Tag Archives: moral foundations theory

Immigration and Group Norms

Arnold Kling’s essay on “Libertarianism and Group Norms” raises important issues. I have some sympathy with where Kling is going, very little with where he is coming from. Kling’s thesis:

I think it is unwise to dismiss altogether the case for group loyalty and adherence to group norms. My inclination is to approve of organizations that promote group objectives and attempt to limit individual choices, as long as participation in these organizations is voluntary. However, within libertarian thought, there are very different points of view as to whether or not the pressure to conform to group norms is morally justified.

He cites a lot of libertarian-friendly thinkers, including Adam Smith, J.S. Mill, Alexis de Tocqueville, Ayn Rand, and Friedrich Hayek, to show that libertarians are historically divided on the issue of “group norms.” To me, Kling seems to conflate group norms with morality. In other words, he presupposes that our morality is socialized, rather than that there is a real right and wrong which we perceive, sometimes of course with imperfect accuracy. For example, he writes that: “An important way to achieve status within a group is to adhere to and defend its norms.” Why not say that an important way to achieve status in a group is to practice virtue? Presumably because he thinks “virtue” is whatever the group says it is, so that to replace the words “practice virtue” with the words “adhere to and defend [a group’s] norms” is a way to avoid naivete. Note also this definition of morality, which Kling approvingly cites from Jonathan Haidt:

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible. Continue reading Immigration and Group Norms

The moral foundations of immigration restrictionism

It recently occurred to me that it would be interesting to try to interpret the seemingly irreconcilable differences in worldview between open borders advocates and restrictionists in terms of moral foundations theory. This theory has been developed by Jonathan Haidt, Jesse Graham, Ravi Iyer, and others. It attempts to identify the different foundations that people draw upon to make moral judgments and how people differ in the extent to which they draw upon the foundations. Quoting from the website, there are six moral foundations:

  1. 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.
  2. Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]
  3. Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.
  4. Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”
  5. Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
  6. Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).

A crude summary would be that welfare-state liberals are focused on (1) and (2), libertarians are almost completely focused on (3) (with a bit of (1) and (2)) and conservatives are somewhat concerned about all foundations.

How does this picture fit open borders advocates and restrictionists? A first guess is that since restrictionists have tended to be more on the conservative side, restrictionists draw significantly upon all moral foundations. In contrast, open borders advocates tend to be either libertarians or liberals (and some economic conservatives) which indicates that they draw upon foundations (1)-(3). This suggests that there are a number of arguments that restrictionists would make as moral arguments but which open borders advocates wouldn’t consider “moral arguments” at all because they draw upon foundations that aren’t recognized as sources of morality.

I think the data bear these out. In the rest of this post, I consider the three moral foundations that are employed to much greater effect by restrictionists.

Loyalty/betrayal (in-group)

This foundation is employed quite a bit by restrictionists. Most of the objections to the libertarian case as well as the philosophical bases for anti-immigration arguments such as citizenism, territorialism, and nation as family employ the foundation of loyalty to one’s nation. Obviously, many open borders advocates spend time touting the benefits to immigrant-receiving countries. But possibly due to negativity bias, and the fact that the harms claimed by restrictionists are far more dramatic than the gains claimed by open borders advocates, the restrictionist arguments seem more salient.

There is another factor at play here. Most open borders advocates are (rightly) unapologetic about considering the substantial benefits to migrants when making the case for open borders. But strong in-group loyalty coupled with a zero-sum mindset might make this argument backfire. More indirectly, it might lead some of those with strong national loyalties to suspect that those advocating for open borders are traitors of some sort and that even their arguments about benefits to the nation are the result of spin.

There is also a huge divide between restrictionists who see loyalty to one’s nation as paramount and some open borders advocates who view national loyalty as no more a deep moral requirement than loyalty to one’s sports team. Continue reading The moral foundations of immigration restrictionism