Vechey’s Moral Foundational Theory of Climate Change Conversation

As I struggle with how to open up the climate change conversation to more people, I keep coming back to one of the most personally influential books I’ve read –  The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. It is a book elaborating on his Moral Foundations theory. Here’s a quick oversimplification if you’re too busy to read that link (but seriously, my paraphrasing isn’t as good as theirs, so go read it:

Moral Foundations Theory is that there are several key moral foundations of intuitive morality. Everyone has varying innate sensitivity to each of the moral foundations, with groups and cultures emphasizing different foundations as well as the realizing the same foundations in different ways. They foundations are:

1) Care/harm: An ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others.
2) Fairness/cheating: Concern about proportionality of fairness, that is we all need to shoulder an equal burden in our society.
3) Liberty/oppression: Moral attraction to freedom, specifically against those who would dominate / restrict our liberty.
4) Loyalty/betrayal: Ability to feel and act loyaly to a person or group
5) Authority/subversion: A deference to legitimate authority and appreciation for tradition
6) Sanctity/degradation: The feeling that your body or institutions are sacred

The reason I go back to Haidt’s moral foundation thoery when thinking about climate change is that the results of exploring his theory is how different groups experience the moral foundations. He found that American liberals experience very strongly Care/Harm, and to a lesser extent Fairness/Cheating and Liberty/Oppression. American conservatives, generally, have more attuned “moral tastebuds” across the spectrum in a more balanced way.

How can this be useful for the climate change discussion?

For one, humans are emotional. Science, by definition, not so much. The science showing man-made climate change is here and has only gotten stronger since the first projects starting linking man’s actions to global climate change, but people are obviously not hearing it. Yes, the solution is complicated and yes it will require us to change, but I think the problem is that the scientists and climate hawks aren’t speaking the right moral language.

My theory is that if we start speaking a language that more people respond to, then more people will be able to hear the message, understand the message, and then share the message. I’m still unsure how to test this theory out, but that’s my theory I’ll be working on for awhile. Comment if you have any thoughts on how to approach proving this theory one way or another.

    • B-White
    • December 28th, 2012

    Just a thought for you…

    Realistically, you are trying to educate people with this project.

    So, when you mention “speaking a language” (singular), another approach would suggest that there are many “languages” you need to speak. Geography, profession, socio-economic status, age, race, religion, etc. – there are a large number of different constituencies in this issue, all of whom will have different teaching points that will resonate best for the way they learn.

    In education, we look at a framework/philosophy for effective teaching that is commonly referred to as “differentiated instruction.” The general idea is that teachers need to tailor their instruction and adjust the curriculum to the needs of the individual students – rather than expecting the students to modify their behavior to fit the curriculum or the teaching practice. A good teacher realizes that if a student is not learning, it is the responsibility of the teacher to adjust her instruction.

    Broad marketing is, of course, a different thing than teaching in a classroom setting – but looking more closely at how people best learn may help you craft your thinking. Considering who you are trying to teach should, ideally, shape how you teach. Who the students are is critical in shaping how they learn.

    Who are you trying to teach here?

    Carol Ann Tomlinson is an educator/researcher who has done much of the important work on differentiated instructional practice.

    There are some other elements of adult learning theory that might be interesting – in particular, look at the work Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers have done in what makes professional development effective – specifically a cycle of modeling, opportunity for practice, feedback and coaching.

    The broader point is that you are trying to educate people and (importantly) change their behavior. Spending some time thinking about how people learn most effectively might be useful.


  1. You’re right, we humans are emotional creatures. We often respond to narratives, and I think this is why solving water problems is successful: we can see the plight of other people suffering and because of the “right” Moral Foundations we want to ease that suffering.

    If you tell the _stories_ of how climate change impacts us, you might have a chance of winning hearts. (Minds have already been won).

    • That is a good point. I think I want to try to find people in the different demographics of morality and have them rate stories to see which language / story resonates.

  2. John,
    I am so encouraged that you have chosen to make climate change a one of your causes. I believe your plan to dedicate time to several aspects of understanding and participation is a great one. I also agree that drawing on moral arguments is a excellent direction to take the campaign.

    I have long felt that the problem with the climate change educational campaign has been mirrored in the sex ed/contraception debate. It is not about convincing people of the science or the outcomes. It is about appealing to their self interests and beliefs. This is why the right has for so long held a strong position in both arenas. If there was an honest and fact based discussion going on then we’d already be on our way to a much different future, but this is not the case.

    You will make a good champion of this cause, because I think you will find ways to think outside the box in bringing the critical nature of climate change and humans role in it to the masses.

    I come from a background in Environmental Studies and Biology, and it seems to me that if people were able to understand the linkages between their behaviors and the ultimate costs to their own wallets maybe they would start rethinking how they produce climate changing gasses. Everything is linked, interconnected, with weights and factors influencing every interaction, and it is only once we begin to comprehend the true threats to our very existence that we are producing maybe we will make the paradigm shifts needed.


    • Thank you. Any advice on books or resources for me to read up on? So far all of the books I’ve read have been happenstance and it’s really helped me learn a lot quickly so would love more recomendations.

      I’ve been looking for good analogies for awhile about climate change and the sex ed / contraception one I hadn’t thought of. It’s a bit loaded, and it’s less about a big vested economic interest, but it’s definitely a big ongoing “conversation” between two sides that is nearly purely based off of emotion.

      I very much agree that if the True Cost of Carbon was built into the system then it will self balance, but in order to do that there needs to be political will to push for that (and agreement on the best way to do it). We’re far away from that even.

    • Zav
    • February 12th, 2015

    Your statement that Humans are emotional and Science not so much, fits my thinking well. Humans set up Science experiments and interpret results and emotion creeps into Science. That is why ” Science not so much sits well with me.

    Some Sciences lend themselves to more objective study, others like Climate Change do not. I have concluded that I am not willing to spend the time I would need to spend to develop a personal plan for dealing with climate change, based on hard, objective scientific conclusions. My personal plan to deal with man made climate change is to minimize my carbon foot print by asking myself continuosly, as I go about living my life, Do I have to do this activity? Can it be done in a better way? Whenever opportunity allows can I would also ask my family to conduct themselves in the same manner.

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