What moral foundations theory can tell us

Moral Foundations Theory argues that each of us has an intuitive moral sense with five elements: harm, fairness, in-group loyalty, authority and purity. People on the left and right ascribe different levels of importance to each of these. While fairness is seen as important by both the left and the right, it is balanced out by other moral considerations, with people on the right considering a wider set of issues than those on the left.

Broadly speaking, people on the left think about fairness in terms of outcomes, equality and need. Some have more than they need; others need more than they have. The most important beneficiaries are those whose needs are most urgent. People on the right value 'just deserts', with reward linked to effort, and with an emphasis on personal responsibility, even if this leads to large inequalities.

However, there are opportunities to find consensus. People from across the political spectrum value the ideas of proportionality and reciprocity. They see it as unfair when people are asked to contribute more than they receive in return, or when people receive more than they contribute. This explains the overwhelming popularity of the NHS; rather than a socialist project, it is a collective insurance programme to which people contribute through the tax system, and which supports them when they suffer the ‘brute bad luck’ of ill health. Other public services (including social care, as well as other parts of the social security system) could enjoy similar popularity if they were designed on similar universal principles. The Fabians argue in The Solidarity Society that the lessons from the successes and failures of social security institutions over the last century are clear: we need to provide more universal benefits and services, and to design a new social contract that rewards all who contribute to society. They point out that public services, including social security programmes, are paradoxically more effective at tackling entrenched social problems when they are made available to everyone (or at least to many people), rather than being targeted at those most in need, in part because they enjoy much more public support as a result (even if public support for a more generous social security system has increased in recent years, perhaps in part because of an increasing realisation that many people are living in destitution and are therefore not having their basic needs met).

Universal services that are based on contributory principles are less divisive than means-tested services targeted at the most disadvantaged, because they don’t create a ‘them and us’ dynamic that undermines ongoing public support for the necessary levels of government spending. For example, a universal and contributory social security system would not, as some fear, act as a disincentive to work or create a dependency culture; everyone wants to work and have a purpose in life. Similarly, a social housing programme that was available to a much wider group of people, not just to those most in need, would enjoy much greater popularity than our current system. Society’s institutions should reactively help people to cope with shocks in life, and should proactively identify points in people’s lives when they need more support. This approach will help to prevent problems from becoming more difficult and expensive to solve. People will willingly pay society back at other times in their lives in return for providing this support; reciprocity works and is popular. A majority of people support this idea and are happy to pay taxes as their contribution for public services that will support them when they are in need.