Published: Moral Foundations and political orientation

Hogrefe just informed me that my manuscript (together with Jan-Erik Lönnqvist and Niklas Ravaja; manuscript pdf, supplementary material) with the title “Relationship of Moral Foundations to Political Liberalism-Conservatism and Left-Right Orientation in a Finnish Representative Sample” is now available online before publication in Social Psychology. It’s my first published paper on my new topic after changing from game research to moral psych (and emotion psych, but that’s another thing), so I’m happy about that!

It is a short paper, with a rather straightforward point. Although Moral Foundations Theory has been linked to political orientation a lot, it has been based on the US conceptualization of political orientation, which collates the left-right with the liberal-conservative to much higher extent than rest of the (Western) world. The often-repeated original finding is that liberalism is associated mostly with Harm (also called Care) and Fairness (and Liberty, but that’s another story), while conservatism is associated as strongly with Harm and Fairness as it is with Loyalty, Authority, and Purity (also called Sanctity). (In terms of correlations, it means that correlations between MFs and lib-cons are low for Harm and Fairness, because they are associated with both conservatism and liberalism, but high for the other three MFs, as they are only associated with conservatism.) Researchers have used the knowledge of this finding in other countries too, without considering whether it is reasonable to assume that this is true in other political cultures that separate the two dimensions more. My paper uses a representative Finnish sample (instead of a typical student sample) to test the association* between (self-identified) liberalism-conservatism and the five moral foundations separately from the association between left-right orientation and the five moral foundations. Our findings are that while the typical MF/lib-cons -associations are replicated in our sample (see betas in the table below), the left-right dimension has different associations with the MF – namely, Harm and Fairness are mostly (but weakly) correlated with left-orientation, Loyalty and Authority with right-orientation, and Purity is not associated with either. So basically, the finding is that liberal-conservative orientation and left-right orientation are differently related to moral foundations.

Table 2. Standardized regression weights for model Mboth.
 Parameter β 99 % CIs p
Harm .012 [-.086, .122] .053
Fairness -.085 [-.198, .027] .663
Loyalty .409 [.305, .510] <.001
Authority .432 [.327, .525] <.001
Sanctity .581 [.496, .655] <.001
Harm -.208 [-.314, -.105] <.001
Fairness -.147 [-.105, -.045] <.001
Loyalty .197 [.084, .302] <.001
Authority .197 [.097, .293] <.001
Sanctity .061 [-.037, .157] .093
Note. Higher beta indicates higher association of conservative- or right-orientation to the moral foundation.


Practical observations

(In no particular order)

  • The correlation between the orientations was r = .26 [99 % CI = .18, .34]. So although the dimensions are not the same (as it is implicitly assumed in some US-centered discussions), they are not completely independent either (as e.g. political two-dimensional maps used by the media to portray party differences before elections would lead you to believe). Conservatism is still related to right-orientation, and some have hypothesized that this is because the “resistance to change” attitude (theoretically behind conservatism) is aligned with “resistance to equality” attitude (theoretically behind right-wing orientation) in cultures that are inequal.
  • That left-orientation is more related to Fairness should not come as a surprise, as the factor actually has an item explicitly related to the morality of large unearned inheritances. It is a methodological and theoretical question whether this is a problem or not (I think it is), but it means that you can’t make an argument that “see, leftists care more about fairness!” if fairness is partly defined as something that leftists care more about.
  • In the later version of MFT (Haidt 2012, The Righteous Mind), fairness is theoretically less about equality of outcomes and more about proportionality, or law of karma: that everyone gets what they deserve, be it good or bad. This is likely to make it more relevant for conservatives, but it’s not incorporated in the MFQ measure yet.
  • The theoretical addition of liberty – that nobody should not be forced to do anything – would separate between libertarians and tradition-related conservatives, but that’s not part of the measure yet, either.
  • Although the outdated journal publication system forces to focus on one thing and one thing alone, I think the methodological part, partly touched on in the supplementary materials, is also important. I’m still looking into it, but I’m having some doubts about the MFQ as a measure (partly related to what I said above). I should do another blog post about that later.


*) n = 874, which exceeds required sample size to detect a small effect (ρ = .1), assuming a power of 0.80 and an alpha of 0.05. The p-values are not corrected, because this study was a typical half-exploratory study people do in psychology while pretending that we are doing hard confirmatory research, and it would be really difficult to determine afterwards what the appropriate correction would be (I hadn’t awoken to the whole replication/methodology crisis thing at the time of writing this). However, because of the big enough effect sizes that follow what has been found before (in case of lib-cons), and p’s that are not simply bordering the arbitrary .05, I think the results are plausible. I’ll try to write a retrospective post about the researcher degrees of freedom regarding my old papers at some point.

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