Moral Foundations Theory

It is one of the signs of our political times that many–if today not most–arguments about policy e.g. economics, history, social policy and women (especially about the role of women in society!) are based not in rational analysis but in competing beliefs about what is good and right for the world. As a moral psychologist, Jonathan Haidt researches the question in his book The Righteous Mind of “why good people are divided by politics and religion” through his model of “moral foundations,” which describes how we make decisions in terms of biologically evolved moral “modules” which determine our allegiances, associations and rational justifications of our moral proclivities prior to any act of reasoning we might use to justify our leanings after the fact.

The book first establishes the current neurobiological understanding of the role of thinking in the debates with the insight that for all thinking, “intuitions come first, reasons second.” He uses the metaphor of the elephant and the rider to describe how the rider of our thinking may believe it steers the elephant of our moral intuitions, but when we look at the results of research into decision making we see that it is invariably the elephant which moves first, with the rider leaning in the elephant’s direction after the fact and using reason to justify its leaning post hoc.

What, then, is the basis of our decisions? Haidt has discoved six moral foundations:







Around the world, liberals, he has found, base their morality and their political orientation on the first three foundations. Conservatives are based roughly equally in all six foundations, while liberterians constellate almost entirely around the Liberty/Oppression module with a smattering of a conservative version of Fairness/Cheating thrown in to round things off.

Even more intriguing is Haidt’s understanding of the origins of our moral leanings which, he finds, e.g. through the studies of twins, are less learned than they are biological predispositions. What we believe, how we see the world, what we feel strongly about, and how we vote is largely due to our biological predispositon to some or all of the modules which universally make up the foundations of our moral intuition.

What moral foundations theory helps me, for example, to do is to experiment in my own self-reflective processes more consciously with the orientation to those moral foundations which I have less of a natural affinity to. For example, as a modern, European, self-employed networker, the moral foundation of Authority/Subversion plays no role at all in my moral leanings. Yet I recognize the importance of healthy authority in child rearing, community organization, company leadership, and in many decision making processes. And my experience of the 60’s has helped me to understand how anti-authoritarian rebellion can cause Harm, the downside of a moral foundation of Care which is very important to me indeed.

In my business dealings with Arab and Asian cultures, understanding and respecting the Loyalty/Betrayal module or the Sanctity/Degredation module can be critical to the success of both business and social relations. Haidt provides a good map to go exploring with, and adventure is guaranteed, especially for people like myself operating with only a part of the total foundation we share as human beings.

The final conclusion which Haidt arrives at for himself, however, and the recommendation he gives to resolve the impasse in current debates, falls entirely too short of where I thought he might be going. In an impulse to quantitative completion, Haidt argues that liberals and libertarians might have something to learn from the conservative orientation simply because the conservative moral landscape involves all six moral foundations, whereas the liberal involves only three and the libertarian only two. More, Haidt seems to argue, must be better.

But the fact that our brains have evolved these six modules cannot, in my evolutionarily inspired view, automatically mean that having any version of one of these modules active is better than not having it operating at all. For example, in liberals, the Sanctity/Degredation module plays almost no role in responses of moral intuition. For the conservatives it does. But the current conservative version of Sanctity/Degredation issues is rooted in religion at the developmental level of a mythical consciousness. Liberals, in their more secular/scientific approach to life, have little patience for mytholgocially-based imperatives. Does that mean that liberals lack the Sanctity/Degredation module? That would seem to be unlikely, since even if through evolution certain brains focus less on the second triad of foundations than others, too little evolutionary time has passed for the second triad to have atrophied completely in the liberal brain. Liberals, I would think, respond just as intensely to the issues of life from the Sanctity/Degredation module as conservatives–but differently. As Haidt also notes, the counterculture interest in spirituality, meditation, alternative medicine and natural foods had a “purity” aspect which would seem to fit well to the Sanctity/Degredation need (ridiculed, interestingly, by conservatives–perhaps because it reminds them of the irrationality of their own versions of the Sanctity need). To take another example, the liberal rejection of patriarchal authority as arbitrary and discriminatory would seem to express in mature liberals a need for authority more suited to a complex, networked world, not the rejection of the Authority/Subversion impulse as such.

At, a website run by Haidt and a number of academic colleagues, one can participate in a plethora of surveys to get a profile of one’s own moral orientation among a host of other topics loosely related to politics and morality. The few I have filled out so far put me pretty much where I expected, in the liberal/libertarian moral range.

However, many questions left me feeling caught in both/and or neither/nor dilemmas, so that I answered them without feeling my orientation had been grasped. For example, I am both socially liberal and fiscally conservative, a values-orientation closer to what the Economist uses as its moral foundation than any of the parties in the US. Then I am complexity and network-oriented and not socially communitarian, which the questionnaires seem unable to distinguish from a socially liberal perspective. And while I am strongly fairness-oriented in the conservative sense of personal responsibility and reward for performance, I can’t imagine a context in which performance could operate effectively which was not created through the regulatory policies of an intelligent social community and efficient government bureacracy, again a moral orientation which the questionnaires did not seem to be able to grasp (though as I learn more, I may discover how they do include such perspectives).

In sum, Moral Foundations Theory could enable us to explore the world’s moral landscape more fully, providing an objective framework for issues which most of us argue over intuitively, passionately, unconsciously and increasingly irrationally. I find it already helping me to develop a more objective perspective on these conflicted issues.

What I miss is a developmental model of the moral modules. As Haidt himself seems to argue, a module represents a biological predisposition, not an orientation to a particular content. How the needs of the module are fulfilled is a question of personal and cultural development. I suspect, for example, that liberals have as much spiritual potential as conservatives in their biological substrates. But dogmatic religious beliefs and behaviors are not suited to activating the Sanctity/Degredation module of a scientific or pluralistic consciousness. I would love to experience what would happen if the religions were to update their versions of Sanctity so that a scientific consciousness could relate to them, or political leaders were to emerge who understood how to exude authority which enables networked communities and so potentially activate the Authority/Subversion module in liberals.

I suspect we have a way to go…