Study shakes foundation of morals’ role in political ideology

Study shakes foundation of morals’ role in political ideology

Kevin Smith
Craig Chandler | University Communications
Kevin Smith

Our morals shape who we are and our interactions with others, but where do they come from and do they shape our attitudes on things like politics?

One popular explanation is Moral Foundations Theory, which suggests that the process we use to decide what is right or wrong is, at least partially, biologically innate.

The theory proposes that moral reasoning is anchored in a handful of psychological systems evolved to deal with the problems of social living. After it was introduced in 2007, Moral Foundations Theory became a common explainer and predictor of political differences between liberals and conservatives.

The notion that ideology might spring from evolved psychological differences in moral reasoning drew the interest of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Kevin Smith, who is widely published in the biological basis of political attitudes and behavior.

“Moral Foundations Theory seemed to be explaining ideology on a biological level and the assumption was that these moral foundations are genetically influenced, heritable traits,” Smith, a professor of political science, said.

Smith set out to show that moral foundations were heritable, stable over time and could predict political ideology – but when he and his colleagues took a closer look, they got a surprise.

“We drove ourselves bonkers looking at the data, but we just didn’t find much evidence of heritability or stability,” Smith said.

What Smith and his co-authors did find suggests that moral foundations are driven more by environment than genetics – and the foundations used as a basis for moral reasoning change from one era to the next. They recently published the findings in the American Journal of Political Science.

The study uses a unique data set examining the moral reasoning of twins over roughly 18 months. In the study, participants’ political ideology was “pretty solid across the almost two-year span of the study, but moral foundations got pushed around a lot more,” Smith said.

The five parts of Moral Foundations Theory are care, or cherishing and protecting others; fairness, as in rendering justice according to shared rules; loyalty, or standing with your group, family, and nation; authority, or obeying tradition and legitimate authority; and purity, or an abhorrence for disgusting things, ideas or foods.

These foundations are prioritized differently in everyone, and studies have found that liberals and conservatives rely on different ones. Liberals often place higher importance on foundations that are relative to individuals: care and fairness; and conservatives usually lean toward the more group-based areas of loyalty, authority and purity.

Unsurprisingly, given the popularity of Moral Foundations Theory – it was the subject of a bestselling book in 2013 – Smith’s results are the subject of debate in research circles. Smith said he welcomed the discussion, and said particular care was taken in analyzing the data given its implications for a widely accepted theory. Also, its results were replicated by the journal.

“If someone came along and showed that Moral Foundations Theory is super-heritable, I’d be really interested to read that and see what they did differently,” Smith said. “I hope more studies are done because these claims need to be kicked around and tested hard.”

Smith said he’s not concerned for the future of Moral Foundations Theory as a general explanation of moral reasoning or of ideology – though the UNL study suggests its evolutionary backstory is not backed by evidence at this point.

“What this would suggest is that your moral intuitions are coming from your social environment and your unique experiences, not evolution,” Smith said. “We went into it thinking that moral foundations are a cause of ideology, and if anything, we found that ideology is a cause of moral foundations.”