Why Moral Foundations Theory is Flawed

The intention of this article is to identify the ways in which Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundation Theory is flawed. Prior to doing so, I will offer the premises and conclusion that I will build upon to identify the correct source of our objective moral grounding: God.

  1. If humanity has universal, objective moral values and obligations to do what’s right, there must be a universal source of righteousness that transcends generations.
  2. Humanity has universal, objective moral values and obligations to do what’s right.
  3. There is a universal and transcendent source of righteousness: God.

I define objective moral values as values about what’s good or bad, while objective moral obligations are duties regarding what’s right or wrong (c.f., Craig, 2008; 2010). To say they are objective is to say they do not vary as a function of anyone’s opinion.

Using the moral realism perspective, Hopster (2017, p. 764) further explains objectivity in morality. “Consider the claim that the Earth revolves around the sun: this claim is true, it states a fact, and this truth or fact is fully independent of what any agent thinks or feels about it. Similarly, moral realists maintain that moral truths or facts are fully independent of the attitudes of any agent.” Similarly, Street (2006) argued there are objective, “stance-independent” moral truths.

Support for premise #2

Multiple global studies have provided support for premise #2. A sampling follows.

Dahlsgaard, Peterson and Seligman (2005) examined the ancient texts from eight religious traditions (Christianity, Judaism, Athenian philosophy, Taoism, Confucianism, Islam, and Hinduism). The authors found six recurrent values: courage, temperance, justice, transcendence, humanity, and wisdom. They defined courage as emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, external or internal. Examples include bravery, perseverance, and authenticity (honesty). They defined justice as civic strengths that underlie healthy community life. Examples include fairness, leadership, and citizenship or teamwork. They defined humanity as interpersonal strengths that involve “tending and befriending” others with the examples of love and kindness. They defined temperance as strengths that protect against excess with examples of forgiveness, humility, prudence and self-control. They define wisdom as cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge. Examples included creativity, curiosity, judgment and providing counsel to others. They defined transcendence as strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and thereby provide meaning. Examples included gratitude, hope, and spirituality.

Other global studies have found similarly. In a survey using psychological, historical, juridical, theological, and ethnographical research, Westermarck (1906) identified universals in the approval of honesty, charity, mutual aid, and generosity, along with the prohibition of theft and homicide. Henrich and colleagues (2005) examined fifteen societies, finding that fairness and trust were exhibited in all. In multiple studies of hundreds of samples in eighty-two countries and representing culturally diverse people of varying ages, genders, occupations, and geographies, Schwartz (2012, p. 17) drew a conclusion that he considered “astonishing.” After ranking ten values in order of importance, results indicated universals in values. The vast majority ranked benevolence as the #1 and the most important value, followed by universalism and self-direction.

Along similar lines, Kinnear, Kernes, and Dautheribes (2000) consulted the religious texts and sacred writings of seven major world religions (Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Judaism, and Islam) to identify whether any universals could be identified. They further consulted atheist and humanist organizations, along with the United Nations. They found these commonalities:

Commitment to something greater than oneself

  • To recognize the existence of and be committed to a Supreme Being, higher principle, transcendent purpose or meaning to one’s existence
  • To seek the truth (or truths)
  • To seek justice

Self-respect, but with humility, self-discipline, and acceptance of personal responsibility

  • To respect and care for oneself
  • To not exalt oneself or overindulge – to show humility and avoid gluttony, greed, or other forms of selfishness or self-centeredness
  • To act in accordance with one’s conscience and to accept responsibility for one’s behavior

Respect and caring for others (i.e., the Golden Rule)

  • To recognize the connectedness between all people
  • To serve humankind and to be helpful to individuals
  • To be caring, respectful, compassionate, tolerant, and forgiving of others
  • To not hurt others (e.g., do not murder, abuse, steal from, cheat, or lie to others)

Caring for other living things and the environment

Psychologists Haidt and Joseph (2004) surveyed evolutionary theories about human and primate sociality, along with lists of virtues and taxonomies of morality from psychology and anthropology to moral concerns or virtues that were shared widely across cultures. They established five “foundations” of morality: care/harm, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority, and purity/sanctity.  Graham, Haidt and Nosek (2009) identified political variations in the attention to the five foundations. People considered more liberal on the political spectrum were primarily concerned with care/harm and fairness/reciprocity, while more conservative individuals drew more evenly across all five foundations.

What grounds our objective moral values and duties?

Jonathan Haidt often makes the claim that the five aforementioned values are the “innate” foundations, or grounding, of our morality. He uses “social intuition theory” to make the claim that our moral intuitions about these values guide our reasoning. This argument is missing the mark. I would argue that our intuitions and reasoning are guided by our conscience. Our conscience is the foundation upon which our intuitions and reasoning are driven. Our intuitions inform our reasoning, which in turn inform our intuitions, which in turn inform reasoning. These mechanisms are part of the learning process, yet the process is driven by our conscience. When we align our intuitions and reasoning to our conscience, our very nature is closer in alignment with our Maker. Our Maker is the source of our conscience and the reason why we have a conscience. We are made in His image, which is why one of the unique features of our species is that we have a moral code and a conscience.

Some might argue that our intuitions are our conscience, but the two are distinct. Imagine yourself on the edge of a pond. You witness an alligator that grabs a little boy and drags him into the pond. Your intuitions are to protect yourself to stay alive for your family. You feel the strong intuitions to run and save yourself from the alligator. Fight or flight. You’ve been hard-wired to run away. Your intuitions are in “survival mode.” Yet your conscience calls on you to rescue the little boy. Your conscience is at a higher level than your intuitions, similar to Maslow’s self-actualization mode. Your conscience calls on you to risk your life to save the life of another.

Christian Synderesis

My idea is not new. Consider Christian Synderesis. Zollo, Pellegrini and Ciappei (2017) identified the importance of bridging the gap between intuitive and emotional processes (moral intuitions) with conscious and rational processes (moral reasoning) to explain ethical decision-making. They related moral intuitions to Kantian universalism and moral reasoning to utilitarian ethics.

“Despite the different sophistications of the utilitarian approach, a common element of all these theories is that the agent is rational and able to evaluate the situation and its outcome. Definitely, such requisites are not met by talking about intuition, especially the ability to forecast and choose the preferable outcomes. Conversely, universalism imposes that every act is performed according to general and transcendental moral principles (Kant, Foundations of the metaphysics of morals, ed. orig. 1785; 1959)” (Zollo et al., 2017, p. 695).

The authors used an influential Christian moral social doctrine, Synderesis, to bridge the gap between the two viewpoints. Synderesis is “an innate human habit that fosters moral judgment and triggers the virtue of practical reason” (Zollo et al., 2017, p. 682). Synderesis is the “correct habit that regulates intuition due to its innate nature and it is present in every individual.” (Zollo, Pellegrini and Ciappei, 2017, p. 690).

In Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas referred to Synderesis as the law of our mind, which is an awareness or understanding of the principles of human actions. Practical reasoning moves one from awareness of the principles to conclusions on actions or decisions. Conscience then forms a judgment on whether the actions or decisions are in alignment with one’s moral nature, whether they are right or wrong.

Using the popular “being” versus “doing” mode, consider that our conscience and intuitions are steeped within our nature, or being. Our reasoning (or goal-setting) is steeped in actions, or doing. Accordingly, grounding our morality in our reasoning (c.f., consequentialism, utilitarianism, the moral value itself) is flawed. It equates with establishing the goal or the value – and then saying the goal or value is also the source, or foundation of the goal or value. The argument is circular. To put it another way, setting a goal is an act, or “doing,” while the grounding is “being.” One cannot conflate the two. Doing focuses on the impersonal external world and the act of setting a goal or getting something done. Being focuses on what’s internal and personal to us, intrinsic to our very nature.

Speaking of nature

At this point in the argument, people who support the notion of unquided evolution would likely assert that our social development and heritable traits explain our objective moral values and duties to do what’s right. Yet even psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt and Stephen Pinker acknowledge the category error (Haidt, 2012; Osman & Weigmann, 2017). Haidt stated explicitly that his book was never meant to be prescriptive. It is only descriptive. Descriptive can only explain what is, while prescriptive explains what should be. Science does not have an explanation for why we know we should follow the Golden Rule. Science does not have an explanation for our origins either. It cannot explain why we all seek meaning and purpose in our lives. It can not speak to why we feel compelled to do other behaviors that might jeopardize our survival, such as risk one’s life to rescue another. The Bible answers those questions.  Thank God.

The bottom line is we have universal moral values and duties to do what’s right – and their grounding is not explained in biology. Biology can only explain “what is” in nature and not “what ought to be.” Yet our conscience compels us to “do what’s right.” Our moral prescriptions (in “what ought to be” and “what’s right”) are informed by our conscience. God is the source of our conscience and of our objective moral values and duties. Nature is an insufficient explanation. Matter does not precede the mind. Mind precedes matter.


Craig, W.L. (2008). Reasonable Faith: Christian truth and apologetics. Wheaton, IL: Crossway.

Craig, W.L. (2010). On Guard: Defending your faith with reason and precision. Colorado Springs, Co.: David C. Cook.

Dahlsgaard, K., Peterson, C. & Seligman, M.E.P. (2005). Shared virtue: The convergence of valued human strengths across culture and history. Review of General Psychology, 9(3): 203-213.

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., Haidt, J., Koleva, S., Motyl, M., Iyer, R., Wojcik, S., & Ditto, P. H. (2013). Moral foundations theory: The pragmatic validity of moral pluralism. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 55–130. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-407236-7.00002-4

Haidt, J., & Joseph, C. (2004). Intuitive ethics: How innately prepared intuitions generate culturally variable virtues. Daedalus: Special Issue on Human Nature, 133(4), 55–66.

Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York, NY: Vintage.

Henrich, M.D., Boyd, R. Bowles, S., Camerer, C., Fehr, E., Gintis, H., McElreath, R., Alvard, M.,…Tracer, D. (2005). ‘Economic Man’ in cross-cultural perspective: Behavioral experiments in 15 small-scale societies. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28(6): 795-855.

Hopster, J. (2017). Two accounts of moral objectivity: from attitude independence to standpoint invariance. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 20: 763-780.

Osman, M. & Wiegmann, W. (2017). Explaining moral behavior: A minimal moral model. Experimental Psychology, 64 (2), 68-81.

Street, S. (2006). A Darwinian dilemma for realist theories of value. Philosophical Studies, 127(1),109–166.

Westermarck, E.A. (1906). The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas. London, England: Macmillan.

Zollo, L., Pellegrini, M.M., and Ciappei, C.  (2017). What sparks ethical decision making? The interplay between moral intuition and moral reasoning. Lessons from the Scholastic Doctrine. Journal of Business Ethics, 145, 681-700.


11 Replies to “Why Moral Foundations Theory is Flawed”

    1. Consider the two premises and the conclusion. That’s the basic argument. I offered support for the 2nd premise and stated that the SOURCE of our universal and objective moral values and duties to do what’s right must ALSO transcend people, generations, and cultures.


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