Politics and caring

This article is part of a series looking at the Moral Foundations Theory of Haidt & Graham  and how our core moral beliefs relate to our political choices.

Today I’m considering the first moral foundation – that of Care. It’s probably what most people think morality means, but in Haidt’s system it’s just one of several factors.

Haidt defines it as:

Care/Harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

If you believe that humans are evolved animals, then you might take the view that caring for others is an evolutionary adaptation that benefits us as social beings. Caring is a survival tool. Caring for and helping others tends to promote the species. In general, social animals help each other and care for their young. Creatures that don’t help each other usually live solitary existences.

If you believe that God created humans in His own likeness, you might think that caring for others is a reflection of God’s love. You might think that not caring is evil or a sin. You’ll probably take the view that every one of us is a caring individual, but that sometimes we make mistakes and fail to care as much as we should.

Either way, the effect is the same. We care for others because we empathise with them. We feel pain when they feel pain. We share their joy. When we fail to care, things start to fall apart.

What Haidt’s studies show is that everyone rates the Care/Harm foundation very highly. It doesn’t matter if you’re a liberal or a conservative, we all care. There are slight differences between left-wing and right-wing voters, but it’s not a big difference. It’s not the deciding factor. Everyone cares.

Everyone who goes into politics wants to make a difference, to make the world a better place for everyone. It doesn’t matter whether they are Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party. They didn’t become activists or politicians to help their rich friends or to help themselves. Of course, power can corrupt, but no politician started out that way.

Whatever policies political parties advocate – raising taxes, lowering taxes, upholding civil liberties, imposing regulations – they do it because they care. They believe their policies are the ones that will make society a better place. Not just for them or their friends or for people like them, but for everyone.

Caring is the first and most fundamental moral foundation, shared by everyone on every side of every argument. If we could remember that fact I truly believe we would be halfway to resolving every single argument and dispute that plagues our world.

We all care. It’s easily forgotten in the heat of political debate. Let’s never forget it.

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20 responses to “Politics and caring

  1. Great post. It’s so true but in the heat of debate it can be hard to remember

  2. “Everyone who goes into politics wants… to make the world a better place for everyone.”

    As lovely a thought as that is, it is demonstrably and flagrantly untrue in the current politics of the United States. Perhaps it is true in the UK, or elsewhere. I hope so.

    • Steve, you know I’m not moderate in my political views. I’m far out on some edge. And yet when I look at the guys on the other edge, even though I know they are completely and utterly wrong in everything they stand for, I’m willing to bet that they feel passion for their beliefs and they really want to make the world a better place.

      Do you really think that people with different political views are actually evil? Or do you have just one or two individuals in mind?

      In British politics, sometimes elected politicians get caught accepting bribes or abusing their position, but it is rare and I bet those politicians started out with integrity but just became victims of their own greed some point along the way.

      • I don’t see the world in terms of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Those are childish notions insufficient to describe a far more complex situation.

        Not all elected officials in the United States “want to make the world a better place for everyone.” That is such an obviously true statement it should not even cause a ripple of controversy, Steve.

        Too many want to make the world a better place for themselves and their underwriters. But “for everyone”? C’mon. That’s what they decry as “soshulism” here.

        You cite “passion”. But that is quite different than compassion.

  3. I am not an expert on US politics. Can you be more specific or provide a link?

    A desire to make the world a better place for everyone is not unique to socialism or left-wing politics. Nor is it for idealistic and naive dreamers. It’s the fundamental driver for free market advocates, libertarians and right-wing economists.

  4. Fan of Dickens

    Great post – really thought provoking. I must read Haidt. Does he look at politicians throughout history, including the despots, fanatics and those who committed genocide? What about right wing, racist parties like the BNP? How does he define “politician”? I am sure Hitler thought he was a politician, but he certainly had no compassion for Jewish people, and didn’t care what the world was like for them. If the word “politician” includes fascists, I really cannot accept that everyone goes into politics because they want to make the world a better place for everyone.

    • Thank you. Haidt’s studies are of ordinary people, not politicians. I don’t know how much attention he has given to extremist views – the characterization of people according to their moral foundations is supposed to capture the broad sweep of views. There may be extreme outliers – I don’t know.

      The discussion of what makes people go into politics was my own spin. I really believe that people who are motivated to change the world think they are making a positive contribution. I can’t imagine anyone becoming a politician in order to make the world a worse place to live.

      It would seem clear that Hitler didn’t want to make the world a better place for the Jews, but perhaps Hitler felt that by killing Jews, homosexuals, etc he was making the world a better place for everyone else. His view was clearly evil and misguided, but he convinced himself that he was acting for the greater good. I am not trying to defend him. I am trying to explain such behaviour. I think it is dangerous to label such people as mad or anomalous. History shows that violent extremism is commonplace. We are susceptible to ideologies that override our moral foundations.

      The Taliban persecute women because they believe it is for the greater good. Terrorists kill the innocent because they believe in a cause greater than themselves.

      I believe that any one of us has the capacity to be a monster. If we were born in another age, or a different country, or subjected to the wrong influences, would we be the people we are?

    • Haidt’s book was eye opening for me. Not just in a political sense- it clarified some differences confronting me at work.
      Highly recommend.

  5. Fan of Dickens

    I absolutely agree that we all have the capacity for evil, and that we are susceptible to ideologies that override our sense of morality. However, it is for that reason that I have trouble with accepting the idea that everyone who goes into politics wants to make the world a better place for everyone. As you point out, Hitler thought he was making the world a better place for “everyone else”, not everyone. The Taliban are so fixated on their ideologies that their idea of the greater good does not include women, but the number of people who have fled the influence of the Taliban suggests to me that while we all have the capacity to be caught up in extremist views, we also, happily, have the ability to question and reject them.

  6. Not sure why I am reading a post almost 2 years old- Except I am politically confused. This election is causing me to evaluate every political value I thought I held.
    Decency should be paramount. Compassion for others should rule my decision. However, I am still selfish and remember how hard I had to work to get where I am. Torn.

  7. I am rereading The Righteous Mind. I wonder if I will get more from it as I am currently evaluating how I want to live my life. I am trying to define what values I wish to utilize to guide my decision making process.
    Living life on purpose is hard work.

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