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Five Foundations of Morality in America (Jonathan Haidt)

When you decide whether something is right or wrong, to what extent are the following considerations relevant to your thinking?

  • Whether or not someone was harmed [harm] ;
  • someone acted unfairly [reciprocity] ;
  • someone did something to betray his or her group [group loyalty] ;
  • the people involved were of the same rank or status [authority] ;
  • someone did something disgusting [purity]

Liberals tend to focus exclusively on "harm" and "reciprocity", whereas conservatives include all five elements in their moral reasoning.

Matias 8 July 21

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"whereas conservatives include all five elements in their moral reasoning." ?

Is this a jonathan haidt opinion?

Jacar Level 8 July 22, 2018

I think so , yes.


I have Jonathan Haidt’s book, 'The Righteous Mind,' which I’ve marked up extensively, and I’ve watched most of his YouTube videos, including his TedTalks. To help clarify, the elements of Haidt’s moral matrix are as follows:

  • Harm/Care
  • Liberty/Oppression (found in The Righteous Mind, but not in his TedTalk)
  • Fairness/Reciprocity
  • Loyalty/Betrayal (or In-group/Loyalty)
  • Authority/Subversion (or Authority/Respect)
  • Sanctity/Degradation (or Sanctity/Purity)
    In 'The Righteous Mind,' Haidt states that Liberals most value elements 1, 2 and 3, while Libertarians are strong on 2 and 3 only, and Conservatives, as you indicated, value all 6. However, according to Haidt’s research (as presented in his TedTalk), these value differences are hardly unique to the US, and cross cultures and continents.

The important question, in my opinion, relates not to the differences between Liberals, Libertarians and Conservatives, but whether or not the three unshared (i.e., Conservative) values are, in fact, legitimate moral imperatives. What, after all, may be universally judged to be moral about loyalty, authority and purity? I am not the first to assert that the foundation of all morality rests on two, and only two, pillars: Reciprocity and Empathy, the precursors of which may be observed in other primates.

You cannot seriously deny that Liberals too base their moral judgements or intuitions on "Loyalty/Betrayal (or In-group/Loyalty)". Liberals as well as Conservatives divide the world into "us" and "them", with heavy in-group bias - like any body else!
They may not make use of that core value in their conscious ethical reasoning ("moral philosophy" ), but in their daily life they certainly do make use of it

@Matias What on Earth are you going on about? Please, clarify.

@pnfullifidian I haven't the foggiest what you mean... I am posting all kinds of stuff, thoughts, ideas, arguments.... some of it is my own, others is from people like Dennett, Scott Atran, Jon Haidt... Where's the problem?

@Matias I believe what you're referring to is tribalism, which all primates engage in. My point is that I disagree with Haidt here in that this behavior is not a moral principle.

@pnfullifidian OK. I agree with Haidt (he is actually one of my favorites) ; you disagree with him. No problem. And no reason to ask in a dramatic tone "What on Earth are you going on about?"

@Matias Fair enough.


Based on your bio, you're based on Germany. Are you an expat?

No. I am a German and I am living in Germany. Never lived abroad for more than a few month (France and Spain, but never in the US)

@Matias I asked first because I wanted to be sure. Now my next question is, why does a German is interested into mapping this particular five points on to liberals and conservatives? When you say that, which nationality are you referring to?

@IamNobody I do not understand your question. Do you think that Germans have to be parochial in their views? Or that there are no Conservatives or Liberals in Germany? (We call the people from the center-left "Social democrats", and "Liberals" in our language are more what Americans call Libertarians). The political landscape in our countries may not be identical, but the basic divisions are to be found in all Western countries.

@Matias my question is that I want to understand if you're asking regarding Germany or US, precisely because they are not the same. You didn't specify that. If you are asking about Germany then I can tell you flat out that I don't have an opinion because I can not even pretend to know because I don't live there.


The basis for my moral code -- and decision-making -- is the principle of minimum violation of human dignity and respect, and minim damage of human and environmental well=being. I think that more than covers your questions.

Well, they are not my questions, but the leading question of Jonathan Haidt (et alii) who has done a lot of research on the topic of the foundation of morality in the "West" and the rest of the world. He and his colleagues found the five core elements mentioned above.

The basis for your moral code may be the principle of minimum violation of human dignity and respect, but that is a specific Western perspective (with roots in monotheism!). A concept like "human dignity" is unknown in other cultures.

@Matias It is utter nonsense to say, "A concept like 'human dignity; is unknown in other cultures." Buddhism, which began about 500 before Christ is based on human dignity. Your ignorance is dangerous.

@EdEarl The concept of "dignity" in Buddhism is different from ours, because the Western concept is based on the idea that every person is a child of God and has an immortal soul.
One of the core concepts of Buddhism is "anatta" which means that "individuals" have no personal core or soul. What we call a "person" is just a bundle of impressions, desires, thoughts and so on....
It is obvious that such a bundle can have no dignity as we understand this term in our Judeo-Christian tradition, from which humanism is one offshoot

@Matias People are people, and they understand personal dignity as surely as pain, regardless of how it is defined by a person or religion. Your reply is about semantics; thus, it says nothing about my point. Your ignorance is dangerous.

@EdEarl My reply is not about "semantics", but about a core concept of Buddhism (which you accuse me to be totally ignorant of).
the ethics of Buddhism is founded on empathy, not on some concept of "human dignity". It is not my intention to belittle or denigrate Buddhism - just on the contrary (!), since I am no fan of Western "humanism" because I see it as a continuation of Christian monotheism.

@Matias Christianity might be a continuation of Buddhism, which existed about 500 years before Christ. I agree that the two have similar ethics, and some Christians are also Buddhists.

I don't think you are uneducated. Rather, you seem blinded by belief. Like your statement about Buddhism being founded on empathy, which I agree. However, empathy is an emotion that we feel when people are treated unfairly. Denying a person human dignity elicits empathy. Siddhārtha became Buddha because he saw people suffering (denied dignity in life).

Christ died for sinners, so God, who punishes sinners, would forgive them. Except, blacks, LBGQT, and others are denied respect and dignity.


I have long suspected there is a methodological fly in Haidt's ointment (please forgive the biblical reference). He seems to be peculiarly selective in just exactly what he tests, and what he doesn't. I respect his work as far as it goes, but I don't think it tells the whole story.

For example, Harm care and Fairness reciprocity are, to me, unconditional. There are virtually no circumstances under which the potential recipient would not morally deserve those two considerations. Again for me, Ingroup loyalty, Authority respect, and Purity sanctity are strictly conditional. They are, in other words, deserved when they are deserved, but they aren't always deserved.

If a group I am a member of is planning to commit a crime, they have lost the moral claim to my loyalty. If my President commits treason, he no longer deserves to have me respect his authority (potential resemblance to any real circumstance is purely coincidental). And there is no moral sanctity deserved when the purity in question is racial, for example.

Maybe the real difference between liberal and conservative morality is which group of concerns are considered unconditional and which conditional. Please forgive my bias, but it seems to me that, in general, conservatives are more likely to feel that loyalty, respect, and purity are unconditional, but you deserve only as much fairness or healthcare as you can afford. It's conditional upon whether you earned it.

I haven't read everything Haidt has written, but some, and have watched a lot of his videos, and have never heard him address this gap in his studies.

skado Level 8 July 21, 2018

This is an excellent thought which I find helpful in clarifying the difference in priorities.

I think there is a misunderstanding here, because Haidt and his colleagues have done descriptive studies on the foundations of morality in all kinds of cultures all over the world, and they found these five core elements. So these five are not the elements he thinks a comprehensive morality SHOULD have. They correspond to the Big Five in Psychology: categories that cannot be reduced one to another.

That group loyalty, authority and purity may be conditional is not a valid argument against the claim that they serve as foundations of moral thinking (or moral intuitions). If "your" president commits treason, you disapprove of his behavior because he is disloyal to your group. In this case, the value "loyalty" trumps the value "authority", because especially for Conservatives, the well-being of the group is most important.


In MY opinion, conservatives do NOT give consideration to "people" in any way. Conservatives are interested in economics and finance ONLY. It's all about the money, baby. How their policies affect "people" is of little concern to them. Again, just my opinion based on my interpretation of what I see conservative policies are and do. Your mileage will vary.

This is a caricature. Traditional (!) Conservatives do have many more core values than economic well--being: the nation, family, tradition, religion...


I don't agree that numbers 2-5 are moral issues. They are social acceptability issues.

Bobby9 Level 8 July 21, 2018

Number 3 becomes a moral issue when infiltration by a spy can compromise your operation. Number 4 is a moral issue when a defiant action by a subordinate can compromise a whole unit in a battle. Number 5 can mean the life or death of your entire tribe if a scout returns to camp with small pox, or it's a moral issue when a man sleeps with his wife after sleeping with an infected prostitute.

All three sets of which are definitely exceptional circumstances, but they can be moral to a life-critical degree in such cases. Rare, but highly consequential.

@Rhetoric I agree with Bobby9. Loyalty and Authority must be continually earned and deserved, but they are not moral imperatives. Consider that the United States would not exist without a decision, en masse, to disregard millennia of 'tradition' concerning these supposed moral virtues. Disgust is an emotional reaction, not a moral value.


(For simplicity, I'll refer to 1&2 as the two liberal values, and 3–5 as the three conservative values.)

"Loyalty and Authority must be continually earned and deserved, but they are not moral imperatives."
Imperatives in a fundamental sense for all situations? Sure, they probably are not that. But in an emergent sense for some situations, I'm trying to suggest that it is reasonable that they can be at least on a surface level.

"Consider that the United States would not exist without a decision, en masse, to disregard millennia of 'tradition' concerning these supposed moral virtues."
In that temporal instance, such a sidelining (undermining, even) was warranted. But during WWII, we skewed more toward the three conservative values, and that likely helped us to win the war. It seems to me that the three conservative values are genuinely helpful, when a group is under assault from the outside.

At this time in our history, I personally think we desperately need to do better acting out the two liberal values, and I think it'd be a reasonable argument that the three conservative values are only derivable as moral in some instances from the two liberal ones. But that doesn't make it ok to forget that there are times when the three conservative values are can genuinely be beneficial.

"Disgust is an emotional reaction, not a moral value."
I'm talking about purity. Height seems to use disgust a bit too broadly. And you are correct about this—indeed I had to say this to myself about my own visceral reactions around a controversial issue just in the last couple days: my reaction of disgust was not a guarantee of the wrongness of someone else's proposition.

But you didn't really address my points about how the three conservative values can be morally important at times. So with purity applied against disease, there has been a vast moral benefit to humans. However, purity applied against other people-groups has been a hideous tool for moral disasters large and small.

So, I think, purity—like loyalty and authority—is also not fundamental, but sometimes important in moral ways.

@Rhetoric We need to distinguish, in my opinion, between behaviors that kept us alive and allowed us to reproduce—i.e., survival mechanisms—and those which have a basis in morality. The concepts of defecating near a food source or of incest, for example, are disgusting to most, but this reaction is based not on moral grounds, but on millions of years of genetic information. Purity, respecting authority and loyalty (which enables group cohesion) are clearly beneficial to human survival. But to ascribe moral underpinnings or to add disproportionate value to them is a distraction, in my view. I agree with the sentiments expressed that the world would be a better place if all were to consistently focus their attention on the first two (Care/Harm & Fairness/Reciprocity) values.

@pnfullifidian There's not really anything I disagree with in your response. I just don't have much clarity for when survival should, might, or does not play into the moral consideration.

I guess a question is: What reasonably delimits the scope of morality (principles, actions, etc.)? I'm really curious, and I don't have much of an answer on that myself. Frankly, I don't quite see when either morality or epistemology are really ever off the table in a given situation. Any further recommendations for sources would be appreciated.


I do not find the above very informative or compelling. If that is from some survey or study it seems time wasted to me. Following are my personal opinions.

Law are in theory there to benefit the population. The questions seem to me to be negative ones. I would prefer a positive approach.
Did help people? If so how did it help?
Handing out charity can actually be a destructive thing.
Sometimes charity is needed but simply handing someone a ten dollar bill may not actually help them.
There is also the difference between the laws of a nation and morality. Laws are in theory made to benefit the population of the land. Morality is a more personal matter. Morality can have its bad or negative part. It can be neutral neither harming or helping anyone. It can be positive in that it does help all parties involved.

What the government does is a community matter. What I do is my responsibility and I am the one who must live with the consequences of my actions, legal or moral.


I take issue with the notion that conservatives are somehow more "moral" than liberals, or anyone else for that matter.
My experiences and observations have been the complete opposite.

I also tend to reject these types of 'pronouncements' as frequently false and
usually in service to an agenda.
This is another reason I have little use for philosophy.

Hear, Hear.

Conservatives are not more moral than Liberals, their moral intuitions comprise more elements, like group loyalty, authority and purity, elements that have no moral value for Liberals

@Matias Again, I disagree. Particularly regarding "group loyalty".
From my own observations, I've seen the liberal mindset of "group loyalty" encompassing a much larger group than anything conservatives may consider to be their group. Liberals are more likely to consider the whole of humanity to be their "group". Whereas conservatives have much smaller, more personalized, groups.
If you (or Haidt) want to argue that conservatives have more elements that comprise their "moral intuitions" than liberals, or even moderates (which I consider myself to be), I'll take the opposing viewpoint, all day long.

@KKGator This raises the question about Antifa and can it really be classed as liberal? Could we say it is a liberal organisation established on conservation values?

@brentan I honestly don't know enough about Antifa to classify it as anything other just another organization that is pissing off conservatives. I'm not a joiner. I have little use for most organizations.


I think both use all five for their moral thinking with the difference being in the weight placed on each item: liberals seem to put undue weight on the first two while conservatives seem to put undue weight on the last three.


Sorry to disgree. I find conservatives to give lip service to the ones you ascribe to them, but not practice them. Do as I say, not as I do. Good at practicing hypocrisy.

t1nick Level 8 July 21, 2018

I agreed with you and I am Conservative.


We would be better off if we didn’t make moral judgments at all IMO.

If one is making judgements, one is judging social acceptability, not morals.


Very interesting, I only gravitated to the first two!

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