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Liberals vs Conservatives

According to Feinberg & Willer (2013, p. 2), ‘liberals and conservatives possess different moral profiles regarding the five moral foundations.’ More specifically, ‘care and fairness are generally negatively, and loyalty, authority, and sanctity, generally positively related to conservative political orientation’ (Kivikangas, Fernández-Castilla, Järvelä, Ravaja, & Lönnqvist, 2021, p. 77). Is this true?

By the end of this section you should understand the evidence for this claim as well as some objections to it.

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In this section we aim to understand and evaluate the third key claim in the argument that cultural differences in moral psychology matter for political conflict over climate change:

‘liberals and conservatives possess different moral profiles regarding the five moral foundations’ (Feinberg & Willer, 2013, p. 2).

What evidence supports this claim?

van Leeuwen & Park (2009) found evidence for this claim with a sample of Dutch students both when political affinity was tested using an explicit question and when it was tested using an implicit measure. And Graham, Haidt, & Nosek (2009) found comparable results with a sample from the USA.

On the basis of a careful meta-analysis of evidence, Kivikangas et al. (2021) conclude that, with some important exceptions noted below,

‘care and fairness are generally negatively, and loyalty, authority, and sanctity, generally positively related to conservative political orientation’ (p. 77).

Further, this result appears broadly robust across different ways of analysing data and different forms of the questionnaire used (Kivikangas et al., 2021, p. 83).

Objection from Cultural Differences

In New Zealand, Davies, Sibley, & Liu (2014, p. 434) found that ‘[a]lthough Harm/care and Fairness/reciprocity showed significant negative correlations with conservatism, these relationships were weak, indicating that these foundations are not related to ideology. [...] the individualizing foundation results are surprising, and different to those found by Graham et al. (2011).’

Davis et al. (2016, p. e29) found evidence from two independent samples that

‘the binding moral foundations would show a weaker relationship with political conservatism in Black people than in White people.’

They conclude that

‘some of the current items may conflate moral foundations with other constructs such as religiosity or racial identity’ (Davis et al., 2016, p. e29).

This conclusion is supported by (Kivikangas et al., 2021)’s meta-analysis:

‘In the representative samples, arguably giving us the least biased estimates for the general population, and its subset of Black respondents, all associations between moral foundations and political orientation were close to zero’ (p. 84).

These findings combined with the (related) failures to find evidence that the Moral Foundations Questionnaire exhibits scalar invariance (see Operationalising Moral Foundations Theory) indicate that we should be cautious in drawing conclusions about cultural differences.

Appendix: Liberal vs Conservative (Emilie’s question)

This section is not part of the spoken lecture.

How can we be sure that the dutch 'liberal' is the same as the 'liberal' the moral psychologists are talking about (possibly US[1]) in the study by van Leeuwen & Park (2009)?

I am unsure what the answer is, but my current understanding is that although we canot be sure, there does seem to be something to the one-dimensional opposition in lots of places.

It’s important that the claim is about socially liberal vs socially conservative. (If we were talking about economic views, the picture would be much more complex.[2])

The moral psychologists do take themselves to be talking about a dimension that is found across the world. For example:

'Whereas in the US, the political divide is between “liberals” and “conservatives” (or Democrats and Republicans), both the substance of political divides and the terms used to describe them vary across cultural contexts (Malka et al., 2014). However, research suggests that the liberal–conservative divide on social issues in particular manifests in similar ways across cultures (e.g., Feinberg, Wehling, Chung, Saslow, & Melvær Paulin, 2019; Graham et al., 2011)' (Feinberg & Willer, 2019, p. footnote 1).

Do the references they cite here support these assertions?

As far as I can tell, Graham et al. (2011) depend on the assumption that the socially liberal-socially conservative distinction works in roughly the same way across many countries; in this sense it may provide indirect evidence (if this assumption was false, they shouldn’t have been able to get significant results). Feinberg, Wehling, Chung, Saslow, & Paulin (2020, p. Study 4a) compares earlier findings from a US sample of participants with studies of people in Austria, France and Germany. Again, this seems to depend on the assumption that (in their words) ‘the same conservative-liberal divisions found in the United States are common in countries across the world’ (Feinberg et al., 2020, p. 790) and so provides at most indirect evidence for it.

Those authors do cite Bornschier (2010) in support of this assumption. This is a study which covers multiple countries with relevantly different histories (but not the US). I don’t fully understand this research (yet), but my sense is that it provides one method to identify how robust the idea of a divide between socially liberal and socially conservative is. It also has some very clear figures.

Appendix: Objection from a Competing Theory

This section is not part of the spoken lecture.

A competing view is offered by Gray, Young, & Waytz (2012) and developed in later publications by these authors. I do not recommend studying this view, nor do I not include it in the lecture. My own sense is that their view is not well supported (as always, I am happy to learn otherwise from you). I include it in these notes because you may encounter responses to this view if you read some of the literature on Moral Foundations Theory.

Gray et al. (2012) propose that ‘all morality is understood through the lens of harm.’ This leads them to the hypothesis that ‘harm is central in moral cognition across moral diversity for both liberals and conservatives’ (Schein & Gray, 2015, p. 1158). They offer evidence which, they claim, is ‘more consistent with a common dyadic template than with a specific number of distinct moral mechanisms that are differentially expressed across liberals and conservatives’ (Schein & Gray, 2015, p. 1158).

Note that this requires working with a particularly broad conception of harm:

‘loyalty, purity, industriousness, and social order [...] are best understood as “transformations” or “intermediaries” of harm, values whose violation leads to perceptions of concrete harm’ (Schein & Gray, 2018).

My guess is that this is more likely to capture how some people think in abstract terms (but see Crone & Laham (2015) for counter evidence) than to capture the psychological structure of ethical abilities.

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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 et al., 2009; Graham et al., 2011). Some empirical objections have been offered (Davis et al., 2016; Davis, Dooley, Hook, Choe, & McElroy, 2017; Doğruyol, Alper, & Yilmaz, 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.


Bolderdijk, J. W., Steg, L., Geller, E. S., Lehman, P. K., & Postmes, T. (2013). Comparing the effectiveness of monetary versus moral motives in environmental campaigning. Nature Climate Change, 3(4), 413–416.
Bornschier, S. (2010). The New Cultural Divide and the Two-Dimensional Political Space in Western Europe. West European Politics, 33(3), 419–444.
Crone, D. L., & Laham, S. M. (2015). Multiple moral foundations predict responses to sacrificial dilemmas. Personality and Individual Differences, 85, 60–65.
Davies, C., Sibley, C., & Liu, J. (2014). Confirmatory Factor Analysis of the Moral Foundations Questionnaire: Independent Scale Validation in a New Zealand Sample. Social Psychology, 45(6), 431–436.
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.
Duckitt, J., & Sibley, C. G. (2009). A dual process motivational model of ideological attitudes and system justification. Social and Psychological Bases of Ideology and System Justification, 292–313.
Feinberg, M., Wehling, E., Chung, J., Saslow, L., & Paulin, I. M. (2020). Measuring Moral Politics: How Strict and Nurturant Family Values Explain Individual Differences in Conservatism, Liberalism, and the Political Middle. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 118(4), 777–804.
Feinberg, M., & Willer, R. (2013). The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes. Psychological Science, 24(1), 56–62.
Feinberg, M., & Willer, R. (2019). Moral reframing: A technique for effective and persuasive communication across political divides. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 13(12), e12501.
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.
Gray, K., Young, L., & Waytz, A. (2012). Mind Perception Is the Essence of Morality. Psychological Inquiry, 23(2), 101–124.
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.
Hornsey, M. J., & Fielding, K. S. (2020). Understanding (and Reducing) Inaction on Climate Change. Social Issues and Policy Review, 14(1), 3–35.
Hornsey, M. J., Harris, E. A., Bain, P. G., & Fielding, K. S. (2016). Meta-analyses of the determinants and outcomes of belief in climate change. Nature Climate Change, 6(6), 622–626.
Jost, J. T., Federico, C. M., & Napier, J. L. (2009). Political ideology: Its structure, functions, and elective affinities. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 307–337.
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.
Malka, A., Soto, C., Inzlicht, M., & Lelkes, Y. (2014). Do Needs for Security and Certainty Predict Cultural and Economic Conservatism? A Cross-National Analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106(6), 1031–1051.
Schein, C., & Gray, K. (2015). The Unifying Moral Dyad: Liberals and Conservatives Share the Same Harm-Based Moral Template. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(8), 1147–1163.
Schein, C., & Gray, K. (2018). The Theory of Dyadic Morality: Reinventing Moral Judgment by Redefining Harm. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 22(1), 32–70.
Severson, A. W., & Coleman, E. A. (2015). Moral Frames and Climate Change Policy Attitudes*. Social Science Quarterly, 96(5), 1277–1290.
van Leeuwen, F., & Park, J. H. (2009). Perceptions of social dangers, moral foundations, and political orientation. Personality and Individual Differences, 47(3), 169–173.


  1. van Leeuwen & Park (2009, p. 169) do indeed rely on research using US samples as background on political identity. Jost, Federico, & Napier (2009)’s authoritative review of the one-dimensional liberal-conservative model of political identity (which they do not cite) covers much of the background they are relying on. This review is entirely focussed on the US. It also does not discuss whether a single model of political identity works equally well across different ethnic groups. ↩︎

  2. To illustrate, Malka, Soto, Inzlicht, & Lelkes (2014, p. 1034) notes that ’Eastern European nations formerly subjected to communist rule sometimes show relations between high levels of NSC [needs for security and certainty] characteristics [which are associated with socially conservative views] and left-wing economic preferences.‘ See also Duckitt & Sibley (2009), who propose that different processes underpin social and economic aspects of political identity. ↩︎