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Psychol Rev. 2011 Jan;118(1):57-75. doi: 10.1037/a0021867.

Moral psychology is relationship regulation: moral motives for unity, hierarchy, equality, and proportionality.

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  • 1University of California, Department of Psychology, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1563, USA.


Genuine moral disagreement exists and is widespread. To understand such disagreement, we must examine the basic kinds of social relationships people construct across cultures and the distinct moral obligations and prohibitions these relationships entail. We extend relational models theory (Fiske, 1991) to identify 4 fundamental and distinct moral motives. Unity is the motive to care for and support the integrity of in-groups by avoiding or eliminating threats of contamination and providing aid and protection based on need or empathic compassion. Hierarchy is the motive to respect rank in social groups where superiors are entitled to deference and respect but must also lead, guide, direct, and protect subordinates. Equality is the motive for balanced, in-kind reciprocity, equal treatment, equal say, and equal opportunity. Proportionality is the motive for rewards and punishments to be proportionate to merit, benefits to be calibrated to contributions, and judgments to be based on a utilitarian calculus of costs and benefits. The 4 moral motives are universal, but cultures, ideologies, and individuals differ in where they activate these motives and how they implement them. Unlike existing theories (Haidt, 2007; Hauser, 2006; Turiel, 1983), relationship regulation theory predicts that any action, including violence, unequal treatment, and "impure" acts, may be perceived as morally correct depending on the moral motive employed and how the relevant social relationship is construed. This approach facilitates clearer understanding of moral perspectives we disagree with and provides a template for how to influence moral motives and practices in the world.

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