Friday, November 11, 2011

Cutting up flags and kissing your sister – what is morality?

Today's post comes from another great guest blogger. Olga Antonenko Young is a graduate student in the social-personality psychology program at UC-Berkeley.

Is burning the American flag immoral?
A woman cleaning her bathroom decides to cut up an old American flag and use it as a rag to scrub the toilet. Is this morally wrong? Two adult siblings enjoy French kissing each other. Are they acting immorally? Your answers to these questions may depend on your definition of morality as well as unexpected factors including your culture, socio-economic status, and political orientation.

Most people agree that morality concerns itself with the welfare of others. The reason we deem an action immoral is that it, in some way, negatively impacts other individuals or society as a whole. However, exactly what kinds of actions fall into this category vary depending on the person you ask. Think about it for yourself. How do you define morality? What categories of actions count as immoral?

You most likely thought of actions that hurt other people or seem unjust. So, then, what’s wrong with French kissing your sister?

A leading researcher, Jonathan Haidt, has part of the answer. Haidt suggests that morality is not a unitary construct but consists of five different foundations – different classes of considerations. Furthermore, while some people consider all five foundations to be core to morality, others endorse only some of them. One of these foundations – centered on purity – is breached by consensual incest. However, not all people endorse the purity foundation. Therefore, while some people view French kissing between siblings to be immoral, others may view it as unnerving, but not necessarily morally wrong.

The five moral foundations
Haidt and his team began their investigation of morality by examining various cultures across different eras. They wondered what people in different countries and at different historical points considered immoral. Looking at works from anthropology, psychology, and evolutionary accounts of primate sociology, the researchers found that people and societies tend to use the following five sets of considerations – or foundations – when making moral claims:

1. Harm/ care: Acts that harm innocent others, including murder and assault, are immoral.
2. Fairness/ reciprocity: Acts that violate norms of justice and equality, including stealing and nepotism, are immoral.
3. Ingroup loyalty: Acts that breach allegiance to, or solidarity of, the group, including critiquing your family and failing to show patriotism, are immoral.
4. Respect for authority: Acts that fail to respect and obey recognized leaders, such as protests against your party’s political leaders and attempts to defy your supervisor, are immoral.
5. Purity/sanctity: Acts that are guided by “carnal passions,” elicit disgust, and/or breach religious norms are immoral. These include acts such as premarital sex, public urination, and failure to follow religious rituals.

Which of these foundations do you think are central to morality?

Liberals and conservatives speak a different moral language
Interestingly, Dr. Jesse Graham, a researcher working in conjunction with Dr. Haidt, found that political orientation predicts differences in endorsement of these foundations. Before describing the difference, let’s go into a little detail on their methodology.

The researchers have now conducted several studies using various methods in order to reach their conclusions. One method included a self-report scale, which measured which foundations participants endorsed – which foundations they viewed to be a core aspect of morality. One set of items presented violations of each norm and asked participants to rate how immoral the action was. Another set asked participants more abstractly whether they take each foundation into account when deciding whether something is immoral. Below are some sample items from the second set:

1. Harm/ care – Compassion for those who are suffering is the most crucial virtue.
2. Fairness/ reciprocity – When the government makes laws, the number one principle should be ensuring that everyone is treated fairly.
3. Ingroup loyalty – It is more important to be a team player than to express oneself.
4. Respect for authority – If I were a soldier and disagreed with my commanding officer’s orders, I would obey anyway because that is my duty
5. Purity/ sanctity – I would call some acts wrong on the grounds that they are unnatural 

Using large samples, these researchers found that while liberals and conservatives both agree that fairness and harm are moral foundations, liberals were less likely to endorse the other three foundations – ingroup loyalty, respect for authority, and purity/sanctity. When deciding whether an action is immoral, liberals and conservatives are operating under somewhat different definitions. Both parties would agree that murder is immoral since they both consider actions that harm innocent other to be immoral. However, they may disagree about whether homosexual relationships are moral. Liberals tend not to apply a moral framework to homosexuality since it is neither directly harmful nor unfair. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to feel that homosexuality breaches norms of purity and sanctity and is, therefore, immoral.

The innateness of morality
This research suggests that we are all born with some innate blueprint of morality, which includes all five foundations. It is our culture – including political environment and social class – which then amps up some considerations, while tuning down others. We are born with the potential to endorse all foundations, but lose some and sharpen others as we get older.

These findings may explain a host of disagreements between liberals and conservatives. At their best, they may help us understand behavior that we previously saw as ignorant, judgmental, or radical. However, as with other research, it has not gone without criticism. Some individuals have been skeptical about including norms of ingroup loyalty, respect for authority, and purity/sanctity as core aspects of morality. According to these critics, the fact that almost all people agree on the first two foundations indicates that these are universal and the true core of morality, while the others are a matter of personal preference and focus on special issues.

Haidt’s research is both controversial and fascinating. We hope it sparks some dinner table debates at the very least and, perhaps, helps individuals take another perspective the next time they disagree with someone. While eating your Thanksgiving dinner this year, try to consider Uncle Ron’s moral foundations before brushing him aside.

Relevant articles:
Graham, J., Haidt, J., & Nosek, B. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96 (5), 1029-1046 DOI: 10.1037/a0015141

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 DOI: 10.1007/s11211-007-0034-z

Olga Antonenko Young is a Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley. Her interests focus broadly on morality, religion, and emotion. One line of research investigates how religious and political orientations predict moral judgments about equality and justice.  A second line of research investigates how spirituality influences the experience of emotion, including general positive affect as well as concrete states such as awe and forgiveness. You can find more information about her research at


  1. Wow. Thank you, Olga. Very interesting. I can think of at least one example where the number one foundation is not necessarily universal.

    1. Harm/ care – Compassion for those who are suffering is the most crucial virtue.

    Those who are pro-life are often so because of foundation number 1 (admittedly also probably because of 2 and 5 as well). In their view, their belief that abortion is morally wrong is based on their compassion for those (fetuses) who are suffering. Also, foundation 2 could be used to justify that all laws should be fair to everyone(fetus). By defining a fetus as a person, they completely alter the context of the foundations.

    Those who are pro-choice on the other hand, may not necessarily consider a fetus a person, therefore the same foundational beliefs could be used to justify the morality of abortion.

    I think this type of research is most fascinating when held up against these types of contradictions in human perception and belief.

    Thank you for your guest post on my favorite psychology blog.


  2. Most people would agree that morality is largely a cultural concept that is rooted in centuries or millenia of shaping. Things that are acceptable in one place and/or time, are unacceptable in other places or times Modern European/North American examples (involving sexual mores) are polygamy and marriage between close cousins. Are either of these really horrible when contracted between consenting adults without fraud or coercion? There are people on both sides of these arguments that consider themselves completely right