The Foundations of Morality (and other cool stuff)

I am a student of human nature, first and foremost. All my life while others were paying attention to their own fetishes – fishing, guns, cars, etc – I was studying why folks like fishing, guns, cars, etc. Although I had my own preoccupations – comic books, rpgs, excel spreadsheets – my primary motivation in life was studying primary motivations in life. I know people, particularly Tom, pretty well. In fact, it’s what makes me a good salesman for the company. I can’t claim to be the world’s most knowledgeable appliance guy and I don’t really know much about sales techniques, but I do know people. It doesn’t take me long at all to assess a person’s needs and find the right product to suit it, whether I have it or not. “You made this easy” is by far my favorite compliment.

So I understand motivation, it’s my thing. Human nature is my passion. To that end I gravitate towards readings and studies that illuminate my understanding of human nature. Some years ago, when trying to elucidate the understanding of one of my favorite subjects (me), I stumbled upon a book by Jonathan Haidt with the title The Happiness Hypothesis. “Finding Modern Truth In Ancient Wisdom” is the subtitle, and the book had great value to me. Haidt did indeed delve into ancient wisdom, but he coupled it with a great understanding of modern psychological research. The underlying premise that stuck with me, and helped me understand the greater humanity as a whole, was the concept that we are not in charge of our subconscious but rather we guide it, like a rider on an elephant. The elephant is far bigger and stronger than we are but if we learn to tame it we can lead it where we need it to go. Obviously, that’s a simplification of the premise but I do encourage you to read the book.

A few years after reading that book I was looking for something new and I googled Haidt to see if he’d done any follow up work. He had. In 2012 he wrote a book called The Righteous Mind with the subtitle “Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion.” That sounded like a great follow up so I downloaded it from Amazon on November 5th, 2014. Something I’ve forgotten about now distracted me immediately afterwards and I didn’t read the book right away. In fact, it sat in queue for more than 4 years and I finally cracked it open just a few weeks ago.

Jonathan Haidt and I would get along fine. Like me, he is a student of human nature with a great understanding of his own self. In my lifetime studies I have learned that self-knowledge is the rarest knowledge of all, so that to me is a valuable thing. He is also, like me, a liberal with a love of the conservative mind and an atheist with a great appreciation of religion.

This isn’t so much a book review (I do those sometimes, in my own way) but a book recommendation. Really, this is more of a concept recommendation that might lead to a website recommendation that could become a book recommendation that might take you on to enjoy a good thinker. If you’re looking to understand your own happiness, or lack thereof, or want to understand happiness in general, do what the Father of Positive Psychology says and “Begin with Haidt.” Read The Happiness Hypothesis. I intend to read it again soon. If you want to understand what separates us, motivates us, towards our chosen ideologies, read The Righteous Mind.

In congruence with your reading of The Righteous Mind, or for a general lark, go visit the website dedicated to his ideas (, and take a test or two there upon. I’ll briefly set that up:

Haidt divides our motivations (the impulses of the elephant) into six (perhaps seven) foundations. These foundations, and how we focus upon them, develop our morals. Our morals, accompanied with our upbringing, decide our ideological directions in life. This, again, is a gross simplification of a thoroughly enjoyable and illuminating exposition.

I took the test, just this morning. It would surprise no one to find out that I scored very close to the liberal average on the Care/Harm foundation, dead even with the lot on Equality, slightly below the liberal average on Equity, nearly to the libertarian level on the Autonomy/Oppression scale, and below all ideological averages on the scales of Loyalty, Authority, and Purity. It is simply not my way to follow the group without reservation or the leader without question. And when it comes to “purity” or “degradation”? Eh. To each their own.

I’ll leave you to your day now, and leave these recommendations here for you to peruse. I’ll close by saying this has been a very good year for reading. I finished one Harari book and Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. I started and finished 21 Lessons in its entirety. I finally read To Kill A Mockingbird. I started The Soul of America but it didn’t catch on with me. I am currently, and finally, reading The Global Minotaur, and it is illuminating.

What are you reading now? Knowing me, as you do, what other tomes would you suggest? And where, pray tell, do you place on the scales of moral foundation? You know a lot about me, so tell me something more about yourself. While I was enthralled by the processes of human nature, lo these fifty years, what enthralled you?

We have much to teach each other. We have time to learn.

30 thoughts on “The Foundations of Morality (and other cool stuff)

  1. No wonder we get on so well. You know what I think about fishing and guns.

    Speaking of understanding of human nature, I just started a book (read only a few pages and it already blew me away), about a convict who also happens to have been a famous actor back home, who seeks no mercy nor sympathy for what he did, but asks us to take a peek into the the prison life and the complexities of human nature.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Could it be as a salesperson you have too much time on your hands…or you’re underemployed? Either way, I enjoy your thoughts. We’d have a good time suckin’ a brew if I hadn’t just given up alcohol…but coffee? I can drink that all day.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Haha! Not sure about that premise; I have very little “free time” these days. I think the important thing is that we focus what time we get on the things that really matter to us (for example, fishing would be hell to me if I had to spend my time on that).

      I only drink three things, George: coffee in the morning, water all day long, and beer in the evening. Pick a time, I’ll pick my poison. 😉

      Liked by 3 people

  3. I just finished eYe Marty, subtitled “The official autobiography of Marty Feldman”, and I wish I could recommend it but just can’t, not even to fans. Discovered in a trove of his papers it’s a badly edited clump of notes he wrote and had probably planned to turn into a more solid autobiography before his untimely death.
    However I bring it up because he did find great happiness both professionally and personally—and often those things overlapped. He had a wild youth; at times he was homeless and taking drugs. He thought he wanted to be a trumpet player and believed performing while drunk or high would “make something extraordinary happen”, only to realize all that happened was he performed badly. Eventually he settled down and began working as a writer and met the love of his life. His path was circuitous but, in spite of some professional failures, he always kept a cheerful outlook on life. If one thing failed he went on to the next.
    His path to happiness isn’t one I’d recommend. In fact some people he worked with professionally who also became close friends—for instance members of a little comedy troupe called “Monty Python” you may have heard of—took distinctly different routes to happiness. As a Jew and someone who’d never been to university Feldman felt like an outsider, but he never let that prevent him from being part of the group. He found that laughter was what they all had in common.
    Well, enough of my yakkin’. I’m going to go take a few tests.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ah, I envy the ability of a person such as yourself to read a variety of inputs and even read through an admittedly bad tome. If it don’t grab me I cast it aside (as with “The Soul of America”). Even good books can fail to grab me (I own and have started “Dune” SO many times; I want to read it but the time is never right, it seems).

      Feldman seems to have had an interesting life (and interesting friends!). I don’t remember the last biography or autobiography I read. I really want to read the autobiography of Captain Kirk (titled “The Autobiography of James T Kirk”) and this might just be the year to do it. I definitely plan to get to it before he is born.

      Pray tell, my friend … how went the test(s)?

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Haidt has said that Trump is an authoritarian (not a conservative) who thrives on appeal to the Purity and Loyalty foundations most of all. Religious and ultra-nationalistic conservatives are especially drawn to that fire. Beyond that, it’s hard to say. I imagine he finds the man distasteful, same as you and I, but I think he probably tries to stay clinically objective to political affairs.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Gross simplification or not, I like the way you sum up the Haidt book. I’ll have to put it on my list. I too am entralled with human nature. Here are three authors that have helped me on my way (where understanding the mad human race is concerned. Seneca (letters), Montaigne (essays), and Schopenhauer (essays). I esp. recommend Shopenhauer’s The Wisdom of Human Nature. SO GREAT.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, MP! I have read smatterings of Seneca, but never Montaigne or Schopenhauer (that I can remember). I’ll add them to my wish list and check them out. I’m sure Haidt himself would appreciate them as “ancient wisdom” updated with modern studies is his hallmark! 🙂


  5. Like you I am fascinated by what makes humans do what they do and the book you have recommended sounds fascinating – I’ll have to give it a read! One of the books that inspired me was Awake the Giant Within by Anthony Robbins; it’s a self-help book I suppose but he gives amazing insights into why we behave the way we do and I think you’d like it :O) x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I actually do like a good self-help book, and you’re the second person recently to recommend “Awake the Giant.” I’ll have to give it a look! Of course, I’ll have to get over the memory of those cheesy 80’s infomercials he used to do first. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. 😂😂 yes definitely put those out of your mind before you read it! Seriously though he’s incredibly inspirational; I’ve done his 4 day seminar twice – completely changed my way of thinking 🤔 xx

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I was wondering what was behind that “rider on an elephant” you mentioned before, it rang with a particular resonance to me then, now I know: Haidt! I can’t really recommend any nonfiction at the moment Tom, I know you prefer this genre, but I prefer fiction. The latest book I read was A Little Life, although the prose was often incredibly beautiful, I had a big problem with the content and the artifice of the story, it’s not something I recommend unless you want to know what motivates people to commit suicide.

    You might have already heard or seen the speech by Earl Nightingale, The Strangest Secret, have you? Your summation of Haidt reminded me of it, I’m grossly oversimplifying it but he basically says: You are what you think. Some people interpret this like “the Secret” or the Law of Attraction, but I think it is actually much harder than it seems, although I agree with the basic premise, I believe the Universe manifests what you think–what you really, authentically think–not what you desire/hope/strive to think.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love The Strangest Secret! Quotes from Nightingale are saved to my Evernotes to encourage me when I need a push. Great recommendation! 👏👏👏

      Believe it or not, I read one fiction book this year (To Kill A Mockingbird) and intend to read another one after The Global Minotaur (Brave New World, which I’ve never read 🙂 ). I may start a personal trend where I go back and read the classics!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Never underestimate the power of bad luck. Ask every successful CEO whether luck played a part in their success — every one will say absolutely. I’ve been part of six failed start-ups. For no fault of my own, they failed. I attached myself to what I thought would succeed — and each failed me. Was it me? Or just bad luck?

    But, the power of thought no doubt does play a part in one’s life arc.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good advice, and one I take to heart. So many factors play upon our lives, it’s impossible to control the extenuating circumstances to which we are prey. I do believe, however, that personal control is within our powers (notwithstanding chemical imbalances and whatnot) and a great understanding of ourselves and our place in the scheme of those swirling fates about us is important. I also believe that understanding human nature comes at a cost, which we often pay with cynicism or apathy.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Don’t you think that to analyze anything, even ourselves, a varying amount of distance must be attained first (or at least learned)? If one can detach one’s involvement from the subject matter, that’s the best way to analyze, no?
        It’s too bad that Nightengale dude’s verbal essay was couched in religion, as that exact subject — physically changing one’s mind — is a topic we’ve discussed before.
        Success? Failure? Doesn’t really matter in the context of the Absurd Universe. But, as you say, personal control (and the guy’s base premise) is within our means to achieve — an important realization. With effort, you can actually alter your default neural pathways. Thanks for the reminder.

        Liked by 1 person

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