The 6 Moral Foundations: Beyond the Harm Principle

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What are the six moral foundations? How can our view of morality expand in order to understand others better?

Everyone is accustomed to a certain moral framework, and it can be hard to accept that another morality is moral or even possible. Also, people respond to the six moral foundations in different ways. These factors contribute to the difficulty we have in understanding each other. Gaining insight into how moral foundations work can help us empathize with others.

Read more to learn about the six moral foundations.

Morality Is More Than Fairness and Harm

Even once we know that morality is both intuitive and socially constructed, it’s natural to believe that everyone’s morality is at least based on the shared principles of not harming others and ensuring fairness. This section proves that, actually, groups around the world operate according to different moral frameworks, and that we need to consider these differences when we’re thinking about how to get along better with one another. 

WEIRD Moralities

People who grow up in places that are Western, educated, industrial, rich, and democratic (or WEIRD) are significant statistical outliers. However, they are the subjects of the grand majority of social science research. This means that research gives us a narrow and inaccurate understanding of human nature, causing us to believe that WEIRD morality is the normal or “right” morality. 

For well-educated, secular Westerners, ethics centers around the “harm principle” introduced by John Stuart Mill in 1859: The only reason anyone should exercise power in a civilized society is to prevent harm. However, if you’re living in a non-WEIRD place, your morality is likely to be more expansive than just preventing harm and ensuring fairness. (In WEIRD societies, morality also sometimes extends beyond the harm principle, but this is more foundational in non-WEIRD places.)

Rather than just the harm principle, morality actually centers around three types of ethics: 

  1. The ethic of autonomy: This is the concept that people are individuals who have their own, autonomous wants and needs. Societies develop “rights” like the right to liberty and justice in order to allow people to pursue their own individual wishes. This is the dominant ethic, as you might expect, in an individualistic society. Along with the harm principle, the ethic of autonomy is the foundation of morality in WEIRD societies. But there are two other ethics that are strong around the world. 
  2. The ethic of community: This is the idea that people are first part of a group—a family, nation, team, company, and so on. These entities are important beyond the people who make them up. Moral concepts like duty, respect, and hierarchy are essential to this ethic. The idea that people should design their own lives is actively dangerous to the group and will weaken the social fabric.
  3. The ethic of divinity: This is the idea that people are simply vessels of a divine soul. They are God’s creations, and the intent of honoring God should guide their behavior. According to this ethic, sex with a dead chicken is morally wrong not because it hurts the community or the individual, but because it dishonors the creator and violates the universe. The concepts of purity, sanctity, pollution, degradation, and elevation are particularly important in this ethic. People who believe in this ethic view the personal liberties in Western nations as libertinism, because they often conflict with more orthodox religious teachings. 

The Western attempt to ground society in just one principle, like preventing harm, leads to societies that are both unsatisfying and potentially inhumane because they ignore so many other moral principles. Additionally, it’s hard to accept that another morality is possible or moral (for example, a WEIRD resident traveling to a non-WEIRD place might have trouble understanding the ethic of divinity). This is part of what makes it difficult for us to understand one another. 

The 6 Moral Foundations

Another reason people from different backgrounds have so much trouble understanding each other’s values is that, in addition to the three types of ethics, the righteous mind has six “taste receptors” like a tongue. These receptors are the foundation of our personal moralities. People respond to these moral foundations in different ways, just like people’s tongues respond to food differently. Here are the foundations: 

1. The Care/harm foundation prioritizes the values of kindness and nurturing. Humans have innate feelings of protectiveness and understanding of distress or suffering. This helps children to survive (because their parents or even strangers feel the need to take care of them) and makes groups more tight-knit, brought together by caring for one another. In the U.S., liberals rely much more on the Care/harm foundation than conservatives. For instance, a liberal might have a bumper sticker with a message like “Save Darfur” or “Peace” or even “Save the Planet.” The Care/harm foundation is part of the conservative morality as well, but it’s not as foundational. For example, conservatives might have a bumper sticker that reads “Wounded Warrior,” which asks that we care for people who have sacrificed for the larger group. 

2. The Fairness/cheating foundation prioritizes the values of rights and justice. The left and the right are both concerned about fairness in American society but in different ways. The left is often angry that the rich don’t pay their “fair share.” The right argues that Democrats are trying to take money from Americans who work hard and give it to lazy people or illegal immigrants. Fairness is utter equality on the left but proportionality on the right (people are rewarded for their contribution to society). 

3. The Loyalty/betrayal foundation prioritizes the values of self-sacrifice for the good of the group and patriotism. For thousands of years, humans created groups in order to fend off rival groups. This creates an intense and innate sense of loyalty within all of us. However, the left has much more trouble using the loyalty foundation to their advantage because they often disparage nationalism and sometimes American foreign policy. Because they admonish American policy, some conservatives see liberals as disloyal. 

4. The Authority/subversion foundation prioritizes the values of leadership, deference, and tradition. Cultures vary significantly in how much authority and hierarchy they demand. Authority comes with responsibility. People in a hierarchy have mutual expectations of each other—those at the top are expected to protect those at the bottom, while those at the bottom are expected to serve those at the top. Again, it is easier for the right to adopt this moral foundation than the left, because the left defines itself against hierarchy and the inequality and power structures that result. 

5. The Sanctity/degradation foundation prioritizes the values of purity and sanctity. This moral foundation is based on the idea that, unlike mere animals, we have a soul. Sacredness helps us build communities around a shared principle—often that humans have a creator or creators who ask them to perform specific rituals to honor them and their creations. Certain cultures are more likely to believe immigrants will bring disease or dishonor to their society than others. Certain actions are untouchable because they are too dirty (like drinking straight from the Hudson River in New York City) and others are untouchable because they are too sacred (like a cross for Christians, or even the principle of liberty). American conservatives talk about “the sanctity of marriage” or “the sanctity of life” much more than liberals. Religious conservatives are more likely to have this foundation, as they are likely to view the body as housing a soul. 

6. The Liberty/oppression foundation prioritizes the value of and right to liberty. We recognize legitimate authority, but we want our authority figures to earn our trust. We are resistant to control without purpose, which can lead to a reactance—when an authority figure tells you to do something and you decide to do the opposite. People band together to stop widespread domination, and they may resist or even sometimes kill the oppressor. Biologically, people who couldn’t recognize this kind of oppression coming were less likely to thrive. Oppression concerns both liberals and conservatives. Liberals are more worried about large systems of oppression that are helpful to the 1% but keep the poor without opportunity. Conservatives are more worried about the oppression of their own groups. They say, “Don’t tread on me with high taxes, my business with regulations, or my nation with the UN and international treaties.”Conservatives have an advantage in persuasive arguments because they can tap into all six of these moral foundations. They can talk to people with each of these taste receptors, whereas liberals concentrate significantly on the Care/harm and Liberty/oppression foundations, along with the Fairness/cheating foundation to a lesser extent. Their arguments are thus limited to a smaller group of people.

The 6 Moral Foundations: Beyond the Harm Principle

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

One thought on “The 6 Moral Foundations: Beyond the Harm Principle

  • October 23, 2022 at 10:10 am

    by learning from my own history even though it may go back 400 years i keep knowledgably sound.

    English was elected as a Democrat to the Thirty-seventh and Thirty-eighth Congresses, serving from March 4, 1861 to March 3, 1865.[2] He was not a candidate for renomination in 1864.

    He left his ill wife to vote at the U.S. Capitol, where, despite being a Democrat, he voted in favor of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery in 1864. His “aye” prompted applause “and the tide turned.” He later remarked that voting for the Amendment ruined his standing among Democrats, but he thought it the right thing to do, saying “I suppose I am politically ruined, but that day was the happiest of my life.”[3] However, his reservation was not to be, as he had a fairly successful career afterwards.


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