Moral Foundations Theory

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Jonathan Haidt is a professor at New York University. With more than 30,000 citations from other scholars, he is arguably the most prominent social scientist at work in the world today.

Haidt is especially famous for his framework of moral foundations or moral intuitions theory. The theory bypasses the traditional rationalist frameworks used by scholars and looks at how people’s morals are far more beholden to emotions and intuitions than to rational frames of mind.

In Western philosophy, Kant famously said that morality is rooted in reason – abstract moral rules that are true for everyone, always.

But before that, Hume had actually said that morality is rooted in sentiment and emotion. He also said that morality was in many ways subjective, just like aesthetic taste is subjective. To Hume, there was no “one size fits all” rule book that could describe everyone’s morals.

Social scientists have traditionally worked off of a Kantian framework that emphasized reason as the cause of human morality. Many have thought that the ability to reason clearly about moral issues is what causes human beings to be moral.

However, more recent research suggests that people aren’t especially rational in their moral judgments. There is little to suggest that the most logical people are also the most moral. And one study even found that books on ethics were more often stolen from libraries than books on other topics.

Therefore, it seems Hume was right: Morality is like aesthetic taste and varies from person to person. Rationality merely acts as a press agent, coming up with plausible reasons for why we believe what we believe, after the emotions have done their work.

There are six different moral foundations and everyone’s morality has something to do with all six scales. But the mixture of the scales is different from person to person. We’re going to do a more detailed breakdown of the scales later in this piece. For now, let’s just note that moral foundations are not just different from person to person: They also vary between different political groups.

  • Some people think that it’s very important to care for each other and for the downtrodden. These people are usually left-wingers.
  • Some think it’s important to honor their society’s traditional culture and to respect its cultural taboos. These people are typically conservatives.
  • Others still think the most important thing is that the individual has the freedom to be his own master and that he is free to reject the norms imposed on him by the group. These people are typically libertarians.

Not everyone agrees that their morality is really more emotional than rational. Be that as it may, however, moral foundations theory has certainly gained ground among researchers and has turned up a lot of evidence that people are different.

The Six Moral Foundations 

Care: This foundation pertains to our mammalian need to care for our young and to form bonds of attachment to others. It underlies the virtues of kindness and nurturance and is tied to emotions such as protectiveness and compassion. Left-wingers typically score the highest on this dimension, conservatives the second-highest, and libertarians the lowest.

Fairness: This foundation pertains to our ability to maintain cooperative and mutually beneficial relationships. It underlies the virtues of honesty, justice, and dependability. It is tied to emotions such as gratitude, anger, and guilt. Left-wingers typically score higher on this dimension than conservatives and libertarians, but the foundation is important to all political groups. The trick here is that left-wingers understand fairness as equality – for example by supporting welfare and economic redistribution – while the right understands fairness as proportionality – that is, cracking down on slackers and free-riders and letting those who work hard and do well in a market economy keep more of what they earn.

The next three moral foundations are loyalty, authority, and purity. They are sometimes grouped together under the heading “Tradition,” as they are chiefly relevant to conservatives.

Loyalty: This foundation is derived from our species’ long history of living as tribes and clans, enabling us to form cohesive communities. It underlies the virtues of patriotism, bravery, and self-sacrifice on behalf of the group. It is tied to emotions such as pride and a sense of belonging. Conservatives typically score higher on this dimension than left-wingers and libertarians.

Authority: This foundation was shaped by humanity’s long history of bonding together in hierarchical social interactions. It underlies the virtues of respect for tradition and deference to legitimate authority. It is tied to emotions such as fear, respect, and awe. Conservatives typically score higher on this dimension than left-wingers and libertarians.

Purity: This foundation pertains to our species’ need to avoid disease and parasites. It underlies the phenomenon of cultural taboos and fuels the commitment to live in a manner that abstains from indulgence in sensory desires. It is tied to emotions such as sanctity, piety, and disgust. Conservatives typically score higher on this dimension than left-wingers and libertarians.

The sixth moral foundation was added the latest to Haidt’s system, but it is by no means less significant that the preceding five.

Liberty: This foundation is related to the individual’s need to be his own master and to avoid the dominant social mores imposed by the group. It underlies the virtues of independence and autonomy. It is tied to emotions such as self-sufficiency and defiance. Libertarians typically score the highest on this dimension, followed by conservatives, who score the second-highest. Left-wingers typically score the lowest here.

The Six Moral Foundations and Three Prominent Political Groups

Left-wingers have a care and fairness-based morality: They want people to take care of the poor and the weak and to empathize with victims. But on the other hand, traditional social structures, such as in-group loyalty, authority and purity, aren’t especially important to them. With regards to liberty, many left-wingers will say that liberty is very important to them, but in empirical studies, they nevertheless tend to score lower on liberty than conservatives and libertarians. One reason for this may be that while left-wingers typically do care about liberty in relation to lifestyle choices, they tend to place less of a premium on economic liberty than conservatives and libertarians.

Conservatives have a balanced morality where all six foundations are solidly represented. Conservatives are the only political group for whom the foundations of loyalty, authority, and purity play more than an infinitesimal role. However, while conservatives are often stereotyped as stick-in-the-muds who only care about traditional morality, studies in Moral Foundations theory actually show that conservatives really have the most multifaceted morality of all political groups. Like leftists, they also care about nurture and fairness, and like libertarians, they also care about liberty. On the other hand, since conservatives have to balance all six foundations in their moral makeup, their morality is not always as clear-cut as that of left-wingers or libertarians.

Libertarians, unsurprisingly, have a liberty-based morality with a good deal of fairness thrown in as well. In fact, the zest for liberty among libertarians is so high that some studies report the liberty foundation taking up close to half of their total morality. Like left-wingers, libertarians don’t care too much about the traditional foundations of loyalty, authority, and purity, but apart from liberty, libertarians also care a good deal about fairness. But as we saw earlier, it is important to remember that libertarians don’t understand fairness as equality, but as proportionality: They tend to dislike people who – as they often put it – vote themselves more money through welfare. They also tend to think that if someone works hard and does well in the market economy, they should also be allowed to keep a big part of what they earn. Finally, libertarians tend to score lower on care than both left-wingers and conservatives. Libertarians don’t always like to hear this, but the evidence is pretty clear. On the other hand, some theorists have speculated that the reason libertarians score lower on this dimension is not necessarily because they don’t care about the weak, but because they don’t have as many emotions concerning their instinct to care as other political groups, since libertarians are, on average, less emotional people in general.

11 Comments

  1. Isn’t it completely obvious morality is based mainly on emotions lol? Only crazy philosophers could think it was totally logical and machine-like – or that that’s a good thing! Why would a powerful, intelligent robot be more ethical than a human? :D

    David Hume was right for once! But he was still terrible at ball games …

  2. In Europe and Australia/New Zealand, liberal typically means right-wing and they have different kinds of leftists (socialist, social-democratic, social-liberal). :)

  3. For Europeans and perhaps most of the world outside the US, liberalism means something much different than left wing. The modern term liberalism is a pretty bloated term, but in Europe it is closer to classical liberalism which emphasizes liberty and personal freedom while in the US there is a heavy emphasis on social liberalism which emphasizes social equality and social justice.

    Liberal parties in Europe are usually centrist, but may also often be on the right or somewhat rarer on the left of center. The democratic party would be considered socially left wing and ecominically centrist in Europe and would not be considered a liberal party.

  4. Geez, if people stopped talking about “left wing” and “right wing” for a few minutes we’d finally be able to catch the bird…

  5. This article makes me curious. Are libertarians typically lower on agreeability? Similar to how conservatives are typically lower on Openness?

  6. Republicans are SJs
    Democrats are NFs
    Libertarians are SPs
    And NTs think everyone is wrong, except themselves!

  7. According to that study, libertarians would be NTs. I guess that explains their alleged insufferability in debates.

  8. Lol no way – you think NTs care more about freedom and liberty than SPs? You don’t know anything :D

    Plus there’s nothing very N about lib lol (from the whole two pages I’ve read about it). Its probably the least abstract most everyday guy style political view there is – “Stay away from my shit an let me do ma thing, an I’ll let you do yours bro”

    But of course anyone that agrees with you has to be NT right :D

  9. Libertarians: We need a smaller government dudes. And more space to do my – I mean our – own thing!

    Everyone else: Er okay… But without a proper government who is going to, you know, govern the country and take care of foreign relations, the military, the economy, healthcare, proper police etc??

    Libertarians: Oh geez guys, I don’t wanna talk about that boring stuff! Just let me do my thing and everything else will sort itself out!

    Donald Trump seems like a Libertarian to me! :D

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