The Case for Honesty as a Moral Foundation

December 8th, 2010 by Ravi Iyer

I was immediately attracted to Moral Foundation Theory (MFT) due to the utility of breaking down partisan and policy differences into questions of what one values.  The idea that different people believe in different moral principles is one of those obvious ideas that is yet still under appreciated in every day life, where we attribute differences to ignorance, stupidity, or evil, rather than to underlying value differences.

However, I have never been convinced that there are specifically five foundations or even that the idea of thinking of moral concerns as categorically ‘foundational’ is better than thinking of them in some other less categorical way.  Fortunately, those that originally conceived of Moral Foundations Theory do not require such homogenous thinking and even welcome the idea that the five foundation model is likely to undergo changes.  I have outlined a few changes I would make previously, as well as the criteria that one might use to posit a new moral category.  Even if one does not believe in the categorical distinction that some moral concerns are ‘foundations’, while others are not, it would seem clear that some moral concerns are more common, distinct, and important.  I would now like to make that case for honesty.

Honesty is common.

One of the distinctive traits of MFT is the evolutionary focus.  People moralize various things (e.g. eating pork or driving while using a cellphone) in various cultures, but the purpose is to identify those moral concerns that appear cross-culturally and have an innate quality.  Innate, in this instance, means “organized ahead of experience”, such that people can make intuitive judgments beyond their socialization.  Put more concretely, if concern about honesty is innate and universal, one might expect individuals to be able to intuitively signal and detect honesty in others, as this study, where participants are fairly successful in figuring out who will cooperate or cheat, shows.  The idea that concern about honesty is universal enough that one might posit an evolutionary story is almost self-evident, but this paper provides evolutionary models about how honesty might evolve.  If one subscribes to the evolution of groups that out-compete other groups, one can witness the evolution of honesty in modern society as nations that have low levels of corruption tend to have better economies than countries with high levels of corruption, mirroring the evolutionary processes theorized.

Honesty is distinct.

The same paper I cited above has some evidence for this, but from the perspective of Moral Foundations Theory, it would be useful to show that honesty is distinct from other moral concerns.  We asked users on YourMorals 4 questions about honesty (alpha=.69, .76 if we remove the relevance question) in addition to the standard Moral Foundations Questionnaire that measures the existing five foundational concerns.  Factor analyses tell the same story, but examining the correlations tells the story more simply.  Specifically, the highest correlation between endorsement of honesty and any other foundation is .31 (with Purity), while all other foundations have fairly high inter-correlations with other foundations (e.g. Purity/Authority/Ingroup inter-correlate >.5, Harm/Fairness inter-correlation = .57).  Concern about honesty is empirically distinct from other moral concerns.

Honesty is important.

The pragmatic utility of using the moral foundations to predict ideological differences is perhaps the primary contribution of MFT to date.  Are questions about honesty also pragmatically useful?

On a 7 point scale, those who are more conservative endorse questions about honesty more than those who are liberal, but the amount of variance in political attitudes predicted by endorsement of honesty is smaller, though significant, compared to other foundations (beta = .10 vs. other foundations which range from .12 (ingroup) to .33 (purity)).  However, if we look at economic conservatism, we do find that endorsing honesty does predict identification as being economically conservative (beta = .13) as well as authority, ingroup & purity concerns (betas = .10, .09, &.11).

I looked at some political attitude variables and the predictive power of endorsing honesty was not impressive.  However, endorsement of honesty is a strong negative predictor (in a regression equation, including the other five foundations) of psychopathy (beta = -.23) and utilitarianism (beta = -.26, e.g. willingness to sacrifice one life to save five others).  Measurement of endorsement of honesty may have important pragmatic utility, but not for political outcomes.

– Ravi Iyer

Posted in honesty, moral foundations, yourmorals.org6 Comments »

6 Responses to “The Case for Honesty as a Moral Foundation”

  1. Steve Roth says:

    Thank you so much for exploring this issue. I’ll be re-reading this post and the associated links more than once.

    I have a big question about this issue, though, which I wrote up in the following link. Would be fascinated to hear any insights.

  2. Ravi Iyer says:

    Steve, sorry for the late reply, but to your question “are people’s moral intuitions consistent across different situations?”, I would say somewhat. Like everything in psychology, I think the answer is dimensional rather than categorical. There are surely situations that dominate personality and there are surely situations where personality dominates….and many interactions in between, as your blog posts indicate.


  3. Jason Russell says:

    How would you reconcile Honesty as a moral foundation with Mercier and Sperber’s Argumentative Theory and Haidt’s “We’re all hypocrites” from The Happiness Hypothesis? They seem contradictory.

    In thinking about other possible foundations the problem of the chicken and the egg comes to mind.

    For example, looking at liberalism, I’ve wondered if another foundation might be something like Rodney King’s “Can’t we all just get along?” Liberalism does seem to want to homogenize (for lack of a better word) people and cultures; to break down what it sees as artifical barriers. But on the other hand, could that just be a consequence of the relatively lower value liberalism places on the foundation of loyalty, which seems to overlook or ignore the natural “groupishness” of humans?

  4. jason taylor says:

    Honesty goes to other elements. For instance narrative fiction is not counted dishonest because it is not really intended to deceive even though a falsehood. A ruse-of-war is actually admired because a military(or athletic) opponent has been tacitly warned by virtue of their participation. In both cases those are a matter when deliberate falsehood does not go against fairness.

    One point brought out in Susan Sontag’s Systems of Survival is that Honesty is a necessary commercial value and loyalty a necessary political value. A merchant needs to trade with strangers, and a warrior needs to fight beside strangers(or vote beside them)with the assurance in either case that they will be protected from betrayal.

  5. Ravi says:

    Thanks for the reference to Sontag’s book…very helpful.

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