Examining the Differences in the Moral Foundations of Liberals and Conservatives

Liberals and conservatives have different moral foundations, according to research published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2009.

The research was conducted by Jesse Graham, Jonathan Haidt, and Brain A. Nosek of the University of Virginia.

Graham and his colleagues conducted four separate studies to investigate the relationship between people’s political affiliation and their moral foundations.

The moral foundation theory developed by Graham and his colleagues consists of five main moral foundations: Harm – caring for and not hurting others, Fairness – equality and reciprocity, Ingroup – loyalty to one’s group, Authority – respect for leadership, and Purity – the sanctity of social norms and customs.

The first two of the four studies were composed of a total of 3,825 participants from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Argentina. These participants completed a survey in which their political affiliation was compared to their ratings of the relevance of the five moral foundations discussed above.

These two studies found that liberals tended to be more concerned with the moral foundations of Harm and Fairness than conservatives, while conservatives tended to be more concerned with the moral foundations of Ingroup, Authority, and Purity than liberals.

The third study was composed of 8,193 participants from all across the globe and examined the “moral trade-offs” that liberals and conservatives were willing to make.

In this study, the participants were given a survey that asked them how much money they would need to be paid in order to perform a number of sordid tasks. The choices for the participants included, “I’d do it for free”, $10, $100, $10,000, $100,000, $1,000,000, and “never for any amount of money.”

“Fairness violations were considered the most taboo overall, with people across the political spectrum choosing responses whose average was closest to a million dollars,” noted Graham and his colleagues.

Liberals typically refused to make trade-offs concerning the moral foundations of Harm and Fairness, but were less likely to refuse to make a trade-off concerning the moral foundations of Ingroup, Authority, and Purity.

Conservatives, on the other hand, did not appear to be more willing to make a trade-off for one moral foundation than another. They were as likely (or unlikely) to make a trade-off concerning Harm or Fairness as they were for Ingroup, Authority or Purity.

This difference, as the authors of the study explain, may be due to the difference between the rules liberals and conservatives employ to judge morality.

“Liberals generally justify moral rules in terms of their consequences for individuals; they are quite accustomed to balancing competing interests and to fine-tuning social institutions to maximize their social utility. Conservatives, in contrast, are more likely to respect rules handed down by God (for religious conservatives) or from earlier generations.”

Unlike studies one and two, this third study also included libertarians as a potential political affiliation, who were more likely to violate the five moral foundations for money than either liberals or conservatives.

Interestingly, although libertarians are often viewed as being similar to conservatives, the difference between libertarians and conservatives was greater than the difference between liberals and conservatives.

“Libertarians may support the Republican Party for economic reasons, but in their moral foundations profile we found that they more closely resembled liberals than conservatives,” as Graham and his colleagues explain.

In the fourth and final study, Graham and his colleagues examined the use of words in 103 Christian sermons from the Unitarian Universalist and Sourthern Baptist demonimations.

“Unitarians, known for their political liberalism, talk more often about issues of Harm and Fairness than do Baptist preachers. Baptists, in contrast, talk more about Authority and Purity than do Unitarians.”

In summary, the four studies suggest than liberals tend to be most concerned with the moral foundations of Harm and Fairness and less concerned with the moral foundations of Ingroup, Authority, and Purity.

Conservatives, on the other hand, appear to be equally concerned with all five moral foundations.

Although it may appear that conservatives are “more moral” than liberals because they have an equal concern with all the moral foundations, as Graham and his colleagues note, these moral foundations are two-edge swords. The moral foundation of Authority, for instance, can lead to prudent discipline or blind obedience.

“These findings help explain why liberals and conservatives disagree on so many moral issues and often find it hard to understand how an ethical person could hold the beliefs of the other side: Liberals and conservatives base their moral values, judgments, and arguments on different configurations of the five foundations.”


Graham, J., Haidt, J. & Nosek, B.A. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 96, No. 5: 1029–1046.