Tag Archives: Jonathan Haidt

Vaccination passions


Vaccination seems to arouse stronger emotions than most other controversial issues. Jonathan Haidt’s research on the foundations of morality can help explain why.

When I started studying the Australian vaccination controversy several years ago, I was struck by the incredible passions aroused by the issue.

It is not a surprise that campaigners are committed and emotional – that was to be expected. I have studied other controversies, such as nuclear power and fluoridation, in which leading campaigners are personally invested in the issues. In the 1980s, the movement against nuclear war stimulated some fierce emotions: the future of humanity was at stake! (And still is.)

Vaccination is not as earth-shattering as nuclear war, but nonetheless evokes incredibly strong emotions. When acquaintances learn about my studies, many of them have asked me why this is so. I usually say I don’t really know, commenting that maybe it has to do with children’s health.

Both sides in the debate about vaccination put children’s health as their number one priority. They just draw different conclusions.

Supporters of vaccination say it is vital that every child be vaccinated (except for those for whom this is medically unwise) to create “herd immunity”, the protection for the population created when levels of immunity are high enough that an infectious agent cannot easily spread.

Critics of vaccination point to the risks of vaccination itself – it causes adverse reactions in a small percentage of children – and discount the importance of herd immunity, instead citing the importance of good nutrition, a healthy lifestyle and natural immunity acquired by contracting diseases.

There are other potential threats to children’s health, such as pesticides, x-rays, junk food, backyard swimming pools and parental violence. Nuclear war would harm children, to be sure, and continued global warming would be a major threat to the lives of future generations. However, vaccination is more personal: it involves a tangible intervention. Proponents can point to horror stories of deaths and disabilities from whooping cough, meningococcal and other infectious diseases, while critics can point to horror stories of adverse reactions to vaccines.

War – bad for children

The rider and the elephant

Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind offers additional insights into why the vaccination issue can be so polarising. Haidt doesn’t address vaccination, nor indeed any other such controversial public issue, but his ideas are relevant. (See also my previous comments about Haidt’s work, as applied to whistleblowing and deliberative democracy.)

Haidt, like many other psychologists, subscribes to the picture of the human mind as having two aspects or components. One is slow, logical, contemplative and careful. This rational component of the mind Haidt calls the “rider”. The other component of the mind is fast, intuitive and judgemental. Haidt calls this component the “elephant”. He argues, provocatively, that humans are largely driven by their elephants, namely the intuitive sides to their minds. The primary function of the rider, namely the rational side of the mind, is to come up with logical-sounding explanations for the judgements made by the elephant.

Elephant and Rider

This certainly fits what I’ve observed in the vaccination debate. Most people have made up their minds, and it doesn’t matter what evidence is provided. They just ignore what is unwelcome and come up with arguments to justify their positions. This helps explain why the debate never seems to progress: the elephants hold sway and the riders are active in justifying the paths chosen by their elephants.

Only rarely do I meet someone who is undecided and who wants to hear both sides of the argument and ponder the issue before making a judgement.

The foundations of morality

Haidt’s special contribution concerns the biological foundations of morality. Citing a wide variety of research and ingenious experiments, he identifies six values that seem fundamental to people’s views of right and wrong: care, liberty, fairness, authority, loyalty and sanctity.


Haidt is especially interested in how these foundations of morality affect debates over politics and religion in the US. He discovered that libertarians, who oppose government regulations and support a free market, rely mostly on the value of liberty. He says that US liberals (who might be called progressives elsewhere), who support government interventions to assist the poor and disadvantaged, rely especially on the value of care, with liberty and fairness as additional influential values. He finds that US conservatives rely more equally on all six foundations.

This analysis helps explain why US people with different political orientations often seem to be talking past each other. What drives them is different. Their elephants are taking different paths, based on different intuitive moral judgements, and their riders give rational reasons to justify their choices. In this circumstance, rational analysis is, for most people, a sideshow that affects little.

Vaccination and morality

The six foundations of morality have obvious relevance to the vaccination issue. First consider care, something important for both liberals and conservatives. The morality of care derives, in evolutionary terms, from parents caring for their children. Groups of early humans with an innate commitment to protect and care for their own children were more likely to survive. In this sense, care is a fundamental aspect of most people’s sense of right and wrong: it is right to protect children and wrong to allow any harm come to them.


Wanting to protect children is intuitive and doesn’t need to be taught. So it is easy to see why vaccination can arouse such passions: it is about care for children.

But the limitation of Haidt’s analysis, at least when applied to vaccination, is that it doesn’t say how the value of care can come to be applied in different ways. It is straightforward to feed a hungry child or to protect a child from a threatening animal. However, vaccination is not such a simple matter.

Supporters of vaccination see children as the prime beneficiaries. Critics see vaccination as a possible danger. They both appeal to care, but have come to different conclusions about how to achieve it.

Supporters point to the dangers of infectious diseases such as measles and chickenpox. Critics point to the dangers of adverse reactions to vaccines. Pointing to the role of the morality of care helps explain why the passions around vaccination are so strong, but does not explain differences in attitudes towards it.

In part this can be due to personal experience. Some children contract infectious diseases and suffer seriously from them, or even die. Parents, other relatives and friends see this and may be influenced to support vaccination. Other children suffer adverse reactions to vaccines; their parents, other relatives and friends may be influenced to oppose vaccination.

Other aspects of morality are also relevant. Liberty is a value based around personal autonomy and resistance to overbearing rule. In evolutionary terms, according to Haidt, it derives from the value to groups of subordinates ganging up on any individual who assumes too much power. When vaccination is pushed on people, for example through mandatory vaccination of soldiers or health workers or through financial penalties for not vaccinating, this may trigger resistance in those for whom liberty is a key moral foundation.

Authority, as a moral value, means accepting the prevailing systems of hierarchy and leadership. When governments, health departments and doctors support vaccination, this invokes the moral foundation of authority.


Haidt says that conservatives are more likely to have authority as a key moral driver. However, this does not seem to fit the pattern for vaccination policy, given that many of the doctors and researchers promoting vaccination are “liberal” in Haidt’s sense. Still, it makes sense to say that vaccination gains support through the authority response in those for whom this moral foundation is salient.

Another moral foundation is sanctity. Disgust is one emotional response to a violation of the sense of sanctity or purity. Many people feel intuitively that certain practices are disgusting, for example incest or eating food that has fallen on the floor – even when the floor is perfectly clean. If that doesn’t disgust you, consider eating food that has fallen into a just-cleaned toilet. Sanctity, like the other foundations, is driven by the elephant, and people sometimes cannot give a logical justification for their reactions.

Some critics of vaccination may see the body as a sacred object that, when healthy, should not be assaulted by any medical intervention. If so, this can help explain their conscientious objection to vaccination. However, sanctity has declining relevance in societies like the US and Australia, where attitudes to personal behaviour have changed dramatically over recent decades.


To more fully understand how emotional reactions shape people’s views on vaccination would require research. Examining the role of the six foundations for morality elucidated by Jonathan Haidt is a promising basis for investigation. Each of the six foundations – care, liberty, fairness, authority, loyalty and sanctity – could play a role. However, the way that each of these values actually maps onto a person’s position on vaccination is not automatic, and may be influenced by personal experiences as well as the views of family and friends. This may be a fruitful area for study precisely because the passions are so great.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Don Eldridge for helpful comments on a draft.

Politics and morals


Jonathan Haidt has analysed the moral foundations of people’s political orientations. To fully explain people’s political allegiances, attention also needs to be given to the ‘tactics of assignment’. Proponents of deliberative democracy can learn from studying moral foundations.


Jonathan Haidt is a psychologist who has investigated the foundations of people’s morality. In his engaging and pathbreaking book The Righteous Mind, he draws on a wide range of evidence to argue that morality has six main foundations: care, fairness, liberty, authority, loyalty and sanctity. Previously I commented on how this framework applies to whistleblowing.


            The ‘care’ foundation means caring for others, an extension of the instinct to care for children, necessary in human evolution for the survival of groups. Care in a contemporary political context means concern for those who need assistance, such as people who are poor, disabled or abused. This care foundation inspires support for government welfare services such as unemployment payments.

Haidt applies his framework to US citizens, with a surprising conclusion. He finds that libertarians rely especially on single foundation, liberty, which means opposition to domination. Libertarians oppose government controls, and taken to extremes this leads to surprising conclusions: they may oppose drug laws, environmental regulations and even taxation. A principled libertarian trusts in individuals and markets to solve social problems.

Liberals in the US – which might be called progressives or leftists elsewhere – draw heavily on three moral foundations: care, fairness and liberty, with care as their foremost value.

Finally there are US conservatives. The more a person follows a conservative line, in Haidt’s assessment, the more likely they are to rely on all six moral foundations in roughly equal measure. Conservatives are influenced by authority, loyalty and sanctity more than are libertarians and liberals.

One measure of where you stand on the liberal-conservative continuum is openness to new experiences. If you are stimulated by new foods, new ideas and people from different cultures, you are likely to be at the liberal end of the spectrum. Haidt notes that within universities, liberals greatly outnumber conservatives.


One important consequence of differences in moral foundations is that people do not fully understand what drives others. Unless you realise that libertarians prioritise liberty in their assessments of right and wrong, it can be hard to figure out how they come to their judgements.

Haidt has a message for liberals: conservatives have an advantage in political engagements. Conservatives, drawing more equally on all six moral foundations, can understand where others are coming from. However, liberals, emphasising just three foundations, cannot as easily understand the passions of conservatives, because for liberals the roles of authority, loyalty and sanctity are less salient.

A conservative, for example, may react viscerally to the act of defacing the American flag. This is a violation of a sense of sacredness that underpins emotional responses and consequently shapes viewpoints. A liberal might think, ‘it’s just a piece of cloth, so what’s the big deal?’ The liberal simply does not rate stamping on a flag (a violation of sanctity) as anywhere comparable to stamping on a person’s body (a violation of care).


Haidt says there is something to learn from conservatives, for example the value of traditions. More generally, he argues that politics needs to be based on mutual understanding. In particular, liberals need to better understand what drives conservatives so that each of them can move beyond pointless arguments that are based on deeply felt, but sometimes unrecognised, emotional responses.

The rider and the elephant

Haidt, like other psychologists, finds it useful to think of the mind as composed of two components. One is intuitive, fast and judgemental. Haidt calls this component the elephant. The other component, which is reflective, slow and strategic, Haidt calls it the rider.

Elephant and Rider

            The intuitive side of the mind is very useful for day-to-day life, making quick evaluations that enable survival. If you see an object rapidly coming towards your head, it is better to duck immediately rather than first try to calculate its trajectory. The rational part of the mind carefully considers evidence and options and is more suited for evaluation and long-term planning.

Haidt uses the labels elephant and rider because, according to the evidence, much thinking operates by the elephant making a quick judgement and the rider working out a way to justify it. There are some ingenious psychological experiments showing how the power of rationality is used to justify gut reactions, sometimes involving elaborate intellectual contortions. Those whose rational powers are more developed may actually be better at developing rationalisations for pre-made judgements. The rider usually follows the elephant’s preferences.

Applied to politics, this means that a lot of political argument is just a sideshow, because evidence and arguments are mainly used to justify positions based on intuitive judgements, themselves related to the six foundations of morality. The metaphor of the elephant and rider helps to explain why so few people change their minds when exposed to new evidence. More commonly, they ignore or dismiss the evidence, or find ways to undermine it. This is a feature of the phenomenon called confirmation bias, in which people look for evidence to support their current views and ignore, dismiss or criticise contrary evidence.


Assigning moralities

A question Haidt does not systematically address, though he is aware of it, is why moralities are assigned in particular ways and not others. For example, in relation to sanctity, why should someone care more about desecration of the US flag than, for example, the California flag or the UN flag? In terms of the fairness foundation, why should someone get more upset about welfare cheats than about inherited wealth?

There are big differences between the US and Europe in how some moralities are assigned. For example, in the US, people who have never been employed may not qualify for unemployment payments. In many European countries, universal unemployment insurance is taken for granted, and is far more generous. Does this mean that in the US, the fairness foundation is more important than the care foundation? Probably not: a better explanation is that US citizens have been conditioned to think about welfare in a different way than Europeans.

This is apparent in the US debate about ‘socialised medicine,’ which means universal health insurance. Many in the US see this as a dangerous idea, presumably appealing to the foundation of liberty, namely resistance to government domination. In Europe, universal health insurance is seen as normal, and appeals to the foundations of care and fairness.


            Another example is transport. It is well known that US transit systems — trains and buses primarily — are limited in service, low in quality and expensive compared to many European systems. In the US, the car reigns supreme, a symbol of independence and freedom, appealing to the liberty foundation. But what about roads? The US interstate highway system, built in the 1950s onwards, was the largest public works program in the world. Yet no one in the US talks about ‘socialised roads’ or even castigates trains and buses as ‘socialised transport’. Admittedly, some libertarians would like to privatise the road system, but they are a tiny minority.


            To explain the peculiarities of how moralities are assigned in different ways, Haidt refers to moral entrepreneurs, public relations people and political operatives. A moral entrepreneur is someone who tries to stir up passions about a topic. Anti-abortionists, animal liberationists and sellers of deodorants all are trying to persuade others to think and act a certain way, and doing it by linking their special concerns to moral foundations. Anti-abortionists and animal liberationists each appeal to the care foundation, but with very different objects of concern, while deodorant advertisers appeal to the sanctity foundation, trying to induce people to buy deodorants to prevent or disguise allegedly disgusting body odour.

Loyalty to what?

Moral entrepreneurs are active in all things political. Patriotism is a prime example, linked to the loyalty foundation. Early humans lived in small groups, comprising dozens to a few hundred individuals. Maintaining loyalty to this group often made the difference between life and death for group members, so in evolutionary terms it makes sense that human minds are primed for loyalty. As Haidt expresses it, loyalty is an aspect of the first draft of the mind.

But loyalty to what? Why should a mental preference for loyalty to small human groups be assigned to a country, sometimes with millions of people, in what we call patriotism or national pride? Why not loyalty to one’s nearest one hundred neighbours? Or why not loyalty to the entire human species? Or maybe loyalty to life more generally, in a type of pantheism?

The answer is that identification with one’s own country is cultivated in all sorts of ways, many of them so obvious as to be unnoticed. In school, children are taught about their country’s history, often in biased ways. Students in Australia learn much more about Australia — usually good things, sometimes bad things — than about Brazil or Ethiopia. Then there is the media, reporting national news as a priority. In sports coverage, it might be reported, ‘Australia took a lead over India’. Yes, it’s cricket, and nothing really significant perhaps, but it reinforces thinking about the world in terms of countries.



Winston Churchill’s comment that ‘democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried’ is often quoted. The system of government commonly called ‘democracy’ has taken on a type of god-like status. Indeed, it appeals to the sanctity foundation in many people who follow politics.

The media provide a steady diet of news about government policies, government crises, politicians and elections. It might be said that politics is one of the world’s leading spectator sports. Nearly everyone has an opinion.

Politics is indeed a spectator sport in an important sense: most people are spectators, not participants. Aside from occasionally voting and talking to others about politics, most people have no greater involvement. In terms of participation, electoral politics is quite low. Just as it is misleading to refer to a ‘sporting nation’ when many unfit citizens interact with sports only as spectators, it is also misleading to refer to ‘democracy’ when most citizens are passive spectators of rule by politicians, not to mention unelected lobby groups who serve the interests of the wealthiest 1%.

For these reasons, my co-author Lyn Carson and I prefer the expression ‘representative government’ over ‘democracy’. Historically, there have been quite a number of political systems with much greater direct participation in decision making, for example in ancient Athens.

For those who support greater participation, for example through referenda, town meetings, consultative forums, community representatives on planning bodies, and randomly selected policy-advising bodies, the challenge is how to move from representative government to participatory democracy. In Haidt’s terms, current attachments of fairness, authority, loyalty and sanctity are to the system of voting and elections — representative government — and not to more participatory processes.

This is not an easy task, to say the least. Representative government is taught to school children, is taken for granted in media coverage, is touted as the solution to autocracy, and is regularly legitimated through voting and elections, in which voters give their implicit consent to the system of rule.


The occupy movement challenged the system by pointing out the complicity of governments and corporations in serving the wealthy at the expense of the majority – the 99%. Representative government in many countries has become a tool of powerful groups and serves their interests regardless of which party is in power. The occupy movement had a presence on the streets of many cities around the world, but in the US was subject to police harassment. Challenging the system in a direct, open way can be a risky business.

Attaching to participatory politics

Many people have developed strong beliefs in the superiority of representative government and the impossibility of participatory democracy. Their moralities have become assigned to one particular moral matrix, namely a configuration of moral assessments. Voting is seen to be fair, and so is the election of rulers, even though having money and connections is crucially important to electoral success. Few people think it is unfair that most people have no hope of being elected to office.

On the other hand, some moral assignments are more compatible with participatory processes. For example, in countries where juries for trials are selected randomly, this is seen as fair — as a way of selecting an unbiased cross-section of the population to hear evidence from two sides and to make a considered judgement. That trial juries are seen as fair shows that the fairness foundation might be assigned in a different way in politics. Randomly selected groups of citizens might be brought together, provided with information about a controversial issue – such as town planning or nanotechnology – hear from experts and partisans, discuss the issue among themselves and reach a consensus. Such groups are called policy juries or citizens panels. Hundreds of such panels, in several different countries, have been formed and have deliberated on a wide range of issues. The challenge is to get more people to think of these sorts of processes as the epitome of fairness, rather than voting.


Participatory democracy can come in various forms, for example referendums and popular assemblies, which complicates the challenge of encouraging people to think of them as viable alternatives to representative government. Another important factor is deliberation, which means careful consideration of arguments, often in discussions with others, as in juries. Only some participatory processes are deliberative: referendums often are not, being determined more by campaigning, advertising and slogans, whereas citizens panels are.

Advocates of participatory and deliberative alternatives can learn from Haidt’s research on moral foundations. Rather than trying to convince people through information and logical argument that participation and deliberation are good things, it is likely to be more effective to come up with ways to get people to sense in their guts that these alternatives are valuable and worth supporting.

Probably the best advertisement for participation is the experience of participation itself. Many of the people chosen randomly to serve on citizens panels find it incredibly engrossing and satisfying: they feel they are doing something worthwhile and become committed to the process. The same applies to experiences in workers’ councils, neighbourhood meetings and social action groups. The occupy movement, for example, provided on-the-ground training in participatory politics.

The implication is that ‘doing democracy’ – namely participating in groups or processes that involve direct decision-making – is a powerful way to promote participatory alternatives to representative government. The challenge is to make these experiences as satisfying as possible, thereby building commitment to the process, without getting too fixated on changing things immediately. This is the familiar dilemma of task functions and maintenance functions within groups. Achieving the group’s goal is important, but so is maintaining good relationships within the group, as the basis for commitment and long-term survival.

Taking a lead from Haidt, promoting participatory alternatives needs to pay more attention to what affects people’s moralities — their senses of care, fairness, liberty, authority, loyalty and sanctity — and figure out how to reassign moral foundations to participative and deliberative processes. There is nothing automatic or inherent in patriotism or a belief in the superiority of representative government. Alternatives are possible; the question is how best to promote them.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Lyn Carson for valuable comments on a draft.

Whistleblowing and loyalty

Whistleblowers can gain insights from Jonathan Haidt’s studies of the foundations for morality.

Whistleblowers are people who speak out in the public interest, for example to expose corruption, abuse or dangers to the public. Surely this should be seen as a valuable service. Yet whistleblowers are frequently treated as traitors, as guilty of something worse than the abuses and crimes they reveal.


National security whistleblowers, such as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, have been called traitors. Whistleblowers who are teachers, police officers, public servants or corporate executives may be called traitors, dobbers, snitches or other epithets.

Just as important as words are the reprisals that whistleblowers experience, including ostracism, petty harassment, demotions, referral to psychiatrists and dismissal. To be targeted with such hostile actions signifies condemnation, even contempt. Where does this vitriol and hostility come from?

Also important is the role of bystanders, in particular the co-workers who might personally support the whistleblower but are unwilling to take a stand. Many of them are afraid they will become targets themselves; others always support management, sometimes in the hope of rewards. It is reasonable to ask, where does the incredible power of the organisation come from?

The Righteous Mind

Insights can be gained from Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind. Haidt, a psychologist, set out to discover the biological bases of human morality. But first it is useful to explain Haidt’s picture of the mind.


Imagine that your mind has two main components. The first is a rational, calculating operator that can examine courses of action and logically consider principles of behaviour. This is how most people think of themselves. Haidt calls this component the “rider.”

The second part of the mind is an intuitive operator that makes judgements on the basis of gut instinct, without consideration for facts or logic. This part is filled with passions and commitments, which the rider might consider biased and impulsive. Haidt calls this second part of the mind the “elephant.” The elephant makes day-to-day life possible; its quick responses are often sensible — but not always.

Haidt uses the metaphors of the rider and the elephant to highlight a key insight from studies of the mind: for many purposes, rational evaluation is unable to restrain instinctive responses. The elephant is too large and powerful to be controlled by the rider.

Haidt, through careful assessment of psychological research, concludes that in most cases the primary role of the rider is to figure out ways to justify what the elephant does. In other words, people reach their views about the world on the basis of gut instinct, and then their rational minds figure out reasons to justify these views.

Elephant and Rider

This is not a pretty picture, especially for those who believe in the primacy of rationality, or believe that they personally follow reason rather than emotion.

The next step in Haidt’s analysis is discovering the foundations of morality. Through a variety of means, he arrived at six main foundations that shape people’s senses of right and wrong: care, liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Haidt used various tests to work out which of these values influence judgements in US people. He found that “liberals” (who might be called progressives in Australia) rely especially on care, liberty and fairness, whereas conservatives rely more equally on all of the foundations. This helps explain some of the political differences in the US.

Most of these foundations are relevant to whistleblowers. One key foundation, care, means looking after those in need, for example children and people suffering misfortune. When whistleblowers speak out about abuse of children or shortcomings in health services, they are implicitly appealing to the care foundation for morality. Another foundation, fairness, is relevant for those who speak out about corruption, including bribery, theft and nepotism. These are all violations of fairness.

So far so good. But whistleblowers come up against some of the other foundations. They are seen to be disloyal (to their employers), undermining authority (of their bosses) and sometimes transgressing on things considered sacred (such as when revealing confidential information). Haidt’s framework suggests that whistleblowers can gain support from some foundations of morality but are up against instinctive responses based on others.

At this point it is worth remembering the rider-elephant metaphor. Few people sit around scrutinising the bases of their own morality. Rather, their ideas of right and wrong are intuitive: they react with their gut and then search for rational justifications for their feelings. So if someone’s morality is strongly shaped by respect for authority, they may react emotionally against a co-worker who breaks ranks and then find reasons for their antagonism.

Sometimes there are multiple sources of authority. For example, a person can accept the authority of church leaders or seek a higher authority in the teachings of spiritual leaders such as Buddha, Jesus or Mohammed. However, the rider-elephant factor enters in here: because most teachings can be interpreted in various ways, the rider can find ways of justifying the elephant’s actions. For example, even when religious texts oppose killing, most religious leaders allow participation in war, using various rationalisations.

However, it seems too simple to say that whistleblowers put a priority on care, fairness and liberty (moral priorities for liberals) whereas bosses put a priority on loyalty and authority (which influence conservatives more than liberals). Whistleblowers vary greatly in their beliefs; many are the epitome of the loyal employee. Furthermore, what about all the bystanders, who by their inaction support bosses and let whistleblowers cop it? They are bound to include people driven by a variety of moral precepts.


Various researchers have tried to figure out what, psychologically, makes whistleblowers different from others. Employers would love to know, so they could avoid hiring potential whistleblowers or, having hired one, keep them away from sensitive information. Given the lack of any reliable psychological tests to detect potential whistleblowers, it is safe to assume that psychology is not the key to understanding whistleblowing. This is especially the case for inadvertent whistleblowers, the workers who report a problem, are totally surprised when they experience reprisals, and afterwards say “I was just doing my job.” There are psychological factors involved in this, for example honesty and conscientiousness, but no obvious connection to the foundations of morality traced by Haidt. Or is there?

Care versus loyalty?

Sexual abuse is a violation of the morality of care: those who are vulnerable need to be protected. Speaking out about the abuse, on the other hand, challenges authority and loyalty.

Consider, for example, sexual abuse by clergy. The disturbing reality is that many people in churches knew about it but took little or no action. This can be interpreted as loyalty and authority taking precedence over care. On the other hand, the response of many members of the public, when they learned about the abuse, was completely different: many were horrified and disgusted. As outsiders, their conceptions of loyalty were potentially quite different. They may have had no particular connection to the church, or perhaps had their own loyalty, for example to their children.

But what about authority? Those who are not directly subject to a particular authority may not think deference to it is so important. This observation is compatible with the advice that whistleblowers can gain greatest support from other whistleblowers and from members of the public, for example through media stories.

So morality based on authority seems, at least when it applies to whistleblowers, to be quite specific: deference to authority takes precedence mainly when people are directly subject to the authority, as in the case of bosses or church leaders. This deference can also be explained a different way: people are afraid of the consequences of bucking authority. They might lose their job or, just as worrying, be subject to reprisals such as reprimands, harassment and ostracism. It might seem that fear is a fundamental factor in this dimension of morality.

Loyalty to what?

For me, this raises another question. Why should the two factors of loyalty and authority be tied to the organisation where a person works? In terms of evolution, humans lived in groups whose very survival often depended on banding together. Dissent was potentially dangerous, so it could have been advantageous to attack or expel those who challenged the group’s leaders or threatened its cohesion.

However, many groups today are a far cry from the groups in human prehistory, which were often quite small and probably never much more than a few hundred people in size. Working for a government or corporation with thousands of employees is not the same, neither in scale nor in the danger to the organisation of a bit of dissent.

This suggests to me that although loyalty is a key factor in morality, how loyalty is assigned remains open. Inside a school, for example, a pupil might be loyal to a peer group, a sporting team, a teacher or the school as a whole. In a corporation, a worker might be loyal to a work team, a union, professional peers in the field, a particular boss or the company as a whole. The possibility that loyalty is not automatic suggests that it is worth looking at the methods by which organisations foster it.

Changing gut reactions to whistleblowers

It’s worth considering each of Haidt’s six foundations for morality and asking, what can be done, by whistleblowers and their supporters, to change gut reactions to whistleblowing so it is more valued? The foundations of care, fairness and liberty are ones that should create favourable attitudes towards whistleblowers. The message is to continually emphasise care for others when speaking out about hazards to the public, emphasise fairness when speaking out about corruption, and emphasise liberty — resistance to domination — when speaking out about threats from government or corporate power.

Those three foundations are the easy ones for whistleblowers, namely ones where they have a natural advantage. The other three foundations are more challenging: loyalty, authority and sanctity.

Loyalty to the employer is commonly expected. Whistleblowers violate this sense of loyalty: they are seen as traitors. Are there other ways to assign loyalty to which whistleblowers could appeal? One possibility is loyalty to the mission of the organisation, not to the organisation itself. Of course organisational leaders say they are pursuing the mission, so distinguishing between the mission and the organisation is hard to sell.


Another possibility of an alternative loyalty is to other workers, especially when they are supportive of each other, as in work teams or unions. Instead of speaking out as an individual, a worker concerned about abuses could instead build networks and alliances first, gaining support in order to promote collective action. This is not easy, but does have a prospect of fostering a different assignment of loyalties.

Then there is authority, a moral foundation that whistleblowers almost inevitably challenge. Questioning the boss’s authority is difficult, whether by direct confrontation or by reporting problems to the boss’s boss, higher officials or watchdog bodies. Is there any different line of authority that can be an alternative source of legitimacy? One possibility is the authority of laws. If bosses are violating the law, they are violating legal authority. The trouble is that by the time legal sanctions are applied — if they ever are — it is too late for the whistleblower. After all, corrupt operators do not declare they are breaking the law. Indeed, they commonly allege that whistleblowers are criminals, by violating terms of employment, confidentiality agreements and the like.

One of the advantages of whistleblower laws is that they give legitimacy to whistleblowers. Even though the laws may give little protection in practice and, even worse, give a false sense of security, their very existence may help undermine the assumption that authority is always right.


Finally there is sanctity, a moral foundation of special significance to many political conservatives. If corruption is stigmatised, then whistleblowers can draw on this moral foundation. This is suggested by the expressions “clean hands” and “dirty hands,” referring to honest and dishonest individuals. Whistleblowers can assist their cause by avoiding any activity that can be easily stigmatised as dishonest or unsavoury. By the same token, employers regularly manipulate the sanctity foundation by trying to stigmatise the whistleblower, by spreading rumours (sexual misbehaviour is a favourite allegation) and by treating the whistleblower as tainted, not to be trusted or even spoken to. Ostracism — cutting off personal relationships — is in essence to treat a person as dangerous and even contagious.

When whistleblowers join together with others, and obtain support from bystanders, it is far more difficult to stigmatise them. There is protection in numbers.

Considering the various foundations of morality thus provides some direction for whistleblowers and their supporters.

  • When appropriate, emphasise violations of care, fairness, and liberty.
  • Search for alternative bases for loyalty and authority.
  • Try to assign stigma to wrongdoers.
  • Be prepared for the tactics used to turn these moral foundations against whistleblowers.

Brian Martin

More information

I haven’t tried to provide sources for many of the generalisations I’ve made about whistleblowers. For more information see my book Whistleblowing and my site on suppression of dissent.


Thanks to Paula Arvela, Don Eldridge, Kathy Flynn, Xiaoping Gao, Steven Howard, Nicola Marks and Tshering Yangden for helpful feedback on drafts.

I am vice president of Whistleblowers Australia but my views here do not necessarily represent those of others in the organisation.

Comments from Kim Sawyer

[Kim was a whistleblower at two Australian universities, and has been active on whistleblowing issues for many years.]

Excellent analysis – corresponds to the thoughts I’ve had over a long period of time. Haidt’s prescription of the rider-elephant dichotomy and the six foundations of morality are insightful. Your application of those foundations to whistleblowing is spot on. Two general comments, and then some specific comments from my experience.

First, whistleblowing acts to elevate the conflict between the foundations. It brings morality into focus for everyone; the whistleblower, the respondent, the bystanders. The foundations are like latent characteristics, and whistleblowing becomes the realization of those characteristics so that an individual has to now make a choice. It’s like going to the ballot box, you have to now choose between fairness and loyalty to the institution.

Secondly, one aspect which could be highlighted more is risk. Everyone, whistleblower, respondent and bystander, assesses their risks. Risk minimization takes over – that is, self-interest. The bystander may see the same unfairness as the whistleblower, but they also see the risk to themselves. You could say that these six foundations are a portfolio, and the whistleblower and bystander assign different weights to different foundations. My sense is that the bystander will always converge to the less risky portfolio which is loyalty to authority.

Some specific comments from my own experience

  1. For me, fairness was always the important factor. In both whistleblowing cases, I chose fairness over loyalty to an unfair authority. And it correlates with my political leanings which are progressive. Of course, there was also a sense of professional responsibility, that a professor should act in the long-term interests of the institution and of higher education in general. Obviously, I took my professional responsibilities too seriously.
  2. The two cases I was involved with highlighted the singularity of whistleblowing, but from vastly different starting points. In both cases though, the institution tried to replace the loyalty of colleagues to me by loyalty to the institution. This strategy emphasises the whistleblower and not the whistleblowing; the weaknesses of the whistleblower and not the foundational issues were highlighted.
  3. Another issue is the conflicting loyalties within the whistleblower. I had loyalty to both universities, but the loyalty was principally to the long-term, not to the short-term management. Whistleblowing involves a lot of internal conflict for a whistleblower between fairness and loyalty to authority. Fairness won out for me.