The Five Pillars of Morality: Which Ones Support You?

MoralityMost of us average people think of ourselves as being moral. Don’t you agree? I mean would any of you say, “Yep, I’m an immoral person!” Of course not. (I do exclude from this average population hardened criminals, sociopaths, and psychopaths who very well may proudly admit to being immoral.) So our tendency is to consider ourselves moral and not immoral.

Our ability to use language and tools to our advantage distinguishes us from other animals, but it’s morality and our capacity for virtuous behavior that make us human. Only people are capable of making moral decisions. Not that every one of us uses that capacity.

But have you ever thought about why you are a moral person? Have you ever wondered how those virtuous traits of yours developed over time?

Two researches at the University of Virginia, Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham, have been collecting data and writing about these very questions for years.

According to their research, human beings have five natural tendencies, or intuitions, through which they instinctively develop moral values. These intuitions are the same cross-culturally and through time.

Before describing these five foundational pillars of morality (as I call them here because it works with my drawing!), I think it useful to define some terms. Morality concerns itself with distinguishing among human behaviors that are right and wrong and good and bad. Virtue, as a collective noun, is excellent moral conduct or behavior that exhibits high moral standards. As a singular noun, a virtue is a trait or personal quality deemed of high moral value. One who is virtuous uses high moral standards to help discern between right and wrong, good and bad. An action has value, in the same way an object has value. An action can have high value, considered good, and low value, considered bad. As I’ll describe in a later post, there is not always agreement about what actions have high and low value.

Haight and Graham’s five pillars of morality are:

Harm/care: When there is potential for harm, people care. It begins with a mother’s instinct to care for her offspring and extends throughout the whole of society. Behaviors within this foundation are virtuous acts of kindness and compassion toward those who are, or may be, harmed. Conversely, acts of cruelty and aggression may be directed toward those who cause harm.

Fairness/reciprocity: This pillar is justice. Throughout history people have had the need to form alliances and work together to meet common goals. With alliances come not only the positive emotion of gratitude for when things go well, but the negative emotions of anger and guilt when they don’t. Justice is the concept of moral rightness and is the mechanism that attempts to maintain a reciprocal balance between the positive and negative.

Ingroup/loyalty: Human beings have the tendency to form groups and be loyal to them. People easily recognize, trust, and cooperate with others within the group. Betrayers of the group are despised as are those who don’t come to the group’s aid. Those outside the group are viewed with caution and even suspicion.

Authority/respect: Human communities are hierarchically structured, and values have evolved where people respect and admire those who have roles of authority and leadership.

Purity/sanctity: People have an innate disgust for what is unclean, that is, disease-ridden. It’s easy to see how corpses, vomit, feces, rats and other animals that carry disease would elicit disgust. Historically, disgust with (and the resulting avoidance of) these things bettered society’s chances of survival. Conversely, that which is clean and pure has high value and may even be sanctified.

Do you see any of these traits in yourself? Where do you think they came from? Are they equally strong, or are some more prominent than others?

As I show next, not everyone has equal doses of these intuitions. In fact, according to Haidt and Graham, there is a strong correlation between the distribution of these intuitions within an individual and whether that person is liberal or conservative.