American positions on moral issues and tensions between the moral foundations

Gallup did a poll on American positions on various moral issues, finding that Americans are now more accepting than ever on a range of issues.


Most of these I don’t find particularly surprising.  Of course, it turns out that Democrats and Republicans have differences of opinion on many of them.  HuffPost, in their write up of this, did a nice infographic:



Well, we agree that birth control is good and that things like affairs, cloning humans, and polygamy are bad.  But other than that, agreement is limited.  One thing I would be interested to know is how people would feel about unmarried or teen sex if proper birth control is exercised.

Anyway, as an interesting exercise, I decided to try to map these issues into Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations theory.

A quick refresher: these moral foundations are thought to be the primal biological urges or instincts from which morality arises.  From cross cultural studies, they appear to be universal across humanity, although individual humans feel them in differing combinations of magnitude, and cultural learning has a big effect on how they eventually map to a society’s values.

(By the way, fellow blogger Steve Morris has been doing a series of posts on these foundations which are well worth checking out.)

The foundations, listed in virtue / vice format are:

  • care / harm
  • fairness / cheating
  • loyalty / betrayal
  • authority / subversion
  • purity / degradation
  • freedom / oppression

These are the foundations that psychologists such as Haidt have been able to identify to date.  As more studies are conducted, others may be found, or one or more of the currently identified ones could eventually be broken up into multiple foundations.

It’s important to understand that the contentious issues above are tensions between these various foundations, with how you fall on an issue being determined by which foundations you are more motivated by, at least for that particular issue.

Here is my mapping, formatted as issue:foundation motivating acceptance vs foundation motivating disapproval.

  1. Birth control: freedom vs purity
  2. Divorce: care vs purity
  3. Unmarried sex: freedom vs purity
  4. Stem cell research: care vs purity
  5. Gambling: freedom vs purity
  6. Death penalty: fairness vs purity & care
  7. Wearing fur: freedom vs care
  8. Baby outside of marriage: freedom vs purity
  9. Gay / lesbian relations: care vs purity
  10. Medical testing on animals: care (of humans) vs care (of animals)
  11. Doctor assisted suicide: care vs purity
  12. Abortion: care (of the woman) vs purity & care (of the fetus)
  13. Cloning animals: care (of humans) vs purity & care (of animals)
  14. Pornography: freedom vs purity
  15. Teenage sex: freedom vs purity
  16. Suicide: care vs purity
  17. Polygamy: freedom vs purity
  18. Cloning humans: freedom vs purity & care
  19. Marital Affair: freedom vs loyalty

I’m a little nervous about how often I invoked “freedom”, when it might be more accurate to simply say “non-moral” motivation for some of them.  But I think “freedom” is relevant to a third party’s attitude toward that activity.  A woman may be motivated to wear animal fur for comfort and appearance, but a third party’s attitude toward allowing her to wear it seems motivated by the freedom impulse.

For many of the ones I labeled “purity”, the people opposed to it might say they oppose it for “care” reasons.  I tried to throw care in on these cases, but someone can always claim their motivation comes from care.  For example, many pro-life advocates claim their desire to restrict the mother’s actions is based on their care of her well-being.

Doing this, it became obvious to me that many of these positions are motivated by multiple foundations in combination.  I picked the ones I thought were most relevant, but you may well disagree.

17 thoughts on “American positions on moral issues and tensions between the moral foundations

  1. It seemed interesting to me that 2 of the 3 positions that liberals found more unacceptable involved animals. Then I realized that it’s probably not because liberals care more about animals than people, but because conservatives care less.


      1. Oh certainly, I’ve read the book. Liberals are all like, whoa, care, all over the place and in your eye. Conservatives are more even across the board, even the meaningless stuff, and libertarians are all like FREEEEEEEEEDOM and nothing else. At all. Libertarians don’t care about shit.


  2. Excellent, thanks for sharing the results, and providing your own useful analysis. I think you’re quite right that one side of many of the debates is based in the value of purity. One thing I’d be interested in, given your naturalistic take on morality, is whether there could be a ranking of these values, if these values are determined by life-preserving desires. Because it seems to me that any pluralistic view must try to account for how some values can be weightier than others, as to me, the value of non-harm seems much weightier than the value of purity. Do you think it would be possible to rank these values in terms of the propensity each has for furthering life?

    I ask because it seems to me that when faced with the presentation of these cases, we don’t think that the values on either side of the debate are incommensurable, we have a sort of insight that when two values are in conflict, one is weightier and this must just be because values are nothing but conceptualizations of intrinsically desirable events, so by their nature they are action-guiding, but to suggest that two values are entirely incommensurable would seem to suggest that taking the whole picture together we do not feel a pull in any one direction. But we certainly do feel that one value does pull more than the other, so it must be possible to rank these values. So, returning to my question, do you think there is a way to rank values for this sort of naturalistic psychological model you favor, or would you resist that move? I really should read Haidt, he seems to be very influential these days.

    On another note, it seems really strange to me that almost every moral policy debate is mentioned, but not gun control, arguably generating much more public discourse than the morality of wearing fur or divorce.


    1. Thanks! I’m grateful for your kind words.

      Ranking the values according to the life preserving desire? I’m not sure you could do that and have it be meaningful. For example, purity might have a low life preserving rank in some of the situations above, but when it motivates us to stay away from dead bodies, or not to swim in nasty water, its life preserving value shoots up. I’m also not sure what you do with doctor assisted euthanasia, in which the care virtue would suddenly have a low life preserving desire, although it would usually have a high one.

      Each of these foundations are thought to exist for evolutionary reasons. In our original context as hunter-gathers on the African savanna, they probably were all life preserving. But I think today that they’re all subject to misfires that at times can actually harm survivability.

      I do recommend Haidt. ‘The Righteous Mind’ is not philosophy, but it seems relevant, and he’s a pretty captivating writer. I’ve actually thought about doing a reread since I raced through his book when I read it.

      It is weird that they left off gun control. I think that would definitely be a freedom vs care tension. (Or care vs freedom, depending on how you word it.)


          1. That’s a tough question! I suppose any articulation of a theory that would rank something as better than another would be normative, even if the terms are descriptive in a sense consistent with naturalism. For example, I think a ranking of Haidt’s values would be normative in so far as it is a ranking of to-be-pursuedness, even if the terms are naturalistic. But I do think it would prove difficult to rank Haidt’s proposed values, as, at least on the “negative” side, each term is a specification of harm, such that, while it may prove possible to say that one type of harm is worse than another, it will not be as clear cut as comparing another disvalue against the broad category of harm. But I suspect that such a ranking would not seem necessary to Haidt here, if his intent was merely to map out the range of motivating states that featured in the decision processes of our ancestors.


          2. Haidt’s interests are descriptive. He does briefly describe his own normative outlook in the book as utilitarian for public policy and virtue ethics for personal morality. That’s actually the view I held for a while, before I realized that I couldn’t describe the transition point and concluded I was a straight virtue ethicist, although I’m not slavishly devoted to any of the normative frameworks.


          3. Very cool! I faced a similar dilemma, though I thought the realm of public policy was guided by Kantian ideals, and personal morality guided by a rich pluralism. I too couldn’t pinpoint where the shift would occur, but fortunately some philosophers, such as Robert Audi, have articulated a Kantian pluralism that succeeds in mapping over both areas.

            Still, that you and I both had the thought that different normative outlooks guide public and private morality is suggestive…


          4. Great minds… 🙂

            For me, I thought about what I would do if I were a public official. For better or worse, my personal ethical outlook wouldn’t turn off when I was acting in an official capacity, and I suspect that’s what happens with most officials.


  3. One thing to note about these results is that the questionnaire allowed for 5 possible responses: morally acceptable, morally wrong, depends on the situation, not a moral issue and don’t know. In the case of divorce, for example, the fact that 69% said it was acceptable doesn’t mean that 31% think it’s morally wrong (which would be a pretty surprising result). On that issue, 8% said it depends, 1% said it’s not a moral issue and 1% said don’t know. So only 22% chose morally wrong (which still seems high to me in the 21st century).

    But even taking into account the full range of responses, some of these results are remarkable. 64% say pornography is morally wrong in a country that consumes vast quantities of porn? 33% say gambling is morally wrong? 31% say sex outside of marriage is wrong and a whopping 64% say sex between teenagers is wrong (not even “it depends”)?

    I wonder how people would have answered these questions if they had filled out questionnaires in private instead of being asked by someone on the phone? I bet there would be fewer “morally wrong” answers, given how many Americans engage in these behaviors.

    It would also be interesting to see how many people would admit to some of these behaviors, and whether they consider their own actions to be immoral. This poll might be a good indicator of changing attitudes or trends, but to get a better sense of what Americans really believe, it should have been an anonymous questionnaire instead of a phone conversation, and people should have been asked whether they had ever done some of these things themselves before being asked whether the behavior is morally acceptable or not.

    I also think a broader list of questions or different terminology might have revealed more issues on which Democrats came out in opposition more than Republicans. For example, instead of “gay or lesbian relations”, how about “limiting the rights of gays or lesbians”. Or asking about drone warfare, imprisonment without trial, industrial pollution or carcinogens in consumer products.


    1. If the survey was done over the phone that could certainly have influenced results, especially for sexual matters and any case where the person disagrees with the majority view.


    2. Excellent points. I find that Gallup surveys inevitably reveal what people are willing to say to someone over the phone rather that what they really think. I agree that anonymous questionnaires are superior to getting at what they actually think, particularly on matters like pornography. This is the approach Harris Interactive takes. I often find the differences between their results and Gallup’s to be instructive.


  4. Interesting article, Mike and thanks for the link! I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this recently and I think that the purity value is highly influential – as you have identified. How many times do we hear people claiming to be “disgusted” about all kinds of issues – even things like trains running late!

    Whilst avoiding disease, etc is a useful instinct, it seems to me that feelings of disgust are out of control and people could benefit from having their feelings of disgust challenged, not indulged.

    One of the things that alarms me most is the degree to which people believe that they are entitled to impose their own belief systems on others. Maybe this is my “freedom” tendency at work.


    1. I agree about purity. It’s been molded by society that our visceral disgust reactions are often triggered for things that are arguably harmless.

      I totally agree with your last paragraph. The problem is, that is essentially what a culture does, much of which is necessary and beneficial. The debates are over what is and is not necessary or beneficial.


Your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.