Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) attempts to explain why different people come to completely different moral judgments. As I explained before, MFT posits that some people value some moral foundations more than criteria and that leads to disagreement. MFT is a useful framework for understanding why people disagree about moral judgments, but the biggest reason why people disagree about moral judgments is what I call Tribalism below. It is the fact that people disagree about who counts more than others.
The Madison Collaborative created another system for explaining different moral judgments based on eight dimensions that they organized as questions, but only three are completely different from MFT’s dimensions. They are marked in red:
- “Fairness – How can I act equitably and balance legitimate interests?”
- “Outcomes – What achieves the best short- and long-term outcomes for me and all others?” Philosophers call this consequentialist moral reasoning.
- “Responsibilities – What duties and/or obligations apply?” Philosophers call this deontological moral reasoning.
- “Character – What action best reflects who I am and the person I want to become?” Philosophers call this system of moral reasoning virtue ethics.
- “Liberty – How does respect for freedom, personal autonomy, or consent apply?”
- “Empathy – What would I do if I cared deeply about those involved?” This is a somewhat dangerous question because too much empathy can be paralyzing. Paul Bloom wrote an entire book called Against Empathy in which he argues that “when it comes to moral reasoning, empathy is just a bad idea. It just throws in bias and innumeracy and confusion.” Bloom makes a good case that compassion and understanding are much better than empathy for moral reasoning. You may define these terms as all meaning exactly the same thing, but Bloom describes empathy as a completely different thinking processes than compassion. This is very similar to the “care/harm” dimension of MFT.
- “Authority – What do legitimate authorities (e.g. experts, law, my religion/god) expect of me?” This is part of moral foundations theory and it has a lot of overlap with #3, but the key word is “legitimate”. Different people completely disagree about whose moral authority is legitimate and there is often a tribalistic cause. For example, Republicans tend to follow Trump’s authority a lot more than Democrats do.
- “Rights – What rights (e.g. innate, legal, social) apply?” This is redundant with liberty (#5) because every right is just the liberty to control something. It also has some overlap with authority (#7) because an authority is a kind of right and any right (or liberty) that can be infringed is merely an aspiration without enforcement by some authority.
Whereas MFT was created by psychologists and comes out of their tradition of distinguishing fundamental personality traits using psychometrics, The Madison Collaborative was a project led by philosophers who emphasize different traditions of moral philosophy. The three most important schools of moral philosophy are consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics. The other schools are much less influential partly because they are less complete than the big three. For example, their last question above (#8), “Rights”, is redundant with liberty (#5) but they may have included it anyhow because these concepts are stressed by some of the various minor schools of philosophy. Rights are stressed by moral philosophers who work on social contract theory and natural rights theory whereas other philosophers obsess about liberty and freedom, even though they are all part of the same dimension. Similarly, there is also considerable redundancy between rights and authority because a right is an authority to do something and vice versa. As explained at the link above rights/authority are at the opposite end of the same dimension with liberty because at one end is extreme liberty where one is not restricted by any authority and on the other end is extreme authority where someone’s liberty is minimized by an all-powerful authority.
Both The Madison Collaborative and MFT largely agree about four of the dimensions ( Liberty, Empathy/care, and Authority), and although they both include Fairness, they emphasize two different definitions of fairness. MFT also has two additional unique dimensions of moral reasoning:
- Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions)
- Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”
Below I’ve created a new list of moral questions by combining the Madison Collaborative’s philosophical questions with MFT’s psychological issues. Both systems agree about three of the dimensions below (#2, #3, & #4 ). I combined the redundant liberty & rights categories from the Madison Collaborative into #3. I added the three unique dimensions from MFT (#6, #8, & #9), and the three unique dimensions from the Madison Collaborative (#1, #5, #7) and changed some of the names (especially #1, #5, #6, & #9).
I renamed the responsibilities question (#1), “Noblesse Oblige” to emphasize that the more your gifts, the greater your responsibilities because obviously anyone who has no power over something has no responsibility about it either and vice versa. Some gifts imply a responsibility to reciprocate to the giver, such as a child’s duty to their parents, but even gifts of chance providence, such as getting rich off of a lucky gold discovery, create responsibilities to use that wealth so that it helps rather than harming others. This is perhaps best known as Spider-man’s motto: “With great power comes great responsibility”. Although some people are much more powerful than others, everyone has some amount of power over others and with that power comes proportionate responsibility.
The new list of nine questions:
- Noblesse Oblige – What responsibilities, duties and/or obligations apply to people who have the kind of gifts I have been given?
- Authority – What do legitimate (see #8) authorities and social traditions expect of me?
- Rights & Liberty – What rights (e.g. innate, legal, social) to freedom, autonomy, or consent apply? Could oppression be lifted?
- Empathy & Compassion – What would I do if I cared deeply about those involved? How can I reduce harm?
- Outcome Fairness: What achieves the best short- and long-term outcomes for me and all others?
- Procedural Fairness: How can I act equitably, balance legitimate interests, and minimize the harm of cheating?
- Character – What action best reflects who I am and the person I want to become? This is indirectly determined by our tribal identities (#9), too.
- Sanctity/degradation – How much of my judgement is being driven by my gut reaction of moral disgust or aesthetic sense of purity and virtue?
- Identity & Tribalism – Should I be more loyal to some than others? Should I worry about others feeling betrayed if I don’t fulfill their expectations of my social role? Are some people’s preferences more important than others? Do animals count? How would my moral perspective change if I belonged to an opposing group? Which dimensions of group identity am I evoking in my answer: nationalism, religion, race, gender, family role (e.g.: father, son, cousin, and/or brother), profession, or other identity valences?) Because this question interacts with most of the other questions, it is best to review the other questions in light of this question, especially focusing on the first five.
- Responsibility – Do I owe more responsibility to some people than others and why? Do I owe reciprocity to some more than others?
- Authority – Which authorities (e.g. experts, law, religion/god) are more legitimate than others and why? One source of legitimacy is Noblesse Oblige: Are the authorities mainly using their power to benefit those that they have authority over or for selfish ends? Are some authorities smarter, more compassionate, and/or more trustworthy than others?
- Rights & Liberty – One person’s right to a freedom almost always means the power to restrict another person’s freedoms in some way. Are some people’s freedoms more important than others’?
- Empathy/Compassion – Do I care equally for all involved and should I care about some more than others?
- Fairness of outcomes – Do outcomes matter more for some people than others?
The last moral question (#9) was inspired by the loyalty/betrayal foundation in MFT, but I call it Identity & Tribalism for lack of a better term. Tribalism is the idea that we should be loyal to some people more than others and some people count more than others. Loyalty wouldn’t even makes sense as a concept without some sort of tribal/group identity.
The tribal loyalty/betrayal question is the hardest one because it pertains to most of the other dimensions and makes the whole endeavor more complicated. It is also a more controversial moral foundation because it is a source of the biggest conflicts and has been an essential motivation for a lot of the ugliness in human history like discrimination, wars, and slavery, so it is a potentially dangerous moral foundation. But it cannot be ignored because it is a universal moral motivator that is unavoidable and it is also essential to some of the most beautiful aspects of human experience like family, brotherhood, sisterhood, friendship, self-sacrifice for the group, and even identity itself. For example, my identity as part of the tribe of fatherhood makes me value responsibility and loyalty more than I did before internalizing this role as one aspect of my identity.
Everyone has multiple tribal identities that are elicited by different kinds of experience depending upon their situation, so it is important to think about how your different identities might have different moral values depending on how your context makes you think about your identity in any given time.
- a patriotic American during wartime.
- someone who tries to be a good Christian.
- a child who is thankful to a dying parent figure.
- a woman in a women’s group or on a men’s wrestling team.
- a white person traveling solo in Africa or China.
- a sometimes hard-working student.
- a good friend of XXX.
- a political liberal or conservative.
- a middle-class person in a group of billionaires or among the homeless.
Tribalism is the big kahuna of disagreement and controversy in politics and therefore in moral philosophy. For example, the fundamental reason for disagreement about the morality of abortion is a disagreement about at what point an unborn fetus becomes human. It doesn’t count until it becomes part of the human tribe rather than being a mere bit of biological tissue, but when does that happen? Catholic scholars call it ensoulment and this tribalistic issue is the critical question upon which the entire moral issue of abortion is balanced. Does every sperm or egg cell count as much as a healthy newborn baby? What about a freshly fertilized egg that has not begun to divide? That is when Catholic dogma says that ensoulment occurs, but according to polls, the majority of Americans can’t agree about what point mere flesh joins the human tribe and becomes a fully human baby.
Today almost nobody tries to construct moral arguments in favor of slavery, but they were common throughout history across much of the globe until sometime in the last 150 years or so. The key moral reasoning in favor of slavery was tribalism. Slavery has always been based upon the idea that slaves didn’t count as much as their owners and deserved to live in slavery.
The last step of moral reasoning
The last step after answering all nine questions is to weigh how much you want to value each of dimension in making your final decisions about right and wrong. The biggest contribution of the MFT literature is that different people weigh different dimensions differently. For example, on average, liberals value compassion/care more strongly than authority whereas conservatives tend to value both dimensions more equally, but every person values some dimensions more strongly in some contexts than others, partly depending upon which of their tribal identities feels more salient at the time.
Your answers to some of the questions will be more important to you than others. For example, I know that some of my moral judgments are heavily influenced by my idiosyncratic gut reactions regarding disgust versus purity (#8), and whereas some philosophers argue that these kinds of aesthetic feelings generally provide a reliable moral compass for most people, I have decided that my own aesthetic feelings are not completely reliable and when I identify that moral motive, I now regard it with skepticism.
For example, I intuitively feel that bloody acts of body mutilation seem morally wrong because I think it is disgusting and violates the sanctity of the natural human body, but most other people around me seem to feel like injecting ink into themselves with needles (tattoos) and hanging rocks from holes cut in the flesh of their faces (pierced ears) are beautiful and desirable. So although these acts instinctively feel immoral to me, I try to avoid being judgmental about them by reminding myself that my sense of disgust isn’t a reliable dimension for deciding morality unless other dimensions also agree. Even though I personally don’t think this dimension of morality should get much ethical weight, in practice, it does in fact motivate moral judgments for everyone, and so it is important to be conscious of it, especially if you think it is less important than the other dimensions.
The simplified version of the nine dimensions of moral reasoning
The great accomplishment of the Madison Collaborative was their ability to condense the major schools of moral philosophy into eight key questions that make them useful because when faced with a moral issue, anyone can ask themselves the eight questions and quickly think through multiple important dimensions of moral philosophy.
Their eight moral questions are useful and practical even when they are distilled down to succinct questions that fit on a wallet-sized card.
My nine dimensions can be distilled down almost as succinctly:
- Noblesse Oblige – What responsibilities, duties and/or obligations apply?
- Authority – What do legitimate authorities (e.g., law, god, experts) expect of me?
- Rights & Liberty – What rights to freedom, autonomy, or consent apply?
- Empathy & Compassion – What would I do if I cared deeply about those involved?
- Outcome Fairness: What achieves the best outcomes for all?
- Procedural Fairness: How can I equally balance interests, and minimize cheating?
- Character – What action best reflects who I am and the person I want to become?
- Sanctity – What is my gut reaction of disgust or purity and virtue?
- Identity & Tribalism – Am I more loyal to some than others in the first five questions? Why?