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From three to five: moral foundations theory

Moral foundations theory (MFT) was developed by Haidt together with Joseph and Graham (Graham et al., 2013; Haidt & Joseph, 2004). The earliest fonnulation of it was published in 2004, and this first conceptualisation included only four independent modules of morality: suffering, hierarchy, reciprocity, and purity. However, in the footnote of that article, a potential fifth module was already cited as the ingroup/outgroup dimension. MFT was based on the analysis of different studies in social science (Haidt & Joseph, 2004). According to the authors’ own words, they wanted to find the common foundation of morality. In practice, the model was based on existing models of morality (in particular, Shweder’s three ethics model) and values (Schwartz’s Theory of Basic Values). The version of MFT that included five moral foundations was published in 2007, although Haidt and colleagues have considered adding a sixth moral foundation to their model (e.g., Iyer, Koleva, Graham, Ditto, & Haidt, 2012). In addition, the names and contents of the foundations have been slightly modified in that time. For instance, ingroup/loyalty is nowadays also called loyalty/betrayal. So, it seems that MFT is currently more like a developing project than a stable theoretical fonnulation.

MFT supposes that humans have innate moral intuitions that are instinctive predispositions, or quick gut feelings or “decisions” that come into consciousness within seconds for approval or disapproval (Haidt & Joseph, 2004). According to this theory, these instinctive intuitions cannot be directly observed, but it is possible to study moral reasoning that is based on these intuitions (Haidt & Kesebir, 2010). Even if MFT assumes that moral foundations are intuitive, this theory does not exclusively focus on intuitions but rather on the way moral foundations are expressed in moral discourse or thinking. Despite their intuitive origin, it is assumed that moral foundations occur in moral thinking in general as well as in the moral reasoning that individuals use for resolving moral problems.

MFT also assumes that moral foundations are universal psychological systems enabling people to perceive actions and actors as right or wrong. Therefore, these foundations do not describe only morally right issues but also include more generally morally loaded issues. The fact that cultures and social groups can prioritise them in different ways explains why there are differences in moral norms and practices between and within countries. The five foundations are the following:

  • 1) The care/harm foundation describes an individual’s capacity to feel compassion towards other people and their willingness to avoid harm. Moral virtues that are based on this foundation are kind-heartedness and compassion. When behaviour is evaluated from this perspective, we ask, for example, whether the behaviour harmed someone.
  • 2) The fairness/cheating foundation describes the quality of interaction between individuals, and corresponding moral virtues focus on the unbiased treatment of individuals. When behaviour is assessed from this perspective, it is asked whether someone behaved fairly or unfairly, for example.
  • 3) The loyalty/betrayal foundation is based on the idea of favouring one’s own ingroup, possibly at the expense of outgroups. Moral virtues include loyalty and trustworthiness, group solidarity, patriotism, and heroism. When behaviour is evaluated from this perspective, it is asked whether someone who was mistreated was a group member or not.
  • 4) The authority/subversion foundation describes an individual’s willingness and capacity to respect authorities and operate in hierarchical groups. Moral virtues may include showing respect for people with high status or authority, fulfilling duties, and obedience. When behaviour is assessed from this perspective, it is asked whether individuals involved in a situation had the same status or different ones.
  • 5) The sanctity /degradation foundation focuses on bodily functions, their purity or impurity, and especially religious activities. From this perspective, carnal desires such as overeating, where animalistic desires control behaviour, are perceived as morally despicable. For example, seeing someone who is overweight would, in this case, raise feelings of disgust. In contrast, controlling one’s bodily functions is perceived as morally acceptable. When this moral foundation is used for evaluating behaviour, it is asked whether that behaviour elicited feelings of disgust or not (Haidt & Kesebir, 2010).

Together, the fairness/cheating foundation and the care/harm foundation are called the individualising foundations, whereas loyalty/betrayal, authority/sub-version, and sanctity/degradation are named the binding foundations (Haidt & Kesebir, 2010).

According to MFT, these moral intuitions or foundations shape an individual’s political orientation (Graham et al., 2013, 2009; van Leeuwen & Park, 2009). Findings suggest that liberals (i.e., typically, supporters of left-wing politics) are likely to consider the individualising foundations more morally relevant than the binding foundations, and conservatives (i.e., typically supporters of right-wing politics) are likely to consider the binding foundations more important from the moral point of view. The existence of the pattern has been demonstrated in different countries, such as in the United States and Finland (Graham et al., 2013, 2009; Màkiniemi et al., 2013; McAdams et al., 2008; Vainio & Màkiniemi, 2016; van Leeuwen & Park, 2009). It is worth noting, however, that the liberal/conservative distinction does not match a left-wing/right-wing distinction in all societies, because the political left may in some cases privilege the welfare of the group over the individual liberties (Graham et al., 2009) and therefore, that ideological preferences are often very heterogeneous (Weber & Federico, 2013). For instance, in a Finnish study of moral foundations in food-related moral thinking, there were differences between supporters of left-wing, right-wing, and centrist politics (a common list of political identities in the Finnish context; Màkiniemi et al., 2013).

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