The Five Moral Foundations

Jonathan Haidt studies Morality and he , with Joseph and Graham, has discovered what he calls the five major moral foundations or ethical areas of concern. A Steven Pinker article that is doing the rounds these days introduces these as follows :

The exact number of themes depends on whether you’re a lumper or a splitter, but Haidt counts five — harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity — and suggests that they are the primary colors of our moral sense. Not only do they keep reappearing in cross-cultural surveys, but each one tugs on the moral intuitions of people in our own culture. Haidt asks us to consider how much money someone would have to pay us to do hypothetical acts like the following:

In a Science Magazine article Haidt originally listed these scenarios as follows and requested that we do a though experiment as to how much money someone would need to give us to perform the following acts (the first act is relatively amoral, while the second presents a moral dilemma) :


  • Stick a pin into your palm.
  • Stick a pin into the palm of a child you don’t know.


  • Accept a plasma screen television that a friend of yours wants to give you. You know that your friend got the television a year ago when the company that made it sent it, by mistake and at no charge, to your friend.
  • Accept a plasma screen television that a friend of yours wants to give you. You know that your friend bought the TV a year ago from a thief who had stolen it from a wealthy family.


  • Say something slightly bad about your nation (which you don’t believe to be true) while calling in, anonymously, to a talk-radio show in your nation.
  • Say something slightly bad about your nation (which you don’t believe to be true) while calling in, anonymously, to a talk-radio show in a foreign nation.


  • Slap a friend in the face (with his/her permission) as part of a comedy skit.
  • Slap your father in the face (with his permission) as part of a comedy skit.


  • Attend a performance art piece in which the actors act like idiots for 30 min, including failing to solve simple problems and falling down repeatedly on stage.
  • Attend a performance art piece in which the actors act like animals for 30 min, including crawling around naked and urinating on stage.

As one can easily see from ones responses, the second of the set of questions appears to be morally reprehensible, though the category to which it belongs and the moral intuitions which guide our reaction to the underlying dilemma is different in each case. for the child-pricking-with-needle scenario we are focussed on harm avoidance and rely on empathy; while in the artists-running-naked we are more moved by our intuitions on what is aesthetically pure and sanctimonious.

Haidt also believes that these moral foundations have different evolutionary roots: while harm and fairness may rely on evolutionary mechanisms of kin selection and reciprocal altruism respectively, the other dimensions like ingroup/ loyalty may be due to group selection acting at group levels. The other foundations like respect for authority and desire for purity may have their own evolutionary mechanisms:

If I asked you to define morality, you’d probably say it has something to do with how people ought to treat each other. Nearly every research program in moral psychology has focused on one of two aspects of interpersonal treatment: (i) harm, care, and altruism (people are vulnerable and often need protection) or (ii) fairness, reciprocity, and justice (people have rights to certain resources or kinds of treatment). These two topics bear a striking match to the two evolutionary mechanisms of kin selection (which presumably made us sensitive to the suffering and needs of close kin) and reciprocal altruism (which presumably made us exquisitely sensitive to who deserves what). However, if group selection did reshape human morality, then there might be a kind of tribal overlay (—a coevolved set of cultural practices and moral intuitions—that are not about how to treat other individuals but about how to be a part of a group, especially a group that is competing with other groups.

In my cross-cultural research, I have found that the moral domain of educated Westerners is narrower—more focused on harm and fairness—than it is elsewhere. Extending a theory from cultural psychologist Richard Shweder, Jesse Graham, Craig Joseph, and I have suggested that there are five psychological foundations, each with a separate evolutionary origin, upon which human cultures construct their moral communities . In addition to the harm and fairness foundations, there are also widespread intuitions about ingroup-outgroup dynamics and the importance of loyalty; there are intuitions about authority and the importance of respect and obedience; and there are intuitions about bodily and spiritual purity and the importance of living in a sanctified rather than a carnal way. And it’s not just members of traditional societies who draw on all five foundations; even within Western societies, we consistently find an ideological effect in which religious and cultural conservatives value and rely upon all five foundations, whereas liberals value and rely upon the harm and fairness foundations primarily.

To me, these five moral foundations fit beautifully with the five factor models that I have been considering. Harm being more physically rooted, fairness/ justice more subjectively rooted; ingroup/ loyalty more rooted in interactions between group members; respect/authority more socially rooted; while purity/sanctity more individualistically rooted.

Also this framework is broadly compatible with Kohlberg’s moral development theory, with harm based reasoning predominating at stage I and so on. To elaborate:

  1. Stage 1 thinking is marked by Obedience and Punishment Orientation. This orientation clearly relies on Harm based reasoning to discern morality of acts- whether harm is caused by the cats and whether the results (including punishment ) would be harmful.
  2. Stage 2 thinking is marked by Individualism and Exchange. This exchange mentality is typical of those advocating reciprocal altruism or those who emphasize fairness and the golden rule.
  3. Stage 3 thinking is marked by Good Interpersonal Relationships. this reasoning is marked by emphasis on good relationships within a ingroup and loyalty to it and all its members.
  4. Stage 4 thinking is marked by Maintaining the Social Order. Here respect of authority is clearly evidenced as one wants to respect the authority inherent in the social order.
  5. Stage 5 thinking is marked by Social Contract and Individual Rights . Here the purity/ sanctity dimension is more prominent and one focuses on the purity, sanctity and inalienability of human rights. These rights are sort of divine.

I am excited to see how these five major moral foundations could still be under evolutionary selection and thus, we may not even be aware of the processes by which the later stage mechanisms work. While the evolutionary earlier kin selection and reciprocal altruism are well understood, we are still evolving the other traits and hence no clear mathematics for that yet in place- hence we are baffled by group selection or deny that other dimensions like purity/sanctity have anything to inform on moral matters. That may just be due to the fact that western morality is still not developed to higher stages of Morality as compared to other civilizations (or for that matters liberals less developed than conservatives? ). I am sure that there would be three more qualitatively different moral foundations taking the eventual number to eight moral foundations, but we must first appreciate the five moral foundations better before we move up and broaden the moral horizons.

Lastly let me briefly mention the relationship of these five major foundations to emotions. It has been found in studies that people respond with disgust (expressions) when confronted with an immoral act belonging to purity/sanctity dimension. They respond with contempt if they witness moral transgressions in respect/ ingroup dimensions and react with anger while witnessing transgressions of harm/ justice dimension. Thus, we may even relate these five moral foundations with the primary affects. But that is food for a later post!

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