Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) was developed by a team of social and cultural psychologists, primarily Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham, to explore why, despite vast differences across cultures, morality often has shared themes and similarities across populations. In essence, MFT suggests that there are several innate psychological systems at the core of our “intuitive ethics.” Cultures then build virtues, narratives, and institutions upon these foundational systems, resulting in the diverse moral beliefs we observe globally and even conflicts within nations. This model of human morality does not argue that all these systems are “good,” in other words, it is a descriptive account of human morality, not a normative one. Evolution does not care about the inherent goodness of psychological systems, rather it creates systems that maintain cooperation, promoting survival and reproduction. The original framework of MFT identified five foundations, which are strongly supported by evidence across various cultures:
Care: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies the virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
Fairness: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It underlies the virtues of justice and rights.
Loyalty: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all and all for one.” It underlies the virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group.
Authority: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to prestigious authority figures and respect for traditions.
Purity: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble, and more “natural” way (often present in religious narratives). This foundation underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple that can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions). It underlies the virtues of self-discipline, self-improvement, naturalness, and spirituality.
In our original conception, the Fairness foundation was skewed toward concerns about equality, which politically left-leaning individuals more strongly endorse in different cultures. In 2011, based on new data, we emphasized proportionality, which is often endorsed by everyone, but is slightly more strongly endorsed by politically right-leaning people. In 2023, based on a decade of empirical work, our team led by Mohammad Atari decided to split the Fairness foundation into Equality and Proportionality, making the case for six main foundations (Atari et al., 2023):
Equality: In our theoretical reformulation of MFT in 2023, we defined Equality as “Intuitions about equal treatment and equal outcome for individuals.”
Proportionality: In our theoretical reformulation of MFT in 2023, we defined Proportionality as “Intuitions about individuals getting rewarded in proportion to their merit or contribution.”
Since MFT was first described in 2004 (Haidt & Joseph, 2004), we have tried to identify the candidate foundations for which the empirical evidence was strongest. We proposed five criteria for foundationhood (Graham et al., 2013): (a) being common in third-party normative judgments; (b) automatic affective evaluations; (c) being culturally widespread though not necessarily universal; (d) evidence of innate preparedness; and (e) a robust pre-existing evolutionary model. We think there are several other very good candidates for “foundationhood,” especially:
Liberty: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor. In 2012, we reported some preliminary work on this potential foundation, on the psychology of libertarianism and liberty (Iyer et al., 2012).
Honor: This foundation is about one’s self-worth based on their reputation and assessment of what others think. In 2020, we made the case that honor (more accurately, “Qeirat” in Middle Eastern cultures) can be an additional foundation wherein a man is expected to protect his kin and family, and under some circumstances, be ready to violently retaliate against anyone who insults his family’s reputation (Atari et al., 2020).
Ownership: This foundation has been on the radar of moral psychologists for a long time, and yet it remains one of the least studied constructs in this literature. In 2013, we maintained the importance of ownership as an additional foundation.Ownership intuitions are “fast” and it is ubiquitous in human societies. Human intuitions about ownership have obvious parallels in other animals, and respect for property is an evolutionarily stable strategy. In 2023, we argued that Ownership may meet the entire set of criteria to be an additional foundation (Atari & Haidt, 2023).
The theory was first developed from a simultaneous review of current evolutionary thinking about morality and cross-cultural research on virtues. The theory is an extension of Richard Shweder’s theory of the “three ethics” commonly used around the world when people talk about morality (Shweder et al., 1997.) The theory was also strongly influenced by Alan Fiske’s relational models theory (see Rai & Fiske, 2011)
To learn more about MFT:
- For the most complete and accessible overview of the theory, read The Righteous Mind.
- If you just want to read about the foundations themselves, here is Chapter 7 of The Righteous Mind.
- For a more academic overview of the theory, including the criteria for calling something a “foundation,” see the review paper by Graham et al. (2013).
- To see all of our academic articles, visit our Publications page
- To get an overview of MFT and how it applies to American politics, watch the videos below (or view them here and here if they don’t play below)