What is Moral Foundations Theory?

Psychologists (and wider society) are becoming increasingly aware that we make political decisions using intuitions – non-conscious gut feelings – rather than through rational debate and consideration of evidence. In this post, I want to outline one influential theory that helps us to explain how and why we do this: moral foundations theory.

Moral foundations theory is a theory put together by American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues, and is built on three core principles. The first is that moral reasoning happens intuitively first, and that verbal reasoning happens second, acting as a justification of your intuitions. Let’s have a look at how this works.

Take a minute to read this story:

Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are travelling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least, it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide never to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other.

Notice the automatic gut reactions you have to this scenario. Haidt and his colleagues have found that people make fast moral judgements about this, with people being quick to say that what Julie and Mark are doing is wrong. It’s self-evidently wrong because of how the scenario makes you feel, right? However, when pressed for a justification of their judgements, people struggle to come up with reasons. After all, several forms of birth control are used, and the pair seemingly enjoy the experience – even if they do decide to do it just the once! Haidt calls this ‘moral dumbfounding’. This happens when we make intuitive judgements that have few rational justifications. We struggle to explain our judgements, but we don’t feel like we should change them.


The second principle of moral foundations theory is the morality is made up of different foundational constructs, which are on the screen now. These were put together by Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph in the mid-2000s, with liberty being added later in 2012. The theoretical basis for these ideas comes from evolutionary psychology and cross-cultural psychology, meaning that these constructs are said to describe universal moral concerns.

  1. Care refers to the innate desire to protect one’s own children from harm. This stems from their inherent vulnerability, and the position of caregivers to act as protectors. Nowadays, this concept has expanded to include a desire to protect of anybody who is towards the bottom of the social ladder.
  2. Fairness is an interesting topic that means different things to different people. At its heart, fairness is all about justice, but as we know – true justice and social justice are often at-odds with each other. To some, fairness is indicated by everybody having the same opportunities. To others, if people have difference outcomes, then this is a sign of systemic unfairness. This difference between ‘equality of opportunity’ vs. ‘equality of outcomes’ is something that I’ll consider in another video soon.
  3. The authority foundation relates to our evolutionary history of having hierarchies in social interaction. For example, many would agree that having nobody in charge is not in the best interests of a healthy and functioning society. At the same time, having a dictator calling the shots at the expense of everybody else may not be somebody’s idea of fun, either.
  4. The loyalty foundation stems from our innate drive to form tribes and strong social connections. We have a long history of forming such groups, and continue to do so today through our religious communities and sports teams.
  5. Purity relates to our evolutionary drive to avoid things that are contagious, or otherwise contaminate our bodies. In more recent times, though, the purity foundation has become linked with social issues, and specifically relates to things that some people find disgusting, like alternative forms of sexual expression.
  6. The final moral foundation, liberty, refers to our desire to be free from external control. Types of liberty that are important to different people are lifestyle liberty – where people are free to act as they want – and economic liberty – where people keep hold of their money and spend it as they see fit.


Finally, the third principle of moral foundations theory is that the importance of each foundation varies between people, and this produces an individual political approach to the world within in person.


As you can see in the graph above, those who identify as being politically liberal (though they may be better described as leftists in some cases) typically place a higher moral value on care and fairness than the rest of the foundations, while those who identify as being politically conservative more-or-less equally value all of the moral foundations.

So the next time you’re trying to figure out why you think something is immoral and others don’t, just remember – maybe their moral intuitions are calibrated differently to yours. It’s by understanding these differences that we’ll begin to heal the wounds of political polarisation currently eating away at our societies.


If you’re interested in learning more about moral foundations theory, check out Jonathan Haidt’s popular bestseller, The Righteous Mind.

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