Uprisings in moral terms


BOSS Blog 16: The morality of uprisings

Uprisings are alike

There is a certain historic continuity in the dynamics of uprisings. This has been true since many centuries. In this century, we have seen these dynamics particularly in countries in the Maghreb and the Middle East. At this moment, Iran is in turmoil since the death of 22-year old Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman who died in custody after being arrested by the Iranian “morality police” for improperly wearing her hijab.

Uprisings are horrible

We can all agree that these are horrible times for Iran. It is also easy, and actually a slight relief, to condemn the side one does not support in strong terms. What’s more difficult is to understand the events. This is still important, particularly since many uprisings and their aftermaths in other countries are rather similar.

The role of culture

Uprisings are not independent of culture. In an egalitarian culture, they will have a different dynamic from a hierarchical one; for instance, farmers have recently driven their tractors to the Dutch capital in protest in large numbers, without meeting with the army, or indeed without being punished; this would be unthinkable in many places. Granted, the role of culture is more subtle than this example suggests. In fact, it is hard to comprehend culture.

Culture is about the hive

Let me use the analogy between people and bees. Culture is so hard to understand because it’s about hives, not bees. Culture describes how we humans organize our societies. A society is a human hive, and culture is a hive thing. It takes all kinds of bees to create a well-functioning hive; but they need to understand one another. Under threat, all bees in the hive will stand as one.

Bees differ but share culture

When a beehive is in danger of overheating, bees will post at the entrance and buzz their wings to ventilate. If all bees were identical, they would all post simultaneously, and this would lead to wild fluctuations. Instead, a little overheating will only activate a few bees. Those will ventilate, and the others will go about their own business.

Values are about bees

Every single bee can have a slightly different calibration about what is “too hot” – that’s not a cultural difference, but an inter-individual one. Similarly, every person in a society can have a different personality and slightly different values, as long as – like the bees - they understand one another well enough. So, culture requires shared values.

Haidt’s righteous mind

This is where US psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s “Righteous mind” (2012) can help. Haidt describes our moral system as having six “taste receptors”. I believe that these are the individual-level manifestations of how we were socialized in our hives. Moral values are how we feel our culture in our hearts. Depending on what happens around us, these values will make us feel moral emotions.

Haidt’s six taste receptors

Haidt distinguishes six factors that he calls “moral foundations”. All of these are about behaviour of individuals that has consequences for the hive:

  1. Harm vs care (e.g. kick an animal)
  2. Fairness vs unfairness (e.g. jump the queue)
  3. Loyalty vs treason (e.g. desert the army)
  4. Hierarchy vs insubordination (e.g. contradict your parents)
  5. Sanctity vs pollution (e.g. insult the Gods)
  6. Liberty vs oppression (e.g. abuse power)

Depending on how you were raised, you'll think worse about some of these trangressions than others. As a Dutchman, I was raised to be especially worried about care, fairness, and abuse of power; these taste buds of my morality are most sensitive.

Culture and moral taste buds

For culture adepts, it is not difficult to see a similarity here with Hofstede’s dimensions of culture. I’ll talk about that another time. For now, I can say that the six taste buds enable a cross-cultural dialogue about morality. All people have all the taste buds, but depending on our culture (and personality, and personal history), some are more sensitive than others.

The Iranian uprising and moral foundations

Let’s consider how these moral foundations play out during an uprising, using the Iranian uprising as an example. I am not Iranian, so I may be getting some things wrong – but I’m ready to be corrected.

There has been a tension between more secular groups and the mullahs ever since the 1979 Islamic revolution, with the secular groups claiming they were being oppressed, and the regime supporters claiming that the non-conformists were polluted – perverted by foreign, depraved ideas, most likely. Both sides perceived this as a threat to the hive – which will lead to strong moral feelings.

Difference in moral taste buds

So, there was a “moral taste bud miscommunication” between the two sides. This can lead to dangerous dynamics, if either side does not acknowledge the relevance of the other’s feelings.

The uprising

When fears of the other party rise, it becomes harder to use other moral taste buds than the dominant one. That’s when the situation can escalate into demonization and violence. It happened in many uprisings. Typically, the establishment "tastes" pollution, insubordination and treason, and reacts strongly, by repression, perhaps by killing “polluted” or “treacherous” elements. It happened to Mahsa Amini, and many others. The protesters, on the other hand, "taste" extreme oppression. Western observers, with their omnipresent journalists, "taste" harm and unfairness. So, the taste buds used by both parties do not overlap

Powers that be versus protesters

The powers that be always feel emotions about treason, insubordination, and pollution. The protesters always feel emotions about oppression, unfairness, and harm. Each uprising is different – but in this, they are much alike.

Danger to the hive

The crucial element as I see it, is that both parties see the hive brought in danger by the other side. This activates such strong moral emotions, that everything else gets blocked. The nuances of freedom and order disappear, and both parties take a flight forward. For the powers that be, there is hardly a way back. How can they admit they overreacted, without feeling heavy guilt?

Immoral or different?

Your enemies may or may not be immoral sociopaths. Or their leader may be. A leader cannot stay in power without followers though. Probably, the followers simply use different moral taste buds than you.

Way out

As I see it, the only way out is for all parties to recognize all moral taste buds, even if they hate the experience - and keep abhorring the moral position of the others. Seeing the moral reasons of the other side can create some understanding, alleviate fears, and end the losing game of a people fighting against itself. In the end, nothing is more abhorrent than a hive that destroys itself.


Jonathan Haidt (20212), The righteous mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion. Penguin. ISBN 978-0-141-03916-9.