Haidt’s Theory Of Moral Foundation

Haidt’s Theory Of Moral Foundation

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt theorized that people have two minds: one intuitive (that generates reflexes, or “gut feelings”) and one rationale, that produces reflections, thoughts, etc.

In practice, people often make a decision about right and wrong based on their gut reactions, using the intuitive mind, and then use their rational mind to produce a rationalization for the decision.

But what determines a person’s gut response? Haidt says six “moral foundations” influence human judgments about right and wrong:


In evolutionary terms, care for children was essential for the survival of human groups, and this care response has become generalized so that many people care about strangers and about nature…. Politicians, corporate executives, religious leaders, advertisers, and all sorts of lobbyists and campaigners seek to direct the care response to serve their priorities. Many political struggles thus involve continual attempts to trigger the care response for desired goals and to inhibit it for undesired ones.


Cross-cultural research has shown that everywhere children develop a sense of fairness very early on when they are treated worse than their peers. They somewhat later develop a consciousness of fairness even when they are treated better.


The value of Liberty opposes itself to Oppression. Arguably, the notion of liberty is very elastic across cultures and times but the theory provided in this module  postulates that all human beings are born with a sense of liberty.


This foundation stems from the need to form and maintain coalitions to compete with other groups for resources that can help assure continuation and success.  It drives group members to value loyalty, patriotism, sacrifice, and trustworthiness and to loathe those who betray the group. It leads people to be team players, and it is triggered by perceived threats or challenges to the group. Associated emotions are group pride (for country, sports team, ethnic group, etc.) and hatred of traitors.

Loyalty is obviously connected to the value of care, in a reciprocal relationship: you are loyal (only) to the ones who care for you and you care (only) for the ones who are loyal to you. But loyalty has this additional dimension of obedience and it is therefore a central value for all societal construction and it is centerpiece in many campaigns, from political elections to brand promotion. Essential to the notion of loyalty are therefore the existence of a community, and the existence of leaders.


This foundation evolved from the need to maintain social order and create beneficial relationships through hierarchies. It drives people to be aware of and respect rank and status. This foundation is triggered by anything that is construed as an act of obedience, disobedience, respect, disrespect, submission or rebellion, with regard to authorities perceived to be legitimate. It is reflected in, for example, the elevated status given to acknowledged experts and professionals and in the deference shown to superiors. 


This moral value is the lesser known

Haidt postulates that cultures invest certain objects and ideas with irrational and extreme values.  Some objects and ideas are regarded as sacred while others are intuitively seen as disgusting and abhorrent. Haidt argues that religion and the concomitant creation of sacred symbols served to bind individuals into large cooperative societies. The notion of sanctity is therefore closely linked to authority (it takes a source of authority to define what is sacred) and to loyalty (obedience to the sacred is the expression of the loyalty towards the group)

Before we move on, let’s check if you can remember these categories from the top of your head. Ready? Take the quizz below!

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