers have sought to identify a different personality syndrome that underlies liberal-left-egalitarian social values, but largely have failed. Sylvan Tomkins’ evidence that people who readily feel empathy for others (in contrast to those disposed to feel disgust and contempt) tend to develop open and liberal world-views remains significant, but it appears that many psychological orientations may foster the adoption of left-liberal views.

Recently Jonathan Haidt developed moral intuitions theory to account for the conservative-liberal continuum of social values: he proposed that there are five evolutionarily wired-in moral “intuitions” that – depending on the strength of each – prime people to resonate to particular social values:

Moral IntuitionUnderlying Emotion
Care / harm
Compassion, empathy
Anger, gratitude, guilt
Group pride
Respect, fear

(J. Haidt, 2012)

Haidt suggests that the intuitions work like taste buds, so that each person finds that certain images of society and values just “taste” right, while others taste sour. Individuals may use all five intuitions, but liberals tend emphasize care and fairness, while conservatives tend to emphasize loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

To evaluate and extend this model, my students and I conducted semi-structured, open interviews with Millennial-generation young adults and examined the principles that respondents voiced as they described their religious, moral, and social values. (See my Social Values and Moral Intuitions: The World-Views of “Millennial” Young Adults.)

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Our 70 interviews provided strong support for moral intuitions theory, but also suggested some important modifications. First, the interviews show that perhaps 40% have views that cannot be located on the conservative-liberal continuum that defines American politics: some interviewees combined conservative

and liberal values in novel ways; some “frame shifted” between conservative and liberal values; others simply saw the world in different terms. Second, the young adults we interviewed showed infrequent use of authority and sanctity intuitions, even among conservatives, but many voiced the principle of meritocracy to support both conservative views that the people at the top have earned their wealth and status and liberal views that the competitive playing field ought to be leveled. Meritocratic values appeared to be based on a moral intuition of “personal responsibility” deeply internalized by years of competitive achievement in school and sports and of reaping the rewards or bearing the consequences of good and bad “choices” that people had made.

The interviews also showed the importance of other intuitions than the five proposed by Haidt, including the Big Five “openness to experience” trait that underlies the value of tolerance (of religious and political differences, varied sexualities, etc.) that was one of the most frequently-mentioned values. An “experience of injustice” intuition appeared important to some women, people of color, and working-class individuals who felt they and/or their families and communities had personally experienced injustice: it motivated their opposition to injustice but also sometimes fueled anger at scapegoats. This differs from Haidt’s care and fairness intuitions that lead people to support justice for others. In light of these findings, we propose a kind of “periodic table” model of intuitions, with some appearing common and widespread (like “fairness” and “personal responsibility”), others moderately common (like “loyalty” and “experience of injustice”), and still others relatively rare but central to some individuals’ world-views.