Morality and Political Psychology: A Guest Post

Ravi Iyer, a graduate student and colleague of mine at the University of Southern California in social psychology, blogs regularly about moral psychology at, and tweets from @ravi_polipsych. He collaborates with others on, where interested individuals may participate in research in political and moral psychology. I asked him to contribute a guest post about his work.

As a moral psychology researcher, I was very excited when Jason wrote that his posts this week would cover moral psychology, and I have enjoyed his previous posts concerning the evolution of morality and the fact that even small children have a sense of morality. But what exactly does this sense of morality involve?

Jason quoted Jon Haidt in an earlier post, who suggested that a comprehensive moral psychology must study the full array of psychological mechanisms that are "active in the moral lives of people of diverse cultures.

A few years ago, I was fortunate to catch a talk by Jon Haidt at the Gallup Positive Psychology Summit where he gave a wonderful talk about moral foundation theory, which seeks to determine the fundamental systems of morality. I sought to use his scale in my work and using that scale eventually grew into our current collaboration (along with Jesse Graham, Pete Ditto, and Sena Koleva) at, where the main instrument used in moral foundation theory, the moral foundations questionnaire, is available.

The moral foundations questionnaire measures five foundations. The following descriptions are taken from the moral foundations theory webpage where "the theory proposes that five innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of "intuitive ethics." Each culture then constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world, and conflicting within nations too."

1) Harm/care, related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment
systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. This foundation underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

2) Fairness/reciprocity, related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. This foundation generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.

3) Ingroup/loyalty, related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. This foundation 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."

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

5) Purity/sanctity, shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. This foundation 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

The central finding of Moral Foundations theory to date is the split between what liberals and conservatives report caring about. Specifically, Liberals care more exclusively about issues concerning harm and fairness, while conservatives also care about issues surrounding obeying rightful authority, being loyal to one's ingroup, and avoiding "unnatural" violations of one's purity.

How can we tell if this finding is robust? All web servers keep track of referring traffic and so we can analyze the data we collect at by the source of the incoming traffic. 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.

Below are graphs containing real data, across many of these groups. You'll see the same pattern where as you move from liberal to conservative, the exclusivity of concern about issues of harm and fairness reduces.





Jason's note: as the lines move from left to right (liberal to conservative), notice that the harm and fairness constructs are rated as more important for liberals than ingroup, authority, and purity, while this separation is not observed for conservatives.

So far, we have promoted this research as a way to bridge group differences through our work at and through press and media such as the following talk. Perhaps understanding other group's morality could encourage us to villainize less those with whom we disagree.

We believe that moral foundations theory is a great start on mapping the moral realm, including conservative moral ideas that appear underrepresented in academic psychology. However, we realize that this is just a start and are actively seeking new moral systems that may be distinct (from the ones discussed above). I proposed some ideas and Jon Haidt held a competition recently to discover a sixth foundation. We'd welcome your ideas and comments. One of the wonderful things about using the internet in our research is that we end up with ideas from beyond the limited group of people in academia.

With the recent focus on "liberty" in political discourse and the rise of the tea party, one foundation which we are certain to add in the next version of moral foundations theory is the idea of freedom/liberty. We are also working to revise the fairness foundation to include conservative ideas of fairness, such as proportionality/equity (as opposed to equality/social justice). We recently submitted a paper on libertarian morality, who focus on liberty as a moral principle, and you can read more about it here.

More like this

I believe (much in line with one of your suggestions, although was the paper that inspired it) that FAIR can be more precisely fit into the subdivision of EQUITABLE ("to each alike") with RECIPROCAL ("to each as they have earned"). I do not think the suggested term "equity" is well-chosen, given the connotations are more to the former and the intended definition more to the latter. "Equitability" and "Reciprocity" seem to convey the ideas more clearly.

I would suggest that HARM is in fact a convolution - in the mathematical sense of f(g(x)) - applying the moral flavors of FAIR (in both senses above) to the more fundamental flavor of PAIN ("if it hurts ME, it's bad"). I suspect that this last is the most fundamental, since pretty much all multi-cellular life seems to use it. This seems something where an experiment could be designed to facilitate factor analysis - although one that would meet IRB approval is more difficult. =)

I also would suggest that CURIOSITY might be a moral flavor, as it does not appear to fit precisely in with the others, and does seem to be a psychological motivator for decisions of an Hume "ought" variety. (GSS variables INTEREST/INTERESY and POLVIEWS seem to suggest it is a "liberal" one, if so. If you subdivide political "moderates" by the median of the REGION to which they are moderate, the correlation appears even stronger.)

I suspect Heinrich's speculation about the evolution of prestige, which Haidt's contest page notes as possibly related to Zeljka Buturovic's notion of wisdom, suggests more that (respect for) AUTHORITY might be better split into (respect for) DOMINANCE versus (respect for) PRESTIGE. Curiosity, however, seems subtly different, in that the discovery of a new idea requires being to give up what you already have. I suspect Buturovic's notion of Wisdom falls between, encompassing the seeking element of Curiosity and the recognition aspect of Prestige.

I suspect the respect for truth may tie to Hume's underlying IS-OUGHT question, in that one can come closer to "correct" OUGHT the closer one comes to "correct" understanding of the IS. There are other aspects to both relating to the mathematics of lattice theory. The Boolean (or even Heyting) concept of TRUE and FALSE are both tied to a class of algebras and associated lattices; while morality appears to involve having a set of (possible) choices and establishing an ordering relationship of comparisons between them (Aâ¥B, Aâ¤B, A=B, and perhaps even A||B), thus producing a poset (with "good" and "evil" being extrema). Oddly, the literature of moral philosophy seems mostly to have overlooked this bit of algebraic logical philosophy, aside from the quite recent and marginally relevant (doi:10.1007/s11238-009-9178-7).

I'd also like to point out for anyone else stopping by that the liberal/conservative split slightly oversimiplifies the clustering. As Haidt et al noted in "Above and Below Left-Right: Ideological Narratives and Moral Foundations"(doi:10.1080/10478400903028573), the two clusters can be refined into four, splitting into Secular Liberals, Libertarians, the Religious Left, and Social Conservatives.

Do you have any thoughts on this piece by Haidt?


... the discovery that there might be ethnically-linked genetic variations in the ease with which people can acquire specific virtues is â and this is my prediction â going to be a "game changing" scientific event."

If you don't include an axis concerning property rights, you have no chance at all of grasping libertarian morality.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 24 Sep 2010 #permalink

How genuine do you think 'liberty' is as a moral tenent?

Obviously the definitions given here are brief, but I imagine any sense of Liberty to be only a recent invention.
From an evolutionary perspective surely justice + loyalty covers those bases to an effective degree?

How useful is liberty in hunter-gatherer groups or in a pre-industrial society; is there any cross-cultural data?

Those pillars are a joke. If you guys have found the real foundations of morality you should really be doing your work in philosophy- to date no such thing has ever been proven to exist, so reporting that not only have you found it, but measured the various aspects of it, is pretty frickin impressive. It varies greatly from philosopher to philosopher. Too bad the only data available here is self reporting (with a healthy dose of interpretation from researchers)- it resolves none of the problems with defining what morality and ethics actually *are*.

That sounds really harsh, so let me explain-If I said I wanted to study the evolution of the eye, for instance, I couldn't simply say how they got thre, I would need to prove it by finding out information about the eyes of ancestors (who we know are related to me in this specific way because of other concrete evidence such as genetics), and then compare it to eyes from various species. I couldn't simply delcare their existance and decide the situation in which they evolved. We have no living ancestors capable of these nuanced morals, we can't find out what changed from then to now. That is what studying the evolution of anything is all about. Not to mention how the lack of political systems outside of our species makes it pretty impossible to decide how such things evolved. Not only that, but this comparison is much too generous. It is a bit more like studying the evolution of sight while having no clue how eyes work, and making no inquiry into it, rather opting to give people quizzes about their sight and pontificating about the unknown inner workings of other species eyes. All of the stuff listed (behavior and thought) has to do with happenings in the brain, and without the mechanisms or some kind of CLUE in that regard I cannot conclude ANYTHING from the work presented.

How can you suggest that the inferences made here are less valid (by virtue of their subjective interpretation)than philosophical understanding, which itself is the among the highest forms of subjectivity, and which, by your own admission 'varies greatly from philosopher to philosopher'?

Pierce R. Butler: If you don't include an axis concerning property rights, you have no chance at all of grasping libertarian morality.

A convolution of EQUITABLE and RECIPROCAL over INGROUP, if you consider how intrinsic, extrinsic, and relational possessives may connect.

skeptifem: to date no such thing has ever been proven to exist

Existence is empirically observed as correlation clusters, as Haidt and his collaborators have suggested in several papers, which your remarks reflect no familiarity of. Whether these are primary, secondary, or spandrel may be unclear, but claiming nonexistence seems a bit of a stretch. Personally, I suspect the flavors are diverse algorithmic approximations for optimizing a single commonal principle - that is, a primary IS-to-OUGHT bridge in the sense of Hume. However, Professor Haidt didn't find my explanation particularly coherent when I stopped by to try to convey my ideas, and I didn't care to waste all that much of his time with my amateur efforts.

The primary weakness of his work appears to be the general critique of Henrich et al of almost all sociological and psychological research: the focus on the "WEIRD" (doi:10.1038/466029a).

On the other hand, I expect from my minimal familiarity with research on wolves that finding and documenting analogs outside our species to FAIR (both EQUITABLE and RECIPROCAL), HARM, INGROUP, AUTHORITY (DOMINANCE certainly, PRESTIGE likely but less certain), and CURIOSITY to be relatively easy to trivial. While there are no living "ancestors", these commonality suggests that these elements date to at least the split of Boreoeutheria to Laurasiatheria and Euarchontoglires. (Disgust may be unique to humans.) That some of these appear in birds suggests the origins of some may be further back; alternatively, these may have independently evolved more than once, as the eye appears to have done - which would be more astonishing, as such convergence is rare.

skeptifem, I don't see why you'd go as far as calling the pillars a "joke". I think you make a very fair point about the lack of evidence for this being a biological evolution. The pillars seem very universal, but so are a lot of human behaviors that would seem better explained as a function of simply being really smart people with culture. I can't remember the proper term but it's essentially the unintended consequence of another adaptation.

Something I find crucial to the liberal/conservative vision is determinism/free will. This is a complex subject, as it is philosophical, political, scientific, as well as intuitive.

We all obviously intuit that we have free will. Yet the argument against it says this is merely a mistake. Which then raises the question of how much our intuitions are culturally based. Or maybe simply too intellectually taxing. It is obviously advantageous to live our lives as if we were not determined, or at least not live in a perpetual state of laborious self-analysis of our every decision's causal impulse. (Although being more reflective can be ultimately quite beneficial both to ourselves and society).

But it is political in the sense that there are many political concepts wrapped up not only in the question itself but in the resulting implications. It is scientific in that we are getting better and better at being able to test consciousness and narrow down precisely the the physical structures involved in thought.

In a sense the question of determinism ties directly into a all of the pillars mentioned. Harm, loyalty, authority, fairness and purity are all directly affected by one's feelings on determinism. Or if not ones own actions, at least how one views the actions of others is affected. If the essential question is: from where comes the experience of the mind?, then each pillar takes on new meaning.

"All of the stuff listed (behavior and thought) has to do with happenings in the brain, and without the mechanisms or some kind of CLUE in that regard I cannot conclude ANYTHING from the work presented."

So unless we know what part of the brain is involved in a given thought or behavior, research into the thought or behavior itself is pointless? You must take issue with a great deal of the research done in psychology, then. But I don't see how your assertion is justified. To take an example of research about thought leading to a greater understanding of the mind: Research into morality has shown that humans in general - despite differences in religion, SES, education, gender, race, origin, etc. - show a lot of agreement in their intuitions about what is moral (i.e. what it is morally okay to do in situation X, what one is morally obligated to do in situation X, what is wrong to do, etc.) The justifications we give for those judgements are seemingly ad hoc, and vary greatly from person to person, but the judgements themselves show remarkable similarity across our species. Now, even though this research doesn't provide any information on the neural substrate of moral thought (there is other research that does provide it, of course), the data still paints a picture of some kind of moral program in the human brain, with certain ideas about morality built-in. That explains the incredible amount of agreement between people from completely different walks of life who ostensibly subscribe to differing moral philosophies (e.g. religions).

Is this a set-in-stone conclusion? No. Is it a promising line of research that provides us with more information on the mind than when we started? I'd say so. So why act like it doesn't tell us anything, when it does?

By Tim Martin (not verified) on 27 Sep 2010 #permalink