Challenging the Theory: The Moral Foundations Prize


[Below is the text of the challenge that was posted for 2 years, ending on August 1, 2009. We still welcome challenges and criticisms, and will post the best ones here, but the prize is no longer available to new challengers. The three winners of the prize were:
--John Jost, NYU (for our new Liberty/oppression foundation)
--Elizabeth Shulman and Andrew Mastronarde, U.C. Irvine (for waste)
--Polly Wiessner U. of Utah (ownership/possession, which we are still discussing).

In February 2012, each winner was given a check for $500, because nobody fully completed both steps. Collecting empirical evidence turned out to be quite a lot to ask.
We are holding back the remaining $1500 of prize money for future winners. In particular, we think that honesty and self-control are promising candidates as well.


[Original text of challenge:]

We believe the five foundations are the best way to carve nature and culture at the joints when studying moral psychology. However, we expect that over the next few years, our empirical findings, and those of critics, will lead us to revise the theory. There are probably several other good candidates for "foundationhood" (such as Liberty/oppression) and it is possible that the five we have identified could be combined or split in different ways (for example, Ingroup/loyalty tends to correlate highly with Authority/respect).


Winning the prize will take two steps. First, you must make a good case, in writing, that some other set of concerns is a plausible candidate for foundationhood. Then, you must collect empirical evidence to show that this set of concerns is psychometrically distinct from the existing five foundations, or is otherwise incompatible with the existing five. The prize can be divided in two: whoever proposes a change to the theory will be given $300 if someone else can produce compelling evidence that the challenger was right (thereby earning the remaining $700). We in the consortium will be the judges, and we'll probably want to replicate anyone else's findings before changing our whole theory, but we have stated in print that we take the five foundations are the best starting points; we do not believe they account for all of human morality.


--***John Jost (NYU) believes that the current formulation underestimates the full extent and variation of liberal morality. In particular, he proposes that concerns about equality and oppression are not part of the Fairness/Reciprocity foundation; they are a separate psychological system, perhaps related to the dynamics that Christopher Boehm describes in Hierarchy in the Forest, in which people in egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies developed ways to band together to suppress bullying and limit authoritarianism. We are beginning to test the possiblity that there is a 6th foundation, provisionally labeled "Liberty/Oppression." We will examine whether it is psychometrically distinct from Fairness/reciprocity and also from Harm/care.

--***Elizabeth Shulman and Andrew Mastronarde at UC Irvine suggest that people may have an emotional response to waste, especially to throwing out food. This does not seem related to any of the 5 foundations (unless it always brings to mind the thought of hungry people, so that wasting food is a callous thing to do, and is primarily a moral issue for people who score high on Harm/care).

--Zeljka Buturovic at Columbia suggests that wisdom is a widespread and traditional virtue not well captured by the 5 foundations. She suggests that people generally tend to think of ignorance as something very negative, and these negative feelings may support some part of the moral domain related to wisdom/ignorance. She suggests some sample questionniare items here. Respect for wisdom could be related to the evolution of prestige.

--Craig Anderson, at U. of Wisconsin-Madison, suggests a related idea: that truth/right-belief is a foundation of morality. Many groups heavily moralize belief and "right-thinking"; many groups excommunicate or persecute those who seem (to them) to hold false and dangerous beliefs. Craig offers an analysis of the morality of truth, along with some thoughts on how this morality may have evolved via multi-level selection, in this paper.

--Tim Dean, a philosopher at U. of New South Wales, offers a slightly different view of how truth/honesty might be an additional moral foundation in this blog posting.

--Norman Doering suggests that the 5 foundations do not show the full range of liberal concerns, and that each of the original 5 is really one side of a polar opposition. Liberals and conservatives therefore all have 5 foundational systems. He proposes that the 5 polar categories are:
2)__Fairness/Reciprocity______|________Privilege/Bully power
4)__Question authority_______|________Authority/Respect
5)__Rights/Secular Freedom___|________Purity/Sanctity
Read his blog entry critiquing Moral Foundations theory and justifying this arrangement.

--Eric Oliver at the U. of Chicago suggests that there may be a separate foundation related to self-control, an ability that makes a person more trustworthy and valuable as a partner for cooperation.  James Q. Wilson also listed self-control as one of 4 master virtues.

-- ***Polly Wiessner, U. of Utah, pointed out to Jon Haidt, in a conversation, that the issue of possession or ownership is not included in the five foundations. Wiessner noted that many animals have territories that they defend, and that other animals often respect, indicating that there is a very plausible evolutionary story for why people care so much about possessions and territories, and will defend them with violence when necessary.
-- Steve Messenger also sent in that suggestion, about possession, and adds: "To a conservative, liberty and personal property go hand-in-hand.  Dominion over one’s self includes reaping the rewards, or paying the consequences, of one’s actions.  Whatever I legally accrue is mine, and nobody else’s, to decide what to do with.  I have a right to my own stuff that nobody else can infringe upon.  If the government or any other power can take my stuff then part of who and what I am belongs to the government or the other power instead of to me and therefore I am not truly free.  I understand and accept the necessity of taxes, but only for the purposes of government's enumerated powers.  Other than that my money is part of my freedom and it is "not yours to give."The sense of ownership is so strong that I wonder if it might be part of the mind’s initial draft, and therefore a tentative candidate for a sixth moral foundation.   What child does not feel a sense of being wronged if something of theirs is taken away?" [Steve is a runner up, in that he submitted this suggestion after Polly Wiessner. He'll get a free dinner and signed book from Jon Haidt. It turns out Steve is right in his claim about children and ownership; and since he wrote these words, several labs have been publishing research showing the fairly early emergence of ownership/possession in children; see especially work by Ori Friedman.]

Additional comments and critiques of the 5 foundations are here

Fine print: A maximum of $3000 will be awarded between Sept. 2007 and Feb, 2010. This is a contest to find the most important psychological systems, the foundational systems that make it possible for human beings to care about what other people do. Please see Haidt & Joseph (in press) for more on what it takes to be a moral foundation, and for how morality is both innate and culturally learned. Proof  of a new foundation cannot just come from a factor analysis of questionnaire data, but such analyses can be compelling if they are part of a broader case that combines evolutionary theory with a review of cross-cultural or cross-species evidence. If someone can demonstrate the existence and operation of a system that is nearly as widespread and productive as concerns about reciprocity, purity, etc. then we will change our theory. If someone can demonstrate that our theory has left out a smaller aspect of morality, not nearly as substantial as the existing five, then they may still win one of the prizes, although we might not call it an additional "foundation" of morality. The issue of additional foundations may end up resembling the debate about what to call Pluto: There are 8 real planets, and a bunch of smaller things out beyond Uranus. We are interested both in finding any "planets" that we missed and in identifying the most important of the non-planetary objects as well.

(Last updated Aug. 3, 2009)