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Moral Foundations Theory

An Interpretation of Moral Foundations Theory: Introduction and Table of Contents

This post is an Introduction and Table of Contents (scroll down a little) for a series of posts. 
Each post in the series stands on its own, but together they form an alternate interpretation of Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory. 

I live in the six-foundation moral matrix. In other words, I am conservative.  Haidt grew up in the three-foundation matrix.  He was liberal when he started his research.  The moral matrix each of us lives in shapes our perceptions of, and for, the world.  From the perspective of my matrix I connect the “dots” Haidt has shined a light on with a “spin” that is different from his.  It’s not that I disagree with Haidt,  I’m using almost all of his dots, it’s just that I’m lining them up differently; reinterpreting and extending them a little, to tell a story that is a little more politically robust than the one he tells.  Essentially, I am using Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory and his notion of The Rider and The Elephant as a jumping off point similar to the way Chip and Dan Heath do in their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

My “spin” is that conservatism is demonstrably better than liberalism, and Moral Foundations Theory helps to make that case. I will argue that in the grand scheme of things the greater good is better served, the weak are better protected, and the individual and community are better cared for, by the six-foundation morality than by the three-foundation one.  I know this view is contrary to much of today’s conventional wisdom – the things that “everybody knows” which form the unspoken presuppositions behind much of today’s political debate – but, I’ll argue, much of that conventional wisdom is not so wise.

I use the phrase “in the grand scheme of things” for a reason.  The thesis I present here is about the six-foundation and three-foundation moralities.  It is not about Repulicans and Democrats.  Both political parties are far from perfect, both have made serious mistakes.  I think mistakes are made when policies are not “in sync” with human nature, which sometimes allows one or two moral foundations to “run amok” and dominate the others.  This happens on both sides of the political aisle.  What I am saying is that recent findings in social science research have shed new light on the true nature of, well, human nature, and the better understanding that comes from it would benefit people of all political stripes.     

I’m finding that “six-foundation” and “three-foundation” work better for me than “conservatism” and “liberalism” as descriptors of the two moralities.  The latter descriptores are loaded words that bring too much emotional baggage and unfortunate stereotypes to the discussion, and even hinder it.  But with that said, I’ll still use them sometimes for expedience.  As Haidt has observed, even though little is really black and white, the terms liberalism and conservatism offer a pretty good first approximation of the two basic world views. (1) Just remember, whenever you see “conservative” think of it as a shorthand way of saying “six-foundation morality,” (seven, actually, because I think “owernship/stealing” or “property” is another foundation) and whenever you see “liberal” think “three-foundation morality.”

I’m sure I’ll learn more as time goes on, and I may change my mind about some things.  But for the moment, this multiple-post essay is a pretty good summation of where my thinking is right now.

(1) Graham, J., Haidt, J., & Nosek, B. A. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  Available on one of Haidt’s web sites, MoralFoundations.org.


Table of Contents

Overview: Moral Foundations Theory Explains Much More Than Just the Political Divide

Haidt’s Evenhandedness Dilutes the Message

The Moral Mind

The Four Principles of Moral Psychology

Introduction to Moral Foundations Theory (MFT)

The Moral Foundations

Moral Foundations Check and Balance Each Other

Morality is Greater Than the Sum of its Parts

The Rider and the Elephant

Moral Foundations Help to Define the Elephant

The Liberal Elephant

The Conservative Elephant

Reason is for Winning, not Truth Finding (and Moral Foundations are the Rider’s Tools of Reason)

How to Train an Elephant

The Moral Mind in Action

Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft: Conservatism is the Seedbed of Liberalism

The Complex Nature of Human Society and Interaction

Liberal and Conservative Moral Visions

Liberal and Conservative – Reason and Experience

Liberal and Conservative – Individual and Community

Liberal and Conservative – Literal and Conceptual

The Bees and the Hive: Liberal and Conservative Perceptions of Human Nature

Liberty, Equality, Justice, and Fairness Have Different Meanings in Different Moral Matrices

Protecting the Weak

Do Liberals Really “Care” More?

Other Brief Thoughts: Haidt’s Yin/Yang, Moral Thinking, and Advice to Democrats

The Root Cause of the Political Divide



Post Script


One thought on “An Interpretation of Moral Foundations Theory: Introduction and Table of Contents

  1. Some interesting points and useful links here. Though I haven’t read all the blogs listed above, well done on a worthwhile enterprise of thinking this material through! For quite a while now I’ve personally found Haidt’s analysis of the six foundations very useful. I also agree with your basic idea that the value foundations need to be balanced.

    However, where I disagree very basically with Haidt is in his reductive assumption that ethics can be reduced to social utility, which discounts the element of personal judgement and personal development from our ethical life. His account of *political* values is compelling, but they only apply to ethics where it is applied to politics and social issues, not as a complete account of ethics. Ethics as a whole is also about levels of awareness, and cutting that out gives us a reductive travesty of the subject.

    I think he’s also missing a crucial element of discrimination in how these different foundational values are used, that also helps to explain why liberals often find authority, loyalty and purity so repulsive. This is because when values are absolutized, they are treated as the whole story and awareness of the other values is blocked. Authority, loyalty and purity are unfortunately more often treated in that way than fairness, care or liberty are – although it’s quite possible to absolutise fairness, care and liberty too – usually in specific interpretations that may only be focused on one issue. So, for instance, Marxists are inclined to absolutise a particular interpretation of fairness as equality of outcome, and libertarians are inclined to absolutise freedom. However, most of what I’m detecting in the current Brexit movement we’re suffering here in the UK is blind loyalty that leads people to absolutise one interpretation of one referendum vote utterly regardless of the consequences in relation to the other values. You can also try and defend that with a very narrow appeal to fairness and democracy, but again only by cutting out all values other than the one that’s actuating the argument at that point. One can make prescriptive sense of the six values not just by balancing them, but also by trying to avoid absolutizing them.

    You’ll find more on this way of thinking on the Middle Way Society site, especially in my review of ‘The Righteous Mind’: http://www.middlewaysociety.org/books/psychology-books/the-righteous-mind-by-jonathan-haidt/ . There’s also a fuller account in my book ‘Middle Way Philosophy 4: The Integration of Belief’.


    Posted by Robert Michael Ellis | December 2, 2019, 1:48 pm

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A politically diverse group of social scientists, natural scientists, humanists, and other scholars who want to improve our academic disciplines and universities. We share a concern about a growing problem: the loss or lack of “viewpoint diversity.” When nearly everyone in a field shares the same political orientation, certain ideas become orthodoxy, dissent is discouraged, and errors can go unchallenged.

An Interpretation of Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory

This sidebar lists a series of posts which together make up an essay relating Moral Foundations Theory to today's politics, and even a little history, as viewed through The Independent Whig's six-foundation moral lens.


Venn Diagram of Liberal and Conservative Traits and Moral Foundations and

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