Anarchism and gut reactions

Published on Anarchist Studies blog, 27 February 2018

Brian Martin

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Is there such a thing as human nature? And how does it affect prospects for anarchist futures? Anarchists have addressed these questions in various ways.[1]

Some commentators say that anarchism is based on an optimistic view about human nature, namely that humans have a natural tendency to cooperate, as argued by Kropotkin in Mutual Aid. If humans can construct and live harmoniously in communities without hierarchy, as shown by many non-agricultural societies,[2] this suggests there is no need for rulers and that domination is unnatural.

On the other hand, critics of this optimistic view point to the dangers of free riders (those who take advantage of collective provision without contributing to it), narcissists and psychopaths.

A different anarchist view is that humans are by nature corruptible. As famously stated by Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Researchers have shown how power negatively changes the thinking and actions of power-holders.[3] If power tends to corrupt, then anarchist goals make sense in a different way: it is necessary to construct social systems that limit the power of any individual or group and so reduce the risk of power being misused.

From this perspective, rulers are bound to use their power not to protect the poor and weak (though this is possible) but to control and exploit them. Anarchism differs from the political philosophies of conservatism, liberalism and socialism in arguing that obtaining political power is not the road to a better society. Rather, the path should be compatible with the goal, a society without domination.

Insights about anarchist strategies can be obtained by studying research findings by Jonathan Haidt and his collaborators. In his book The Righteous Mind, Haidt identifies six “moral foundations” of human thought and behavior: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity.[4] Each one has an opposite, so the foundations, written in full, are care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation. Each of these affects what humans think, automatically, about right and wrong.

Two minds

Before describing the six moral foundations in more detail, it is worth understanding Haidt’s picture of how the mind operates. Most people believe they have a single mind, which they identify with conscious thought. It seems obvious enough, but psychologists have undertaken many experiments that reveal something more complex: a model in which humans have two minds that operate in tandem.[5] One mind is intuitive, automatic and high capacity, and often operates outside of consciousness. When you suddenly observe a black spot moving in your line of vision, you don’t have time to consciously calculate its speed and trajectory. Your intuitive mind does this automatically and you duck to avoid the rock.

The second mind is rational, slow and low capacity. It is the mind you use when pondering a complex problem. It is the one we usually think of when we say that humans are rational beings. The problem is that in many cases, people make judgments intuitively, as gut reactions, using the intuitive mind. Then, having formed a view, their rational mind tries to figure out a justification for it. To emphasise this dynamic, Haidt calls the intuitive mind the elephant and the rational mind the rider. The rider seems nominally to be in control but in practice often just follows wherever the elephant decides to go.

Haidt developed some questions which, when posed to individuals, highlight the dominance of the intuitive mind, in other words the elephant. For example, would you willingly eat food dropped on a clean floor? If you find this disgusting, it’s the elephant speaking, because there is no rational reason not to eat it. Likewise for food in just-cleaned toilet bowl. Repulsion about eating from a clean toilet bowl illustrates the influence of the moral foundation called sanctity.

Each of the moral foundations has a basis in human evolution. Earlier in human history, when certain types of food were potentially contaminated, it was useful to have an automatic revulsion against them, and then to have this response embedded in belief systems giving objects and rituals symbolic significance. Being automatically repelled by food crawling with maggots can have survival value, even though in some cases it might be quite safe to eat.

The moral foundation called care involves an instinctive, namely automatic, concern for other humans, especially those who are most vulnerable, notably children. Care for others, including a willingness to make sacrifices for them, even to risk one’s life for others, has an obvious collective survival value. Early human groups were more likely to survive and thrive when children were looked after and cruelty challenged.

Occasionally, for example in emergencies, the instinctive willingness to care for others is dramatically revealed when a person jumps into the sea or rushes into a burning building in an attempt to rescue a complete stranger, sometimes at a risk to their own life. The care response developed evolutionarily to enable small groups of humans to survive, but in individuals it is not programmed so tightly: it can be evoked in other situations.

In our world, the care foundation can be expressed in more abstract and broad-ranging ways, for example when people make donations to help victims of disasters in other parts of the world, or when they join direct actions to protect rainforest from being logged, an example of care extended beyond the human species.

Anarchists and moral foundations

The care foundation is relevant for most people: aside from psychopaths, nearly everyone believes in the protection of children, especially children close to them. Anarchists usually have a well developed concern for others, interpreting care in a wide context, including for oppressed groups and the environment.

Another widespread foundation is fairness. This can be observed among young children who complain when their sibling receives a larger portion of food than they do. Children often compete for the attention of their parents, feeling bad if they do not receive a fair share. In wider society, there are numerous injustices, including economic inequality, nepotism, exclusive clubs and biased legal systems. The importance of the fairness moral foundation is revealed in the persistence and ongoing success of movements whose goal is greater equality, including the labour movement, the feminist movement and, more recently, the Occupy movement, among others. The moral foundation of fairness is built into the anarchist picture of the world.

Liberty is another moral foundation: it can be interpreted as instinctive resistance to domination. It includes classic freedoms: speech, movement, assembly and so forth. The moral foundation of liberty is of primary importance for libertarians.[6] For social anarchists or libertarian socialists, liberty is vital, but needs to be reconciled with the value of cooperation to build social relationships serving the collective good.

So far so good: anarchists are likely to have strong commitments to three moral foundations: care, fairness and liberty. For other moral foundations, things are not so simple. Consider the moral foundation that Haidt calls authority: it involves acceptance of authority figures and systems, including in government, organised religion, the military, police, corporations, medicine and patriarchy. The authority-oriented gut reactions make people sensitive to status and to appropriate behaviour: royalists may see it as offensive for a commoner to even touch a monarch. The importance of authority is revealed in the popular support for government leaders, the willingness of troops to follow orders, and the acceptance in many parts of the world of patriarchal family structures.

Authority can clash with liberty. It is not surprising that early human societies evolved to include these two apparently contradictory moral foundations. Deference to authority can have survival value to a group that might otherwise fission into smaller, less viable groups and individuals. At the same time, a preference for liberty can constrain the exercise of authority, which can become damaging to the initiative and flexibility of a group to adapt to circumstances and meet challenges.

Many people who call themselves anarchists have a gut revulsion for authority, including authority figures such as teachers and police. Does this mean that anarchism must inevitably clash with and try to overcome the authority moral foundation? Not quite. When groups organise their own lives through collective, cooperative processes, they can come up with agreed rules and behaviours, and ways of relating to those who refuse to cooperate. Authority in a self-organising group is vested in the group as a whole and in the processes to which group members subscribe, not in any individual. “Authority” in this circumstance has a different connotation: it is, if you like, egalitarian or cooperative authority rather than hierarchical authority.

Similar considerations apply to another moral foundation: loyalty. In evolutionary terms, loyalty to those in a tight-knit group was important for survival: it made it possible for people to organise themselves into coalitions. Haidt says the loyalty foundation “makes us want to hurt, ostracize, or even kill those who betray us or our group.”[7] However, with the rise of modern states in the past few hundred years, different types of loyalty have arisen, most obviously loyalty to a country, commonly called patriotism. There is also loyalty to commercial brands, sporting teams and many other groups and ideas. Although loyalty is often portrayed as a desirable attribute, it can be to bad people or ideologies. Organised crime is built on loyalty to a group. Whistleblowers are often seen by their employers as traitors, whereas members of the public may respect them for being committed to truth-telling.

Militaries rely on loyalty to keep troops committed to fighting the enemy. However, US commanders learned from psychologists that loyalty to abstractions, such as freedom or the United States, is not nearly as effective as loyalty to other soldiers in their own unit, and adjusted their training and organisational structures accordingly.[8] This makes sense in terms of the evolutionary basis for loyalty, in which it was about being committed to members of an extended family rather than to all the nameless residents of a large geographical area.

Is loyalty a special attribute of anarchists? As opponents of states and organised religion, anarchists might be said to be disloyal. It makes more sense, though, to point to different types of loyalty: to workmates, to humans without discrimination, to a vision of a world without domination. Loyalty and betrayal can take different forms. If people with anarchist sentiments differ from others on this moral foundation, it is probably in terms of which groups and ideas are the recipients of loyalty. Workers can have great loyalty to each other; the antagonism towards strike-breakers, and the negative connotations of the word “scab,” testify to workers’ mutual loyalty.

Finally there is sanctity, a moral foundation whose opposite is degradation. The word “sanctity” can conjure up images of religion: a place of worship can be called a sanctuary, and many religious adherents see it as blasphemous to violate holy places or icons. The outrage expressed by many Muslims over cartoons making fun of the prophet Mohammed is simply one example among many. However, the emotion of disgust can be evoked in many other ways and contexts, including by food, sexual functions, excretion and the body.[9] You can undertake this simple experiment. First, swallow. Next, spit into a glass and then consider drinking your saliva. If you feel any reluctance in the latter task, it is a reflection of the sanctity moral foundation. Things inside the body are treated differently by the mind than those outside, so your saliva is evaluated differently depending on where it is. Rationally, according to the rider, the saliva inside your mouth is no different, in terms of something to swallow, than saliva outside your body in a clean container, but the elephant says otherwise.

Variable moral responses

Haidt has used ingenious means to evaluate the importance of the six moral foundations for individuals. For some people, notably libertarians, liberty is of greatest importance. Others are influenced more equally by all six foundations. Haidt has paid special attention to differences between liberals and conservatives in the US. For liberals, three moral foundations tend to take precedence: care, fairness and liberty. For conservatives, the six foundations are more likely to be evenly balanced; for them, care, fairness and liberty are significant, but so are loyalty, authority and sanctity. However, focusing on differences between liberals and conservatives can be misleading, because the context is that all six foundations are important for most people, depending on the circumstances.

Of greater significance than differences between liberals and conservatives is that the ways that moral foundations are attached or deployed can be changed, sometimes dramatically, by social influences. For example, the care foundation can be applied only to an in-group or extended to out-groups. This can be seen in attitudes to refugees and to immigration more generally. People fleeing persecution are potential recipients of kindness and concern, an extension of the care response evoked by dependent children. However, some people see refugees as a threat and advocate blocking them from arriving in “our” country. In such cases, the care response is restricted in application, applying only to those considered to be “us,” interpreted in a nationalistic sense. The care response can also be constrained in other ways. Some people think that government payments for people living in poverty are part of what makes a society humane and compassionate; others resent welfare payments to the “undeserving poor,” blaming disadvantaged people for their own predicament. In-groups can be defined in different ways, sometimes varying and contradictory, allowing the care response to be applied unevenly and even unpredictably. So while there is the potential of a gut reaction involving a sense of caring, there are no guarantees about how it will be deployed.

Another example is abortion. Members of pro-life groups extend their care response to unborn children, whereas members of pro-choice groups focus on pregnant women and usually exclude foetuses from the bounds of their feelings of care. Pro-life groups use photos of foetuses as an effective way to arouse concern and gain members; such photos are evocative in a way that abstract arguments are not. Similarly, animal rights groups use photos of animals being experimented on to arouse concern and recruit members. The image of an animal suffering is a potent way to trigger the care response in some people.[10]

The important point here is that the six moral foundations are simply an initial tendency, what Haidt calls the “first draft of human nature”: the application of the foundations can be modified as a result of experiences, persuasion and peer influence, among other factors. Playing important roles in this are advertisers, media managers and those Haidt calls “moral entrepreneurs,” who promote their own moral preferences. Pro-life, pro-choice and animal rights activists are moral entrepreneurs, and so are many others.

Of special relevance for anarchists are the continuing efforts to encourage people to think from the perspective of the state, which doesn’t come naturally. There is nothing in human evolution to encourage people to think they have something in common with thousands or millions of people they have never met and probably never will even know about. Friends and acquaintances typically number no more than a few dozen, or perhaps a few hundreds. Yet some soldiers are willing to die on behalf of an abstraction, their country. But not everyone is eager to do this. Historically, conscription has been necessary to force men into armies, and today in many countries with volunteer armies the inducements are pay and conditions. Loyalty might be part of the first draft of human nature, but it is not loyalty to the state, which has to be fostered, indeed sometimes imposed, with the penalty for refusal being ostracism or imprisonment.


Anarchists are well aware of the challenges faced in moving from a world with powerful states, entrenched capitalism and other forms of oppression towards a freer world in which people collectively and cooperatively determine their own lives, with as little domination as possible. There are many capable expositions of anarchist alternatives and many courageous practical initiatives. Nevertheless, it is worth learning how to do better, and for this some insights can be drawn from Haidt’s studies of moral foundations.

A first important lesson is that, for most people, evidence and arguments will never be enough to get them to recognise anarchism as a valid alternative. This is because of gut reactions, usually out of conscious awareness. Anarchism is a challenge to conventional constructions of authority and loyalty.

Anarchism attracts anti-authoritarians of various stripes, but for a broader appeal, something needs to be done about the common associations between authority, order and safety that are drummed into people by governments that encourage fear of the current enemy or danger, whether this is communism, terrorism or criminals. There is no easy counter to this messaging by governments, but it is important to understand how it operates. The continued efforts by powerful groups to create fear of out-groups is a sign that attachments to country and acquiescence to capitalism are not automatic, but need to be shored up on a regular basis.[11]

Anarchists can look at each moral foundation and see how it meshes with their vision of an ideal world and the process of getting to it. Anarchism, in being based on opposing domination, builds care into its rationale. A second aspect is the anarchist commitment to prefiguration, which means the means should embody the ends. This implies that anarchist practice should also model a society without domination.

Fairness is another moral foundation central to anarchism. The idea of self-organisation or horizontalism is that decisions should be made, so far as possible, by those affected by them. Given that most people have an instinctive concern about fairness, self-organisation can give practical expression to this concern. Hierarchies, in contrast, epitomise inequality, exploitation and unfairness.

Then there is liberty, yet another foundation central to anarchist philosophy and practice. Challenging domination and building non-hierarchical alternatives is the essence of a commitment to human freedom. However, this is tempered by the necessity to cooperate. Freedom for one individual, for example to exploit the environment, can be oppression for another. Freedom in anarchism is a cooperative project, and hence constrained through cooperative decision-making.

The moral foundations of care, fairness and liberty are natural for anarchist philosophy and practice. The foundations of loyalty, authority and sanctity are more challenging. If these involve loyalty to country, acceptance of government authority, and respect for sanctity tied to religious institutions, many anarchists will rebel. After all, anti-authoritarianism is a prominent theme in anarchist politics.

However, following Haidt, it would be a mistake to simply reject these moral foundations. Embracing anti-authoritarianism is likely to appeal to only a small minority of people. An alternative approach is to accept a human tendency to respect authority and to seek a different mode of authority, compatible with anarchist ideals. One possibility is the authority of the self-governing collective. Imagine a group of workers who choose what products to make and how to make them, or local residents who cooperatively make decisions about local energy and transport arrangements. Respect for authority would then be respect for the decisions made, and support for pursuing them.

In evolutionary terms, this is just as plausible as acceptance of government authority, and probably far more so, given the scales involved. The way that the human tendency to accept authority is drawn upon in modern societies, to apply to states and capitalism, is unnatural and requires continual reinforcement. The challenge for anarchists is not just to counter the ways authority is currently constituted, but also to propose and develop alternative types of authority. One obstacle is the very word “authority,” to which many anarchists react with visceral revulsion, so tied is the concept to dominant institutions. Perhaps it would be better to use a different word. The key is not to throw out the underlying concept but instead to tie it to cooperative, non-hierarchical forms of social organisation.

Similar considerations apply to loyalty and sanctity. Again, the words themselves don’t have to be used but, if Haidt’s analysis is accepted, it is important that the underlying drives be accommodated in self-organised social arrangements and the methods used to pursue them. Loyalty can be to ideas, for example to cooperation, to co-workers or neighbours, or more generally to humans and the environment. Activists can be loyal to each other.

The word “sanctity” is commonly associated with religion, which is anathema to many anarchists, but the underlying concept can be rescued even in a resolutely secular social philosophy. Many environmentalists see nature as sacred. So what might be sacred for anarchists? Abstract possibilities include commitments to justice and equality, and resistance to oppression. What about rituals? Perhaps certain meetings, anniversaries or processes should be treated with respect.

There is strand within anarchism that challenges the pomposity of state rituals, making fun of the pretensions of politicians and other leaders, and exposing the emptiness of honouring war-making. This strand can be turned against any ritual, even ones that can contribute to anarchist goals. Just because official ceremonies are hollow compared to the realities of corrupt political systems does not mean that all ceremonies should be rejected.

Many anarchists reject authority when it is cast as domination, reject loyalty when it is loyalty to the state or bosses, and reject sanctity when it is tied to religious institutions. Yet it may be unwise to reject all forms of authority, loyalty and sanctity, at least if these are strong drives for most people. Perhaps with different names and different applications, these moral foundations can be turned into positives for anarchists. In the spirit of inquiry, this is definitely something worth exploring even if the destination remains uncertain. After all, it is a collective process.


I've applied moral foundations ideas to several other topics:


1. Peter Marshall, Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism (London: HarperCollins, 1992), 642–644.

2. Harold Barclay, People without Government (London: Kahn and Averill, 1982).

3. David Kipnis, The Powerholders, 2nd edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981); David Kipnis, Technology and Power (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1990); Ian Robertson, The Winner Effect: How Power Affects Your Brain (London: Bloomsbury, 2012).

4. Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon, 2012). See also Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham (2009). “Planet of the Durkheimians, where community, authority, and sacredness are foundations of morality,” in John T. Jost, Aaron C. Kay and Hulda Thorisdottir (Eds.), Social and Psychological Bases of Ideology and System Justification (New York: Oxford, 2009), 371–401; Jesse Graham et al., “Moral foundations theory: the pragmatic validity of moral pluralism,” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 2013, 55–130.

5. Jonathan St B. T. Evans, Thinking Twice: Two Minds in One Brain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011); Timothy D. Wilson, Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).

6. Ravi Iyer et al., “Understanding libertarian morality: the psychological dispositions of self-identified libertarians,” PLoS ONE, 7(8), 2012, e42366, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0042366

7. Haidt, Righteous Mind, 154.

8. Lawrence B. Radine, The Taming of the Troops: Social Control in the United States Army (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1977).

9. Rachel Herz, That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion (New York: Norton, 2012).

10. James M. Jasper, The Art of Moral Protest: Culture, Biography, and Creativity in Social Movements (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

11. Brian Martin, Ruling Tactics: Methods of Everyday Nationalism, How They Serve Rulers and How to Resist Them (Sparsnäs, Sweden: Irene Publishing, 2017).