From a rational perspective, joining a protest rally is like voting—a complete waste of time. The odds that your voice or your protest sign will make a difference are no better than the odds that your vote will change an election. And yet, people do join protests and people do vote. They do these things not to advance their rational self-interest, but to express moral passions and moral identities.
In Lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park, home base of the Occupy Wall Street movement, a noisy, festive crowd of hundreds was doing just that when I stopped by on October 8. In an attempt to make sense of the goals and motivations of the protesters there, I brought along a small camera, and Moral Foundations Theory—a theory I developed with Jesse Graham, Ravi Iyer, and Sena Koleva (all at the University of Southern California), Pete Ditto (University of California at Irvine), and Craig Joseph (who was then at the University of Chicago).
This theory, which is based on ideas from the anthropologist Richard Shweder, outlines six clusters of moral concerns—care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation—upon which, we argue, all political cultures and movements base their moral appeals.
You can think about the foundations as being like the taste receptors on the tongue: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory. Each political culture, like each culinary culture, creates its own unique cuisine using some combination of these tastes, including elements that lack immediate appeal on their own, such as bitterness. Similarly each political movement bases its claims on a particular configuration of moral foundations. It would be awfully hard to rally people to your cause without making any reference to harm, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, or sanctity.
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’re 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 www.MoralFoundations.org and you can take our surveys at www.YourMorals.org.)
So what’s 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, are very little in evidence.
The psychological meaning of fairness is proportionality. Human beings have been engaging in cooperative enterprises for hundreds of thousands of years, and we’re now vigilant for signs that anyone is taking out more than they’re putting in. We really hate cheaters, slackers, and exploiters. By far the most common message I saw at OWS was that the rich (“the 1 percent”) got rich by taking without giving. They cheated and exploited their way to the top. As if that wasn’t bad enough, we the taxpayers then had to bail them out after they crashed the economy, and so now they really owe us for saving their necks. It’s high time that they started giving back, paying what they owe.
As a point of comparison, a similar look at signs found at the Tea Party rallies (based on a systematic study done by Reason Foundation Polling Director Emily Ekins) suggests that protesters there are also chiefly concerned with fairness. The key to understanding Tea Partiers' morality, though, is that they want to restore the law of karma. They want laziness and cheating to be punished, and they see liberalism and liberal government as an assault on that project. The liberal fairness of OWS diverges from conservative and libertarian fairness in that liberals often think that equality of outcomes is evidence of fairness.
When everyone’s contribution is the same, then the proportional outcome is equality. But in a free market system, where some work harder or are more talented or lucky, it will always be the case that some people make a greater contribution than others, and therefore end up taking home a larger share of the pie. Fairness as proportionality guarantees that outcomes will not be equal. This, I believe, is one of the main reasons why modern leftists (but not classical liberals) are often hostile to capitalism itself, as were some at the OWS protest.
Another unique feature of liberal fairness is that it is often blended with concerns about care for the downtrodden and oppressed, and this brings us to the next foundation: