Intuitive Ethics and Political Orientations: Testing Moral Foundations as a Theory of Political Ideology


  • We thank Soad Hancock and Anjali Henders for project coordination, and David Smyth for database management. Most of all, we thank the twins and their family members for participation in the study. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation (0729493,0721707).


Originally developed to explain cultural variation in moral judgments, moral foundations theory (MFT) has become widely adopted as a theory of political ideology. MFT posits that political attitudes are rooted in instinctual evaluations generated by innate psychological modules evolved to solve social dilemmas. If this is correct, moral foundations must be relatively stable dispositional traits, changes in moral foundations should systematically predict consequent changes in political orientations, and, at least in part, moral foundations must be heritable. We test these hypotheses and find substantial variability in individual-level moral foundations across time, and little evidence that these changes account for changes in political attitudes. We also find little evidence that moral foundations are heritable. These findings raise questions about the future of MFT as a theory of ideology.

Replication Materials: The data, code, and any additional materials required to replicate all analyses in this article are available on the American Journal of Political Science Dataverse within the Harvard Dataverse Network, at: