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Taylor-ing Ethics: Implications of Charles Taylor’s Work of Retrieval on Moral Foundations Theory



This article draws from Charles Taylor’s work of retrieval to advance moral foundations theory (MFT). Taylor’s contribution to MFT lies in his insistence that we retrieve the moral sources that have helped constitute, substantiate, and give meaning to individuals’ moral sensibilities. Applying Taylor’s insights to MFT, this article seeks to advance a view of moral foundations that connects them more explicitly to their underlying moral sources. Using this retrieved account of moral foundations, this article then addresses current issues within moral foundations research and theory. Finally, this article suggests ways in which Taylor’s philosophy can contribute to three areas within business ethics: ethical leadership, behavioral ethics, and ethics pedagogy.
Taylor-ing Ethics: Implications of
Charles Taylors Work of Retrieval on
Moral Foundations Theory
Carolyn T. Dang
The Pennsylvania State University, USA
This article draws from Charles Taylors work of retrieval to advance moral
foundations theory (MFT). Taylors contribution to MFT lies in his insistence that
we retrieve the moral sources that have helped constitute, substantiate, and give
meaning to individualsmoral sensibilities. Applying Taylors insights to MFT,
this article seeks to advance a view of moral foundations that connects them more
explicitly to their underlying moral sources. Using this retrieved account of moral
foundations, this article then addresses current issues within moral foundations
research and theory. Finally, this article suggests ways in which Taylors philoso-
phy can contribute to three areas within business ethics: ethical leadership, behav-
ioral ethics, and ethics pedagogy.
Key Words: moral foundations theory, moral intuition, Charles Taylor, moral
sources, ontology, behavioral ethics
Behavioral ethics scholars tend to coalesce around either of two perspectives on
ethical judgment and behavior: a rationalistic approach, which frames ethical
judgment and behavior as a function of conscious, deliberative, and effortful rea-
soning (Kohlberg, 1981; Rest, 1986), and the nonrationalistic approach, which
frames ethical judgment and behavior as a function of unconscious, nondeliberative,
and effortless psychological processes (Monin, Pizarro, & Beer, 2007; Sonenshein,
2007; Weaver, Reynolds, & Brown, 2014). Adherents of the latter lament the
formersworship of reason,criticizing the relegation of noncognitive domains
of the psyche to the irrationalfringes, where they are viewed as conceptual errors
that [bind] one to the material world and therefore to a life of misery(Haidt, 2001:
815). It can be argued, then, that the nonrationalistic approach is an attempt to make
holistic, and to humanize, ethical judgment and behavior, wherein traditionally
marginalized elements of the human psyche (e.g., intuitions, heuristics, mimicry)
are highlighted as playing a prominent role in affecting ethical judgment and
At the forefront of the nonrationalistic approach stands research on moral intui-
tion, specifically as espoused in moral foundations theory (MFT) (Graham, Nosek,
Haidt, Iyer, Koleva, & Ditto, 2011; Haidt & Joseph, 2004). A central premise of
MFT is that moral intuitions determine ethical judgment and behavior. Moreover,
MFT proposes that the specific content of moral intuitions can be organized around
Business Ethics Quarterly (2022), pp. 127. DOI:10.1017/beq.2022.10
Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Society for Business Ethics.
© The Author(s), 2022. Published online by Cambridge University Press
distinct moral systems or foundations. These foundations
are theorized to be innate
to the design of the normalhuman brain, meaning that they are built into humans
neural tissues, beginning in utero and continuing throughout adulthood (Graham
et al., 2013). MFT has enumerates six best candidatefoundations that have been
ingrained within humans and passed down generationally and cross-culturally:
harm, fairness, purity, authority, in-group loyalty, and liberty. Scholars accounting
for the morality of foundationsthat is, what makes these foundations moral?
have relied predominately on a functionalist narrative rooted in evolution and
biology. This narrative has highlighted the ancestral functionality of foundations
as a key contributing factor to the morality of such foundations. As Graham et al.
(2013: 63) summarized, MFT proposes that the human mind is organized in
advance of experience so that it is prepared to learn values, norms, and behaviors
related to a diverse set of recurrent adaptive social problems(emphasis added).
Critics of MFT, however, have voiced concerns over the social utility argument as its
center (Jost, 2012; Kugler, Jost, & Noorbaloochi, 2014). Jost (2012: 416), for
instance, argued that some allegedlymoral foundations possess a striking resem-
blance to authoritarianismand pose a challenge to social cohesion and inclusion.
These critiques have surfaced an important and enduring question about whether,
and to what extent, a functionalist account can serve as the main explanatory
narrative for the foundationsmorality. Specifically, it is questionable whether the
functionalist account can sufficiently explain and predict how individuals actually
experience these foundations. Beyond these questions, it is unclear whether func-
tionality holds sufficient normative power to justify the morality of these founda-
tions. In other words, the functionalist account may be limited on explanatory,
predictive, and normative grounds.
To address these issues, I draw from the philosophy of Charles Taylor (1989,
1992,1994) to advance a novel understanding of the morality of foundationsan
understanding that honors MFTs functionalist account but also crucially takes a
human-centered approach to expand on it. Taylors work has been used to address
various phenomena and issues, from multiculturalism (Gutmann, 1994) to political
organization (Rorty, 1994) to constitutions of selfhood and morality (Smith, 2013).
Within organizational studies, scholars have applied aspects of Taylors philosophy
to the study of practical rationality (Sandberg & Tsoukas, 2011), the formation of
communitarian organizations (Selznick, 1994), and integrative social contracts
theory (Donaldson & Dunfee, 1994,1999,2002,2003). I focus specifically on
Taylors thinking surrounding what can be called his work of retrieval.This work
is at once normative, critical, and explanatory(Calhoun, 1991: 234). It is explan-
atory insofar as it explains people living their lives(Taylor, 1989: 58). It is critical
and normative insofar as it foregrounds what Taylor believes to be an essential, if not
the essential, aspect of people living their lives: the human desire to know and be
oriented toward the good. For Taylor, the living of life necessitates reference and
The exact term used in MFT is moral foundations. However, as I will be discussing whether and how
moral foundationsare, indeed, moral,I will refer to them as foundations to avoid overuse of the term
moral or morality.
2Business Ethics Quarterly Published online by Cambridge University Press
connection to a vision of the goodso much so that his strong thesisargues that
humans cannot but orient ourselves to the goodand that our being selves is
essentially linked to our sense of the good(Taylor, 1989: 51). He laments that,
because we have read so many goods out of our official story,we must engage in a
project of retrievala project whose aims are to unburysuch goods so that we can
allow them to empower us, make claims on us,and restore our humanity (Taylor,
1989: 520).
At first glance, the notion that Taylors work of retrieval can add value to MFT
may seem odd, given that the latter has presented itself as an empirical, descriptive,
and value-free project on morality (Graham et al., 2013). Yet, as some critics have
charged, there are clearly normative (and not merely descriptive) arguments
within MFT that persist, whether their [moral intuition] proponents realize it or
not(Kugler et al., 2014: 415). I propose that tenets of Taylors work of retrieval can
help uncover the tacit normative arguments underlying MFTs conceptualization of
foundations. Specifically, Taylors work gives us a useful theoretical apparatus for
providing a more expansive and comprehensive understanding of the morality of
foundations as delineated within MFT. This expanded understanding honors MFTs
functionalist narrative regarding the morality of foundations as predicated, to some
extent, on a combination of evolution, biology, and social utility. Crucially, how-
ever, Taylors philosophy can help push deeper into this narrative to retrieve the
substantive experiential moral goods that underlie and empower it. Overall, Taylors
philosophy may provide a better accountfor the morality of foundationsthat is,
it may help to better explain and predict individualsexperiences of foundations
In what follows, I provide an overview of MFT. I then discuss the key tenets of
Taylors work of retrieval and how this work can advance MFT both conceptually
and empirically. Moving beyond MFT, I then discuss how Taylors project can yield
insights for business ethics research more generally. First, Taylors philosophy may
have interesting implications for how ethical leadership is conceptualizedas
normatively driven and/or socially constructed. Second, his thinking may yield
insights for behavioral ethics research by expanding its theoretical scope from an
interiority-focused explanation of ethical/unethical behavior to an exterior-focused
one, highlighting how individualsfelt experiences of normativity can influence or
guide their behaviors. And third, Taylors philosophy may contribute to ethics
pedagogy by encouraging students and practitioners to look outward toward moral
According to MFT, moral intuitions are the primary determinants of ethical judg-
ments and behaviors. Moral intuitions are defined as the sudden appearance in
consciousness, or at the fringe of consciousness, of an evaluative feeling (like-
dislike, good-bad) about a person or event without any conscious awareness of
having gone through steps of weighing evidence, crafting evaluative arguments, or
inferring a conclusion(Haidt & Björklund, 2008: 188). From the perspective of
3Taylor-ing Ethics Published online by Cambridge University Press
MFT, ethical judgments and behaviors are more a product of the gut than the head
(Graham et al., 2013: 66). In other words, the emergence of moral intuitions in an
individuals psyche is what informs the individual of the rightness/wrongness and
goodness/badness of encountered stimuli. Moral foundations scholars have argued
that the content of moral intuitions can be organized and categorized into distinct
modules or foundations. Although these same scholars have clearly stated that these
categories are not definitive, research has coalesced around six best candidate
foundations that are theorized to underlie intuitions. These include harm/care (alle-
viating otherssuffering), fairness/cheating (ensuring equality), in-group/loyalty
(group-oriented devotion and sacrifice), authority/subversion (respecting and
upholding the social order and meeting the obligations of hierarchical relationships),
purity/degradation (keeping oneself physically and spiritually clean to protect the
group from contaminants), and liberty/oppression (resisting attempted domination)
(Haidt, 2012). One or more of these foundations being violated leads to the emer-
gence of a moral intuition.
But what makes these foundations moral? In other words, what accounts have
been provided for the morality of foundations? According to MFT, foundations are
moralin a descriptive and empirical sense. Specifically, MFT scholars have
defended the morality of foundations on anthropological and evolutionary/biolog-
ical grounds. Regarding the former, early articulators of MFT sought to ascertain
whether commonly referenced foundations or virtues could be found across different
cultures and societies. These articulators were not moral relativists, believing that
just because a foundation is prevalent within various cultures or societies meant that
the foundation should be afforded moral status. Rather, MFT makes the pivotal
claim that there is a small set of universal foundations found across most cultures/
societies. Although scholars here have noted that cultures/societies may differ in
terms of how ardently they instantiate within their practices and customs the ele-
ments necessary to support a particular foundation or foundations (Haidt, 2012), a
key argument of MFT is that all individuals, regardless of their cultural/social
memberships, are innately predisposed to view morality in accordance with these
six best candidatefoundations.
To support this universalist argument, MFT scholars turned to a functionalist
narrative to account for why and how certain foundations have become cross-
culturally universal, and thus why and how those foundations should be attributed
moral status. The functionalist narrative itself relies on an evolutionary and biolog-
ical story. Specifically, MFT scholars sought out theorists who took an evolution-
ary approach, trying to specify universals of human moral nature(Graham et al.,
2013: 60). From an evolutionary perspective, what makes a foundation moral is its
evolutionary functionalitythat is, foundations became moralin MFT terms
insofar as they allowed humans to survive within their ancestral environments. This
evolutionary account birthed a biological one, which portrayed foundations as moral
insofar as they were built into multiple regions of the brain and body(Haidt, 2001:
826). Taken in tandem, the evolutionary-cum-biological account argues that issues
like harm/care and fairness/cheating recurred regularly in early human societies and
groups. This resulted in the development of an ingrained moral systemone built
4Business Ethics Quarterly Published online by Cambridge University Press
into neural tissues, beginning in utero and continuing throughout adulthood
(Graham et al., 2013)that allowed individuals to identify and respond to moral
issues quickly (Haidt, 2001). This system was then passed down such that individ-
uals across different cultures/societies wereand areborn predisposed to view
morality in accordance with distinct foundations (e.g., the six best candidate
foundations outlined earlier).
As discussed, although MFTs accounts for the morality of foundations are
predicated on both anthropological and evolutionary/biological grounds, the lan-
guage of MFT has afforded to the latter a stronger moral claim. To be clear, this is not
to suggest that moral foundation scholars have reduced the morality of foundations
to evolution and biology alone. Instead, this is to suggest that MFT has emphasized
to a greater extent the evolutionary-cum-biological account in their discussion of
foundations. This is perhaps by design, as MFT aims to be a scientific rather than an
anthropological theory of morality. Graham, Haidt, and Nosek (2009: 70), for
instance, describe MFT as an alternative approach to defining morality. . . . Rather
than specifying the content of a truly moral judgment [w]e specified the functions of
moral systems(emphasis original). Perhaps this may also be due to subsequent
interpretations of MFT that have fixated on the evolutionary/biological claims
endemic within the theory itself. Regardless, the evolutionary-cum-biological nar-
rative has played a central role in justifying the morality of foundations within MFT.
For example, Weaver et al. (2014: 107) note that the origins of intuitive moral
categories [i.e., moral foundations] are often explained in evolutionary termsand
that the evolutionary bases offered for moral intuitions undergird broad categories
of intuition.
The focus on the evolutionary-cum-biological account is further evidenced in
Haidts notion of externalizationa notion that affords to biologically ingrained
foundations, contra anthropological and cultural forces that are presumed to shape
them, an air of ontological primacy. Haidt (2001: 826) claims that because founda-
tions are built in [to the human design] by evolution, then the most important
developmental question about intuitions is not, How do they get into the child?but
rather, How do they get out?’” He refers to this process as the externalization of
foundations, namely, when innate cognitive models manifest themselves as part of
normal maturation(826). What externalization suggests is that foundations exist
independently ofand, in the state of natureprior toany sociocultural experi-
ences, forces, institutions, and so on. As Sadler-Smith (2012: 364) summarizes, the
biological bases of the moral modules exist independently of the institutional
frameworksthat could have the power to amend them.
Although MFT scholars may not have intended it, the functionalist narrative
rooted in evolution-cum-biology has dominated our understanding of the moral-
ity of foundations. This dominancewhether intentional or notis curious,
given that MFT is a pluralistic theory of morality in which distinct and diverse
foundations are theorized to populate the moral space. And yet, ironically, the
account provided for the morality of these pluralistic and quite varied founda-
tions seems to rest on a monist narrative. This is problematic in at least three
5Taylor-ing Ethics Published online by Cambridge University Press
First, this approach is limited in its capacity to explain the totality of the human
moral experience. For example, a functionalist narrative would suggest that when
explaining their moral beliefs, individuals will reference only a small set of pre-
determined criteria (e.g., functionality vis-à-vis evolution and biology) that repre-
sent the foundations. Empirically, however, research by MFT scholars (e.g., Haidt,
2012) and by other scholars (McAdams, Albaugh, Farber, Daniels, Logan, & Olson,
2008; Shweder, Much, Mahapatra, & Park, 1997) has shown that when individuals
explain their moral beliefs and why they hold them, they reference a variety of
sources (e.g., religions, caretakers, epiphanies) that may or may not include expla-
nations driven by functionality. It seems, then, that the pluralism of MFTlong a
cornerstone of the theoryadvocates for a pluralism of foundations and not neces-
sarily a pluralism of moral explanations and/or moral experiences.
Second, in light of research demonstrating that individuals rely on diverse sources
to understand the morality of foundations (McAdams et al., 2008; Shweder et al.,
1997), a dominant discourse based on a singular narrative of functionality may be
limited in its predictive power. For instance, it may be useful in predicting how some
individuals in Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) and
secular countries account for the morality of foundations but less useful in predicting
accounts in non-WEIRD and less secular countries.
And third, the functionality narrative may be limited on normative grounds.
Although this may seem like a nonissue given that MFT scholars have emphasized
that theirs is a descriptive and not a normative moral theory (Graham et al., 2013;
Haidt, 2012), other scholars have suggested that [MFTs] frequent use of terms
such as virtues,’‘moral truths,’‘moral worth,and moral knowledgeclearly
implies normative, prescriptive conclusions(Kugler et al., 2014: 415; see also
Jacobson, 2008). To this objection, MFT scholars may counter that this critique is
really one of semanticsthat the terms moral truths and virtues are used in a
descriptive rather than a prescriptive sense. In other words, MFT scholars may argue
that they are not suggesting that any one person or culture should or should not
endorse justice, care, loyalty, and so on, as moral foundations. And yet, this (hypo-
thetical) rebuttal would be at odds with (clearly) prescriptive statements made by
MFT scholars who advocate for a six-factormoral channel in which all best
candidatefoundations are relied on and utilized (Haidt, 2012; Duarte, Crawford,
Stern, Haidt, Jussim, & Tetlock, 2014). Indeed, MFT scholars have labeled morally
color-blindthose who adopt only a subset of the best candidatefoundations
(Haidt & Graham, 2009: 389)suggesting, then, that there is inherent goodness
within the foundations that merit humansendorsement and allegiance. The func-
tionality account as it is currently described in MFT, however, is limited in explain-
ing the normative materiality embedded within these foundations.
The discussion thus far suggests that an expanded understanding of the morality
of foundationsone that moves beyond an evolution-cum-biological account
may be needed. Indeed, as unabashed pluralist[s]who believe in the diversity of
foundations (e.g., care, loyalty, liberty) (Graham et al., 2013: 55), what may be
needed is an expanded understanding of the morality of foundations: one that is
pluralistic while also descriptive and normative in scope. To help provide guidance
6Business Ethics Quarterly Published online by Cambridge University Press
for what this expanded understanding may look like, it is useful to return to one of the
theoretical motivations of MFT, namely, to provide a more humanistic account of
morality that brought to the fore the human experience. Indeed, both past and present
articulators of MFT sought to humanize ethical judgment and behavior by rescuing
from the fringes certain marginalized elements of the human experience, tradition-
ally perceived as antithetical to moral judgment/behavior. Returning to this theo-
retical motivation, can the morality of foundations be rooted within a more
phenomenological, human-centered narrative? That is, in looking at foundations
from the perspective of the humans who experience and endorse them, can a more
human-intelligible account be provided for the morality of foundations? To these
questions, Taylors philosophy provides a way to uncover an understanding of the
morality of foundations: a way that honors a key element of MFTthe foundations
functionalitywhile also crucially rooting that element within the human moral
Several scholars have provided notable reviews of Taylors extensive body of work
(e.g., Abbey, 2000; Calhoun, 1991; Rorty, 1994; Smith, 2013; Tully, 1994). I focus
on Taylors moral philosophy, specifically, on his arguments surrounding the work
of retrieval. As the name suggests, this work involves the retrieval of something
presumably something hidden from view or lost. For Taylor, that somethingis an
explicit and unapologetic focus on individuals and their moral experiences. Taylor
laments that most moral theories, despite their attempts to discern how humans think
and act, tend, ironically, to omit the human experience itself from their purview. His
moral theory focuses on placing persons back in the center of moral thoughtand,
from there, on grasping the nature of the person who will live or aspire to this good
life(Calhoun, 1991: 223). Placing the human moral experience at the center of his
thinking, he then sketches the enduring features of moral life(Abbey, 2000: 10).
Several key arguments follow, which are summarized in Table 1.
Making Sensethrough Best Accounts
Taylor argues that a defining feature of human life is the need to make senseof
oneself. This includes making senseof strong evaluations,which are discrim-
inations of right or wrong, better or worse, higher or lower, which are not rendered
valid by our own desires, inclinations, or choices, but rather stand independent of
these and offer standards by which they can be judged(Taylor, 1989: 4). Taylor
argues that humans are fundamentally strong evaluators,
meaning that although
This does not suggest that all individuals act in ways that are good or that all individuals are predisposed
to be good. The latter is, arguably, the view endorsed by moral intuition scholars. By contrast, Taylor (1989:
49) argues that the self cannot be defined in abstraction from any constitutive concerns.In other words, to
be a human agent is to be oriented toward (and thus have a vision of ) the good (moral sources), so much so that
denying the existence of moral goods would be tantamount to stepping outside what we would recognize as
integral, that is, undamaged human personhood(Taylor, 1989: 27). Taylors stance on human agents as
7Taylor-ing Ethics Published online by Cambridge University Press
individuals have multiple desires, goals, and wants in life, they discriminate between
them, ascertaining which are more important and worthier of pursuit.
Having a strong evaluation is not equivalent to making sense of ones strong
evaluations. To make senseis to be self-intelligible: to explain, in terms that are
self-resonant, ones beliefs, reactions, evaluations, and so forth. Making senseis
to select terms that provide the clearest, most insightful statement of the issues
before me,such that if I were denied this term, I wouldnt be able to deliberate as
effectively, to focus the issue properlyas, indeed, I may feel (and we frequently
do) that I was less capable of doing in the past, before I acquired this term(Taylor,
1989: 57). The antithesis of making senseis embodied in the modus operandi of
contemporary computer-struck cognitive psychology,which has declared “‘phe-
nomenologyirrelevant”—and, in so doing, has attempted to jettison terms that are
indispensable to self-explanation and day-to-day living (Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 1991).
Taylor (1989) argues that making senseis achieved by providing best
accountsof ourselves. This yields the best accountprinciple, which he describes
as follows:
The terms we select have to make sense across the whole range of both explanatory and
life uses. The terms indispensable for the latter are part of the story that makes best sense of
us, unless and until we can replace them with more clairvoyant substitutes. The result of
Table 1: Key Themes in Taylors Work of Retrieval
Making sensethrough
best accounts
Best accountsare oriented
toward moral sources Moral sources are self-resonant
Making sense
The terms we select that make
sense across the whole range of
both explanatory and life uses
(Taylor, 1989: 58)
Best accounts
The terms that make best sense of
us unless and until we can
replace them with more clair-
voyant substitutes(Taylor,
1989: 58)
Moral source ontology
Individuals experience the goods
[moral sources]in a non-
anthropocentric way, as not deriv-
ing solely form human will or
choice; we thus have to take this
seriouslyand impute ontologi-
cal significance to it (moral
sources)(Abbey, 2000: 31)
Retrieving moral sources
via language
Access/grasp moral sources through
language, broadly understood
Moral sources are inseparably
indexed to a personal vision,
facilitating a truer or more
perspicacious understanding
of intuitions
dialogically formed through their connection to moral sources is similar to, yet distinct from, the positions of
other scholars who have adopted a dialogical view of the self. Most notable is Meads(1934) philosophy,
which is most commonly cited within management research (e.g., Dionysiou & Tsoukas, 2013). Like Mead,
Taylor views the self not in atomist termsas individually self-formedbut constituted in and through its
connections to others. Yet Taylors account differs from Meads insofar as the latter takes a basically
cognitive approach to the self. Taylors position is closer to phenomenological and existential thought
Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Jaspers, Merleau-Pontywhere the emphasis is more on the necessity of commit-
ment to some direction of action(Calhoun, 1991: 234). For Taylor, it is individualscommitment to and
recognition of moral sources that direct their action and that ultimately constitute their humanity.
8Business Ethics Quarterly Published online by Cambridge University Press
the search for clairvoyance yields the best account we can give at any given time, and no
epistemological or metaphysical considerations of a more general kind about science or
nature can justify setting this aside. The best accountis trumps (58).
From this best accountprinciple emerges another key feature of Taylors philos-
ophy: that the best accountsof strong evaluations”—that is, the clearest, most
insightful statementone can find to explain ones own strong evaluations”—refer
to, and are inextricably linked to, moral sources (i.e., a vision of the good life) that are
experienced by the individual as ontologically prior and independent of human will,
desire, and preference. This point is elucidated in the following pages.
Moral Sources
I use the term moral sources to capture Taylors notion of the good, as this term is
broad enough to encompass several of the constructs that Taylor (1989) discusses as
pertaining to the good life (e.g., moral frameworks, hypergoods, horizons of signif-
icance, constitutive goods). I will examine three subpoints regarding the concept of
moral sources: their ontology, the necessity of their retrieval, and their self-reso-
Ontology of Moral Sources
As discussed, Taylor believes that individuals cannot help but make strong evalu-
ations and that the making senseof these evaluations requires individuals provid-
ing best accounts.From this, he takes a descriptive-normativist stance (Abbey,
2000) to suggest that the best accountsthat individuals provide inevitably refer-
ence an exogenous/independent moral source (the descriptive claim) and that moral
theories must take individuals seriously and impute ontological significance to the
moral source that individuals reference (the normative claim).
Abbey (2000) explains this argument in the following manner. She notes that a
common misconception of normative morality is that all normativists believe in an
objective moral truth: one that can be discovered by and yet can exist without human
beings. (In other words, gravity can exist without a single human being present on
Earth to watch an apple fall.) She then notes that Taylor holds neither to this claim
nor to the claim that moral truth is entirely subject to individualsown personal
beliefs and social customs/norms/mores. Taylor contests both claims. Unlike Plato,
he does not think that it makes sense to see these moral goods [moral sources] as
existing without human beings to know them. Unlike projectivists, he thinks it is
wrong to construe these goods as existing solely through human artifice(Abbey,
2000: 31). Rather, Taylor occupies the middle ground, viewing moral sources as
having an independent/ontic existence because that is how humans experience them.
In other words, he argues that humans perceive moral sources as having an existence
and moral worth independent of their own human desires and preferences. Because
humans experience moral sources as goods independent of human will and
desire, Taylor argues that we must take this experience seriouslyand impute
ontological significance to it.That is, we must give ontological primacy to moral
sources because humans experience the goods that command their respect in a
Taylor-ing Ethics Published online by Cambridge University Press
non-anthropocentric way, as not deriving solely from human will or choice
nor depending only on the fact of individual affirmation of their value(Abbey,
2000: 31).
Rather than listing what is and what is not a moral source, Taylor instead describes
their characteristics. They are substantive, in that they define the content of the
moral theoryand designate what is valuable, worthy, [and] admirable(Taylor,
1992: 92). They are motivational, in that our love for them empowers us to do and
be good(Taylor, 1992: 93). Finally, they define for us what is comparatively
higherin a way independent of human subjects. That is, moral sources offer a
picture of what a betteror highermode of life would be, where betterand
higherare defined not in terms of what we happen to desire or need, but offer a
standard of what we ought to desire(Taylor, 1992: 16). Taylor offers several
examples of moral sources, and even draws from existing moral theories to identify
or, as he puts it, to unburythe moral sources implicit within these theories. For
Plato, the moral source is reason, but the hegemony of reason is understood
substantively. To be rational is to have a vision of rational order, and to love
this order. . . . For Plato the constitutive good is the order of being, or perhaps the
principle of that order, the Good(Taylor, 1989:9293). For Augustine, the moral
source is God (Taylor, 1989: 93). For Kant, the moral source is rational agency: it is
the courageous disengagementrational will. . . . In Kants theory, rational agency
is the constitutive good(Taylor, 1989: 94). Suffice it to say, for Taylor, many things
can serve as moral sources, including animate entities (e.g., God, relationships such
as parentchild, friend) as well as inanimate ones (e.g., principles, rational will).
Their unifying characteristic is that they are experienced as intrinsically good and
ontologically prior. I can find fulfilment in God or a political cause, or tending the
earth. Indeed, the argument above suggests that we will find genuine fulfillment only
in something like this, which has significance independent of us or our desires
(Taylor, 1992: 82, emphasis added).
It should be noted here how Taylors thinking differs from that of proceduralist
scholars like Habermas (1984,1988,1990), who may contest the notion of ontic,
substantive moral sources without considering the social processes by which these
sources have been established and developed. Habermass discursive approach to
ethics, for instance, proposed that notions of the good should be grounded in the
quality of the discourses used to produce them. As Calhoun (1991) pointed out
regarding Habermasian philosophy, the discursive approach cannot help but refer to,
and rely on, some ontologically prior moral good. Calhoun observed that, although a
proceduralist take seems to rely purelyon procedural notions of ethics,and
It should be noted here that Taylor focuses on the works of philosophers and artists to identify, uncover,
and retrieve the moral sources that inform and constitute the individuals sense of self. He pays less attention
to sociological, economic, and political factors, not because he believes these forces unimportant in the
identification of moral sources, but because, as a philosopher, he believes that the works of philosophers and
artists have been able to articulate the moral sources active in the modern area. Clearly, though, Taylors
theorizing omits other important forces, such as social context or position(Calhoun, 1991), as well as how,
for instance, those with power become significant filters of, and for, moral sources.
10 Business Ethics Quarterly Published online by Cambridge University Press
although articulators of the proceduralist stance (like Habermas) refuse to acknowl-
edge the legitimacy of moral sources without consideration for the discourses used
to produce them, nonetheless, by enshrine(ing) his hypergoods (i.e., moral sources)
in procedure rather than in substance,Habermas imposes certain hypergoods in
his procedural discussion(323; see also Scholz, de los Reyes, & Smith, 2019).
Taylor also views moral sources as plural: multiple moral sources exist, and they
can often conflict. Although conflicts between them are inevitable, such conflict
does not negate the intrinsic goodness of moral sources. Instead, conflict presup-
poses that same goodnessthere would be no conflict if competing moral sources
were not themselves morally meritorious in some way. Taylor does not offer a
definitive resolution to this conflict. He argues that conflict represents a genuine
dilemmaone that should move us to seek out further, and more deeply, the moral
sources in conflict with one another. Knowing and being oriented to these conflict-
ing moral sources allows us to pursue epistemic/ethical gains, not definitive solu-
Finally, Taylor does not take a functionalist approach in his conceptualization of
moral sources. Indeed, he argues that it may be true that a moral source is both
inherently good and linked to undesirable outcomes. He states that theorists are often
quick to jump to the conclusion that whatever has generated bad action must be
vicious.He argues that such conclusions stem from a narrowing of moralitys
ineradicable pluralism: that what these conclusions obscure from sight are genuine
dilemmas,wherein following one good to the end may be catastrophic, not
because it isnt a good, but because there are others which cant be sacrificed without
evil(Taylor, 1989: 503).
Retrieving Moral Sources through Language
From this analysis, we can now account for the retrieval of moral sources. As
previously discussed, Taylor believes that individuals cannot help but make strong
evaluations. However, he argues that retrieving moral sources to help us make sense
of our strong evaluations is difficult because of the modern imperative of interiority.
The interiority imperative is the notion that individuals have an intrinsic moral sense:
that goodness and generosity are natural to us(Taylor, 1989: 260) and that,
therefore, we do not need to look outside ourselves to seek and to find moral sources.
This imperative comprises the idea that our strong evaluations regarding the good-
ness of, say, engaging in charitable acts toward needy children do not depend on
some ontic moral source (e.g., benevolence) but rather emanate from something
within usfrom our own ingrained, and biologically determined, moral sensibili-
ties. In Taylors analysis, modern culture has assigned great moral weight to
As Calhoun (1991: 23839) summarized, citing Taylor, we shift from one theory to another, from one
moral framework [moral source] to another, from one self-understanding to another, not when the first is
proven wrong, but when an alternative is shown to be better. This is a matter of practical reason, which is a
reasoning in transitions. It aims to establish, not that some position is correct absolutely, but rather that some
position is superior to some other.’… We pursue epistemic gain, not final truth. This understanding of the way
thought changes is at the heart of Taylors substantive argument.
11Taylor-ing Ethics Published online by Cambridge University Press
interiorityto a kind of contact with myself, with my own inner nature(Taylor,
1992: 29). To retrieve the good in the modern era is to retreat inward, as access to
the significance of things is inward, that it [i.e., the capacity and ability to understand
the significance of human life] is only properly understood inwardly(Taylor, 1989:
Given his belief that moral sources exist independently of the individual, how-
ever, Taylor sees interiority as a flawed strategy for their retrieval. Instead, Taylor
views the retrieval of moral sources as an endeavor that requires the individual to
look outward because the moral sources which can help individuals provide their
own best accountsare found beyond themselves. He views languagebroadly
understood as encompassing not only spoken words but also other modes of
expression whereby we define ourselves, including the languagesof art, of gesture,
of love, and the like(Taylor, 1989: 33)to be the medium through which moral
sources can be retrieved.
The final component of moral sources is their self-resonance. Taylor views moral
sources as having an ontological existence independently of individuals, and inde-
pendently of the social/communal language that individuals use to access them.
However, Taylor does not view moral sources as worthy of our respect and esteem
simply because of their ontological primacy. This view is endorsed by some nor-
mativists, who claim that certain moral principles are ontologically prior and thus
deserve our allegiance (e.g., Kants categorical imperative, Platos notion of a
cosmic order). Returning to his phenomenological account, Taylor argues that moral
sources are meaningful to individualsthat individuals feel moved to abide by,
respect, and esteem moral sourcesnot only because of their ontological primacy
but also because they resonate with the self. That is, just as reading a good, powerful
novel may give me the picture of an emotion which I had not previously been aware
(Abbey, 2000: 61), so, too, does the search for and finding of moral sources allow
individuals to attain a truer or more perspicacious(61) understanding and inter-
pretation of themselves. The work of retrieval is ultimately a search for moral
sources outside the subject through languages which resonate within him or her, the
grasping of an order which is inseparably indexed to a personal vision(Taylor,
1989: 510).
Taylors work of retrieval may seem incompatible with MFT in that the latter has
presented itself as a descriptive and value-free project. However, similarities
To clarify, Taylor views language as the mode of access for moral sources, not as their determinant. The
language we use in our best accountsis made available to us in the society/culture in which we are
embedded. This does not mean, however, that society/culture determines moral sources. Rather, society/
culture gives us the language we need to then formulate our best accounts.Stated differently, while Taylor
does not afford to languageor to the humans who speak and amend languageauthorship of moral sources,
he views language as the necessary conduit through which moral sources are retrieved.
12 Business Ethics Quarterly Published online by Cambridge University Press
between Taylors philosophy and MFT make their integration mutually advanta-
geous. One striking similarity is that both aim to provide a humanistic account of
moralityone that explains how people actually live their lives. For MFT, this
meant a change in focus, shifting from deliberative processes underlying moral
thought and action to intuitive processes formerly stigmatized as antithetical to
morality. For Taylor, this entailed a phenomenological approach to morality that
sought to understand how individuals explain and account for their moral experi-
ences. Another area of overlap between MFT and Taylors philosophy is that both
strongly advocate for a pluralistic conceptualization of morality. Moral foundation
theorists are unabashed pluralists(Graham et al., 2013: 57) who view the moral
domain as populated with diverse foundations (e.g., harm, fairness, purity). Taylor is
also an unabashed pluralist and views modern life as overflowing with distinct moral
sources that often compete with and even contradict one another.
One place where MFT scholars and Taylor diverge is in points of emphasis
particularly in the accounts they provide for morality. As previously discussed, MFT
draws off the discourses of neutral science, in which scholars have emphasized
the morality of foundations from a functionalist perspective grounded in evolution
and biology. (As a matter of clarity, and to avoid confusion moving forward,
will be used in places to denote MFTs evolutionary-cum-biological
account of the morality of foundations.) Taylor, by contrast, takes a decidedly
phenomenological approach, rooting this morality in the experiential lives of indi-
viduals. For Taylor, what makes something moral is the human experience of it,
namely, the experience individuals have that some force, entity, or principle (e.g.,
purity, loyalty, authority, liberty, care, justice) has an existence independent of any
human will or desire for it. Taylor concludes that it is through the grasping of this
force, entity, or principle that the individual can gain a truer and more perspicuous
understanding of her life. (For clarity, we can refer to Taylors phenomenological
account of morality as morality
Another point of divergence between morality
and morality
is the for-
mers interiority-focused strategy for explaining the morality of foundations. Locat-
ing morality within the neuroanatomical structure of the brain implies that one can
find and discover the mysteries of human morality by looking inward, quite literally,
within the human body itself. Indeed, MFT presents itself as a cognitive-modular
theory of morality in which moral judgment and behavior are located in discrete
cognitive modulesor “‘little switches in the brain of all animals’‘triggeredby
specific moral inputs,such as harm or purity, with distinct cognitive computa-
tionsfor each kind of moral contentsuch that judgments about harm (inflicting
physical and emotional suffering) involve fundamentally distinct cognitive com-
putationsthan those regarding purity (violations of spirit or body)(Gray &
Keeney, 2015: 859). These claims, however, have yet to be supported empirically.
Although brain scans have revealed that areas of the brain associated with emotions
are integral to moral judgment and behavior, research has yet to verify that distinct
moral modules within the brain correspond to distinct foundations (e.g., an area of
the brain that corresponds to purity; for a review, see Cameron, Lindquist, & Gray,
2015). Nonetheless, the interiority-focused strategy of MFT can be contrasted with
13Taylor-ing Ethics Published online by Cambridge University Press
Taylors work of retrieval, which attempts to move the morality of foundations
outside the brain and locate it within exterior sources. As the organizational scholar
Staw (2016: 13) recently observed, there is a trend toward inward discovery
(or reductionism)that has been heightened by the use of neurological and other
forms of physiological measurement.He goes on to question whether such inward-
ness really provide an advance, and if so, are they worth the added difficulty and
expense?(13). Staws observation and Taylors work of retrieval are both calls for
outward rather than inward discovery. For Taylor specifically, the call is to look
outward to moral sources that help individuals provide best accountsof their moral
In the following sections, I advance a Tayloredexploration of MFT. This
Taylored exploration yields conceptual and empirical advancements. Briefly, Taylor
suggests that foundations are moral to the extent that individuals experience them as
connected to a moral sourcea source that both exists outside the individual and is
self-resonant. These external moral sources give individuals a more clairvoyant,
self-interpretable, and self-intelligible understanding of the morality of foundations.
In a Taylored reading of MFT, three propositions can be advanced regarding the
morality of foundations: foundations are moral to the extent that they 1) advance the
moral sources already implied within MFTs supposedly value-neutral functionalist
account, 2) advance moral sources beyond those implied within MFTs functionality
account, and 3) are experienced as moral sources in and of themselves. In addition,
can have implications for the empirical study of MFT. These points are
expanded upon in the following pages.
Reading the Normative Back into the Functionalist Account
The first theoretical proposition that can be advanced is that foundations are moral to
the extent that they are functional in a Taylored sense. Taylors notion of functional
is based on evolution and biology, but in the more normative sense of advancing
moral goods or moral sources than in the descriptive sense implied by the evolution/
biology narrative.
In circling back to MFTs functionalist account, Taylor would argue that moral
sources or moral goods beneath the functionalist account can better explain the
morality of foundations. This better accountrefers to ontic moral sources that
resonate with individuals and inspire their allegiance and love. Note here that Taylor
would not necessarily reject morality
altogether. He would, however, question
them in terms of their explanatory power and everyday life uses.Taylor would ask
whether these narratives provide the best available accounts of what humans actually
live by and whether these narratives are self-resonant with individuals. For instance,
suppose an individual has the intuitive reaction that caring for the immunocompro-
mised during the COVID-19 pandemic is a good thing to do. Does the individual
who experiences this intuition make senseof it vis-à-vis reference to the evolu-
tionary functionality of care and/or to the fact that caring for others is ingrained
within ones neural tissues and thus morally meritorious? Is there a deeper, more
normative moral sourceà la Taylorthat is presupposed and/or implicit within
? Is there, as Kugler et al. (2014: 415) and other critics have claimed,
14 Business Ethics Quarterly Published online by Cambridge University Press
clearly normative (and not merely descriptive) argumentswithin MFT research
and its concepts (see also Jost, 2012; Nagel, 2012; Narvaez, 2008,2010)?
To these questions, Taylors answer would be a resounding yes: that deeply
normative moral sources are presupposed within morality
. Taylor provides some
examples of what these moral sources could be. We see this most clearly in Taylors
(1989) discussion of the work of E. O. Wilsona scholar who has achieved
propheticstatus among intuition scholars for suggesting that ethics be removed
temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized(Wilson, 1978:
562). Taylor (1989: 407) points out that Wilsons biologized account is itself told as
an evolutionary epicthat reveals an evolutionary ethic(emphasis added). The
ethic (i.e., moral source) that is revealed in the epic includes various goods, such as
the courage to detach ourselves from the limited perspective, the flattering or consoling
myth, to see the age-long struggle for survival as a whole, and then to be moved to go
beyond narrow egoism to carry it on to greater heights. It is a kind of self-responsible
freedom, a transcendence of particularity, which underlies our efficacy and which we
should cultivate (407).
Taylor concludes his discussion of Wilson with the observation that a moral vision
burns at the heart of the [biologized] epistemology(407)that what are revealed
and made manifest in Wilsons sociobiological epistemology are the moral sources
of community, collaboration, suppression of egoism, self-responsibility, self-tran-
scendence, and so on. Connecting back to morality
, Taylor provides the insight
that, indeed, moral sources are already embedded within the theorys functionalist
accounts (e.g., community, collaboration, suppression of egoism) and that it is
reference to these moral sources that explains why individuals experience founda-
tions as moral. Translating this insight more precisely within the morality
the following proposition can be advanced: the best candidatefoun-
dations of purity, loyalty, authority, care, justice, and liberty are moral foundations
because they are instrumental (i.e., functional) in advancing moral sourcesfor
example, community, collaboration, or suppression of egoism. These sources are
moralfor example, community, collaboration, or suppression of egoism
because they are experienced by individuals as self-resonant and as having an
ontological existence independently of any human will or preference.
For MFT moving forward, these insights suggest pushing scholars to retrieve
other ontological moral sources that underlie the functionalist account. So, though
Taylor would not reject morality
, he would encourage scholars to dig deeper
and uncover the moral sources that empower the functionalist narrative to begin
with. Stated differently, he does not reject the notion that foundations have func-
tionality (and that they may have been evolutionarily useful and thus biologically
ingrained). Rather, he regrets the exclusive focus, whether intentional or not, on the
functionalist narrative, which has downplayed the moral sources that are unavoid-
able in how individuals can explain and make sense of their intuitions. Taylor would
thus encourage MFT scholars to push past the goodsof naturalism (e.g., biology/
evolution/innateness) to uncover the moral sources that are more indispensable for
15Taylor-ing Ethics Published online by Cambridge University Press
humans in their interpretations and understandings of why foundations are moral
A Broader Set of Accounts for the Morality of Foundations
The second proposition that can be advanced is that foundations are moral to the
extent that individuals experience them as advancing moral sources beyond those
tied to MFTs functionalist narrative. That is, Taylor would press beyond morali-
to find other ontological moral sources that empower foundations and make
them moral. Taylor is a pluralist in his belief that multiple moral foundations occupy
the moral space and in his belief that individuals draw on multiple ontological
sources to account for the morality of foundations. This latter point differentiates
from morality
Interestingly, in the same way that MFTsaimwastorescuefromtheirrational
fringes the importance of intuition and emotion in determining ethical judgment and
behavior (Haidt, 2001), Taylors insights seek to rescue from the fringes a broader
range of moral sources on which individuals rely to make sense of the morality of
foundations. These may include, for instance, sources that scientific and purportedly
value-free theories of morality (like MFT) have disregarded as irrational: religious
teachings, deities, traditions, cultural norms, family teachings, political/social causes,
and so on. For Taylor, what is pivotal is that individuals experience these sources as
existing independently of human desire, will, and artifice. Overall, what this suggests
for MFT is that, just as there are pluralistic foundations, there are pluralistic accounts
that can be provided for the morality of foundations. And, contra MFT, Taylor does
not emphasize one type of account over otherse.g., a functionalist one over a deity-
based one. Rather, he is expansive in describing the types of moral sources that
individuals reference in their accounts of morality. As an example, when trying to
explain why purity of thought, body, and soul is a moral foundation that deserves
ones esteem and love, an individual may reference a religious belief or traditional
practice in her culture (Haidt, 2012). In a Taylored reading, rather than discount
religion or tradition as legitimatesources for morality (as is often the case in
scientific studies of morality), these are viewed as moral sources on account of the
human experience of them as ontologically prior and self-resonant.
Taylors insights here help address not only the explanatory issues within MFT but
also the predictive issues identified earlier. While some individuals or cultures may
certainly rely upon an evolutionary-cum-biological account alone, to explain why
foundations are moral, individuals in non-WEIRD countries may be less likely to do
so. While a Taylored reading of MFT may not be able to predict what types of moral
sources individuals rely on to make sense of a foundations morality, it would predict
the ontic normative experience individuals have regarding a foundations morality.
Decoupling the Foundations from the Functionalist Account
The third proposition that can be advanced suggests that foundations are moral
because humans experience them (e.g., justice, care, loyalty) as moral sources.
Whereas the other two propositions propose that foundations are moral to the extent
that they are connected to other moral sourcessources embedded within the
16 Business Ethics Quarterly Published online by Cambridge University Press
functionalist narrative and/or ones beyond this narrativethis proposition suggests
that foundations are morally meritorious on their own normative standing.
As described previously, MFT scholars identified the best candidatemoral
foundations through anthropological and cross-cultural studies in which individuals
were asked to explain why they believed certain acts/situations were right/wrong. In
individualsaccounts, they uncovered numerous references to themes like justice,
care, purity, and so forth. MFT scholars then sought to establish the universality of
these themesthat is, their moral goodnessby claiming that they must also serve
some evolutionary function, causing them to then be ingrained in the brains and
bodies of humans.
In response, Taylor might ask why the experiential account individuals provided
was insufficient to establish the morality of foundations in the first place. For Taylor,
if it was found that individuals referenced goods of authority, justice, and so on as
reasons for their perception of certain acts/situations as moral (a descriptive finding),
then moral theories must take individuals seriously and impute ontological signif-
icance to these goods (a normative claim). It should be emphasized here again that
Taylor is not a moral subjectivist who believes that what is moral/immoral is subject
to individualsown personal beliefs and social customs/norms/mores. Put simply,
just because an individual says that purity is gooddoes not make it so. What is
crucial for Taylor is that individuals experience purity in a non-anthropocentric
way, as not deriving solely from human will or choice nor depending only on the fact
of individual affirmation of their value(Abbey, 2000: 31). Taylor would thus push
back on research (including studies found within the moral foundations tradition)
that discounts individualsown narratives of morality. Indeed, a methodological
strategy in some moral psychology research is the attempt to dumbfoundindivid-
uals by repeatedly interrogating them as to why they believe goods like purity are
worthy of their allegiance and esteem (Haidt, 2012). In this approach, an individuals
answer that purity is a moral good because having a pure body, mind, and soul has
significance independent of us or our desires(Taylor, 1992: 82) may not count as a
good enough moralanswer compared to an answer that links purity to its evolu-
tionary functionality. For Taylor, such dumbfoundingis aligned with reductive
theories that attempt to rid individuals of explanations they rely on to make sense of
themselves. Regarding reductive theories, Taylor (1989: 57) states,
Proponents of a reductive theory may congratulate themselves on explanations which do
without these or those terms current in ordinary life, e.g., freedomand dignity.”…
Suppose I can convince myself that I can explain peoples behavior as an observer without
using a term like dignity.What does this prove if I cant do without it as a term in my
deliberations about what to do, how to behave, how to treat people, my questions about
whom I admire, with whom I feel affinity, and the like?
In a Taylored reading, then, foundations identified in MFT may be morally merito-
rious and worthy of esteem and allegiance owing to their indispensability to the
human capacity to make sense of moral experiences. That is, if we were to rid
humans of the concepts of justice, care, purity, and so forth, humans would not be
17Taylor-ing Ethics Published online by Cambridge University Press
Empirical Implications for MFT
The conceptual advances offered earlier can yield implications for the empirical
study of MFT. To date, the primary instrument used to study MFT is the Moral
Foundations Questionnaire (Graham et al., 2011). The questionnaire presents par-
ticipants with statements aligning with each foundation and asks them to rate how
relevant the statements are to their moral judgments. There is utility to the scale in
that it has been validated among certain samples (Kivikangas, Fernández-Castilla,
Järvelä, Ravaja, & Lönnqvist, 2021), and it can be administered to a large population
(e.g., to date, 192,870 respondents have taken the questionnaire via the website; Kivikangas et al., 2021). The benefits of the questionnaire are
obvious, although researchers should also be mindful of recent issues concerning the
questionnaires generalizability and psychometric properties (e.g., Davis et al.,
2016; Kivikangas et al., 2021).
Beyond these issues, the questionnaire may not be able to capture fully the
Taylored reading of MFT presented herein. If, as per Taylor, individuals experience
foundations as moral because of the foundationsassociation with independently felt
and ontologically prior moral sources, then the questionnaire does not capture why
people experience foundations like justice, care, harm, and so on as moral founda-
tions that should be relevant/pertinent to their thinking. In other words, the ques-
tionnaire may capture the fact that people endorse certain foundations but not why
the foundations are experienced as moral. The latter was likely not intended by the
questionnaires authors. Nonetheless, if we are to seek a comprehensive understand-
ing of the foundationsuniversality and experiential goodness, then empirical
studies should seek to uncover the moral sources that empower the foundations.
This could be assessed via qualitative methods.
A recent notable example is the
qualitative research of McAdams et al. (2008). The purpose of their study was to
examine how religious and politically active participants described their beliefs and
worldviews. After open-ended interviews with participants, the authors used MFT as
a schema to code whether participantsdescriptions referenced foundations of care,
justice, purity, and so on. Their empirical findings show support for MFTs claims,
insofar as they demonstrate that people across religious and political spectrums seem
to endorse certain foundations, such as justice and purity, as morally meritorious.
Yet what was interesting in the study proved to be the exogenous moral sources that
individuals invoked to make sense of why foundations like justice, purity, and so on
should be ascribed moral status. Specifically, what was not revealed in the descrip-
tions was an evolutionary-cum-biological account for the inherent goodness/moral
worthiness of the foundations. That is, the foundations were not explained to be
moral because of their evolutionary functionality and subsequent biological hard-
wiring. Instead, participants referenced sources from which they learned these
Admittedly, a qualitative approach has its own complications. The implication here is not that the
questionnaire should be abandoned but rather that, where and when possible, the validity of the questionnaire
could be triangulated with individualsown accounts of their moral beliefsaccounts that, per Taylor, likely
contain terms that are indispensable for their understanding of a foundations morality.
18 Business Ethics Quarterly Published online by Cambridge University Press
lessons (e.g., parents, mentors, God, a difficult life experience) to explain how the
foundation became manifest to them, how they then came to appreciate or love the
foundation, and how the foundation continues to make a claim on themvis-à-vis
demanding their respect and allegiance (Taylor, 1992). The results from this study
are suggestive, but they point to the notion that, in providing the best accountof
ones moral foundations, the terms/concepts that proved indispensable referred to
nonfunctionalist sources, such as parents, God, and tradition. Future research could
expand on these findings and uncover the pluralistic and experiential moral sources
that help provide individuals with a clearer and more self-intelligible understanding
of the morality of foundations.
A Taylored reading of MFT may have implications for ethical leadership, behavioral
ethics research, and ethical pedagogy.
Ethical Leadership
In their review of the literature, Weaver et al. (2014) note that although MFT has
gained popularity across various disciplines, its integration into business ethics has
been relatively rare. The authors mention ethical leadership as a relevant domain to
which MFT could contribute insights. Taylors reading of MFTparticularly the
argument that retrieving moral sources can promote self-understandingcan offer
unique insights for how ethical leadership is studied and understood.
Ethical leadership has been typically defined as the demonstration of norma-
tively appropriate conduct through personal actions and interpersonal relationships,
and the promotion of such conduct to followers through two-way communication,
reinforcement, and decision-making(Brown, Treviño, & Harrison, 2005: 120).
Recently, some scholars have advanced a constructivist approach, in which ethical
leadership perception is viewed not as solely founded on the demonstration and
promotion of a narrow set of universally desirable behaviors (e.g., honesty and
trustworthiness)but rather as a function of social construction(Fehr, Yam, &
Dang, 2015: 184; see also Egorov, Kalshoven, Verdorfer, & Peus, 2019; Giessner,
van Quaquebeke, van Gils, van Knippenberg, & Kollée, 2015). Integrating MFT
into the constructive process, Fehr et al. (2015) theorized that ethical leadership
perception hinges on the match between leadersand followersmoral foundations.
For instance, followers who endorse the moral foundation of justice will be more
likely to view leaders as ethical to the extent that leadersbehaviors are also
consistent with the same moral foundation. The constructivist perspective brings
followersmoral selvestheir moral foundationsexplicitly into view, emphasiz-
ing the importance of self-referentiality in the ethical leadership perception process.
In sum, followers will view leaders as ethical to the extent that leadersbehaviors
resonate with followersown moral foundations.
A Taylored reading provides a way to integrate these seemingly disparate
approaches into ethical leadership perception. The crucial insight derived from the
work for retrieval consists of the notion that foundations are experienced as moral
Taylor-ing Ethics Published online by Cambridge University Press
owing to their association with moral sourcessources which are themselves
experienced as ontologically independent from the self. Foundations are thus clearly
self-referential in that they are personal to the individual and reflect what a person
senses to be good/bad, right/wrong, and so on. Yet just because foundations are self-
referential and personal does not mean that they are detached from notions of the
good or from a moral vision.
If we apply that insight to ethical leadership perception, we can see how the
constructivist and normativist claims are integrable. On one hand, followersper-
sonal endorsement of foundations influences the extent to which they perceive
leaders as ethical. A leaders behavior must be felt as personally significant and
must resonate with a follower vis-à-vis eliciting/activating the followers endorsed
foundations. On the other hand, what is experienced as personally significantthat
is, the leader behavior(s) that elicit/activate followersendorsed foundationsis not
subjectively determined neither by followers nor by leaders themselves. Construc-
tivist scholars concede this point, noting that not all leader behaviors elicit/activate
followersendorsed intuitions. Rather, these scholars draw from MFT to claim that it
is leader behaviors aligned with the best candidateuniversal foundations (e.g.,
harm, purity) that activate followersendorsed intuitions and that lead to the con-
struction of ethical leadership perception. Using Taylors insights, we can propose
that ethical leadership perception is 1) constructivist, insofar as the leaders behavior
must resonate with the individual in some way vis-à-vis eliciting/activating endorsed
foundations (Fehr et al., 2015), and 2) normative, insofar as what elicits followers
endorsed foundations are leader behaviors linked to, and aligned with, foundations
(justice, benevolence, care, compassion, loyalty, etc.) that have significance inde-
pendently of followersand leadersdesires, preferences, and so on.
Behavioral Ethics
Moral Intuitionism
As noted previously, behavioral ethics scholars have coalesced around a rationalistic
or nonrationalistic approach: the former posits that individuals can arrive at moral
judgments from coldprocesses of logical deduction and rational thinking; the
latter approach posits that moral judgments are determined largely by hot,non-
deliberate processes, including intuition and heuristics. That being said, scholars
have acknowledged that the approaches overlap and have begun to shift the question
from one of either/orto one of how they are related(Reynolds, 2006). For
instance, Monin et al. (2007) argue that situations that call for immediate reaction
may be those in which nonrationalistic processes are more determinative, whereas
situations that call for careful analysis may be those in which rationalistic processes
are more consequential. A Taylored reading of MFT incorporates elements from
both approaches and suggests that, when the two are complementary, there is the
possibility of a more clairvoyant understanding of ones moral experiences. As with
the nonrationalistic approach, Taylor would likely agree that individuals have an
affective reaction regarding the goodness/badness of encountered stimuli without
having deliberated on it in an effortful manner. However, Taylor also assigns to
20 Business Ethics Quarterly Published online by Cambridge University Press
language (broadly understood) an integral role in individualscapacities to connect
intuitions to an exogenous moral source experienced as ontologically prior. Absent
this connection, an intuition may become nothing more than a moral frisson that
soon subsides. So, in a Taylored reading of MFT, the implication is that both
intuition and the use of language to connect that intuition to moral sources beyond
the self are essential in producing a perspicacious and self-intelligible understanding
of ones moral experiences. By no means is this implication meant to solve the
rationalistic or nonrationalistic debate. Instead, it contributes to an integrative
approach (e.g., Reynolds, 2006) that portrays rationalistic and nonrationalistic
processes as operating in complementary ways.
A Taylored reading of MFT also has implications for how ethics scholars (par-
ticularly intuition scholars) think about the role and purpose of post hoc sense
making. Currently intuition scholars largely view sense making as post hoc ratio-
nalizations that individuals use to justify their own intuitions to others (Haidt, 2012).
This frames sense making as wholly other serving, akin to a legalistic defense of
ones already codified and assured intuitions to a jury of ones peers. And yet, per
Taylor, sense making could also facilitate self-understanding and discovery. Indeed,
without this sense makingand the connection to moral sources that such sense
making facilitatesintuitions may not be hindered in their capacities to experience
intuitions as emanating from moral foundations. All in all, Taylors perspective on
MFT casts post hoc cogitations in a more normative manner, suggesting that
individuals do not seek merely to justify their intuitions to others using readily
available excuses but that these sense-making efforts can in fact be conduits whereby
individuals come to know, and orient themselves toward, the good.
Interiority and Exteriority
Finally, although this article focused exclusively on the integration of Taylor to
MFT, his work can provide some insights into behavioral ethics research more
generally. His potential contribution to behavioral ethics is to expand the scope of
theorizing from an interior-focused explanation of ethical/unethical behavior to an
exterior-focused examination of how individualsconnections to moral sources can
help guide their capacities to act ethically.
For Taylor, modernity has become infatuated with interiority: the idea that indi-
viduals have a moral sense from withinand must therefore retreat inward to
become connected to the moral and the good (for a critique of interiority in orga-
nizational studies, see Staw, 2016). The interiority imperative has had, and continues
to have, profound implications for how morality is understood today. Within the
social sciences, Carl Rogers (1961: 187) advocated for a person-centered approach
to psychology, in which there was an increasing trust in ones organism.Among
behavioral ethics research, scholars have generally echoed Rogerss view, arguing
that individuals have, for example, an internal moral compass (e.g., Bennett, 1995;
Huntsman, 2010)oraninner voice that tells us what we should and should not do
(Moore & Gino, 2013: 55). To become less ethically adrift,scholars have pro-
posed that individuals regain control of our moral compasses even in the face of
the social processes that facilitate moral neglect, justification, and inaction(Moore
21Taylor-ing Ethics Published online by Cambridge University Press
& Gino, 2013: 71). Behavioral ethics constructs like moral identity (Aquino & Reed,
2002) and moral conation (Hannah, Avolio, & May, 2011) have tended to frame
ethical/unethical actions as dependent on individualscapacity to develop internal
moral compasses, ones on which individuals can rely to guide and direct their
On one hand, Taylor would agree with this approach insofar as he, like the
interiority-focused scholars described earlier, believes that explaining ethical/
unethical behavior requires a focus on the individuals themselves and how their
internal moral compasses can guide and direct their ethical behaviors. On the other
hand, he would suggest a slightly different narrative regarding what types of moral
compasses are best.For Taylor, the bestmoral compasses are not ones that point
individuals toward ever more internal, isolated, and atomistic self-reflection.
Instead, the moral compasses that may be bestare ones that direct individuals
outward, to find and discover moral sources that are experienced as ontologically
prior and that self-resonate. That is, rather than advocating a retreat inward to
discover the right thing to do,Taylors work of retrieval argues that it is only in
the finding of, and connection to, a nonegoistic source or sources of the good that
individualsmoral compasses can be recalibrated. Indeed, for Taylor, unethical
conduct may be less a function of a faulty moral compass and more a function of
the moral compass having lost its bearings, vis-à-vis its disconnect from the moral
sources that made it functional in the first place.
Interpreting exterior yet self-resonant moral sources as crucial to ethical behavior
could have implications for the study of behavioral ethics. Indeed, some experimen-
tal research has started down this path by examining how exogenous moral sources,
such as moral rules (Shu & Gino, 2012) and moral symbols (Desai & Kouchaki,
2017), can affect ethical behavior. Desai and Kouchaki found in their study that
when subordinates displayed moral symbolsparticularly religious symbolsin
their workspaces (e.g., on their desks or cubicle walls), supervisors were less likely
to ask those subordinates to perform unethical acts. In addition, Shu and Gino
showed in their study that when individuals were conditioned to forget moral rules,
they were more likely to engage in unethical conduct. Both studies suggest that
connection to moral sources that are both exogenous and self-meaningful may be
crucial in promoting ethical conduct.
Following this, Taylors insights could also help focus scholarly attention on
uncovering the implicit moral sources (e.g., religion, family, moral rules, moral
principles) that guide and direct individual behavior. Rather than leaving tacit the
moral sources that direct behavior, scholars could engage in their own work of
retrieval, in which they uncover these visions of the good. This idea aligns with
recent calls in business ethics for scholars to be explicit about the normativethat is,
what is the good”—in so-called morality-based studies. As Baur and Palazzo
(2011) noted, when normative standards are ambiguous or left unspecified, claims
of moralityboil down to empty phrases with no tractable, normative reference
point. For Taylor, the normative reference point is likely an exogenous, independent,
and ontologically prior moral source that allows individuals clearer understandings
22 Business Ethics Quarterly Published online by Cambridge University Press
of themselves. Research should thus theoretically and, if possible, empirically
uncover the moral sources that guide individualsunethical/ethical behaviors.
Ethics Pedagogy
Finally, Taylors philosophy can have implications for business ethics pedagogy.
Given that within the social sciences, the nonrationalistic approach has burgeoned
only within the last twenty years, it is perhaps unsurprising that most ethics peda-
gogy is rooted in the rationalistic approach (Reynolds & Dang, 2017). The general
goals of this approach are to enhance studentsand practitionersawareness of codes
of conduct and to improve their capacities to deliberate ethical dilemmas con-
sciously (Weber & Wasieleski, 2013). To incorporate the nonrationalistic approach,
scholars have suggested that a pedagogical goal could be developing an ability to
exert some degree of cognitive control over intuition, so that trained individuals are
better prepared to manage their immediate intuitive reactions to situations(Weaver
et al., 2014: 119). Scholars have further suggested that this controlmay be
achievable via processes of emotion regulation and/or information gathering.
In a Taylored reading of MFT, controllingintuitions may depend, not neces-
sarily on regulating felt intuitions, but rather on a more normative process in which
individuals seek moral sources that make interpretable their intuitions. In practical
terms, this may mean that ethics curricula should focus on ways to encourage
students to look outward toward moral sources, to help them make interpretable
their intuitions. Although seemingly simple, this may prove difficult in todays
workplaces, where many employees are asked or even demanded to disconnect
themselves from notions of the good and to view their jobs and business as domains
separate from the moral sources that govern social life. The adages of business and
ethics being oxymoronicand nice guys finish lastattest to the nihilistic unbelief
in an ontic, independent, moral source that pervades corporate settings. This unbelief
normalizes employees stepping outsideof moral sources, thereby allowing them
to act unethically. Business ethics curricula could thus focus on a form of introspec-
tion and discoveryin which the focus is not on introspecting and discovering what
the individual finds to be personally and self-meaningful, or on discovering and
developing strategies to regulate and suppress ones intuitions. Instead, a Taylored
curriculum would potentially focus on developing individualscapacities to connect
to ontological visions of the goodvisions with significance to these individuals
independent not only of their own desires but also of those of their supervisors,
bosses, and organizations.
Taylors(1992: 72) thesis asks that we undertake a work of retrievalin which we
identify and articulate the higher ideal behind practices, and then criticize these
practices from the standpoint of their own motivating ideal.His insights are
particularly relevant to MFT, which is rooted in an evolutionary-cum-biological
approach of morality as innate and ingrained within the individual. Various social
scientists (Wilson, 1975,1978), psychologists (Haidt, 2012), and philosophers
(Hutcheson, 1769/2003) have advocated for some version of the sociobiological/
23Taylor-ing Ethics Published online by Cambridge University Press
innate viewpoint on morality. This view perceives individuals as enshrined with a
superior Sense, which I call a Moral one,in which Some Actions have to Men an
immediate Goodness(Hutcheson, quoted in Taylor, 1989: 260). Taylors work of
retrieval argues that behind this superior moral senseare moral sources experi-
enced by individuals as intrinsically good and ontologically prior. Applying the
work of retrieval to contemporary MFT, the goal of this article has been to present a
Taylored reading of MFTand, in so doing, to demonstrate that individualsinnate
moral senses are inextricably indexed to external, ontological, and self-resonant
visions of the good.
I am grateful to the former editor, Bruce Barry, and the anonymous reviewers for their
constructive inquiries and thoughtful guidance throughout the review process. I also thank
Scott Reynolds for his helpful comments on an earlier version of this article and Suzanne
Bratt for her copyediting assistance.
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Carolyn T. Dang ( is an assistant professor in organizational behavior at
the Pennsylvania State Universitys Smeal College of Business. She earned her PhD in
organizational behavior with a minor in research methods at the University of Washingtons
Foster School of Business. Her research explores ethical issues within organizations, with an
emphasis on incorporating normative and descriptive ethical theories (behavioral ethics) to
explain and predict organizational phenomena.
This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence
(, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
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Full-text available
While much research has focused on the effects of ethical and unethical leadership, little is known about how followers come to perceive their leaders as ethical or unethical. In this article, we investigate the co-creation of ethical and unethical leadership perceptions. Specifically, we draw from emerging research on moral congruence in organizational behaviour and empirically investigate the role of congruence in leaders’ and followers’ moral foundations in followers’ perceptions of ethical and unethical leadership. By analysing objective congruence scores from 67 leader–follower dyads by means of polynomial regression with surface response analysis, we find partial support for our theoretically derived predictions. Significant effects were revealed for the fairness, loyalty, and authority moral foundations but not for the care and sanctity moral foundations. We discuss theoretical and practical implications of these findings.
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