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Moral Foundations Theory is a social psychological theory intended to explain the origins of and variation in human moral reasoning on the basis of innate, modular foundations. At present, the theory proposes six such foundations: harm, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and purity; however, its authors envision the possibility of including additional foundations. The theory was first proposed by the psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph, building on the work of cultural anthropologist Richard Shweder, subsequently developed by a diverse group of collaborators, and popularized in Haidt's book The Righteous Mind.

Although the initial development of moral foundations theory focused on cultural differences, subsequent work with the theory has largely focused on political ideology. Various scholars have offered moral foundations theory as an explanation of differences between political liberals and conservatives and have suggested that it can explain variation in opinion on politically charged issues such as gay marriage and abortion. In particular, Haidt has argued that liberals stress only three of the moral foundations (harm, fairness, and liberty) in their reasoning while conservatives stress all six more equally.


Moral foundations initially arose as a reaction against the developmental rationalist theory of morality associated with Lawrence Kohlberg and Jean Piaget. Building on Piaget's work, Kohlberg discovered that children's moral reasoning changed over time, and proposed an explanation through his six stages of moral development. Kohlberg's work emphasized justice as the key concept in moral reasoning, seen as a primarily cognitive activity, and became the dominant approach to moral psychology, heavily influencing subsequent work.[1] [2] Haidt writes that he found Kohlberg's theories unsatisfying from the time he first encountered them in graduate school because they "seemed too cerebral" and lacked a focus on issues of emotion.[3]

In contrast to the dominant theories of morality in psychology, the anthropologist Richard Shweder developed a set of theories emphasizing the cultural variability of moral judgements, but argued that different cultural forms of morality drew on "three distinct but coherent clusters of moral concerns," which he labeled as the ethics of autonomy, community, and divinity. [4] Shweder's approach inspired Haidt to begin researching moral differences across cultures, including fieldwork in Brazil and Philadelphia. This work led Haidt to begin developing his social intuitionist approach to morality. This approach, which stood in sharp contrast to Kohlberg's rationalist work, suggested that "moral judgment is caused by quick moral intuitions" while moral reasoning simply serves as a post-hoc rationalization of already formed judgements.[5] Haidt's work and his focus on quick, intuitive, emotional judgements quickly became very influential, attracting sustained attention from an array of researchers. [6]

As Haidt and his collaborators worked within the social intuitionist approach, they began to devote attention to the sources of the intuitions that they believed underlay moral judgements. In a 2004 article published in the journal Daedalus, Haidt and Craig Joseph surveyed works on the roots of morality, including the work of Donald Brown, Alan Fiske, Shalom Schwartz, and Shweder. From their review, they suggested that all individuals possess four "intuitive ethics", stemming from the process of human evolution as responses to adaptive challenges. They labelled these four ethics as suffering, hiearchy, reciprocity, and purity. According to Haidt and Joseph, each of the ethics formed a module, whose development was shaped by culture. They wrote that each module could "provide little more than flashes of affect when certain patterns are encountered in the social world," while a cultural learning process shaped each individual's response to these flashes. Morality diverges because different cultures utilize the four "building blocks" provided by the modules differently.[7] This article became the first statement of moral foundations theory, which Haidt, Joseph, and others have since elaborated and refined.

The Six FoundationsEdit

  1. Care/harm for others, protecting them from harm.
  2. Fairness/cheating, Justice, treating others in proportion to their actions (He has also referred to this dimension as Proportionality.)
  3. Liberty/oppression, characterizes judgments in terms of whether subjects are tyrannized.
  4. Loyalty/betrayal to your group, family, nation. (He has also referred to this dimension as Ingroup.)
  5. Authority/subversion for tradition and legitimate authority. (He has also connected this foundation to a notion of Respect.)
  6. Sanctity/degradation, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions. (He has also referred to this as Purity.)


  1. Donleavy, Gabriel (July 2008). No Man's Land: Exploring the Space between Gilligan and Kohlberg. Journal of Business Ethics 80 (4): 807–822.
  2. Haidt, Jonathan (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided By Politics and Religion, 9–11, New York: Pantheon Books.
  3. Haidt, p. 11
  4. Shweder, Richard, Jonathan Haidt (November 1993). Commentary to Feature Review: The Future of Moral Psychology: Truth, Intuition, and the Pluralist Way. Psychological Science 4 (6).
  5. Haidt, Jonathan (October 2001). The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgement. Psychological Review 108 (4).
  6. Miller, Greg (9). The Roots of Morality. Science 320 (5877): 734–737.
  7. Haidt, Jonathan, Craig Joseph (Fall 2004). Intuitive ethics: how innately prepared intuitions generate culturally variable virtues. Daedalus 133 (4): 55–66.

=External linksEdit

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