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This lesson discusses the basic tenets of morality and highlights the six principles of the Moral Foundations Theory and how they are universally accepted.

Moral Foundations Theory

I think it’s pretty safe to say that most preschoolers have never taken a philosophy course on morality.

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However, if you asked them if it’s okay to cheat or disobey your parents, most of them would shake their chubby little heads back and forth. No matter their gender, social status, or nationality, they’d answer no.According to those who study morality, this is because there are basic moral precepts that are universally accepted. To dive into this a bit more, today’s lesson will highlight these moral foundations. Of course, this is a pretty broad topic with lots of differing opinions, so for the sake of time, we’ll focus on the basic principles set forth in the well-known Moral Foundations Theory. According to this theory, there are six universally accepted foundations of morality. No, not everyone lives up to them, but almost all of us know what they are.

Care vs. Harm

The first principle or foundation of morality is that of care versus harm. This is the natural born belief that as humans we should value and care for others. We should seek the good of others. Whether living in Asia or America, most humans inherently believe it is wrong to capriciously dole out harm.

As a mom would say to her toddler, we all just seem to know that we should ‘be nice.’ Those who don’t follow this age old little rebuke are stepping outside the moral parameters of society.

Fairness vs. Cheating

The next principle is fairness versus cheating. Again, pretty simple, we all know we’re supposed to be fair and just. Cheating is bad; being fair is good.

From kids cheating on tests to adults cheating on taxes, we all just inherently seem to recognize it’s a no-no! Of course, this idea of fairness versus cheating does have some situational variations. For instance, a little boy cheating during a pee-wee football game doesn’t carry the same stigma as a professional football player throwing a game.

Liberty vs. Oppression

Our next moral foundation is that of liberty versus oppression. Although things like slavery have definitely gone against this one, it’s the idea that tyrannical oppression is wrong.

Quoting a rather famous document, it’s the inherent belief that all of us deserve a shot at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Sadly, history has proven that humanity has blown the application of this principle many, many times. Despite this, sociologists argue that most of us were born accepting the moral theory that tyranny and oppression are wrong.

Loyalty vs.


Next, we’ll consider loyalty versus betrayal. Building on the fact that humans are social beings, this is the concept of faithfulness to a group. Whether this is a big brother standing up for his little brother or a young marine fighting for his country, we humans seem to be wired to protect our group. To not do so just seems shameful.

Authority vs.


Moving on, we come to authority versus subversion. Putting this one simply, it’s the basic belief that authority is to be respected. It’s the reason most of us obey the law. We don’t think that much about it; it’s just automatic. It’s the reason most of us sit at red lights even when we’re alone on the road, and it’s the reason most of us obeyed our parents. After all, it’s just what you do.

Sanctity vs. Degradation

Our last moral foundation is that of sanctity versus degradation. With sanctity meaning holy or sacred, this is the simple idea that some things are just plain wrong, even disgusting. There are just things you don’t do. For instance, adults don’t hurt children, and family members don’t enter into sexual relationships with one another. To do so is morally reprehensible.

Lesson Summary

The Moral Foundations Theory delineates six universally accepted foundations of morality.

  1. Care versus harm – We should value and care for others.
  2. Fairness versus cheating – Behavior must be fair and just.
  3. Liberty versus oppression – Tyrannical oppression is wrong.
  4. Loyalty versus betrayal – Morality requires faithfulness to a group.
  5. Authority versus subversion – Authority is to be respected.
  6. Sanctity versus degradation – No matter who you are or where you are, some things are just plain wrong, even disgusting.

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