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How do you make decisions about what’s right vs. what’s wrong? How do you determine what is good and what is bad? I think this is important to think about, because I think differences in how we determine what is right/wrong or good/bad is an important reason why we are so divided politically and religiously.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt is one of the leading thinkers and researchers in the field of moral psychology. He focuses on this question—How do we determine what is right and what is wrong? He has found that, in general, we use five moral foundations for making decisions about right and wrong. As you read the descriptions of these moral foundations, think about your own life. Which of these foundations do you use the most?

  1. Harm/Care. The first moral foundation focuses on whether someone gets hurt. If an action causes harm to another living thing, then it’s wrong.
  2. Fairness. The second moral foundation has to do with fairness and equality. If an action is unfair, or creates an unjust system, then it’s wrong.
  3. Authority. The third moral foundation has to do with deference to authority (e.g., leader, God, etc.). If the authority says an action is wrong, then it’s wrong.
  4. Loyalty. The fourth moral foundation has to do with loyalty to the norms of one’s group. If the group says an action is wrong, then it’s wrong.
  5. Purity. The fifth moral foundation has to do with purity, cleanliness, and whatever is considered sacred. If an action messes up something that is sacred, then it’s wrong.

Which moral foundations do you rely on to make your moral decisions? In general, more liberal individuals tend to focus on the first two moral foundations (i.e., harm/care and fairness), whereas more conservative individuals tend to focus on all five moral foundations. Perhaps you can imagine how two individuals who use different moral foundations to make their moral decisions could struggle to see eye-to-eye (or even have a productive conversation).

To give a concrete example, let’s look at an issue such as the legalization of gay marriage, which has been a contentious topic in our country over the past year. When making a judgment about whether the legalization of gay marriage is right or wrong, the liberal person focuses on the moral foundations of harm/care and fairness. To the liberal person, legalizing gay marriage doesn’t seem to hurt anyone, and there are plenty of stories from gay and lesbian individuals who share how not being able to marry has caused them hurt and pain. Also, to the liberal person, it seems unfair to not allow people to get married solely based on their sexual orientation. From this perspective, it seems obvious that the right decision is to legalize gay marriage.

However, consider the conservative person. The conservative person takes harm/care and fairness into consideration, but also focuses on the moral foundations of authority, loyalty, and purity. The conservative person might use the Bible as their authority, and believe that the Bible says gay marriage is wrong. The conservative person might consider loyalty to their religious or political group, and the norm here might be to oppose gay marriage. Finally, the conservative person might view marriage between a man and woman as something sacred, and view legalizing gay marriage as the destruction of something sacred. From this perspective, it seems obvious that the right decision is to oppose gay marriage.

Both the liberal and conservative person in this example might be well-meaning folks, wanting to do the right thing. But because they use different moral foundations to make decisions about right and wrong, they come to different conclusions. Worse yet, they may not even be able to have a conversation with each other about the topic they disagree about, because they don’t understand the moral foundations used by the other person.

The next time you are having a discussion or disagreement about a contentious issue, consider the five moral foundations. Which moral foundations are you using to inform your decision? Which moral foundations are the other person using to inform their decision? Are they the same or different? If you can discuss how you are thinking about moral decisions, rather than just arguing your point of view, you might have a more productive conversation.

Discussion: What do you think about the five moral foundations? Which moral foundations do you use the most in order to make your decisions about right vs. wrong?