Moral Foundations Theory - Explanation and examples

Where do feelings of rightness and wrongness come from?


What is Moral Foundations Theory?

If you’ve ever traveled to another country, you’ll have seen differing norms to those of where you grew up. These differences might even have shocked you! However underneath the differences, you’ve probably noticed similarities and shared themes about how societies think about what makes things right and wrong. Can we explain these trends?

Moral Foundations theory is a psychological theory that seeks to explain why moralities differ, but still share fundamental characteristics. It was first outlined by psychologist Jonathan Haidt.

The theory proposes that each one of us comes equipped with what he calls an ‘intuitive ethics’, which is an innate capacity to feel flashes of approval or disapproval towards certain patterns of human behaviour. These unconscious and automatic intuitions reflect pre-wired reactions that we evolved to have.

Haidt outlines at least five common themes from moralities around the world, which reflect modules of our ‘intuitive ethics’: the Care module (the instinct to protect others), the Fairness module (the instinct to punish cheating), the Loyalty module (feeling ties to your ‘team’), the Authority module (knowing when to obey), and the Purity module (disgust for revolting things). Why do we all care about these five things? Moral Foundations theory claims we can trace them back to universal instincts our ancestors evolved, in response to the pressures of their prehistoric environment.

We’re all prewired with the five moral modules. However, each of them can be either amplified or toned down by factors such as our personality, environment, and experiences. This leads to different moral and political views across and within cultures.

How to use Moral Foundations Theory

Haidt envisioned Moral Foundations theory as facilitating new approaches to resolving and understanding moral conflicts, through the recognition that cultures built their unique moralities on top of a foundation of shared, universal intuitions.

Imagine a heated political argument at work about government welfare. One of your co-workers screams that the government should increase tax levels and fund more welfare: “If you don’t support more taxes you’re heartless!” Another violently yells back across the office “If people don’t work hard, they should fail. If people work hard, they should succeed. The government is evil! It takes from the successful and gives to those who haven’t worked hard.”

Does this heated screaming-match feel familiar? In such situations we are often blind to each other’s moral foundations; when we disagree we fail to see how our opponent’s behaviour is driven by moral considerations.

If you want to get less angry in politics, resist the urge to leap to the least charitable explanation of your political opponent’s behaviour. Instead, first try reframing their perspective as being grounded in a particular moral foundation and see how their opinion is grounded in the shared five modules we all have.

Also check out

  1. The moral roots of liberals and conservatives (video), Jonathan Haidt

  2. Why you think you’re right -  even if you’re wrong (video), Julia Galef

  3. Morality and Evolutionary Biology, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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