The Integrity Talks

Integrity and Haidt’s Moral Foundation Theory

The Integrity Talks

When I work on prevention and integrity management in the business world, I focus on individuals and possibly teams, the daily choices, and the relationships that people have with themselves and with others. Then, I grab my big tool box again, and pick out what works best in that situation. The Moral foundation Theory of American psychologist Jonathan Haidt is such a building block from my toolbox. The theory is gold and works wonders.

For me, prevention and integrity management is a logical consequence of almost twenty years of experience in the business world, years of experience from the sidelines in risk, governance, and compliance, and more than ten years of study in philosophy, psychology, and spirituality in the field of well-being and personal growth. In addition, as an activist, I am aware of integrity violations in the context of closed-up communities.

Distracted by what has been determined for us by the leaders

Now, there is a book in the making. Hopefully because I keep an incredible amount of balls in the air on a daily basis. Anyway, I mention the difference between business, social, and emotional integrity in my book in making. Business integrity refers to the rights and interests of all parties involved. This applies not only to the use of organizational resources, such as money, materials, and time, but also to the safety and empowerment of individuals and their environment.

Social integrity refers to the day-to-day interactions with each other, and the choices individuals must make in different contexts. Social integrity is partly concretized by rules laid down in the Working Conditions Act, including matters that can lead to psychosocial stress. Think of bullying, discrimination, sexual harassment, and (verbal) violence.

Then, there is emotional integrity. That is about knowing what we feel and why, about being able and willing to face it. To share that with others when it is necessary, even if it is a challenge to do so. It is about our relationship with ourselves, and the relationship with others. In which intentions, attitude, and behavior build the bridge to the connection with ourselves and with others. All of this to bond us to one another.

However, emotional integrity in the sense of the relationship with ourselves is sometimes undermined within organizations. This has been going on for as long as organizations have existed, and for many reasons – usually for the business gains of a company. In addition, emotional integrity can be complex, as many of us find it very difficult to face ourselves. It can be easier to distract ourselves from what is dictated by others, including the leaders in our working life. Or by what the majority of people around us choose.

Moral Foundation Theory and central themes

To find out why people do or don’t do certain things, how they are built and what drives them, Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundation Theory can offer a solution. In other words, what morality means to them. The idea is that a number of central themes from someone’s life can play a role in the development of their personality, and their values. For example, there are central themes, also known as pillars, namely:

  1. Care/harm
  2. Fairness/cheating
  3. Loyalty/betrayal
  4. Authority/supervision
  5. Sanctity/degration
  6. Liberty/oppression

See how this can play a further role, including the triggers. So when a working-life situation arises in which individuals must make instant choices about gray areas – aka moral dilemmas – and about how to interact with themselves and others, the Moral Foundation Theory can provide clarity, understanding, and a plan of action.

Why do people do what they do?

This model is certainly not all-encompassing, but it is very strong. Not all-encompassing, because an individual’s identity, including personality, is much more complex than we know. People change over time. There are different stages of life that people go through. The question is what matters from the past do for the course of our lives, when people sustainably engage in personal growth, and increase their well-being.

It is extremely strong, because it simply works in practice. Experience shows that if we show a genuine interest in why people do what they do, and how they became who they are, these pillars can at least color some of that picture.

Moral Foundation Theory questionnaire

It is possible to find out more about the scores by means of a questionnaire.

Questions can be:

  • Whether or not someone cared for someone who was weak or vulnerable.
  • Whether or not someone has been denied his or her rights.
  • Whether or not someone’s action showed love for his or her country.
  • Whether or not someone showed a lack of respect for authority.
  • Whether or not some people were treated differently from others.
  • Whether someone has done something to betray his or her group.

Statements can be:

  • One of the worst things a human can do is hurt a defenseless animal.
  • It can never be right to kill a human being.
  • When government legislates, the overriding principle should be that everyone should be treated fairly.
  • Compassion for those who suffer is the most crucial virtue.
  • Men and women each have different roles in society.
  • People should not do things that are disgusting, even if no one is harmed.
  • It is more important to be a team player than to express yourself.
  • Justice is the most important requirement for a society.

Prevent integrity violations

By taking this seriously, the Moral Foundation Theory can actually strengthen the labor market, and counter integrity violations. I only believe in customization and in adjustments in terms of questions and statements, so that they do fall within the pillars, but are more in line with the business community.

However, it requires a structural investment, and someone who can supervise this properly. Spending an hour together, doing some moral deliberation on the back of a number of ‘open doors’ to moral dilemmas is a waste of time and money. Someone who can guide this well is just like The Mentalist, and is so effective that many matters can become clear. Matters that can support prevention.

Besides, don’t worry. In general, we are still a long way from ‘integritism’ in the business world, and there is a lot of work to be done.

Note: Jonathan Haidt has recently modified his model, and added the pillar Hamilton.

The Dutch version of this article was published by Boom Management. A slightly different version appeared via