How Moral Foundations Theory Influences Political Orientation

Moral foundations theory plays a significant role in understanding why morality and moral values vary across different cultures. The moral foundation theory establishes the relationship between the psychological systems and foundation ethics on morality that are possessed by different cultures. These moral foundations are based on caring or harm, showing fairness, loyalty recognizing authority and establishing purity (Haidit & Graham).

morality and moral foundations theory

Moral Values, Origin and Foundations of Morality Theory

The origin of moral foundations theory is attributed to an observation by sociologists on the similarities of morality across different cultures despite the existence of geographical differences between those cultures. Moral values are the principles that guide what is good or bad and are similar across cultures. The same also applies to the concepts of harm, justice, gender roles, respect and loyalty in respect to social institutions and orders.

The five foundations of morality include; care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Although diverse cultures show similarities on how they relate to the five foundations of morality, the extent to which they emphasize these foundational virtues of morality vary.

These differences in moral foundations can be observed in the moral bearings of politics and political orientations. Political liberals build their values on the first two foundations of morality, which include expressing care and maintaining fairness. However, political conservatives build their values on all of the five moral foundations.

The moral foundation theory is very relevant in the quest to understand what people think of various political issues and the influence of moral values in determining political orientations. This study, therefore, investigates how political orientation relates to moral values and morality judgments with reference to the moral foundations theory.

Moral Foundations Theory in Political Orientations

There exists a strong relationship between political orientations and moral foundations theory. According to (Graham et al, 2009) liberals embrace the moral foundations of showing care and maintaining fairness while the conservatives embrace the loyalty, authority and sanctity. According to Day et al (2014), political opinions are guided by entrenching and persuasion concerns for liberals and conservatives.

Political activities like campaigns, media and social networks play a big role in influencing political attitudes for both liberals and conservatives. Moral concerns on what is right or wrong also play a role in shaping political orientations (Kugler et al, 2014). Conservatives and liberals support candidates or policies differently depending on what they perceive to be right or wrong.

For instance, conservatives in United States’ politics strongly oppose gay marriages and their political attitude is aligned to candidates or policies who equally deem it wrong. This is different for the political liberals who support gay marriages and support candidates and policies that defend gay norms and believes.

According to Kugler et al, (2014), the divergent political orientations between conservatives and liberals result from their varying perspectives on moral foundations. (Graham et al 2009) also notes that there are varying social and emotional forces that influence one’s political orientation. Liberals are more optimistic on the nature of human beings while conservatives embrace the pessimistic view of human nature.

Their conflicts are also entailed in their view of life issues and political orientations. Whereas conservatives are more open to familiar and stable things, liberals seem to prefer changes both in their personal life and in political orientation. Conservatives are therefore resistance to change and are more likely to embrace inequality when compared to liberals.

The influence of morality foundations on political orientation is both visible in the United States and the Australian politics. This is visible in Republicans who are more conservative and in Democrats who are considered more liberal. The 2004 presidential election presented a perfect a perfect example on the relationship between morality and political foundations.

The moral values of United States citizens played a major role in determining their political affiliations, therefore, influencing the outcome of the 2004 elections (Robinett, 2006). Given that the moral values of conservatives and liberals across the world’s cultures is similar, the moral values of conservatives and liberals in the United States and Australia are, therefore, similar.

The only difference is in the political parties to which the two sets of conservatives and liberals in the two countries align with. In the United States, for instance, liberals are associated with the Democratic Party while conservatives belong to the Republican Party. People associate with either party based on their moral values and these morality sets are different for liberals and conservatives (Graham et al 2009). Liberals and conservatives have demonstrated conflicting visions as conservatives are more authoritarian compared to liberals.

Several studies have explored differences between conservatives and liberals. Haidit et al, (2007), notes that the moral intuitions of conservatives may not be recognized by liberals. Conservatives oppose social justice programs while liberals embrace them.

The behaviors of liberals are based on two foundations of morality while the conservatives base their behaviors and motivations on all the five moral foundations. In addition, political liberalism is also associated with socialism or communism which is more concerned about the rights of society rather than those of individuals.

Research questions

  • How do political orientations relate to the concept of moral foundations theory?
  • What are the similarities and differences in morality between the political liberals and conservatives in the United States and Australia?
  • Which moral values and moral foundations apply to the political orientations of conservatives and liberals?

Despite a relationship between political orientation and moral foundations being established, the manner in which moral values influence political orientations varies. Political liberals only embrace the moral foundations of showing care and establishing fairness, which, in turn, strongly influences their political orientation. On the contrary, all moral foundations are equally relevant in influencing the political orientations of conservatives.


Day, M. V., Fiske, S. T., Downing, E. L., & Trail, T. E. (2014). Shifting liberal and conservative attitudes using moral foundations theory. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(12), 1559-1573.

Graham, J., Haidt, J., & Nosek, B. A. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. Journal of personality and social psychology, 96(5), 1029.

Haidt, J., & Graham, J. (2007). When morality opposes justice: Conservatives have moral intuitions that liberals may not recognize. Social Justice Research, 20(1), 98-116.

Kugler, M., Jost, J. T., & Noorbaloochi, S. (2014). Another look at moral foundations theory: Do authoritarianism and social dominance orientation explain liberal-conservative differences in “moral” intuitions?. Social Justice Research, 27(4), 413-431.

Robinett, T. L. (2006). Moral reasoning and political affiliation in liberal and conservative voters: Applying a model of hierarchical complexity (Doctoral dissertation, Capella University).

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