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Operationalising Moral Foundations Theory

In order to use Moral Foundations Theory to identify and explain cultural differences, we need a way to measure individual variations in how moral judgements are made. The Moral Foundations Questionnaire aims to fulfill this need.

By the end of this section you should know what the Moral Foundations Questionnaire is and how attempts have been made to validate it. You should also be aware of some objections to its use as a tool for identifying cultural differences.

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According to (Feinberg & Willer, 2013), researchers have found evidence that Moral Foundations Theory is true. What is this evidence?

The first step towards finding evidence is to operationalise the theory. To this end, Haidt & Graham (2007) developed the original Moral Foundations Questionnaire (which can be found in Graham et al. (2011)). Each of five foundations is linked to a number of questions.

The original questionnaire has been given to many subjects by various researchers. Patterns in subjects’ answers can be investigated to discover whether the questionnaire has:

  • internal validity (roughly, are the patterns in subjects’ answers consistent with the theory that they are answering on the basis of five foundations?[1]);
  • test-retest reliability (are individuals likely to give the same answers at different times); and
  • external validity (roughly, are subjects’ answers on other questionnaires correlated with the conceptually related foundations?).

The original Moral Foundations Questionnaire exhibits all these features, and passes tests of internal validity in various countries (Graham et al., 2011; Yilmaz, Harma, Bahçekapili, & Cesur, 2016). However, Iurino & Saucier (2020) collected new samples across 27 countries but ‘we were not able to replicate Graham et al.’s (2011) results indicating that a five-factor model is a suitable approach to modelling the moral foundations’ (p. 6). Relatedly, Harper & Rhodes (2021) failed to find the five factor structure in a sample from the UK.

A further important feature is measurement invariance:

‘A finding of measurement invariance would provide more confidence that use of the MFQ across cultures can shed light on meaningful differences between cultures rather than merely reflecting the measurement properties of the MFQ’ (Iurino & Saucier, 2020, p. 2).

We are particularly interested in one kind of measurement invariance, scalar invariance, as this would justify using the Moral Foundations Questionnaire to compare mean scores on a foundation.[2] That is, it would justify us in drawing conclusions like ‘conservatives put more weight on purity than liberals’. Unfortunately attempts to establish scalar invariance have been unsuccessful (Davis et al., 2016; Doğruyol, Alper, & Yilmaz, 2019; Davis, Dooley, Hook, Choe, & McElroy, 2017; Iurino & Saucier, 2020, p. Table 4). One good illustration of this is a failed attempt to compare US and Iranian participants:

‘Iranians and Americans do not interpret MFQ items in nearly similar ways, [...] means cannot be meaningfully compared.’ (Atari, Graham, & Dehghani, 2020, p. 373)

Failure of the original Moral Foundations Questionnaire to exhibit scalar invariance may be due in part to lack of diversity in the sample used to develop it:

‘Items of the MFQ [Moral Foundations Questionnaire] were refined on the basis of a sample with participants from a variety of countries, but the sample was predominately White (i.e., 87%). Furthermore, the sample involved people who visited the team’s website, which inevitably involves some selection bias, potentially associated with ideological background’ (Davis et al., 2017, p. 128; compare Kivikangas, Fernández-Castilla, Järvelä, Ravaja, & Lönnqvist, 2021, p. 84).

Overall, we should be cautious about drawing conclusions about cultural variation from results obtained with the original Moral Foundations Questionnaire alone. But we have some evidence to suppose that, in some cases, within a single culture, the Moral Foundations Questionnaire can identify aspects of ethical abilities which may be subject to cultural variation:

‘Recognizing ingroup loyalty, authority, and purity as moral concerns—even if they are not your moral concerns—is crucial both for scientific accuracy and for the application of social justice research‘ (Haidt & Graham, 2007, p. 111).

Atari et al. (2023) have developed a new Moral Foundations Questionnaire (which they call ‘MFQ-2’). This is intended to improve on all of the objections to the original questionnaire. The new questionnaire is based on six foundations: the change is essentially to split what was previously Fairness into two things: Equality (which concerns equal treatment) and Proportionality (which concerns being rewarded in proportion to one’s contribution).[3] In Study 2, these researchers demonstrate that the new questionnaire does exhibit scalar invariance for all foundations except purity (p. 1167). This means that it can be used to compare the mean strengths of emphasis on foundations between different populations.

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Moral Foundations Theory : The theory that moral pluralism is true; moral foundations are innate but also subject to cultural learning, and the Social Intuitionist Model of Moral Judgement is correct (Graham et al., 2019). Proponents often claim, further, that cultural variation in how these innate foundations are woven into ethical abilities can be measured using the Moral Foundations Questionnare (Graham, Haidt, & Nosek, 2009; Graham et al., 2011). Some empirical objections have been offered (Davis et al., 2016; Davis et al., 2017; Doğruyol et al., 2019). See Moral Foundations Theory: An Approach to Cultural Variation.
Social Intuitionist Model of Moral Judgement : A model on which intuitive processes are directly responsible for moral judgements (Haidt & Bjorklund, 2008). One’s own reasoning does not typically affect one’s own moral judgements, but (outside philosophy, perhaps) is typically used only to provide post-hoc justification after moral judgements are made. Reasoning does affect others’ moral intuitions, and so provides a mechanism for cultural learning.


Atari, M., Graham, J., & Dehghani, M. (2020). Foundations of morality in Iran. Evolution and Human Behavior, 41(5), 367–384.
Atari, M., Haidt, J., Graham, J., Koleva, S., Stevens, S. T., & Dehghani, M. (2023). Morality beyond the WEIRD: How the nomological network of morality varies across cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 125(5), 1157–1188.
Davis, D., Dooley, M., Hook, J., Choe, E., & McElroy, S. (2017). The Purity/Sanctity Subscale of the Moral Foundations Questionnaire Does Not Work Similarly for Religious Versus Non-Religious Individuals. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 9(1), 124–130.
Davis, D., Rice, K., Tongeren, D. V., Hook, J., DeBlaere, C., Worthington, E., & Choe, E. (2016). The Moral Foundations Hypothesis Does Not Replicate Well in Black Samples. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 110(4).
Doğruyol, B., Alper, S., & Yilmaz, O. (2019). The five-factor model of the moral foundations theory is stable across WEIRD and non-WEIRD cultures. Personality and Individual Differences, 151, 109547.
Feinberg, M., & Willer, R. (2013). The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes. Psychological Science, 24(1), 56–62.
Graham, J., Haidt, J., Motyl, M., Meindl, P., Iskiwitch, C., & Mooijman, M. (2019). Moral Foundations Theory: On the advantages of moral pluralism over moral monism. In K. Gray & J. Graham (Eds.), Atlas of Moral Psychology. New York: Guilford Publications.
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), 1029–1046.
Graham, J., Nosek, B. A., Haidt, J., Iyer, R., Koleva, S., & Ditto, P. H. (2011). Mapping the moral domain. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(2), 366–385.
Gregorich, S. E. (2006). Do Self-Report Instruments Allow Meaningful Comparisons Across Diverse Population Groups? Testing Measurement Invariance Using the Confirmatory Factor Analysis Framework. Medical Care, 44(11), S78–S94.
Haidt, J., & Bjorklund, F. (2008). Social intuitionists answer six questions about moral psychology. In W. Sinnott-Armstrong (Ed.), Moral psychology, Vol 2: The cognitive science of morality: Intuition and diversity (pp. 181–217). Cambridge, Mass: MIT press.
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.
Harper, C. A., & Rhodes, D. (2021). Reanalysing the factor structure of the moral foundations questionnaire. British Journal of Social Psychology, 60(4), 1303–1329.
Iurino, K., & Saucier, G. (2020). Testing Measurement Invariance of the Moral Foundations Questionnaire Across 27 Countries. Assessment, 27(2), 365–372.
Kivikangas, J. M., Fernández-Castilla, B., Järvelä, S., Ravaja, N., & Lönnqvist, J.-E. (2021). Moral foundations and political orientation: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 147(1), 55–94.
Lee, S. T. H. (2018). Testing for Measurement Invariance: Does your measure mean the same thing for different participants? APS Observer, 31(8).
Meindl, P., Iyer, R., & Graham, J. (2019). Distributive Justice Beliefs are Guided by Whether People Think the Ultimate Goal of Society is Well-Being or Power. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 41(6), 359–385.
Tamul, D., Elson, M., Ivory, J. D., Hotter, J. C., Lanier, M., Wolf, J., & Martı́nez-Carrillo, N. I. (2020). Moral Foundations’ Methodological Foundations: A Systematic Analysis of Reliability in Research Using the Moral Foundations Questionnaire.
Yilmaz, O., Harma, M., Bahçekapili, H. G., & Cesur, S. (2016). Validation of the Moral Foundations Questionnaire in Turkey and its relation to cultural schemas of individualism and collectivism. Personality and Individual Differences, 99, 149–154.


  1. For a clear, nontechnical intro to confirmatory factor analysis see Gregorich (2006). (Note that you are not expected to understand this.) ↩︎

  2. See Lee (2018): ‘Ascertaining scalar invariance allows you to substantiate multi-group comparisons of factor means (e.g., t-tests or ANOVA), and you can be confident that any statistically significant differences in group means are not due to differences in scale properties.’ ↩︎

  3. The new foundations are called Care, Equality, Proportionality, Loyalty, Authority and Purity (Atari et al., 2023, p. table 2, 1161). These researchers cite Meindl, Iyer, & Graham (2019) as justifying the distinction between equality and proportionality. I am not confident I understand how these are distinct. ↩︎