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the-4-success-pillars“You can’t legislate morality,” the old saying goes, a statement that purports to be common sense, until you begin to realize you can’t not legislate morality. All legislation is passed within a moral framework of ethical ideals and moral considerations.

Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion lays out six moral foundations of politics. For each foundation, Haidt explains how the left and the right diverge on political applications.

1. The Care/Harm Foundation

This foundation makes us sensitive to signs of suffering and need. In order to maximize care and minimize harm, we enact laws that protect the vulnerable. We punish people who are cruel and we care for those in suffering. The left relies primarily on this foundation (and the next one), while the right positions it within a broader matrix of concerns.

2. The Fairness/Cheating Foundation

This foundation leads us to seek out people who will be good collaborators in whatever project we are pursuing. It also leads us to punish people who cheat the system. People on both the right and the left believe in fairness, but they apply this foundation in different ways. Haidt explains:

“On the left, fairness often implies equality, but on the right it means proportionality – people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes” (161).

3. The Loyalty/Betrayal Foundation

All of us, whether on the right or left, are “tribal” in some sense. We love the people on our team, and loyalty makes our team more powerful and less susceptible to our failure. Likewise, we have a corresponding hatred for traitors. Those who betray our “team” for the other side are worse than those who were already on the other side.

Though Haidt sees both left and right as being tribal, he recognizes “the left tends toward universalism and away from nationalism, so it often has trouble connecting to voters who rely on the Loyalty foundation” (164).

4. The Authority/Subversion Foundation

Authority plays a role in our moral considerations because it protects order and fends off chaos. Haidt explains:

“Everyone has a stake in supporting the existing order and in holding people accountable for fulfilling the obligations of their station” (168).

Not surprisingly, the right values this foundation, while the left defines itself by opposing hierarchy, inequality, and power.

5. The Sanctity/Degradation Foundation

No matter the era, humans have always considered certain things “untouchable” for being dirty and polluted. The flipside is that we want to protect whatever is hallowed and sacred, whether objects, ideals, or institutions.

People on the right talk about the sanctity of life and marriage. People on the left may mock “True Love Waits” and purity rings, but they frequent New Age grocery stores, buy products that cleanse them of “toxins,” and warn against human degradation of the environment.

6. The Liberty/Oppression Foundation

This foundation builds on Authority/Subversion because we all recognize there is such a thing as legitimate authority, but we don’t want authoritarians crossing the line into tyranny. Both the left and the right hate oppression and desire liberty, but for different reasons.

The left wants liberty for the underdogs and victims (coinciding with their emphasis on Fairness/Cheating). The right wants liberty from government intrusion.


Haidt believes the left relies primarily on the Care and Fairness and Liberty foundations, while the right appeals to all six. I think he’s right.

On a somewhat related note, one of the fastest ways I can tell if someone leans right or left is by asking a simple question: “What is the bigger threat to our country today: big government or big business?” Those on the left almost always see the government as protecting against big business, and those on the right almost always see the big business as fighting governmental overreach.

What do you think? Where do you see these six moral foundations in our political discourse?

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7 thoughts on “The 6 Moral Foundations of Politics”

  1. Curt Day says:

    This model reminds me of Tim Keller’s ‘blended insights’ from his model depicting the different ways Church interacts with culture in this way, just as Keller’s model was written from a Neo-Calvinist, Transformationist perspective, Haidt’s model is written from a politically Conservative model of thought. For example, with the Liberty/Oppression foundation, it seems that only one kind of liberty that is recognized is Individual liberty. My speculation here comes from my many online conversations with conservatives. What some of the conservatives with whom I have conversed struggle with when it comes to liberty is the concept of group or societal liberty. This kind of liberty refers to the freedom that the group or society has in determining how people in society will live with each other and how that society will relate to other societies. Group or societal liberty is often referred to as Democracy

    With that in mind and realize that I come from a politically Left perspective, adding here that neither the Right nor the Left are monoliths, I would add two foundations to the model above. The first is the collective/individual ownership foundation. Here, we need to ask how much of our ‘private’ property deserves to be treated as private. The question involved with this foundation is, what are the interdependencies involved with the property either the individual or society is laying claim to? The interdependencies involve both issues of how others were involved in helping someone accumulate private property as well as how the accumulation of that private property affects society.

    Another foundation I would add, and this touches on the authority/subversion foundation, is the democracy/elite-centered rule foundation. Democracy can refer to several types of political structures that allow people to vote. But Democracy can also refer to a state of being for society where the people are exercising self-rule. And it is quite possible for those with wealth and power to subvert a democratic political structure so that democracy as a state of being for society does not exist regardless of the political structure employed. We should note that with this model of thought, the weaker the democracy, the more there is elite-centered rule and visa-versa. This foundation has much to say about identifying the value of big government vs big business. In too many instances, big government is seen as threatening. However, there is a difference between a big government where the people have control over the government from big government where there is elite-centered rule. This can make the size of government less significant depending on how much government represents the people as a whole rather than representing special interests. This would be dealt with in the democracy/elite-centered rule foundation.

    Finally for some of us Leftists, we would not only associate the Care/Harm Foundation with the Fairness/Cheating Foundation, we would associate it the Sanctity/Degradation Foundation as well. And we should note that the Sanctity/Degradation Foundation intersects the Liberty/Oppression Foundation in certain areas.

    1. Bernie Diaz says:

      The one, fundamental foundation of political ideology that was left out of this equation is of course, theology. Everyone on the left, right and in-between – including unbelievers, have a way of thinking about God.

      The way you view God is the single biggest indicator of your political ideology, and therefore party persuasion. This truth has been verified by any number of polls, linking worldview to politics (e.g. Pew, Gallup, Barna).

      All one has to do is ask another person two questions: (1) Do you believe in God- the God and Jesus Christ of the Bible? (2) Do you believe that the Bible is an authoritative and credible source of world-view and living?

      The answer to those two questions with 90-99% accuracy will predict whether or not you’re on the left or right, which obviously will dictate that you will vote Democratic and or Republican respectively.

      Simple case in point: same-sex marriage, one of the hot-button issues of the day along social, cultural and moral grounds.

      The atheistic and/or agnostic or nominal religionist, will deny God’s active work in the world today if they believe he exists at all, and deny the Bible as a credible and authoritative source of direction on issues or life. Therefore, likely being Darwinian evolutionists and having a man-centered world-view, their aim in life is for unfettered sexual freedom and pleasure as man’s greatest goals. Thus, a leftist theology that will vote for leftist candidates (Dems).

      Conversely, the regenerate Biblicist, will understand God’s view on marriage and family as absolutes, along with its condemnation of homosexuality and will move to the right on this amongst virtually every other issue and vote accordingly (GOP).

      Personally, through my experience and ministry, this systematic thought pattern has proven to be invariably true.

  2. Rachel says:

    “On a somewhat related note, one of the fastest ways I can tell if someone leans right or left is by asking a simple question: “What is the bigger threat to our country today: big government or big business?” Those on the left almost always see the government as protecting against big business, and those on the right almost always see the big business as fighting governmental overreach.”

    Says it all really. Those on the right have no interest in the exploitation of workers by big business.

    “‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers.” Isaiah 58:3

    “Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.” James 5:4-5

    1. Christiane says:

      I suppose I must be on the side of the vulnerable in this argument if I am a follower of Our Lord. So that I must take a moral and ethical stand against any manipulation and abuse of those who are not among the rich and powerful. Where does this place me? Likely somewhere beyond both politics or profit-motive, I hope.

  3. Megan says:

    Regarding sanctification/degradation, I know a few on the right who shop at farmer’s markets and health food stores. Whole Foods is owned by a conservative. Distrust of “big business” hasn’t stopped liberals from shopping there; however, their high prices may keep the less affluent away.

    Those on the right may sanctify life and marriage; in my experience, lefties sanctify knowledge and truth. Berkeley professor George Lakoff, who also has researched (from the other side) the difference between liberal and conservative mindsets, noted that “The truth will set you free,” is fundamental to the liberal worldview. Lefties believe if they present the facts about, say, climate change, people ought to believe them and are often mystified when they don’t. On the other hand, liberals don’t see institutions such as big government, big business or big religion as reliable sources of truth.

  4. Philmonomer says:

    I believe that that Chait’s book is descriptive, not prescriptive. In this regard, I’ve seen several conservative commentators say (essentially) that their foundation for morality is better, because–under Chait’s understanding–there are more foundations (whether that means the foundation is more complete, more nuanced, more varied, more wholistic, whatever.)

    The problem is, I don’t think this is true. I think it is a helpful lense through which to view conservatives and liberals, and I think it does a pretty good job of providing a description of world views/understandings. But it doesn’t provide (IMHO) any sense that one side is “better” than the other.

    As an example, I think this understanding of morality does an excellent job of explaining why conservatives would favor miscegenation laws. Indeed, such laws hit on (almost) all moral foundations–but especially loyalty, authority, and degradation. But I don’t think hitting on more foundations makes the law somehow “more right.” Indeed, I think the law would still be wrong (and most any social conservative nowadays would think that).

  5. JohnM says:

    #4 is inaccurate. Liberals seek positions of authority every bit as much as conservatives. Liberals in government aren’t there because they are disinterested in authority. Furthermore a significant fault line within contemporary conservatism is the one between right-libertarians and law-and-order conservatives.

    Also, an increasing number of conservatives see big government in collusion with big business and oppose bigness generally.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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