The Moral Foundations Theory

A tool to understand how others think

July 27, 2023

Persuasion has always been a topic that interests me and an important part of effectively persuading someone of something is to understand what they value and how they think. While I was reading an Open Source Defense article I was introduced to the moral foundations theory which tries to explain the different factors which shape the morals of cultures and individuals. I decided to spend some time to further understand this theory.

Now I’m not sure if I am fully convinced by this theory or not but I don’t think you or I have to be to still learn from it. The pseudo-scientific community also isn’t fully convinced by it, in fact there are some pseudo-scientists who believe this theory to be problematic because they think it provides legitimacy to wrongthink. These people are stupid, don’t listen to them and don’t be like them. The whole point of this theory is to try to make sense of what priorities people have that would lead them to something someone might classify as wrongthink, because contrary to what some people may say, wrongthinkers don’t view their wrongthink as wrongthink it is perfectly rational in their minds. Understanding the rationale of a wrongthinker should be of great interest to the people interested in correcting wrongthink, while I’d probably explain this in less Orwellian terms when answering the question directly this is a large part of the reason that I find this theory interesting.

The Six Moral Foundations

The theory identifies a number of foundations on which cultures and individuals build their moral principles. Different cultures and individuals will, for lack of a better word, assign different weights to each of the different foundations and they will also have differing ideas on what adhering to the principles of each foundation looks like, but for the most part each culture or individual will hold moral ideas that stem from each of the foundations.

Originally the theory identified five moral foundations but since then a sixth has been generally accepted and the leaves room for the possibility for more to exist. We’ll take a look at each of them here.


In today’s age this is probably the easiest foundation to understand, it is moral to care for others and immoral to harm them. I’d say the majority of arguments we hear in the culture war today come from this angle. The left will claim that what they do in their bedroom, how they identify, or what they smoke doesn’t harm anyone else so why should those things be regulated? The caring thing to do would be to let people do whatever they want in these circumstances.

The idea of political correctness is also deeply tied to this foundation. They say that if we care for someone we mustn’t say anything that would offend them, we must affirm their lifestyle and beliefs. The concept of gender affirming care for minors would be taking this sort of thing to the extreme.

But these are not the only perspectives that people view to be caring ones. If you are not on the left you may see these methods of caring for people as harmful. Marijuana is harmful, so banning it is an act of care. Obesity is harmful so suggesting to an obese person that they should eat healthy and exercise is an act of care even if they don’t want to hear it. A little girl cannot be trapped in a little boy’s body so giving that child unnatural hormones and mutilating their genitals is harmful to them no matter what they might say.

We see here that both the left and right are morally concerned with caring for people, they just have differing ways of expressing that care. Their different forms of care can likely be rationalized by understanding how much they value the other moral foundations.


I might struggle to explain this foundation as well, the researchers who proposed this theory seem to have struggled with it as well because they have changed how they see it over time.

The concept of equal rights falls under the foundation of fairness, this shouldn’t be to hard to understand, we don’t live in a fair world if this is not the case. Of course different groups of people have different ideas of what these rights should be, I trust I don’t have to give you any examples.

The communism vs. capitalism debate revolves a lot around different understandings of the concept of fairness. A communist would believe that society is only fair if everyone is equally compensated for playing their role in society. The doctor and the garbage collector should live in the same sized house because they are both required for society to function.A capitalist would believe it is fair that people should be proportionately compensated for the value they provide to society. If the doctor lives in a bigger house than the garbage collector this is fair because the doctor’s skills and contributions to society are more valuable. Both ideologies value fairness but they define it differently.


Loyalty is something that we all understand, nobody likes a traitor and most people, treason is universally considered one of the worst crimes a person can commit and most people find it difficult to forgive someone who has broken their trust. Friends are expected to be loyal to eachother and there are many people who are highly driven by loyalty. Patriotism is a form of loyalty.

The degree to which a person is loyal to their group or another person can affect the places where they are willing to compromise on other moral foundations. Let’s take a look at the Biden administration’s current persecution of Donald Trump as an example of this.

Donald Trump has been accused of similar, if not the exact same, crimes that there was evidence Hillary Clinton committed while she was Secretary of State. During his 2016 campaign Trump promised to put Clinton in jail for these crimes but when he was in office he never went after Clinton for these crimes. Fairness would dictate that the Biden administration should either let Trump go unpunished as Clinton was or prosecute Clinton as well as Trump. Loyalty, however, demands otherwise. Biden is following the demands of loyalty and we can see in this instance that the political establishment in this country values loyalty over fairness. We should take note of this as we should whenever we see a group or person place one moral foundation over another.


Traditionally has been considered the highest authority of course throughout time and even now people have held different understandings of God but up until recent centuries leaders of countries and tribes were believed to be ordained by God in some way. Kings in medieval Europe sought the blessing of the Pope to rule and going back to Pharohs were believed to be gods themselves. This attitude is not as common these days but respect for authority is still a moral foundation that many people hold.

Respect for our elders and tradition is another way in which authority shapes one’s morals. It requires humility to keep traditions that we don’t fully understand. A prideful person has little respect for authority and will do things their own way rather than the way they were told, sometimes their way is better sometimes it isn’t but societies with high respect towards authority are more conservative than those that aren’t.

It is important to what, if any, authorities a person respects if you want to persuade them of anything. For example, many gun control advocates will argue that because we register cars we should also register guns, this argument could work on people who respect the government’s claimed authority over cars but it won’t work on me because I don’t necessarily believe that we should be registering cars either. It also won’t work for people who have a correct understanding of and respect for the authority of the constitution, a person’s right to own a gun is constitutionally protected while their right to drive a car is not.

The respect for truth also falls under this moral foundation. I’d argue that truth should be considered a seventh moral foundation but I’m not in the position to do that but we can see how it affects other foundations. For some people caring for an obese person means giving them cake and for others it means giving them a salad, this is dependent on their respect for authority and truth. Both of these groups see their stance as moral because they understand authority differently.

There has probably never been a time where truth and authority have been as widely disregarded as they are now, it is important to take this into consideration when debating people.


This moral foundation recognizes the idea that there are certain things which cultures and people recognize to be clean and unclean. The Jewish tradition of only eating foods which are Kosher is a perfect example of this but it of course is not the only one. Vegans view meat to be unclean. Most traditionally minded people view things like pornography, masturbation and sex outside of marriage to be unclean. Free software fanatics believe a Windows computer to be unclean. Environmentalists believe fossil fuels are unclean. The media has conditioned many people to believe that guns are unclean without them even realizing it. Drugs and alcohol are also widely considered to be unclean.

It is important to recognize the things which those you associate with view as unclean. If you partake in those things it is likely (though not always just) that they will look down on you. You will also have a difficult time convincing them that they are not unclean because these beliefs are woven deep into their moral fabric.


This foundation was not a part of the original theory and thus isn’t discussed by everyone who does work relating to the moral foundations theory but it is still significant and worth discussing.

People like to be free and they don’t like to be oppressed, Americans understand this quite well because it is woven into our national identity. The confusion arises when people don’t agree on what is liberty and what is oppression. Slavery is obviously oppression and has been eliminated from American life but not everything is that clear.

Many people view marijuana to be unclean and it can oppress you if you become addicted to it so liberty would require it to be banned so that it doesn’t have the chance to oppress you. Others do not see marijuana this way and instead view the act of banning marijuana as one of oppression.

Most people believe that they should be free to make their own medical decisions, forcing someone to undergo a medical procedure is by definition an act of oppression. But what happens in the case of a pandemic? Is someone’s loyalty to those around them more important than their freedom to choose what is done to their body? Some say yes, others say no, both groups consider their point of view to be moral and changing the mind of someone from either group is difficult because there are moral arguments for both sides.

Final Thoughts

After reading this some of you may believe that I’m advocating for some form of moral relativism where we should all live and let live or whatever. I’m not, I believe that morality is absolute and defined by God, but this is not relevant to this theory. Not everyone recognizes God’s authority nor do they all agree on what he says. I don’t claim to fully understand God’s morality and neither should you. My purpose in exploring this theory was not to excuse sin.

My purpose was to give us all more tools in understanding people who don’t see things the same way we do. Take a look at these foundations and see how different people prioritize them. Generally the American left will only take a few of these foundations into consideration while the right will usually make arguments that take all six into consideration, does that prove that one side is better than the other? No, but it shows how they think differently.

Take the time to understand how others think, you will find it easier to love and help them if you do so.