5 pillars of morality

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The 5 pillars of morality is a scientific theory originated by University of Virginia psychology professor Jonathan Haidt. The theory, in brief, is that there are 5 "innate psychological systems form the foundation of intuitive ethics" across all cultures, and that one's political affiliation (conservative vs. liberal) is largely determined by an individual's ranking of the relative importance of each of those systems.

These systems are:

  1. Harm/Care
  2. Fairness/Reciprocity
  3. Ingroup/Loyalty
  4. Authority/Respect
  5. Purity/Sanctity

Haidt's observation has been that those who self-identify as liberal tend to value the first two (care, fairness) higher than the other three, while self-identified conservatives place a higher value on the last three. Both liberals and conservatives assign "care" the highest value, but conservatives tend to value "fairness" the lowest while liberals tend to value "purity" the lowest.


All morality is ultimately based on avoidance of harm, with ideas like "fairness", "loyalty", "respect", and "purity" being sort of abbreviated rules-of-thumb which help with that main goal. Although the rules-of-thumb are not always reliable (and often lead to harm if enforced too rigidly), they are somewhat simpler and easier to follow than trying to determine the extent of the harm which might be caused by a given action.

That being the case, Haidt's conclusions (if true) would seem to indicate that conservatives have less confidence in their ability to predict the ultimate harm a given action might cause, and greater comfort relying on simple rules sanctioned by their subculture -- even if those rules actually cause greater harm.

American Culture War

Haidt makes the following observation with respect to the United States in particular:

The current American culture war, we have found, can be seen as arising from the fact that liberals try to create a morality relying almost exclusively on the Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity foundations; conservatives, especially religious conservatives, use all five foundations...


These results have been widely misinterpreted or explained as indicating that liberals generally ignore all but the first two, while conservatives pay attention equally (or more equally) to all five, thus painting conservatism as the superior worldview due to the greater number of moral "inputs" used by those who share it.

Haidt's theory about American culture war comes close to saying this, but he is only saying that liberals neglect or downplay the last three pillars when "creating morality".


Although this theory may shed some valuable light on the differences between liberals and conservatives, it seems inconsistent with easily-observable facts.


  • Liberals are generally far more concerned about purity of environmental conditions than are conservatives. Food is a good example: filtered water, organic foods, avoidance of over-processing, and avoidance of synthetic ingredients in food are all very much liberal causes, ignored or even disparaged by conservatives.
    • In this blog post Haidt seemingly acknowledges this weakness in his argument, but does not appear to address it.
  • Liberals are every bit as loyal to their in-groups (friends), although their criteria for forming those groups may be different from those used by conservatives; conservatives seem to form loyal relationships based on established institutions (marriage, church, the workplace), while liberals are more focused on personal empathy
  • Liberals often display immense respect (bordering on worship) of certain individuals, but the processes by which they choose which individuals to favor thusly are probably somewhat different from the processes used by conservatives. At a guess: conservatives seem to give respect, or deem individuals worthy of authority, based solely on position within a strict hierarchy; liberals tend to be more willing to independently evaluate individuals for their contribution to society, regardless (indeed, often in spite) of hierarchical position.

Possibly Haidt is simply using excessively narrow definitions of the last three "pillars"; some exploration of the questions Haidt uses for evaluating each individual's ranking of the five "pillars" is needed.


Note also the common thread in the last two items: authority. It seems more likely that authoritarianism is the defining difference between liberals and conservatives, and is only superficially manifested in the differences observed by Haidt.

Related Pages




  • Morality: 2012 (video) Adds Haidt's "atom world" vs. "lattice world" theory, which seems similarly flawed in its conclusions; as David Brin points out: "Recall Hillary Clinton's book It Takes a Village (to raise a child)? That seems to be a "lattice world" statement and the right wing response "No, it takes parents!" was resoundingly atomistic."