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Moral Foundations Theory: An Approach to Cultural Variation

Moral Foundations Theory is ‘a systematic theory of morality, explaining its origins, development, and cultural variations’ (Graham et al., 2011, p. 368). It comprises four assertions about the cultural origins of ethical abilities.

By the end of this section you should understand, at least roughly, what Moral Foundations Theory claims.

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Why This Theory?

Moral Foundations Theory is the most difficult theory to understand that we will encounter.

As we will see later, there is at best weak evidence for key applications of Moral Foundations Theory (Davis et al., 2016; Doğruyol, Alper, & Yilmaz, 2019; Kivikangas, Fernández-Castilla, Järvelä, Ravaja, & Lönnqvist, 2021). It also faces significant theoretical objections (we have already seen one objection in Moral Disengagement: Significance). Its proponents appear to ignore the strongest objections to Moral Foundations Theory and fail to cite research reporting evidence against the theory (e.g. Graham et al., 2019).

So why consider Moral Foundations Theory at all? Some of its strongest opponents make the best case for studying it:

‘It would be difficult to overestimate the influence of this theory on psychological science because it caused a dramatic broadening in conceptualization of morality beyond narrow Western notions that have focused on individualistic virtues associated with protecting one’s rights—especially prevention of harm (Gilligan, 1982) and unjust treatment (Kohlberg, 1969).

‘The expansion of morality psychology to more collectivistic domains has led to substantial research into the role of morality in the political environment. More specifically, there is significant support for the moral foundations hypothesis that predicts that conservatives tend to draw on virtues associated with binding communities more than liberals (Graham, Haidt, & Nosek, 2009; Graham et al., 2011; Koleva, Graham, Iyer, Ditto, & Haidt, 2012)’ (Davis, Dooley, Hook, Choe, & McElroy, 2017, p. 128).

And although it is usually categorised as psychology, it is also fruitfully considered as philosophy (and perhaps as anthropology). It’s hard not to love it.

What the Theory Claims

Moral Foundations Theory is the conjunction of four claims.1

The first is a form of nativism:

‘the human mind is organized in advance of experience so that it is prepared to learn values, norms, and behaviors related to a diverse set of recurrent adaptive social problems’ (Graham et al., 2013, p. 63).

Second, moral psychology is affected by cultural learning (‘The first draft of the moral mind gets edited during development within a culture.’)

Third, the Social Intuitionist Model of Moral Judgement is true. This is a set of hard-to-understand claims in itself (which we already considered briefly in Moral Disengagement: Significance). Two of these are:

‘moral evaluations generally occur rapidly and automatically, products of relatively effortless, associative, heuristic processing that psychologists now refer to as System 1 thinking’ (Graham et al., 2013, p. 66)


‘moral reasoning is done primarily for socially strategic purposes’ (Graham et al., 2013, p. 66)

The Social Intuitionist Model is depicted in this figure:

<a class='cite' href='#haidt:2008_social'>Haidt & Bjorklund (2008, p. figure 4.1)</a> Figure: The Social Intuitionist Model of Moral Judgement. Arrows are interpreted causally. Dotted lines represent connections of low significance. Source: Haidt & Bjorklund (2008, p. figure 4.1)

Fourth, moral pluralism is true. (‘There are many psychological foundations of morality’ (Graham et al., 2019, p. 212).) This was the topic of Moral Pluralism: Beyond Harm. Haidt & Joseph (2004) and Haidt & Graham (2007) claim that there are five evolutionarily ancient, psychologically basic abilities linked to:

  • harm/care
  • fairness (including reciprocity)
  • in-group loyalty
  • respect for authorty
  • purity, sanctity

It is not important to the theory that these be the only foundations, nor that these be exactly the foundations (perhaps one is wrong, and should be replaced by two different ideas).2


Social Intuitionist Model of Moral Judgement : A model on which intuitive processes are directly responsible for moral judgements (Haidt & Bjorklund, 2008). One’s own reasoning does not typically affect one’s own moral judgements, but (outside philosophy, perhaps) is typically used only to provide post-hoc justification after moral judgements are made. Reasoning does affect others’ moral intuitions, and so provides a mechanism for cultural learning.


Davis, D., Dooley, M., Hook, J., Choe, E., & McElroy, S. (2017). The Purity/Sanctity Subscale of the Moral Foundations Questionnaire Does Not Work Similarly for Religious Versus Non-Religious Individuals. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 9(1), 124–130.
Davis, D., Rice, K., Tongeren, D. V., Hook, J., DeBlaere, C., Worthington, E., & Choe, E. (2016). The Moral Foundations Hypothesis Does Not Replicate Well in Black Samples. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 110(4).
Doğruyol, B., Alper, S., & Yilmaz, O. (2019). The five-factor model of the moral foundations theory is stable across WEIRD and non-WEIRD cultures. Personality and Individual Differences, 151, 109547.
Feinberg, M., & Willer, R. (2013). The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes. Psychological Science, 24(1), 56–62.
Graham, J., Haidt, J., Koleva, S., Motyl, M., Iyer, R., Wojcik, S. P., & Ditto, P. H. (2013). Moral Foundations Theory: The Pragmatic Validity of Moral Pluralism. In P. Devine & A. Plant (Eds.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 47, pp. 55–130). Academic Press.
Graham, J., Haidt, J., Motyl, M., Meindl, P., Iskiwitch, C., & Mooijman, M. (2019). Moral Foundations Theory: On the advantages of moral pluralism over moral monism. In K. Gray & J. Graham (Eds.), Atlas of Moral Psychology. New York: Guilford Publications.
Graham, J., Haidt, J., & Nosek, B. A. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(5), 1029–1046.
Graham, J., Nosek, B. A., Haidt, J., Iyer, R., Koleva, S., & Ditto, P. H. (2011). Mapping the moral domain. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(2), 366–385.
Haidt, J. (2007). The New Synthesis in Moral Psychology. Science, 316(5827), 998–1002.
Haidt, J., & Bjorklund, F. (2008). Social intuitionists answer six questions about moral psychology. In W. Sinnott-Armstrong (Ed.), Moral psychology, Vol 2: The cognitive science of morality: Intuition and diversity (pp. 181–217). Cambridge, Mass: MIT press.
Haidt, J., & Graham, J. (2007). When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions that Liberals may not Recognize. Social Justice Research, 20(1), 98–116.
Haidt, J., & Joseph, C. (2004). Intuitive ethics: How innately prepared intuitions generate culturally variable virtues. Daedalus, 133(4), 55–66.
Iyer, R., Koleva, S., Graham, J., Ditto, P., & Haidt, J. (2012). Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Dispositions of Self-Identified Libertarians. PLOS ONE, 7(8), e42366.
Kivikangas, J. M., Fernández-Castilla, B., Järvelä, S., Ravaja, N., & Lönnqvist, J.-E. (2021). Moral foundations and political orientation: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 147(1), 55–94.
Koleva, S. P., Graham, J., Iyer, R., Ditto, P. H., & Haidt, J. (2012). Tracing the threads: How five moral concerns (especially Purity) help explain culture war attitudes. Journal of Research in Personality, 46(2), 184–194.
Paxton, J. M., & Greene, J. D. (2010). Moral Reasoning: Hints and Allegations. Topics in Cognitive Science, 2(3), 511–527.
  1. Graham et al. (2019) is probably the most accessible introduction, and this is the main source I follow in the lectures. Although a book chapter, it is available online. Haidt (2007) is useful if you are short of time. The theory first appears in Haidt & Graham (2007)

  2. To illustrate, Moral Foundations Theory has had some difficulties with Libertarians …

    ‘Libertarians have a unique moral-psychological profile, endorsing the principle of liberty as an end and devaluing many of the moral concerns typically endorsed by liberals or conservatives’ (Iyer, Koleva, Graham, Ditto, & Haidt, 2012, p. 21).

    Since ‘MFT’s five moral foundations appeared to be inadequate in capturing libertarians’ moral concerns, [we decided to] to consider Liberty/oppression as a candidate for addition to our list of foundations’ (Graham et al., 2013, p. 87)