A Student Veteran’s Guide to College Moral Tribes

How Moral Foundations Theory can help veterans understand college social norms

Posted Jul 27, 2016

Monarch Sharma/Flickr
Source: Monarch Sharma/Flickr

Each year, thousands of military members transition into college. When they ask me for advice, my number one tip is to use the discipline they learned in the military and redirect it toward their studies. A second, less commonly discussed aspect of veterans entering college is the social factor. More specifically, veterans often find that they must adapt to new social norms in addition to their coursework. This is particularly true at colleges that have smaller populations of older students.

As I’ve observed the nuances of student life and compared it with my former life in the military, I’ve noticed some interesting differences. Though the age groups of both groups are similar—both students and new recruits are made up of individuals mostly in their late teens and early twenties—there are some stark differences.

Typically, new military members are among the youngest individuals in their workplace. In contrast, veterans in college find that they are among the oldest in their peer group. Many older students, veterans included, have had the jarring experience of rapidly adjusting to their new community—the college campus. Most of my personal interactions with students at Yale have been friendly. In general, my peers have been helpful in bringing me up to speed on campus culture.

Still, it can be difficult for older student veterans to understand the passion many young students express about social issues. A couple of months ago I attended a Bernie Sanders rally and recognized a feeling within the audience that I have not felt since I was eighteen years old in 2008. In that year, the Obama campaign was in full swing and I felt the positive emotions President Obama’s campaign produced in many young people. Today, I am older and perhaps more jaded. When I hear students mention microaggressions, I feel a micro-generation gap, though I am only four or five years older than them.

One interesting difference I’ve noticed is the differences in the ways the military and college students express their moral attitudes. Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at New York University Stern School of Business, has developed Moral Foundations theory to explain differences in moral attitudes. According to Haidt, there are five basic foundations of morality. Moral preferences of individuals and groups rest on one or more of these foundations.

The foundations on which morality rests are:

1. Care/harm: Related to our evolution as mammals and an ability to feel the pain of others. It underlies kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

2. Fairness/cheating: Linked to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.

3. Loyalty/betrayal: Related to our history as tribal creatures that form coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for our group.

4. Authority/subversion: Shaped by our primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

5. Sanctity/degradation: 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.

According to Moral Foundations Theory, liberals tend to assign high value to the first two foundations, harm and fairness, and ascribe less value to the other three foundations. This has matched my observations on campus. A phrase that is used both seriously and ironically among my peers is, “You do you.” The translation can be interpreted as, “As long as you aren’t hurting anyone, do whatever you want.” This could be perceived as a more liberating version of morality in which judgment is not rendered and individuals can act as they please.

But I have noticed that while moral judgment in the traditional sense is rarely expressed, e.g., sexual shaming, other forms are exercised in the form of not acquiescing to certain prescribed political beliefs. Moreover, while authority in the traditional sense is not emphasized, e.g., to faculty or the administration, it manifests by other individuals using different forms of power to wield over certain individuals. All of these foundations are found in every group, but sometimes we must scratch beneath the surface to locate them.

On the other hand, conservatives tend to believe that ideas like loyalty, authority, and sanctity should be given consideration when making moral judgments. It is no surprise that most individuals in the military tend to lean conservative, which makes sense given that the highest ideals of service emphasize the latter three foundations in addition to the first two. For instance, new recruits are taught to respect their chain of command, be prepared to put their life at risk for their peers, and respect the tradition of military service.

Service members have a common goal, and rarely have competing interests. While it is a natural human tendency to form in-groups and out-groups, military members form an in-group based on a common culture of service and camaraderie, which reduces the need to form out-groups between based on other characteristics of identity. Moreover, putting one’s life at risk for another person regardless of race has the effect of ameliorating potential hostility between service members.

It has been jarring to move from one tribe in which certain moral foundations were emphasized, to another tribe in which other foundations are more pervasive. Furthermore, it has been interesting to note that some students were willing to explain their political and moral views with remarkable composure, whereas others preferred aggression and hostility.

It is important to bear in mind that different communities focus on different aspects of morality. Attitudes on college campuses can be perplexing to veterans who have moved from a group that emphasizes authority, tradition, and teamwork to a more individualized community in which harm and fairness are the principle concerns. A familiarity of Moral Foundations Theory can equip student veterans to better understand and connect with their younger peers. As a pluralist, I do not assign greater value to any particular moral foundation. Each foundation occupies an important role in various tribes and it has been illuminating to move from the tribe of the military to the tribe of an elite college campus.

You can follow me on Twitter here: @robkhenderson.

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