Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Our Moral Foundations and Decisions

I was very involved in the 2012 Obama campaign as a local volunteer and neighborhood team leader. As such, issues constantly came up that forced me to question why I supported or opposed them. Is it right? Is it wrong? Doesn’t it depend on a lot of other things? I needed to feel I understood them internally. Only then, could I use them as talking points to potential voters in my neighborhoods.

I constantly asked myself how the conservative right could be so diametrically opposed to what I believed. I don’t consider myself to be unusually liberal. In fact, I’m very conservative is some things. How could conservatives feel so absolute and certain that they held the high ground morally? It was frustrating. I couldn’t think that way.

I pondered the possible reasons. Some insight came after listening to a Bill Moyers program with Jonathan Haidt. Here is the link to the full 56 min. program on Vimeo. It is worth the time to view it. The main content of this diary does not require it.

In it…

Bill and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt talk about the psychological underpinnings of our contentious culture, why we can’t trust our own opinions, and the demonizing of our adversaries. Compromise becomes a dirty word.

At last some insight. Social psychology is not my area of expertise. I am a teacher and scientist. Logic and clear thinking are a big deal for me. I saw none in the way our political system was behaving. Haidt pointed out how people are basically very similar when it comes to which guideposts they use as foundations for moral judgement and behavior. But, they differ significantly on which of those foundations are held in highest importance to them. It is testable and measurable.

Granted, this information is not new. Haidt has spoken about it on TED, among other places, since 2008. Do a search with Haidt and you find several instances of his work and talks. I would like to share what I found in looking into this issue of moral foundations. It was very revealing and explained a great deal about the differences in liberals vs conservatives.

I’m with you. Show me more.

Jonathan Haidt is part of a collaboration of social psychologists who study morality and politics. Their web site is very comprehensive and interesting. Their studies are useful for ethics classes and seminars. They use it to test theories of moral psychology. A goal is to promote understanding across the political spectrum. They want to understand why morality varies greatly across cultures, yet still shows many similarities between them.

The group originally identified 6 moral foundations they felt were present in all cultures.

(Taken from their website. Emphasis is mine.)

1) Care/Harm: 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 virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

2) Fairness/Cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]

3) Liberty/Oppression: 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.

4) Loyalty/Betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It 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.

5) Authority/Subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

6) Sanctity/Degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It 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).

Their research applied the moral foundations theory to the political cultures of liberals and conservatives. While they rely on all six foundations, Liberals rely heavily on the Care/Harm foundation. Liberals also rely much on foundations from the Fairness/Cheating and Liberty/Oppression. Conservatives, especially religious conservatives, also base their moral decisions on all six foundations. The last three of Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation are most important to them as a group.

The people at developed a questionnaire to measure the moral profile of subjects. You are encouraged to visit and participate at this link at The definitions and terms used in the foundations evolved some over time. Currently, the questionnaire measures 5 of the 6 foundations listed above. They are now described as Harm/Care, Fairness/Reciprocity, Ingroup/Loyalty, Authority/Respect, and Purity/Sanctity.

Word spread about the questionnaire as the story about their research appeared in newspapers, blogs, magazines, and across the internet. People from all backgrounds and regions noticed and clicked on links in the stories to go to and do the survey. A large number of results were collected from a wide variety of sources. Those sources with an internet presence could be tracked. Web servers keep track of referring traffic. analyzed the data collected and compared it to the source of the traffic. They assumed…

If the pattern holds among people who read the New York Times, people who come from conservative blogs (a minority, but there are some), people who read the Houston Chronicle, people who find the site by typing ‘morality quiz’ into a search engine, and people who read Libertarian magazines….then it is likely that the pattern is somewhat robust.  Of course, these patterns are all among internet samples, so it would be fair to say that if this pattern of liberal-conservative differences holds among all these groups, then it is fairly robust amongst the type of people who use the internet to read about news or politics.

What kind of results were they able to chart? How trustworthy were the results?

The questionnaire ranks you from 1-7 on a scale of very liberal to very conservative based upon your responses. From the results published in September 2009 by a blog at Data Science and Psychology, it appears to show a consistent trend across sources from liberal to conservative. Liberal individuals rely heavily on the first two moral foundations of Harm and Fairness. Less on Ingroup, Authority, and Purity. Conservative individuals rely more equally on all five foundations. Harm and Fairness are actually less important than Ingroup, Authority, and Purity.

My Own Results of the Questionnaire

I decided to take the survey myself to see where I fit compared to liberals and conservatives. It was about 40 questions in length. I used the version on the web site of They ask for a login in order to keep track of results. Listed there are also many other studies open to your participation. You can also find web addresses of versions of the moral foundations survey via your search engine that don’t need login. Based upon the 5 foundations and results from 4,382 liberals and 12,950 conservatives, my green bar results are high for the first two foundations like other liberals. And, they are lower for the next three. No surprises here.

In this chart, my results in green, four items looked more closely at different types of fairness. Conservatives are expected to score higher in the first set of bars about proportionality (“Employees who work the hardest should be paid the most.”) Liberals are expected to score the highest on questions about equality in the second set of bars (“A fair society would be one in which everyone ended up with roughly the same amount of money.”) The third and fourth sets of bars show responses to questions about liberty and the importance of private property. I seem to value private property a lot. I wonder why.

So, have I addressed my original quandary I had during and after the campaign? Yes, I understand better. The two groups approach moral decisions differently. All of us use the same set of foundations to base our moral decisions upon. But, there is a big difference in the emphasis liberals place on the first two of Harm and Fairness. Conservatives don’t value them as highly as belonging to the right Ingroup, respect for Authority, and Purity of intention. Those differences are where the conflicts and frustration come into play. No, I don’t really understand. What determines which of the two patterns we end up following. Are there triggers that cause that at a young age?

My conclusion…I still can’t think that way. And, I am glad I don’t.

Thanks for coming along with me today. It helps to have thought this through with you.


  1. Liberals rely heavily on the Care/Harm foundation. Liberals also rely much on foundations from the Fairness/Cheating and Liberty/Oppression. Conservatives, especially religious conservatives, also base their moral decisions on all six foundations. The last three of Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation are most important to them as a group.

  2. PadreJM

    My theology is orthodox, to an extreme if compared to any “norm.”  I’ve never found my respect for individual conscience, and my passion for social and economic justice issues to be at all incompatible with that ideology, although many brand me as liberal because of them.

    Needless to say, my sense of morality is quite strong.  So strong, in fact, that I can’t always live up to it myself.   And, of course, I frequently measure my political positions against my moral yardstick.

    So, thank you for writing this diary.  I may or may not share the results after I’ve taken the survey.  😉

  3. slksfca

    …I get the feeling that things will get worse before they eventually get better.

    It would all be a lot easier if more people were actually willing to listen to other points of view and THEN make up their minds. But that’s probably too utopian an opinion, even for me. 🙂

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