Moral Foundations Theory

Moral Foundations Theory was created by a group of social and cultural psychologists (see here) to understand why morality varies so much across cultures yet still shows so many similarities and recurrent themes.  In brief, the theory proposes that several innate and universal  psychological systems are what provide the basis for our  “intuitive ethics.”

This theory proposes that each culture constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions based on a set of six moral foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world.  The foundations for the theory are as follows:

  1.  Care/Harm
  2.  Fairness/Cheating
  3.  Liberty/Oppression
  4. Loyalty/Betrayal
  5. Authority/Subversion
  6. Sanctity/Degradation

According to the Moral Foundations Theory the current American culture war can be seen as arising from the fact that liberals try to create a morality relying primarily on the first three of these moral foundations While Conservatives, especially religious conservatives,  build morality using  all six  of these foundations.

To provide an example  The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are both populist movements that talk a great deal about fairness and liberty, but in very different ways.

You can find out your own moral foundations profile at

The Six Foundations

I. Care/harm: This foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of caring for vulnerable children. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance. It makes us sensitive to signs of suffering and need; it makes us despise cruelty and want to care for those who are suffering.  Liberal caring is more Universalist. Conservative caring is more local, and blended with loyalty

II. Fairness/cheating: This foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of reaping the rewards of cooperation without getting exploited. It makes us sensitive to indications that another person is likely to be a good (or bad) partner for collaboration and reciprocal altruism. It makes us want to shun or punish cheaters. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.

Everyone cares about fairness, but there are two major kinds, equality and proportionality.   Equality is more strongly endorsed by political liberals.  Proportionality (people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes)  is endorsed by everyone, but  more strongly endorsed by conservatives.

III. Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of forming and maintaining coalitions. It makes us sensitive to signs that another person is (or is not) a team player. It makes us trust and reward such people, and it makes us want to hurt, ostracize, or even kill those who betray us or our group.   This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”  The left tends toward universalism and away from nationalism, so it often has trouble connecting to voters who rely on the Loyalty foundation.

IV. Authority/subversion: This foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of forging relationships that will benefit us within social hierarchies. It makes us sensitive to signs of rank or status, and to signs that other people are (or are not) behaving properly, given their position.   It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.  The current triggers therefore, include anything that is construed as an act of obedience, disobedience, respect, disrespect, submission, or rebellion, with regard to authorities perceived to be legitimate. Current triggers also include acts that are seen to subvert the traditions, institutions, or values that are perceived to provide stability. As with the Loyalty foundation, it is much easier for the political right to build on this foundation than it is for the left, which often defines itself in part by its opposition to hierarchy, inequality, and power.

V. Sanctity/degradation: This foundation evolved initially in response to the adaptive challenge of the omnivore’s dilemma, and then to the broader challenge of living in a world of pathogens and parasites. It was 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    It includes the behavioral immune system, which can make us wary of a diverse array of symbolic objects and threats. It makes it possible for people to invest objects with irrational and extreme values—both positive and negative—which are important for binding groups together.

The Sanctity foundation is used most heavily by the religious right, but it is also used on the spiritual left. You can see the foundation’s original impurity-avoidance function in New Age grocery stores, where you’ll find a variety of products that promise to cleanse you of “toxins.” And you’ll find the Sanctity foundation underlying some of the moral passions of the environmental movement. Many environmentalists revile industrialism, capitalism, and automobiles not just for the physical pollution they create but also for a more symbolic kind of pollution—a degradation of nature, and of humanity’s original nature, before it was corrupted by industrial capitalism.

VI. Liberty/oppression: This foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of living in small groups with individuals who would, if given the chance, dominate, bully, and constrain others. The original triggers therefore include signs of attempted domination. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor. If the original triggers of this foundation include bullies and tyrants, the current triggers include almost anything that is perceived as imposing illegitimate restraints on one’s liberty, including government (from the perspective of the American right).  But despite these manifestations on the right, the urge to band together to oppose oppression and replace it with political equality seems to be at least as prevalent on the left. It’s not just the accumulation and abuse of political power that activates the anger of the Liberty/oppression foundation; the current triggers can expand to encompass the accumulation of wealth, which helps to explain the pervasive dislike of capitalism on the far left.

The difference seems to be that for liberals—who are more universalistic and who rely more heavily upon the Care/harm foundation—the Liberty/oppression foundation is employed in the service of underdogs, victims, and powerless groups everywhere. It leads liberals to sacralize equality, which is then pursued by fighting for civil rights and human rights. Liberals sometimes go beyond equality of rights to pursue equality of outcomes, which cannot be obtained in a capitalist system. This may be why the left usually favors higher taxes on the rich, high levels of services provided to the poor, and sometimes a guaranteed minimum income for everyone. Conservatives, in contrast, are more parochial—concerned about their groups, rather than all of humanity. For them, the Liberty/oppression foundation and the hatred of tyranny supports many of the tenets of economic conservatism: don’t tread on me (with your liberal nanny state and its high taxes), don’t tread on my business (with your oppressive regulations), and don’t tread on my nation (with your United Nations and your sovereignty-reducing international treaties).

All Information above was gathered from and Haidt, Jonathan. (2012) The Righteous Mind  Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.