Comments and observations on social and political trends and events.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Moral Foundations of Occupy Wall Street - Reason Magazine

Jonathan Haidt, author of one of my favorite books, The Happiness Hypothesis, applies his theory of moral foundations to the Occupy Wall Street movement. I’ve provided some quotes below. I like his approach.

My colleagues and I found that political liberals tend to rely primarily on the moral foundation of care/harm, followed by fairness/cheating and liberty/oppression. They are very concerned about victims of oppression, but they rarely make moral appeals based on loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, or sanctity/degradation. Social conservatives, in contrast, use all six foundations. They are less concerned than liberals about harm but much more concerned about the moral foundations that bind groups and nations together, i.e., loyalty (patriotism), authority (law and order, traditional families), and sanctity (the Bible, God, the flag as a sacred object). Libertarians, true to their name, value liberty more than anyone else, and they value it far more than any other foundation. (You can read our complete research findings at

So what is the mix of moral foundations at Occupy Wall Street (OWS)? In my visit to Zuccotti Park, it was clear that the main moral foundation of OWS is fairness, followed by care and liberty. Loyalty, authority, and sanctity, by contrast, were very little in evidence.

Many pundits have commented on the fact that OWS has no specific list of demands, but the protesters’ basic message is quite clear: rein in the influence of big business, which has cheated and manipulated its way to great wealth (in part by buying legislation) while leaving a trail of oppressed and impoverished victims in its wake.

Will this message catch on with the rest of the country, much of which also values the loyalty, authority, and sanctity foundations? If OWS protesters engage in acts of violence, flag desecration, destruction of private property, or anything else that makes them seem subversive or anti-American, then I think most Americans will quickly reject them. Furthermore, if the protesters continue to focus on the gross inequality of outcomes in America, they will get nowhere. There is no equality foundation. Fairness means proportionality, and if Americans generally think that the rich got rich by working harder or by providing goods and services that were valued in a free market, they won’t support redistributionist policies. But if the OWS protesters can better articulate their case that “the 1 percent” got its riches by cheating, rather than by providing something valuable, or that “the 1 percent” abuses its power and oppresses “the 99 percent,” then Occupy Wall Street will find itself standing on a very secure pair of moral foundations.

I particularly like what he says in the last paragraph about fairness. I’ve touched on this subject earlier in December in response to Obama’s speech in Kansas. 

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