little plastic flags

One of the more useful ideas I’ve come across in the last few years is Moral Foundations theory as described by Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind.

There was a discussion on a local blog about about Boy Scouts placing little plastic flags on lawns (for Memorial Day?).  It evolved into a larger discussion of what patriotism means.  I have altered my response slightly for this context.

I get that you don’t understand patriotism

Disagreement does not imply lack of understanding.

Haidt’s The Righteous Mind illuminates how well-meaning people get baffled by each other’s positions. In his description, three main political leanings have different moral foundations which can seem bizarre or foreign to the other groups.


Haidt’s analysis says Conservative folks’ moral system is built on:

  • Care: cherishing and protecting others; opposite of harm

  • Fairness: rendering justice according to shared rules; opposite of cheating

  • Loyalty or ingroup: standing with your group, family, nation; opposite of betrayal

  • Authority or respect: submitting to tradition and legitimate authority; opposite of subversion

  • Sanctity or purity: abhorrence for disgusting things, foods, actions; opposite of degradation

“Why don’t Liberals subscribe to these principles? They must be unamerican, commies, devil-worshipers, or queers! Love it or leave it!”


Liberals folks’ moral system is built only or mainly on the first two:

  • Care

  • Fairness

“Why are Conservatives so worried about who I marry, what color I dye my hair, or that I I’m a Druid? They must be fur-wearing, bootlicking drones who crave daddy’s strong hand!”


Libertarian folks’ moral system is built on:

  • Liberty; opposite of oppression.

  • Care and Fairness do matter but are an individual function

“Ugh, why are both conservatives and liberals so determined to build Big Government? They must not have read Atlas Shrugged yet. Here, take one of my 28 copies. Also, I’m pretty sure we went over the cliff while Woodrow Wilson was driving. #legalizeAllDrugz” .

In this model each group is perplexed by the thinking and actions of the other. I’m not entirely sure how to work with that information, so for now I am starting with awareness of my own models and biases.

It’s the glue that motivates folks to do stuff for their country that is inconvenient, dangerous or doesn’t pay well.

Not aiming to be disrespectful: to me that motivating glue is indistinguishable from successful propaganda. I would prefer folks be motivated to serve the nation by understanding its design, history, and current role in the world. Support our national positions when they are right/good, and agitate against them when they are wrong/bad.

They did it for the same reason they saluted the flag

I enlisted because I was operating on the “standing with your group, family, nation” principle.

Historical trivia - here’s how the US used to salute the flag until 1941: