Conservatives VS. Liberals

One of the criteria that Jonathan Haidt uses to identify Liberal vs. Conservative thinking is an openness to new experiences.  This basic and seemingly innocuous indicator tracks well with certain political affiliations as they related to the five foundations of morality.  Liberals as you may suspect are more open to new ideas and are therefore more willing to change.  They are more likely to focus on the good things in change, hoping for the best.  Conservatives tend to be reluctant to change, fearing that change may ruin the good things and bring more problems; unintended consequences.  Such an outlook tends to track with age; younger people tend to be more liberal and older people tend to be more conservative.

While researching morality Haidt wondered if there existed a difference in how conservatives and liberals view morality.  He created an interesting experiment to determine if there were moral differences between the two groups.  He posted a questionnaire online which asked various questions relating to these five foundations of moral values (www.yourmorals.org).  Questions are first asked to determine your “openness to new experiences”, which determines your liberal or conservative slant.  Then questions on five foundations of morality are asked.

The results of thousands of respondents in several countries provides clear evidence for a divergence of importance placed on these five foundations of morality.  Liberals’ value – Harm/Care high, then Fairness/Reciprocity, then a big drop to Authority/Respect and In-group/Loyalty, then least Purity/Sanctity.  Conservatives’ value – Harm/Care lower than liberals but place it at the top of their lists as well.  Authority is a close second followed closely by In-group/Loyalty, and Purity/Sancitity, with Fairness/Reciprocity at the bottom.

Graph results for 23,684 participants within the USA; more studies at www.yourmorals.com

 

I find the fact that Fairness/Reciprocity is ranked lowest by conservatives to be a very disturbing finding.  It seems somewhat intuitive but this study helps to quantify the correlation.  Conservatives, valuing authority much higher than liberals would suggest that they would be far more susceptible to authoritarian behavior; which does prove historically accurate and can be clearly seen in today’s politics.  That means a greater focus on “the mission“.

It therefore makes sense that Fairness/Reciprocity would be ranked lowest because Fairness/Reciprocity tends to get in the way of the mission.  As noted earlier, authority does not have to take the form of a human authority figure.  A meme that a person or group holds near and dear, a sacred value, can have authority.  This authority can be used to make good people do bad things.  That is an imbalance that should be of concern to everyone.

If one was feeling a bit less generous, they may conclude that given the closeness of the conservative responses, it could be conservatives in general have a poor understanding of ethics all together.  If one took all of the culturally prescribed “rights” and “wrongs” as being morally equivalent, it would be hard to distinguish between any of the five categories.  If what you understood of right and wrong was what your authority figures told you (God, Country, Family, etc), distinction between different categories would not matter much and a cultural understanding of morality would be all you would be able to understand.  Ethics, would seem a foreign concept.  Liberals on the other hand seem to have a better understanding of ethics, and therefore can prioritize the five foundations of morality better.

Liberals tend to comment that Ingroup/loyalty, Authority/respect, and Purity/Sanctity (items 3,4,&5) can and tend to lead to xenophobia, authoritarianism, and puritanism.  In his TED talk Jonathan Haidt points out that one thing in common with every successful civilization through history is that all five tenants of morality as he defines them have been present.  These successful civilizations seem “to use every tool in the tool box”.  That is an astute observation and accurate.

Haidt makes the argument that both liberal and conservative views are important and provide a balance.  This conceptual balance is seen in the Eastern cultures of Zen in the form of Ying and Yang, in Hinduism with Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the Destroyer, and elsewhere.  Haidt notes that liberals tend to favor change and conservatives stability.  He futher notes, “The great conservative insight is that Order is really hard to achieve, its really precocious, and it is really easy to lose.”  I would agree with this analysis.

In his TED talk he references a good quote, “If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against.  “The struggle between for and against is the mind’s worst disease.” – Sent-ts’an, c.700 C.E.

So in response to the question Haidt asks regarding, “Is it possible to not be for or against things?”, I would say yes to some extent.  I think you can stand beside an issues for long enough to properly evaluate it with the clearest possible lens and use language suitable to prevent your lens or analysis from becoming too highly contrasted to provide proper analysis to finally achieve that lofty goal of ethical Truth.

Ethics is circumstantial, so in the analysis of an ethical dilemma – one that likely exists in the grey of the world – use of the terms better or worse instead of right/wrong or good/evil helps to allows people to not stand for or against per se but beside an issue long enough to fully evaluate it without too much bias.  Inevitably if you are going to make an ethical judgement, you have to weight the circumstances presented and make a decision.  Inaction or ineptitude does not further justice.

As Haidt goes on to state:  Our Righteous Minds were designed to…

- Unite us into teams

- Divide us against other teams, and

- Blind us to the truth

…So his advice is to use moral humility to provide a passionate commitment to the truth.

I am not sure what he means by the term “moral humility”.  That phrase is ambiguous; kind of like “religious moderate”.  With regards to the statement, “Our righteous minds were designed to…”  I would say that righteousness is the logical conclusion of a moral foundation and necessary to its cause; and as noted likely an innate condition of the human mind.  Righteousness usually results from the perceived or real violation of an individual’s or group’s sacred values.  Unfortunately every great human atrocity has had elements of the last three elements of Haidt’s prescribed elements of morality.  While the correlation does not lead to a causal association it does offer some pause and some further investigation.

Sacred values induce inner fear scenarios – taboo decisions carry negative emotions.  This is the reason fear is such an important and effective means of control.  Negative emotions make people fearful, and visa versa; the two are closely linked and almost synonymous.  Seeing as three of the five foundations of morality are valued by conservatives far more than liberals; and that these three foundations have little if anything to do with ethics – rather are heavily based in religious memes evolved more as a means of control than of empathetic introspection; it makes sense that conservatives tend to favor hypothetical fear scenarios and other scare tactics to motivate their base where as liberals tend to try to energize their base with hope.  If a meme is sticky it will repeat itself.  Fear controls.  A meme that induces fear is one that controls thoughts and behaviors and likely repeats well.

So am I arguing against conservative thought in general?…or the tenants of morality as defined by the five pillars that Haidt discovered?….not exactly.  What I am primarily trying to do is to provide distinction between an Ethical foundation and a Moral one.

 

Until I read about Haidts distinctions of morality and how it related to liberals and conservatives I had not given a correlation much thought.  I do not think all conservative and morally based thought is wrong, but I have always been very concerned by the foundations of said thought as it relates to politics.  Many of the arguments used to defend some of the more extreme conclusions the fundamental elements of both groups arrive at have seemed ethically corrupt; and now I have a better understanding of why.

Conservative thought as it relates to a reluctance to change is good to a degree; likewise with liberal thought being a willingness to change-to a degree.  The problem is the political reality.  Extreme liberals tend to be anarchist; extreme conservatives tend to be authoritarians.  Extreme liberals are those who’s good intentions pave the way to hell on earth.  Extreme conservatives are those who’s mission focus leads them to actively create hell on earth; all while thinking they are doing the right thing.

By the nature of motivating forces (fear vs hope) and the fact that 66% of the worlds population is highly susceptible to the demands of authority, I find that political conservatives are better able to organize their troops and far more likely to engage in unethical behavior.  It is that realization that is what I fear and which is partly a motivation for writing this blog.  I believe that better educating people on ethics will lead to better social institutions with a focus and foundation on ethics, which will lead to greater stability with less need for authority, in-group loyalty, and concepts of purity/sanctity.

 

As a note of interest, I did take Haidt’s online test.  I rated (harm/care) equal to the conservative average (slightly below most liberals), I rated (fairness/reciprocity) slightly higher than the average liberal, and I rated (In-group/Loyalty, Authority/Respect, and Purity/Sanctity) lower than most liberals.  So my bias is clearly liberal leaning, if you did not already guess that.  From an American political perspective I am fiscally conservative and socially liberal; and after reading, “The Wrecking Crew” by Thomas Frank, and “The Death of the Liberalism” by Chris Hedges, I  am left with no political affiliation at this moment in American history.  The context of conservative and liberal for the discussions above and throughout most of this blog are not American political centric, rather general in the global sense; just like Haidt’s study.  That being said, I may use some current and past American political ideas to illustrate a few points.

After taking Haidt’s online test and using a bit of introspection, I realize my notions of fairness have been a strong driver for me my entire life; it likely lead me to think long and hard on the subject of ethics and write this blog.

Almost any emotion can be useful.  Anger is typically considered a negative emotion and for good reason, it can eat away at people like acid.  But acid is not always bad, it is made useful in many processes, including batteries or your stomach.  It can be used to neutralize chemical bases.  I have used my anger caused by the worlds incidences of unfairness to fuel me.  In many ways, my inner sense of fairness fuels many of my passions to seek a better world.

As people climb the social ladder, many seek the pursuit of happiness, thinking it is a goal.  This search for many follows a somewhat logical path of eliminating the bad.  Happiness in not a destination, it is the residue of doing good.  It can not be found, it has to be produced.  The more you try to seek it, the less happy you will likely become.  If however you focus on making the world around you a bit better today than it was yesterday, happiness is almost guaranteed.

 

6 thoughts on Conservatives VS. Liberals

  1. Hello,

    I have been doing some work with Jonathan Haidt’s ideas over the past year, so as I’ve read your interpretation of some of his work I thought maybe I could help to direct you to some information that would clarify his thought on ethics versus morality. You seem to have hit upon the distinction either independently or by some other influence, but the distinction does not seem quite as naturalized as someone who had really wrestled with the primary literature would have arrived at. Though he has given some good talks on the subject which are online, as in most cases, his most in depth analyses are in print. Fortunately, he makes most of his stuff available for free on his homepage here: http://people.stern.nyu.edu/jhaidt/home.html The work entitled “Morality” is where I want to direct your attention. In it he performs a review of psychology research relevant to the study of morality which led him to postulate the five pillars. In the introduction he reviews the traditional problems in ethics (Hume’s guillotine, Deontology vs consequentialism, virtue ethics, etc.). I’m sure you’re familiar. The struggle of philosophers who formulate(d) ethics is that they’re trying to put something which is not accessible to the reflective, conscious mind into words (the conduit of our shared consciousness). Therefor, most ethical theories are post hoc rationalizations of moral intuitions. Morality has served an evolutionary function in our development as a species, and as you observe, these ancient predispositions do not suit us for modern reality. I do not wish to be exhausting, however, and you seem the type of person who is honestly curious and to whom I do not need to sell ideas to. I merely wanted to share with a fellow ethical theorist what I feel to be a great resource.

    Sincerely,

    Eric

    • Eric,

      I appreciate the comment. The distinctions I make between ethics and morality are independent. I have read much of Haidt’s work and I agree with Haidt’s analysis of past philosopher’s attempts at “cracking the code”. Logic alone is not sufficient. The thing you call a “moral intuition” I call “innate knowledge” of ethics. My distinction is approachable and easily understood; if you can feel physical and emotional pain, then you possess knowledge of ethics. Using even a shallow amount of introspection, you can ask basic questions to derive the correct ethical answer. This base knowledge only requires a six word proof, “I feel, therefore I know ethics”. This proof is undeniable; both scientifically and philosophically.

      All answers in science are derived by asking good questions; ethics is no different. We don’t need the abstract ideas of property rights that form the foundation of Libertarianism or Kant’s equally abstract ideas of duty, we just need to put ourselves in the other’s shoes and ask ourselves if we would like it if “that” was done to us? It’s best to frame the question with regards to the two pillars of ethics – harm/care and fairness/reciprocity.

      I think Haidt did a good job determining the 5-moral pillars via scientific method. I agree with his analysis of these moral pillars. I agree with calling it morality. I think these pillars are part genetic imprint, part cultural memes. I feel the distinctions made here are valid and well supported. Given your comments, I’m not sure if you read through the entire blog, but I would encourage you to do so.

      I would also encourage you to challenge items that you read… and be specific. This book was published as a blog for free specifically to engage people in this type of discussion. I wanted the book to be a living document that could be challenged. If an idea cannot withstand criticism, its not a good idea.

      In reading your main challenge, it appears you prefer the idea of morality being unconscious and intuitive to the point of being beyond words…. if so, that does not seem very useful. While many intuitive things are “elusive obvious” concepts (hard to put into words but somehow “obvious” at the same time), once someone cracks the code on the elusive part by eloquently describing the condition, it becomes obvious to everyone once stated. I feel ethical understanding is much the same. Once you understand the basic building blocks, you can argue from an ethical perspective with relative easy.

      Can you better define what you mean by “moral intuition” and how one makes a moral argument from said intuition? Do you think authority/respect, In-group/Loyalty, and Purity/Sanctity are ethical concepts? If so, can you defend them in terms of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity? I see these three aspects of morality as tools for enforcing or subverting compliance to ethics. Like any tool, it can be used as a weapon if held the right way. This fact does not make them bad; we need tools to build things… it just means we need to respect their power and use them wisely.

      • Hello again,
        I began to write down some of my ideas and realized it would be far too long, so please forgive me for giving my response as bullets. Also, I know some of this doesn’t specifically address some of your points which may be valid in their own right, please do not think I’m talking past you. I merely want to build up a thesis on an alternative view of ethics.

        -All biological systems have evolved to overcome constraints placed on them by existence in the physical universe.
        -Humans and other great apes (as well as some other species) have in part solved the problems of physical existence by distributing survival tasks across members of groups composed of individuals.
        -Any group composed of individuals will have a competition between members of the same species since they occupy the same ecological niche and therefore require the resources.
        -Either the individuals have to exist relatively isolated from one another, or they have to have some means to manage resources as a collective.
        -This problem has been solved in mammals by the “pack mentality” which is a set of neural developmental predispositions that give rise to individuals which effectively work together.
        -There must be some way of identifying who belongs to the pack and who does not, otherwise, transient members can stop by for a meal without participating in the hunt or territorial disputes. Groups which allow this behavior are at a disadvantage which is why do not see much benevolence in nature.
        -Morality is the set of ideas and practices which serve as the scaffold for social interactions. Since proto-society is a development of the pack mentality, this pack mentality (and associated neural dispositions) is the basis for modern human morality.
        -Humans are not mere dogs, however, and I do not wish to suggest this, but the pack mentality intuitions which largely contribute to in group/loyalty and authority/respect are important foundations on which our moral psychology is built.
        -Human moral intuitions are, unsurprisingly, heavily directed towards perception of group membership and group commitments. Even a liberal (such as myself) who in his ethics states that group membership is not a basis for assigning resources in a society still assesses the “liberalness” of people with whom he cooperates. Though this not necessarily to the same degree.
        -Even within a hierarchy with established authorities, there is still some latitude for asserting individual ideas and beliefs. Our capacity for language has amplified the usefulness of this trait. Hierarchies depend on feedback for effective maneuvering towards some goal (“the mission” as you’ve identified it.
        -In the historical context where our moral intuitions evolved “the mission” was successful maintenance of resources which without agriculture was hunting, gathering, and defending gains from those who found it easier to steal than to work with the group. Sometimes these “cheaters” were members of the group itself in which case punishing the member (for minor infractions) or removing the member via execution or exile (for major infractions)has been the typical solution. These social pressures drove the early self-domestication of man and/or his ancestors.
        -Sometimes the cheaters were members of an outside group which cannot be punished lightly since they are of similar physical size and ability and therefore can co-opt the groups efforts by killing its members. Benevolence to outsiders is costly, and therefore has not been selected for. A tendency to disproportionately respond to encroachments from outsiders creates a safe territory by making it expensive for outsiders to cheat the territory’s inhabitants.
        -Agriculture meant the territories became static locations which depended on geographical features like water and fertile soil which are not easily defended in an extended campaign, therefore a pressure for groups to become larger and larger in order to defend territory emerged. Proto-humans were already cooperating in groups which consisted of non-kin members, so the development from isolated groups to interdependent groups of groups merely required commonalities between heads of group hierarchies.
        -Because agriculture allowed many people to be freed from being directly involved in food collection, and the management of groups is a complex affair, you see the emergence of a group of people who almost exclusively manage the affairs of others –the ruling class.
        -I alluded to members of a hierarchy providing feedback in order to enhance the effectiveness of the hierarchy. Feeling abused and cheated is an important aspect of how individual members of a group become motivated to enforce group norms. It is a feeling that most wish to avoid, and when we feel we wish to act on. Because a society’s groups of groups have a variety of concerns, the ruling class requires a system of navigating disputes between groups and members of groups which essentially motivates ethics. Within a group, morality and its associated intuitions allow members to regulate the behaviors of its individuals. Between groups, some sort of mutually beneficial, but mutually self-sacrificial deal has to be made. Because our commitment is primarily to our group and the negotiation is a necessary evil, we still try to exact conditions on our own terms.
        -The agricultural society gave rise to the commercial society where some individuals frequently interact across group lines and where intuitive notions about who is useful to cooperate with is have to depend on something besides group membership. Since we cannot expect members not sharing in our parochial morality to necessarily treat us in a manner satisfying to our particular moral concerns, a customary system of exchange became important– currency. A person’s usefulness to the massive hierarchies of thousands upon thousands of people in which they participated in was rewarded indirectly. The individual was no longer protected by the group, and his personal survival depended largely on getting a good price for his services. In a pluralistic, commercial society the fairness of transactions and the harm done by unfair aspects of the society occupy the largest portion of a person’s moral processing time.
        -Since more traditional groups (with their in group perks) exist concurrently with commercially dependent individuals, we see a historical process (almost resembling Hegelian dialectic materialism) where large numbers of people saw unfairness and effectively cooperated to attempt and rectify it. We see this phenomenon in the rise of Athenian democracy, the events leading up to the signing of the magna carta, the establishment of liberal democracy in the united states, and many many other times. We see reflection on the attitudes and beliefs underlying the various moral systems in philosophy of ethics. However, for the propositions of ethics to have any effect they have to be enforced. Traditional moral systems have little use for ethics (since they self organize and operate on survival principles). Therefore, ethics is actually a process of opposing many features of traditional morality, hence the complaint that liberals are evil, immoral, yada yada. We have the same moral intuitions as conservative individuals, but since we are outsiders and recognize that others feel the same way that in and of itself is enough of an in group signifier to motivate group formation and effective cooperation.
        -A person’s liberalness is not a function of their birth but instead is a function of the social circumstances under which they were brought up. Hence the cyclic nature of conservatism/liberalism. As liberals are successful, and the unfairness is rectified to their satisfaction, they can rely on more intuitive means to assess each other. This is also why everyone is liberal about some things and conservative about others.
        -In conclusion (for now, I suppose) ethics is not nearly as important in traditional moral schemes (i.e. tribes, religious groups, sports teams) as it is in more modern, liberal schemes. Since the expression of our moral intuitions about harm and fairness do not have the same emotional salience to everyone (since moral intuitions gain or lose in proportion to one’s life experiences and the traditional moral scheme emphasizes group cohesion over individual concerns about harm/fairness). This defeats the notion of a universal ethics, since as soon as a perceived unfairness is remediated, ethics are forgotten anyway. Since the population is constantly being resupplied by individuals with DNA that encodes for tribal morality, we have to either change man’s nature (A clockwork orange style) or have to do as Haidt suggested and understand the seemingly opposed intuitions as resulting in a very important process. Ethics seeks to remediate unfairness in societies while morality seeks to ensure continued group survival. In the modern era, we will constantly live with both, let’s just hope that a consolidated group does not emerge with the intent and strength to end the debate.

        • Eric,

          Jonathan Haidt would be very proud; you appear to understand his work well. The thing is, I agree with everything you wrote, for the most part at least. Let me try to clarify a few things.

          I think Jonathan Haidt’s analysis of how our nature evolved and the nature of our current state is quite accurate. I also agree that moral concepts are required for the enforcement of ethics; and for the smooth functioning of ethics. In a very real sense, ethics relies on morality.

          My point is that Morality is a tool that ethical understanding should be wielding; not the other way around. In order to understand ethics, you have to unlearn morality. Unlearning morality is mostly a liberal pursuit, as it requires introspection, a liberation of the mind, and questioning of memes surrounding authority/respect, in-group/loyalty, and purity/sanctity. When you complete your introspective process of unlearning morality, you are typically left with much of what you formally believed intact – provided you were raised with moral thought based on sound ethical principles.

          Human nature is everything good and bad. One of the best ways to have good people do bad things is to have an authority figure (which could be a meme) “tell” them to do the wrong things. If your framework is pure moral thought, then obedience to authority will have just as much salience as “do no harm”. If you look at the conservative spectrum, the grouping of the five pillars is so close that it’s easy to conclude that highly conservative people understand ethics as obedience to authority. Haidt does not make this conclusion but I do. I suspect Haidt looks past this because he sees himself as conservative, so he prefers the more benign, “Conservatives look to all five pillars, while liberals focus on harm/care and fairness/reciprocity”.

          While harm/care is the top ranking for conservatives, authority/respect is right behind it, followed closely by in-group/loyalty, purity/sanctity, with fairness/reciprocity scarily as the bottom of the list. Given the close proximity of each ranking, you could conclude there is no real distinction between these items. Is it not surprising that the ultra conservatives in society are almost always on the wrong side of history when it comes to matters of human rights. It is also not surprising the religious fundamentalist look to their books as sources of moral authority and morality itself. “Extremism in any ideology isn’t a distortion of that ideology. It is an informed, steadfast adherence to its fundamentals” – Ali A. Rizvi

          When it comes to the promotion of human rights it’s almost always the progressive or liberals that are pushing for increased care and fairness, and expansion of who is in-group. My conclusions on ethical understanding are validated by Haidt’s research. Liberals prioritize harm/care and fairness/reciprocity at the top of their lists, with authority/respect down quite a ways, in-group/loyalty close behind and purity/sanctity at the bottom of the list… where it rightly belongs.

          It is not surprising to me that most LGBT people are liberal. When everyone their age is trying to be just like the next person, they are discovering their is something very different with themselves. The thing that is different about them has no ethical bearing but society tells them that their nature is wrong. Think about that. These people have to unlearn these cultural memes and chart their own course. The act of doing this requires a liberation of the mind… and once you expand your mind, it does not contract.

          So am I against moral thinking? Yes and no. Moral thinking is necessary but it often impedes ethical understanding. Most of our ideas around purity/sanctity are at best very outdated and at worse very harmful (see the “Power of Poop” podcast for a great test of your concepts of purity/sanctity). Our ideas of in-group/loyalty while still necessary to some extent are paradoxically one of the largest impediments to our future survival; especially when paired with fundamentalist moral thinking. Respect of authority is fine, so long as your authority figure deserves respect. In order to figure that out, you have to reference ethics… any be willing to challenge authority when required. Authority is not a right, it’s a privilege provided by the willing support of the group.

          So in summary, ethics is the foundation that morality is based on. It is innate and it transcends time and culture. The fact that moral thinking is the tool that makes it possible for societies to enforce it, does not mean that it does not exist. Simply knowing the right path is no guarantee that people will follow it. But not understanding ethics is like trying to find your way without a compass & map… you are almost guaranteed to get lost. Will ethics be adhered to under all circumstances; certainly not, but that doesn’t mean it ceases to exist.

          Thanks again for the thoughtful comments. Hopefully these distinctions help to clarify my views on the matter.

  2. Pingback UrRepublic – Why Do Liberals Think The Way They Do?
    • I am reluctant to allow this UR Republic link primarily because it is quite misguided and it is founded in an almost religious fear of a “liberal boogie man” meme. The idea that there is an all powerful liberal elite that is trying to subvert the conservative youth is somewhat comical to me but I understand where it comes from.

      If your frame is ultra-conservative, and this is the frame of the UR Republic article, than any attempt to question authority is seen as subversive. The definition of subversive is: seeking or intended to subvert an established system or institution. The definition of subvert is: To undermine the character, morals, or allegiance of; corrupt.

      Anyone liberal enough to question authority is thought of a subversive by definition. So if you have an authoritarian frame, anything that undermine’s your authority is put in the bad category. I don’t think liberals think in terms of subversion because questioning authority is part of any critical thinkers repertoire. Being called a subversive would likely be a badge of honor. I think the most subversive thing to a liberal is religion, because it request blind faith, belief without reason, which is a scary concept for a critical thinker.

      The idea that liberals don’t appreciate current institutions, or that they don’t appreciate stability, or share things in common with conservatives is misguided. As my post indicates, liberals tend to frame things in ethical terms, conservatives tend to frame things in moral terms.

      There is a long winded article on “fixed” mindsets verse “growth” mindsets. Wisdom is only achievable with a growth mindset. If you fear change or are unable to question the statue quo the world would be a scary place.

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