Unravelling the moral matrix

head-663997__340My journey into the world of moral psychology with Jonathan Haidt continues to provide me with fresh perspectives on my research. The more I read the book, the more I realise that the questions of morality and the perpetual “right versus wrong” dilemma will frame my entire study. My major takeaways from the second part of the book are the concepts of moral matrix and moral pluralism. In this post, I will briefly explain what these notions are about as well as their relevance and prominence for my understanding of ethical consumers.

According to Haidt (2013), moral matrix is a web of shared ethics, meanings, values, and concerns which “provides a complete, unified, and emotionally compelling worldview” (p.107). In the book, Haidt talks about how his experience of conducting research in India, where he had to face a moral matrix completely different from the one in which he was raised, enabled him to appreciate the diversity of moral worlds and explore it without having an inner commitment to tell right from wrong. He came to realise that many moral matrices coexist across cultures as well as within each nation and that “there is no homogenous “backcloth” to our world” (Shweder, 1991, p. 5 cited in Haidt, 2013, p. 109). Instead, he argues, morality is “rich and complex,  (…) multifaceted and internally contradictory”  (p.113).

To explain the routes of this moral pluralism, Haidt draws an expressive analogy with taste. Although we all have the same five taste receptors (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savoury), each of us has very specific food preferences shaped by the variety of factors – our childhood eating habits, religion, cultural experiences, etc. Likewise, our common evolutionary history provided us with the same innate moral potential – yet, each of us develops a distinct set of moral concerns that connects to a specific moral universe (interestingly, this also resonates with my long-time theoretical ally – Archer’s (2007) theory of human reflexivity wherein individuals in the course of their lives embrace particular concerns which then come to define their actions). To explain one’s morality, we need to look at the entire life path – the childhood socialization, later experiences, events, and relationships that might have triggered those particular concerns from which the person’s moral matrix is woven.

The theory looks especially compelling to me in the light of my own research findings.  Each of my participants, all of whom self-identified as ethical consumers, has a specific set of moral issues they care about – the universal right to life, human responsibility in front of the planet, social justice, fairness and equality – the list is never exhaustive. And in every case I have encountered these moral concerns can be linked to a particular trigger – an experience, social and cultural setting, or an influential relationship. Thus, for many vegetarians /vegans in my study sample the concern over animal welfare is routed in the childhood experience of interacting with animals – having pets, tending animals on the farm or wildlife encounters. Routes to moral eating are truly diverse: one of the participants has been strongly influenced by an ethics and philosophy course at the university, yet another has found her way to vegetarianism through music – hippie songs conveyed strong political and spiritual messages she could not ignore.

The more the questions of morality arise in my conversations with ethical consumers, the more clearly I see the direction that my study is taking, and the more enjoyable it becomes. The enjoyment comes from learning to recognize different moral matrices, unravel the threads of meaning they are knitted from, and see beyond the obvious to uncover their deeper foundations and routes. And, perhaps most importantly, take my subjective judgment hat off and recognize the cogency and worth of every moral universe that my participants are letting me in.


Archer, M. S. (2007). Making our way through the world: Human reflexivity and social mobility. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Haidt, J. (2013). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Random House LLC.


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