Moral Foundations Theory

I was just reminded of Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory, something I first encountered in The Righteous Mind.

Moral Foundations Theory was created by a group of social and cultural psychologists 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 universally available psychological systems are the foundations of “intuitive ethics.” Each culture then constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world, and conflicting within nations too. The five foundations for which we think the evidence is best are:

1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]

3) Loyalty/betrayal: 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.”

4) Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

5) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation 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 (an idea not unique to religious traditions).

We think there are several other very good candidates for “foundationhood,” especially:

6) Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. 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. We report some preliminary work on this potential foundation in this paper, on the psychology of libertarianism and liberty.

See also

Thomas Friedman’s 5 Pieces of Advice for His Daughters


I have five pieces of advice for my daughters. My first rule is: Always think like an immigrant, because we’re all new immigrants to the age of accelerations.

Second, always think like an artisan. Always do your job in a way that you bring so much empathy to it, so much unique, personal value-add that it cannot be automated, digitized, or outsourced, and you want to carve your initials into it at the end of the day.

Third, always be in beta. Always think of yourself as if you need to be re-engineered, retooled, relearned, and retaught constantly. Never think of yourself as finished—otherwise, you really will be finished.

Fourth, always remember that PQ (passion quotient) plus CQ (curiosity quotient) is greater than IQ (intelligence quotient). Give me a young person with a high PQ and a high CQ, and I will take that person over a kid with a high IQ seven days a week.

And last, whatever you do, whether you’re in the public sector or the private sector, whether you’re on the front lines or a manager, always think entrepreneurially. Always think, “Where can I fork off and start a new company over here, a new business over there?” Because a huge manufacturing company is not coming to your town with a 25,000-person factory. That factory is now 2,500 robots and 500 people. So we need three people starting jobs for six; six people starting jobs for 12; 12 people starting jobs for 20. That’s how we’re going to get all those jobs. We need everyone thinking entrepreneurially.