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Moral Foundations Theory

Introduction to Moral Foundations Theory

This post offers a brief overview of Moral Foundations Theory.  For complete information see the Publications page Haidt’s web site, or his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt

One of my favorite articles by Haidt about Moral Foundations Theory is“Planet of the Durkheimians, Where Community, Authority, and Sacredness are Foundations of Morality,” available on and on his Moral Foundations web siteIn that paper Haidt explains that Moral Foundations Theory has three parts:

The first part is “a nativist claim that natural selection prepared the human mind to easily learn to detect and respond to (at least) five sets of patterns in the social world. … In its briefest form, the nativist claim is that human beings have long faced a set of adaptive challenges in their social lives, and that natural selection favored individuals who were better able to meet those challenges by noticing certain patterns and responding to them in particular ways.”

The second part is “a developmental account of how children reach moral maturity by mastering culturally variable virtues that are related to the five foundations. … [It] posits that the foundations make it easy for children to learn some virtues and hard to learn others. When we say that the foundations are innate we do not mean that they are visible in infancy or unchanged by experience. Innate means, as Marcus puts it, “organized in advance of experience.” The genes create the first drafts of our brains, but experience in our families and cultures then edits those drafts to produce unique individuals and divergent cultures.”

The third part of “Moral foundations theory says that people in all cultures are born with the capacity to cultivate virtues based on all five foundations. Furthermore, people in all cultures do cultivate virtues based on the first two foundations: Harm/care and Fairness/reciprocity. … But as a society becomes more modern and more individualistic, the first two foundations become ever more important in daily life and in moral and political philosophy, while the last three become less important.”


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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.

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