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Liberals vs Conservatives

According to Feinberg & Willer (2013, p. 2), ‘liberals and conservatives possess different moral profiles regarding the five moral foundations.’ More specifically, ‘care and fairness are generally negatively, and loyalty, authority, and sanctity, generally positively related to conservative political orientation’ (Kivikangas, Fernández-Castilla, Järvelä, Ravaja, & Lönnqvist, 2021, p. 77). Is this true?

By the end of this section you should understand the evidence for this claim as well as some objections to it.

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In this section we aim to understand and evaluate the third key claim in the argument that cultural differences in moral psychology matter for political conflict over climate change:

‘liberals and conservatives possess different moral profiles regarding the five moral foundations’ (Feinberg & Willer, 2013, p. 2).

What evidence supports this claim?

van Leeuwen & Park (2009) found evidence for this claim with a sample of Dutch students both when political affinity was tested using an explicit question and when it was tested using an implicit measure. And Graham, Haidt, & Nosek (2009) found comparable results with a sample from the USA.

On the basis of a careful meta-analysis of evidence, Kivikangas et al. (2021) conclude that, with some important exceptions noted below,

‘care and fairness are generally negatively, and loyalty, authority, and sanctity, generally positively related to conservative political orientation’ (p. 77).

Further, this result appears broadly robust across different ways of analysing data and different forms of the questionnaire used (Kivikangas et al., 2021, p. 83).

Objection from a Competing Theory

Gray, Young, & Waytz (2012) propose that ‘all morality is understood through the lens of harm.’ This leads them to the hypothesis that ‘harm is central in moral cognition across moral diversity for both liberals and conservatives’ (Schein & Gray, 2015, p. 1158). They offer evidence which is ‘more consistent with a common dyadic template than with a specific number of distinct moral mechanisms that are differentially expressed across liberals and conservatives’ (Schein & Gray, 2015, p. 1158).

However, note that this requires working with a particularly broad conception of harm:

‘loyalty, purity, industriousness, and social order […] are best understood as “transformations” or “intermediaries” of harm, values whose violation leads to perceptions of concrete harm’ (Schein & Gray, 2018).

My guess is that this is more likely to capture how some people think in abstract terms (but see Crone & Laham (2015) for counter evidence) than to capture the psychological structure of ethical abilities.

Objection from Cultural Differences

In New Zealand, Davies, Sibley, & Liu (2014, p. 434) found that ‘[a]]lthough Harm/care and Fairness/reciprocity showed significant negative correlations with conservatism, these relationships were weak, indicating that these foundations are not related to ideology. […] the individualizing foundation results are surprising, and different to those found by Graham et al. (2011).’

Davis et al. (2016, p. e29) found evidence from two independent samples that

‘the binding moral foundations would show a weaker relationship with political conservatism in Black people than in White people.’

They conclude that

‘some of the current items may conflate moral foundations with other constructs such as religiosity or racial identity’ (Davis et al., 2016, p. e29).

This conclusion is supported by (Kivikangas et al., 2021)’s meta-analysis:

‘In the representative samples, arguably giving us the least biased estimates for the general population, and its subset of Black respondents, all associations between moral foundations and political orientation were close to zero’ (p. 84).

These findings combined with the (related) failures to find evidence that the Moral Foundations Questionnaire exhibits scalar invariance (see Operationalising Moral Foundations Theory) indicate that we should be cautious in drawing conclusions about cultural differences.


Crone, D. L., & Laham, S. M. (2015). Multiple moral foundations predict responses to sacrificial dilemmas. Personality and Individual Differences, 85, 60–65.
Davies, C., Sibley, C., & Liu, J. (2014). Confirmatory Factor Analysis of the Moral Foundations Questionnaire: Independent Scale Validation in a New Zealand Sample. Social Psychology, 45(6), 431–436.
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).
Feinberg, M., & Willer, R. (2013). The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes. Psychological Science, 24(1), 56–62.
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.
Gray, K., Young, L., & Waytz, A. (2012). Mind Perception Is the Essence of Morality. Psychological Inquiry, 23(2), 101–124.
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.
Schein, C., & Gray, K. (2015). The Unifying Moral Dyad: Liberals and Conservatives Share the Same Harm-Based Moral Template. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(8), 1147–1163.
Schein, C., & Gray, K. (2018). The Theory of Dyadic Morality: Reinventing Moral Judgment by Redefining Harm. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 22(1), 32–70.
van Leeuwen, F., & Park, J. H. (2009). Perceptions of social dangers, moral foundations, and political orientation. Personality and Individual Differences, 47(3), 169–173.