The Morality of American Politics: Theory in Action

Philip Barton is a former technology consultant for federal, state, and local government, now writing political commentary and working on his  first novel.    Email:

Philip Barton is a former technology consultant for federal, state, and local government, now writing political commentary and working on his
first novel.


The Moral Foundations Theory provides a way to understand our political differences. It is described in a book by moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt with the fitting title The Righteous Mind, Why Good People Are Divided by Religion and Politics.

Are America’s political leaders moral? Donald Trump? Nancy Pelosi? Mitch McConnell? As the popular saying goes, “the results may surprise you.”

Outline of the Theory

The theory posits that societies have evolved a moral framework that includes the following foundations.

1) Care/Harm - Sensitivity to the suffering of others

2) Fairness/Reciprocity - Reciprocal social interactions and the motivations to be fair and just when working together

3) Ingroup/Loyalty - Promoting in-group cooperation, sacrifice, and trust

4) Authority/Respect - Endorsing social hierarchy

5) Purity/Sanctity - Promoting cleanliness of the soul and body over hedonism

 Virtually everyone has foundations, but the weighting of each differs. In a TED talk, Haidt illustrates how the differences between liberals, moderates, and conservatives can be explained by these moral foundations. Of the nearly 24,000 U.S. participants in the graph below, liberals are shown to value the Harm and Fairness parameters above the others. Conservatives are shown to value all five foundations about equally.


According to this research, conservatives respect authority more than liberals. They maintain allegiance to their group more strongly than liberals, and they more believe in the value of “purity.”

Liberals are more concerned about harm to others than conservatives. They value fair actions more than conservatives. 

The theory identifies each of these five moral values as important in understanding our differences. (Haidt acknowledges that there may be others as well). Those findings provide a partial explanation for the political divide: differences about political issues may be based in large part on different weightings of the same moral foundations.

Having different rankings for the parameters of morality does not make all on the other side evil. The differences between liberals and conservatives are in the weightings, not the values themselves.

Morality is Tied to Each Individual’s Mindset

Morality, ethics, and integrity are often tied closely to each other, yet there are differences. In the case of morality, Haidt’s findings reveal that a person can be acting morally in their own mind, while considered immoral by others.

In the political sphere, a notable example is Mitch McConnell’s refusal to hold hearings on President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. McConnell has said“One of my proudest moments was when I looked Barack Obama in the eye and I said, ‘Mr. President, you will not fill this Supreme Court vacancy.’”

The Senate Majority Leader’s decision appears to be one he believes to be moral, even while loudly protested by others. McConnell had the Authorityto take this action, and it assisted his Ingroup. Those objecting saw Harmto their own Ingroup, and a lack of Fairness.

So what is “moral” can vary from person to person, and can be based on the specific circumstances. While this result does not provide much satisfaction, consideration of ethics and integrity provides further insight.

Ethics and Integrity

“Ethics” is different from “morality” because it involves social norms, that is, what cultures have over time considered to be acceptable behavior. Ethics involves societal rules, both written and unwritten, e.g., codes of conduct, accepted practices, and laws. In contrast, morality refers to an individual’s own conception of right and wrong. So a person who justifies an action as “moral” in their own mind may not be “ethical” within the accepted norms of a larger group or the law.
The additional term, “integrity,” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “firm adherence to a code.” It emphasizes consistency. If you believe that a politician or a preacher or a businessman should be condemned for their lying or hypocrisy or dishonesty, then this should apply to all with that trait, regardless of their political leaning.

However, integrity is in contrast with the concept of “Ingroup,” where one has a tendency to favor those in your group over others. The current mashup of these concepts in current times appears to favor the Ingroup. A liar or manipulator can be defended and supported because they have the “correct” points of view, whereas the perceived flaws of those in an Outgroup are exaggerated and emphasized. So the overall level of integrity in this country—that is, a consistent application of ethical standards—has dropped.

Can the U.S. Move Forward?

The purpose of this article is not to point fingers at any particular politician or party, but to suggest that readers should evaluate all of the parameters of what makes a just society—morality, ethics, and integrity. Politicians lacking in these values undermine our country.

Maintaining the moral foundation of Fairness has become increasingly difficult in today’s politics. A perceived lack of fair play encourages those on the other side to engage in similar tactics, meaning that no one wants to play fair anymore. The Fairness parameter is crippled as a result. 

One way to move forward is for voters to put higher emphasis on our country—all of our country—as a particularly important Ingroup. The U.S. is under a new form of attack by extremists with questionable motives, encouraged by international actors with bad intentions. They have exploited us, heightening hatred to the detriment of a working democracy. The American public should not let them win.

What does America stand for? Is it dishonesty, infighting, and continual stalemates? 

We can watch the strength of our country continue to erode through inability to confront these important national issues, or we can relearn the ability to work together. That relearning will call for a return to reasonable standards of morality, ethics, and integrity. Isn’t that what America should be about?