moral sense

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!

Fairness in your genes?

I recently came across an economist article that pointed to me three new studies regarding fairness, patience and their genetic and evolutionary footprints.

From one of the studies, conducted by Wallace it al, a counterintuitive result is obtained- that a sense of fairness (as measured by propensity to share and reject low offers in the ultimatum game) is very much heritable with Monozygotic twins showing a positive correlation between their propensities to respond in the ultimatum game as compared to Dizygotic twins, who show no such correlation. This seems to strongly support the view that our sense of Altruism (dependent on our willingness to punish free-loaders) and fairness is genetic to a large extent. with the evolutionary explanations of Altruism depending heavily on the punishment arguments, it is not so surprising to find that a sense of fairness is indeed genetic in nature; but for many culture enthusiasts, this would come as a blow to their view that Altruism did not evolve, but is a product of uniquely human endeavor called culture.

Another article looks at the sense of fairness itself , again using the ultimatum game, and compares between humans and chimps. while it is well-know that humans have a snese of fairness and thus make equitable offers and reject low offers, no data on chimps was available till now. It seems Chimps are more rational and unemotional than humans!

To find out if chimpanzees share this sense of fairness, Keith Jensen and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig, designed a way for chimps to play the ultimatum game. Their version started with a pair of trays far from the players’ cages. Each tray had ten raisins divided in different ways between two pots—say eight and two, or five and five. One chimp was allotted the role of proposer. He could choose one of the trays, pulling it by way of a rope just halfway to the cage. The other, the responder, could then choose to pull on a rod, bringing the tray close enough for both to get the raisins, one pot for each. If the responder chose not to pull the tray closer within a minute, the offer was considered rejected, and the game concluded.

The result, which Dr Jensen reports in Science, is that chimps are simply rational maximisers—Pan economicus, if you like. Though proposers consistently chose the highest possible number of raisins for themselves, responders rarely rejected even the stingiest offers.

I would like to see the same replicated with bonobos. Do they too lack a sense of fairness and whatever co-operation has been observed in them simply a result of free-sex-trade?

The third article actually looked at difference between patience and fairness in chimps and humans and gain came to a very counter-intuitive results. Chimps can be more patient than humans and delay gratification at more occasions than humans. Clearly their sense of prospection is better developed than Humans (which I doubt) , or they are unemotional and hence lack the normal human dread of waiting for a result of something (even positive). In any case some really important results and papers.

True Lies: More thoughts on Autism and Schizophrenia

There is a fantastical article by Simon Baron-Cohen about how autistic children are more honest than the rest of us and how the neurotypical human brain is characterized by an ability to deceive.

As we all know, Autistic children have troubles with meta-representation, or believing that there could be two versions of reality- one that is factually correct, and which they themselves may hold; and another that is incorrect, but exists in the mind of another human being. Thus, they may not have any problem with knowing some fact about the world, but are greatly disadvantaged when it comes to knowing facts about other people’s mind- as they cannot conceive that somebody can have beliefs that are different from the Reality- in other words that someone has ‘false beliefs’.

As per Simon, the capacity to deceive involves the ability to know that one can have false beliefs; and also that one can manipulate the beliefs of another person, so that the person ends up with a false belief. I doubt whether the first ability is necessarily compromised in people with Autism. After all, they themselves may have had false beliefs about the world (say thinking that sun revolves around the earth) and thus may similarly conjecture that others can also have false beliefs. The trouble may lie elsewhere- they may lack the ability to discern that whatever beliefs they have (whether true or false), the other person might not necessarily have the same beliefs. That is they may confuse their own beliefs with that of another and would not have a higher level meta-representation, that someone can have a different belief set. Thus, the trouble is not with having beliefs- but with the ability to say and understand that “I believe that john believes this”. They may not comprehend such a sentence or thought- as it is superfluous in their world, where their beliefs are consistent with Reality (or are false) and the other person’s beliefs also being consistent with Reality are one and the same. Thus they never require , or are able to use, this recursive ability. I believe this deficit in recursive ability may to some extent explain their language difficulties too. coming back to point, as they themselves cannot comprehend that “I believe john believes X.”, so also they are unable to comprehend that ‘john believes I believe X”. thus, in their innocent and simplistic world, their is no room for either manipulating others via deception; nor of not trusting and always being on their guard against what someone says or does. Thus, they would take sentences at their face value.

I came across this article via The Thinking Blog and there Mary makes some interesting points about whether all deception is bad and all honesty is good; and I concur fully with her that sometimes deception is needed and can be put to good purpose and sometimes truth is not desirable or even moral as per the situation. What is more instrumental is the motive with which the truth or lie is chosen. Thus, I personally am of the opinion that we do need an ability to deceive, but the character to keep the trait in check and to put in good use only.

Simon also makes a point that we treat Autistic traits like honesty as traits on a continuum and not as deficits and I agree with him there too. He treats the normal , social brain as the extreme end of the this trait on which the autistic are the other end; and here I differ. I have already made some strong cases for Schizophrenia to be at the other end; and I would like to support that position by drawing on Simon’s analysis.

If we believe that one trait that Autistic lack is deception and meta-representation or ability to read minds, then the Schizophrenics are bound to be too good at it (as per my thinking they are two ends of a creativity spectrum).

  • The Schizophrenics may use so much meta-representation (thinking that goes ‘I think he thinks that I think that Mary thinks ….’) that they may not only get confused, but sound disoriented and disorganized as they may assume too much about what the other person believes. Much of the incoherence in a psychotic speech may be due to too much of shared context – or too much of’ he-knows-what-she-knows-that-I-know’ sort of thinking. Also keeping multiple perspectives or belief sets may tax their normal working memory capacities, making them sound incoherent.
  • Also as opposed to Autistics , who think people do not have an ability to mind-read- as they themselves lack it- the Schizophrenics may be marked by an increased propensity to consider that people can mind read and that too to a very great extent. This may underlie the frequently found delusion in schizophrenia that their thoughts are being broadcasted– that other can read their mind–or at least they want to read their minds using Gizmo’s like satellites, headphones etc. The schizophrenic, after all, knows the advantages that can be obtained if one can mind read.
  • In its extreme, as the Schizophrenics have too much obsession with mind reading abilities- and the corollary ability to deceive- , they may think that people , in general, are deceptive and manipulators. This may explain why other people would like to insert thoughts or tamper with their thoughts/ memories etc. This may easily give rise to delusions of control.
  • the ability and propensity to deceive, would also explain the paranoia they feel- after all in their warped world view , all, like them, have immense capacity to deceive/ manipulate- and thus is a potential threat- an untrustable person. This gives rise to the paranoid delusions of schizophrenia.
  • Lastly, the obsession of schizophrenics with modeling other minds may lead to multiple personality syndrome (although I know this is not recognized by Psychiatry).

I , like Mary, am not taking sides on whether naive honesty is better or tendency to deceive/camouflage is better; I believe both have their utilities and one should be flexible enough to use both capacities at will. But as we know that much of Human evolution is driven by our capacity to deceive , I would classify schizophrenia as the cost we pay for human Evolution; and Autism as a developmental disorder- We humans are meant to be social and are meant to hide all our raw feelings/ beliefs / thoughts from other persons. Let us deceive, but let us keep that in check- or else be prepared for insanity.

The Altruistic Mice: how they help a conspecific in a trap.

According to latest research by Claudia Rutte and Michael Taborsky , of the Univ of Berne, Switzerland, rats are capable of generalized reciprocity. The excellent paper is published in the freely available journal PLOS biology, so go have a look.

As per what is know about the evolution of Altruism, it is surmised that co-operation in groups emerges based on four types of reciprocity- direct, indirect, strong and generalized.

In direct reciprocity, one helps another person/animal because the other animal has helped oneself in the past. This requires cognitive capacities to recognize different individuals and require social memory as to which member of the group had helped and which had defected or free loafed. While some animals like the Elephant have good social memories and the ability to remember and recognize different individuals, most animals fall short on these traits.

In indirect reciprocity, one helps another because one has observed the other guy to have helped someone else. This again requires cognitive capacities to recognize and also to remember This is more so based ona reputation system, wherein you start trusting someone more if you observe him doing good deeds. In return you are likely to help the do-gooder , when he is in time of need.

In strong reciprocity, people punish the defectors or free-loafers or non-cooperators. This requires sophisticated cognitive abilities to recognize the defectors and a willingness to undergo cost to oneself while punishing the defector. this too, along with the above two, has rarely been observed in animals apart from humans.

Finally, generalized reciprocity happens when one indulges in good deeds towards a stranger juts based on the fact that one has in the near future received such help from other strangers. con specifics. There are variations on this theme, whereby if people have been put in a good mood (which is a substitute for having received a good deed) they are more likely to indulge in altruistic acts like picking up books dropped by a confederate. This type pf reciprocity does not make very strong cognitive demands as one just has to remember the summary of whether the environment is cooperative or not, to produce the right kind of behavior.

The authors, using some clever experiments demonstrate that rats are capable of generalized reciprocity.

In a nutshell (I’m simplifying a lot here, for details go read the paper), they put two rats in a cage, separated by a transparent partition, such that if one of the rats pulls a string, food would be delivered to the other rat. They ensure that rats learn how to pull the strings and are able to see that their action leads to food for the other rat.

In the experiment, they pair rats such that one rat, who can receive the food but cannot pull the string, is paired with a number of rats who have learned to pull the string. As a aresulkt the rat gets to get a lot of food over consecutive days because of the fact that her partner rat had pulled the string. Thse partner rats ar eall different. In the experimental test condition, the roles are reversed and the focal mice, who had received food due to some stranger rats pulling the strings, is now given an opportunity to pull the string and help a never-before-encountered rat. The result: the mice does pull the string a lot of the times to help the new partner.

In the other experimental condition, the same rat is put in the cage, wherein he can get the food if the second rat pulls the sting. this time too all the rats are new: but sadly for the focal rat, these stranger rats were never trained to pull a string. The result: they never pull the string, so the rat does not receive any food. This is also repeated for a number of days and then the roles are reversed. Now, a new stranger rat is placed in the cage with the focal rat, such that if the focal rat pulls the string, the new stranger rat would get the food. Alas, the lack of pulling of strings by the previous stranger rats makes the focal rat apathetic and she pulls the string less frequently and less enthusiastically. The difference is as huge as 20 % greater pulling when one had received help, compared to when one had not received help.

This seals the argument as per authors, that the rats are indeed capable of generalized reciprocity. They interaction between rats as as between strangers and hence the only reason that explains the difference in string pulling, in received-help versus not-received help is the fact that in former they were in a o-operative environment, while in the latter they were not. thus, their actions were based on generalized help they received from conspecifics and not based on any memories of who helped whom. this to me appears to be breakthrough paper and would lead to a reassessment of how altruism evolved.

The authors also discuss a lot of other possible explanations , and I come satisfied that the generalized reciprocity is the best one.

The author summary is provided below:

The evolution of cooperation is based on four general mechanisms: mutualism, where an action benefits all partners directly; kin selection, where related individuals are supported; “green beard” altruism that is based on a genetic correlation between altruism genes and respective markers; and reciprocal altruism, where helpful acts are contingent upon the likelihood of getting help in return. The latter mechanism is intriguing because it is prone to exploitation. In theory, reciprocal altruism may evolve by direct, indirect, “strong,” and generalized reciprocity. Apart from direct reciprocity, where individuals base their behavior towards a partner on that partner’s previous behavior towards themselves, and which works under only highly restrictive conditions, no other mechanism for reciprocity has been demonstrated among conspecifics in nonhuman animals. Here, we tested the propensity of wild-type Norway rats to help unknown conspecifics in response to help received from other unknown partners in an instrumental cooperative task. Anonymous receipt of help increased their propensity to help by more than 20%, revealing that nonhuman animals may indeed show generalized reciprocity. This mechanism causes altruistic behavior by previous social experience irrespective of partner identity. Generalized reciprocity is hence much simpler and therefore more likely to be important in nature than other reciprocity mechanisms.

The NYT also has an article on this and you may like to check that too.

From Morality to Biology: punishment, deterrence, fairness and testosterone

It has been hypothesized, as per Game Theoretical models, that evolution of cooperation is contingent on there being people willing to inflict punishment on the cheaters/ free loafers , even at great cost to themselves. The presence of Altruism/ co-operation in human social groups suggests that the desire to inflict punishment has been selected for and is thus a part of humans nature.
In the psychological analysis of law, it has been debated for some time as to why all human societies punish their ‘criminals’. The two opposing views are that punishment is a deliberative , rational action whose purpose is to deter other potential criminals; and that punishment is an emotional action due to moral outrage and accompanied with feelings of ‘just desserts’ and desire for justice or fairness.

Do You Mind blog has a great post reviewing a study by Carlsmith, Darley & Robinson (2002), in which they try to find why people punish- is it to deter; or is it due to moral outrage and to get even.

The hypothesis was that if punishment is for deterrence, it would be more severe for crimes that are rarely detected (to compensate for the fact that the crime is rare, the punishment should be high); also for high publicity crimes, the punishment should be high (as the crime draws more attention, thereby punishing it severely will deter more people and from other crimes too). also if the punishment was motivated by desire for revenge/ justice, the severity of punishment should be correlated with severity of crime and publicity or detection of crime should have no effect. Also extenuating circumstances should excuse people if the desire is for justice/ fairness.

Accordingly, the authors set out to test how much of an influence deterrence really had. To do so, they designed a series of experiments using narratives of crimes where the above attributes (detection rate, publicity, magnitude of harm and extenuating circumstances) were varied. They found that manipulation of the deterrence variables had no effect, but that increasing the magnitude of harm or decreasing the extenuating circumstances greatly influenced the severity of punishment, even for those subjects who explicitly stated their preference for deterrence over “just deserts” theories of punishment.

This is an important validation of the fact that people do punish and that it is due to emotional and moral outrage and not based on coll and rational thinking based on deterrence. Thus, it seems for evolution of co-operation, we have been hard-wired to detect cheaters and to punish them and this is done without analytical deliberation but automatically.

Another article in the New Scientist , takes this one step forward and looks at motivations and mechanisms behind why we punish. The researcher, Terry Burnahm, asks the question as to why people indulge in a punishment behavior, though the punishment comes with a cost to themselves. Is it driven by a moral sense outrage, a desire for fairness or due to some other biological mechanism. The paradigm they use is the ultimatum game, wherein one person is given some money (say 10 $) and he is supposed to share it with another person. If the second person accepts the money, both get to keep the money; else both lose their money. Experimentally it is found that if low offers are made (say 1 $), they are usually rejected by the second person. This is due to the fact that the second personal wants to punish the first person for making an unfair offer.

What Terry discovered was that the propensity to refuse low offers was correlated with testosterone levels in males. Testosterone levels have also been correlated with aggression in the past and with dominance seeking behavior. The author suggests that the high testosterone connection is due to dominance seeking behavior of humans and by refusing to accept the low bet, the male saves putting himself in a subordinate position. It is presumed that this was beneficial in evolutionary times and thus has been selected for.

An alternative hypothesis can be that though the desire for revenge, just desserts or fairness is present in all humans, the ability to act on that desire is correlated with the aggression level or the level of testosterone. If this is the case, then the high levels of testosterone in males who retributed could be due to their moral outrage and their aggressiveness enabling them to act on their moral outrage. thus, in my view, the study , though finding a biological correlate, does not negate the scope for moral outrage, as increasingly it has come to be recognized that morality itself is emotional and more instinct like and not deliberative.

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