What are the basic foundations of morality?

November 13th, 2009 by Ravi Iyer

A few years ago, I was fortunate to catch a talk by Jon Haidt at the Gallup Positive Psychology Summit where he gave a wonderful talk about moral foundation theory, which seeks to determine the fundamental systems of morality.  I sought to use his scale in my work and using that scale eventually grew into our current collaboration (along with Jesse Graham, Pete Ditto, and Sena Koleva) of yourmorals.org, where the main instrument used in moral foundation theory, the moral foundations questionnaire, is available.

The moral foundations questionnaire measures 5 foundations.  The below descriptions are taken from the moral foundations theory webpage.

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

2) Fairness/reciprocity, related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. This foundation generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.

3) Ingroup/loyalty, related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. This foundation 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/respect, shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. This foundaiton underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

5) Purity/sanctity, shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. This foundation 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).

According to Jon Haidt, “Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible.”

Perhaps one of the most compelling parts of the theory is that it invites people to try and posit a 6th foundation.  There was even a prize offered by Jon to those who succeeded and a number of possible candidates are listed here.

How can we determine what is or is not a foundation?  Some of the criteria are listed on the above webpage.  Borrowing from a recent lecture I attended on approaches to develop foundations of ‘personality’, I would list the below criteria as important.

  • Factor analysis/Conceptual Distinction – Factor analysis is the most common way that people empirically determine distinct constructs.  The idea is that if two constructs are distinct, questions about these constructs should inter-correlate to form a separate factor from questions about a separate construct.  So if questions about Harm load on a separate factor versus questions about Fairness, we can conclude they are separate constructs.  I would argue that this is a necessary, but not sufficient test of any new foundation.  It is possible to ask questions with enough specificity that anything can be a separate factor.  Five questions about harm using a knife will likely load on a separate factor versus five questions about harm by drowning, yet does that mean they are separate foundations.  Furthermore, work on moral confabulation and moral intuition leads many researchers to believe that individuals are fundamentally naive about what drives their moral reasoning.  As such, direct questions may not be able to illuminate all possible moral systems.
  • Cluster analysis – One of the most important applications of moral foundations theory is that it successfully describes the differences between liberals and conservatives in a fairly robust manner.  Some personality scale developers take the notion that if a question successfully differentiates classes of people, it’s a good question.  This is true for the moral foundation questionnaire to a point, but more work could certainly be done.  5 foundations should conceivably posit 5 classes of people (individuals who value each foundation over the other four) and the co-occurrence of many of these foundations is evidence that some current foundations may share a moral system or that these clusters have yet to be identified.
  • Evolutionary explanation – One of the most important aspects of moral foundation theory is that it contains a plausible evolutionary explanation of all systems.  Evolutionary evidence should include both cross-cultural universality and a coherent evolutionary explanation.  The current foundations are well described in terms of their evolutionary roots, having grown out of anthropological field work, and future foundation candidates should be equally well described in terms of evolutionary theory and equally universal cross-culturally.
  • Beyond Self Interest – I often think that people who are in front of me in traffic are jerks.  Why don’t they just get out of the way?  If you catch me on a particularly bad day, I may even consider them to be immoral people.  But is ‘getting out of my way’ a moral system?  Human beings are notoriously clever at moralizing their self-interest and any candidate foundation needs to go beyond self interest.  The relevant question would be whether I would judge the other people to be at fault from the perspective of a neutral third party.  Given that I don’t routinely chastise drivers for being in the way of other drivers, I would say that my beliefs in this example are not the result of a moral system, but rather my personal self-interest.
  • Beyond Harm –  There are lots of different ways to harm another person.  Some would argue that Harm is too broad a moral category, but as long as Harm is included as a moral foundation, any subsequent candidate foundation will necessarily be forced to answer the question “Is this reducible to harm?”.  The question which would need to empirically be asked is whether individuals would judge an act to be wrong even if nobody were harmed.  This may seem like an easy test, but consider the case of liberty, which is an often brought up criticism of moral foundation theory as something that has been left out.  Most people would think that it is wrong for someone to deprive somebody else of their freedom.  It’s conceptually distinct from physical harm, potentially describes a class of people (libertarians), has an evolutionary explanation (the need for groups to encourage explorers?), and is not just self-interest as I care about other people’s liberty, not just my own.  However, would I care about somebody else’s liberty if they didn’t want to be free?  It’s a difficult question as I think the intuitive reaction is to assume that the person doesn’t know any better and really would be better off being free.  But what if I was absolutely convinced that they enjoyed captivity…or what if I thought that they actually benefited from captivity.  Should they be free?  It’s a more complex question than one initially might think and shows some of the complexity of developing foundations.  Ideally, we should be able to find cases where any foundation is generally used, even in cases where the use of that foundation causes harm.

With that in mind, I would offer these potential modifications of our initial foundations.

  • Fairness is a notoriously ambiguous word and can mean many things to many people.  Current questions focus too much on fairness as equality, which is possibly motivated concern for the harm experienced by those who experience less equal outcomes.  In order to separate it further from harm, I would focus this foundation more on the principle of equity, where people get what they deserve.  Equity is motivationally tied to the desire for productivity and so this foundation would then possibly encompass ideas of property rights, sloth and waste, which have been missing from the current taxonomy.
  • Concerns about liberty, equality and rights would be moved to the Harm foundation.  All of these constructs are things which could relate to the harm caused to another individual, whether it is the psychological harm due to being controlled, the emotional harm due to receiving an unequal share, or the harm to self-esteem when one does not feel like one has any rights.
  • Ingroup and authority foundations have tended to predict similar things and co-occur in individuals such that one might doubt the independence of these two factors.  As they are currently measured, respecting authority and being loyal could both be considered subsets of a system that might be labelled “being a good group member”.  Some items which measure authority concern the desire for things to stay the same and a resistance to change, which has been shown to be indicative of conservative thought.  Changing authority to this conception and labeling it ‘conservation’ while allowing ingroup loyalty to encompass other aspects of being a good group member might improve the discriminant validity of the authority and ingroup foundations.
  • Many of the other candidate foundations that have been proposed deal with truth, wisdom, honesty, and authenticity.  Telling the truth is a moral principle which might survive all of the above tests as it is conceptually distinct, describes a class of people (see The Dignity of Working Men), has an evolutionary explanation (trustworthiness), and is observed when it is contradictory to self-interest and causes harm to others.  In conceptualizing this foundation, I might consider including things like simplicity, directness, and being a stand-up guy.  This might explain why conservatives have a disdain for liberal academics who are too complex to be trusted and lack practical intelligence that is indicative of being a ‘stand-up’ guy.

These are merely hypotheses and opinions, so take them for what it’s worth.  It is also important to note that the fact that it is possible to refine a theory doesn’t reduce the importance or contribution of the theory.  In fact, the fact that I (and many others) posted about refining it means that this theory has had a significant impact on public discourse and is worthy of refining.

– Ravi Iyer

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One Response to “What are the basic foundations of morality?”

  1. Ron Krumpos says:

    In my book at http://www.suprarational.org I wrote a chapter about morality and conscience, called “Duel of the Dual.” Here is an excerpt:

    “Conscience” is a misused and misunderstood word. “Have you no conscience?,” ask people of a person who does something which seems to them to be so obviously wrong. Each person has a dual conscience and, occasionally, these two sides do engage in a duel.

    The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology defines conscience as “a reasonably coherent set of internalized moral principals that provides evaluations of right and wrong with regard to acts either performed or contemplated. Historically, theistic views aligned conscience with the voice of God and hence regarded it as innate. The contemporary view is that the prohibitions and obligations of conscience are learned…” Individual moral development is based on both.

    Socrates said that conscience was the inner warning voice of God. Among Stoics it was a divine spark in man. Throughout the Middle Ages, conscience, synderesis in Greek, was universally binding rules of conduct. Religious interpretations later changed in psychiatry.

    Sigmund Freud had coined a new term for conscience; he called it “superego.” This was self-imposed standards of behavior we learned from parents and our community, rather than from a divine source. People who transgressed those rules felt guilt. Carl Jung, Freud’s famous contemporary, said that conscience was an archetype of a “collective unconscious”; content from society is learned later. Most religions still view conscience as the foundation of morality.

    Sri Aurobindo said “…true original Conscience in us [is] deeper than constructed and conventional conscience of the moralist, for it is this which points always towards Truth and Right and Beauty, towards Love and Harmony and all that is a divine possibility in us.” Perhaps conscience can be viewed as a double-pane window, with the self in between. On one side, it looks toward ego and free will to obey community’s laws. On the other side, it is toward the soul and divine will to follow universal law. They often converge to dictate the same, or a similar, course of conduct…and sometimes not.

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