The “Six” Pillars of Morality



necessity of thriving, surviving and reproducing =>

necessity of cooperation and interdependence =>


values of


  1. benefit / harm    
  2. fairness / reciprocity / proportionality / unfairness, cheating, free-riding    
  3. liberty / oppression     
  4. loyalty to in-group / betrayal of in-group    
  5. respect for authority / tradition / subversion    
  6. sanctity / purity / disgust (physical and moral)  


All six can be seen as families of primary values.  

These values fall into two categories:

1 and 2 therefore belong with small groups, and all 6 with large groups, since the interpersonal scene still exists in large groups.  

Political Left and Right – small and large group morality

In his book “The Righteous Mind”, Jonathan Haidt shows that the political left wing currently in the US employ 1, 2 and 3 (with fairness as equality and proportionality), and the political right wing use all 6 (with fairness more as proportionality).  

This fits with an idea that the Left use more small-group morality (egalitarian, personally interdependent, using unconditional love as reciprocity, with personal commitment and loyalty); and the Right use more of large-group morality (impersonal, tit-for-tat [business-like] reciprocity, social norms, loyalty to the group as well as using small-group morality).  It seems that the interest in liberty is more general on the Left, whereas on the Right it represents freedom from government interference.  

See also: unconditional love; stakeholder principle; map of morality; reciprocity




See also:  Moral Universals (Brights)




Universal and local

Since 1 and 2 are interpersonal, they are universal, although they interact with the other foundations.  They evolved when we lived in small groups, before the advent of culture, around 2 million years ago.  

Since 3-6 are cultural, they vary between cultures in the way they are emphasised and carried out.  All of them may vary between individuals or between political or religious persuasions.  These values evolved as a way of cooperating within large groups.  Cultural markings, evidence of large cultural groups, are known from around 150,000 years ago.  

Conceptions of fairness vary widely, but there is always a conception of fairness.  




Multiple moralities

When the individual is making a moral judgement, there will be multiple moral “voices” competing for attention and consideration, from the various families of values.  

Sometimes cultural values may conflict with interpersonal values and human rights.  

see also: circle of concern, cruelty of culture and religion




Evolution of moral foundations

1.  Care / harm

Caring for others is thought to have evolved within the context of child-care in mammals and birds and, evolutionarily, has since become available to be used in any social situation where care is required.  See also:  empathy, targeted helping

This represents the formula “you > me”; “I will check some of my selfish impulses in order to help you”.  

2.  Fairness / cheating

It is thought that sharing, and fairness, evolved in the context of collaborative activities in pairs or small groups of early humans, and the need to reward participants in a satisfactory way (to motivate further cooperation) and exclude free riders.  The interpersonal version of sharing tends to be more equal, while more impersonal business type transactions are generally proportional to effort, merit, skill, etc.  We would expect “need” to be a factor in deservingness in both cases.

Within an interdependent relationship, fairness is based on self-other equivalence (the interchangeability of persons within fixed roles with fixed standards) (“you = me”); mutual respect (between potential partners); and deservingness (of collaborative partners as opposed to free riders).  

3.  Liberty / oppression

According to Jonathan Haidt in his book “The Righteous Mind”, people on the political Left reject authority and tradition and embrace the liberty to pursue one’s own ends; while Right-wing people support freedom from government interference, with Right-wing libertarians also in favour of the liberty to pursue one’s own ends.  

Dominance and oppression are the enemies of fairness, as fairness requires an egalitarian exercise of power in order to function.  

4.  Loyalty to the group / betrayal of group

Group loyalty is the large-scale version of the warm positive regard we feel towards people we depend upon.  We feel affection for the group because we depend on the group to look after us.  Group loyalty is therefore also represented by the formula “you > me”.  

Group loyalty is increased by division of labour, as this increases the interdependence within the group.  

See also:  stakeholder principle

5.  Authority / tradition / subversion

This refers to the “authority of the social order” which is generally “paternalistic” and not oppressive: the strong and high up are supposed to take care of those “below” them in the social order.  Of course, this power difference is sometimes abused, or otherwise unjust or unjustly carried out.  

It can also refer to the obligation to follow social norms, the social contract, which is thought to originate in the context of collaborative agreements between individuals, and the need for partner control and to fulfil ideal role standards, with the threat of a loss of cooperative identity or reputation if one fails in this regard.  This is represented by the formula “we > me”.  

6.  Sanctity / purity / disgust


Oh, that dirty, double-crossin’ rat. I'd like to get my own hooks on him. I’d tear him to pieces.

James Cagney – “Blonde Crazy” (1931)




Haidt, Jonathan – “The Righteous Mind – why good people are divided by politics and religion”

Tomasello, Michael – “A Natural History of Human Morality”

Wikipedia: “Moral Foundations Theory”



See also:  patriarchy