Saturday, April 25, 2009

Conservatives Live in a Different Moral Universe than Liberals-- And Here's Why It Matters

Liberals and conservatives have highly different moral priorities. And we have to understand them both if we want to accomplish anything. This article is a good first step. A few excerpts:

In a creative attempt to move beyond red-state/blue-state clichés, Haidt has created a framework that codifies mankind's multiplicity of moralities. His outline is simultaneously startling and reassuring -- startling in its stark depiction of our differences, and reassuring in that it brings welcome clarity to an arena where murkiness of motivation often breeds contention.

He views the demonization that has marred American political debate in recent decades as a massive failure in moral imagination. We assume everyone's ethical compass points in the same direction and label those whose views don't align with our sense of right and wrong as either misguided or evil. In fact, he argues, there are multiple due norths.

Last September, in a widely circulated Internet essay titled Why People Vote Republican, Haidt chastised Democrats who believe blue-collar workers have been duped into voting against their economic interests. In fact, he asserted forcefully, traditionalists are driven to the GOP by moral impulses liberals don't share (which is fine) or understand (which is not).

Four years ago, he recalls, "I wanted to help Democrats press the right buttons because the Republicans were out-messaging them.

"I no longer want to be a part of that effort. What I want to do now is help both sides understand the other, so that policies can be made based on something more than misguided fear of what the other side is up to."

Haidt's framework of political morality can be traced back to a dispute between two important thinkers: Shweder, who would go on to become his mentor, and legendary Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg. In his 1981 volume The Philosophy of Moral Development: Moral Stages and the Idea of Justice (Essays on Moral Development, Volume 1), Kohlberg essentially argued that other moral systems are mere stepping-stones on a path that will eventually lead the entire world to embrace Western humanist values. Reviewing the book for the journal Contemporary Psychology, Shweder politely but effectively tore that notion apart.

Citing his extensive research on traditional Indian culture, Shweder pointed out the inconsistencies and lack of convincing evidence behind Kohlberg's arguments. Agreeing with philosopher Isaiah Berlin, Shweder asserted -- and continues to assert -- that a range of ethical systems have always coexisted and most likely always will. In a 1997 paper co-written with three colleagues, he broke down primal moral impulses into a "big three": autonomy, community and divinity.

"Morality is not just about how we treat each other, as most liberals think," he argues. "It is also about binding groups together and supporting essential institutions."

With all that in mind, Haidt identified five foundational moral impulses. As succinctly defined by Northwestern University's McAdams, they are:

• Harm/care. It is wrong to hurt people; it is good to relieve suffering.

• Fairness/reciprocity. Justice and fairness are good; people have certain rights that need to be upheld in social interactions.

• In-group loyalty. People should be true to their group and be wary of threats from the outside. Allegiance, loyalty and patriotism are virtues; betrayal is bad.

• Authority/respect. People should respect social hierarchy; social order is necessary for human life.

• Purity/sanctity. The body and certain aspects of life are sacred. Cleanliness and health, as well as their derivatives of chastity and piety, are all good. Pollution, contamination and the associated character traits of lust and greed are all bad.

Haidt's research reveals that liberals feel strongly about the first two dimensions -- preventing harm and ensuring fairness -- but often feel little, or even feel negatively, about the other three. Conservatives, on the other hand, are drawn to loyalty, authority and purity, which liberals tend to think of as backward or outdated. People on the right acknowledge the importance of harm prevention and fairness but not with quite the same energy or passion as those on the left.

"I see liberalism and conservatism as opposing principles that work well when in balance," he says, noting that authority needs to be both upheld (as conservatives insist) and challenged (as liberals maintain). "It's a basic design principle: You get better responsiveness if you have two systems pushing against each other. As individuals, we are very bad at finding the flaws in our own arguments. We all have a distorted perception of reality."

In his quest to "help people overcome morally motivated misunderstandings," Haidt has set up a couple of Web sites, and At the latter, you can take a quiz that will locate you on his moral map. For fun, you can also answer the questions you think the way your political opposite would respond. Haidt had both liberals and conservatives do just that in the laboratory, and the results are sobering for those on the left: Conservatives understood them a lot better than they understood conservatives.

I suggest reading the whole article, as well as following the links and reading them. It's facinating stuff...

Took that morality quiz, too...
Here are my results:

read more | digg story


The Griper said...

a very interesting read, repsac and one of your better posts too.

repsac3 said...

Thanks, Griper... I love a good backhanded compliment as much as the next guy... But you are right, it is a very interesting read...

I hope you come on back though, because the post wasn't fully cooked when you saw it... I was still adding & editing, while you were commenting... (One drawback of posting via Digg, is you can't "save as draft," rather than "post.")

Anonymous said...

Very eye opening. I always kind of assumed that was the case, but its nice to have someone with authority say so too.

Lista said...

This looks like a really good article, that I so look forward to reading. I wish that I didn't have to go right now, but I do.

Pam's Place said...

Very interesting...esp. the part that says conservatives understand liberals better than they understand us.

repsac3 said...

First off, thanks to everyone who stopped by (or will stop by & read this in the future), and especially to those who've commented so far.

Kris: I've been thinking a lot about it... I mean, it's obvious that the political sides do value different things, but when it comes to morality itself, the theory that we're wired differently didn't occur to me. I've come to the conclusion that neither side's morality is "right" or "wrong," (except to the extent that we make it so), but rather that we're just different (I think of it as being the same way men and women are different, but neither is inherently "better."), and that we have to learn and to borrow from each other, if we're going to get anywhere.

On the other hand, of course, it is just a theory... 8>)

Lista: My summary isn't bad (at least, *I* don't think so), but if you want to capture every nuance of the thing, I'd suggest plowing through all of the original article (& the supporting links) when you're able.

Of the bloggers I read, you (& Griper) give the most thought and voice to moral issues, both within and without the partisan political framework. I think you'll find it interesting. No rush--and if you never do get around to it, that's ok, too--but I think that, of the folks I "know" from the innerwebs, you'll take the most from it...

Pam: Yeah, I kinda wonder why that is... I mean, I haven't tried it myself, but I wouldn't think it would be all that difficult to give the equal to, but opposite answer to those questions. I also wonder whether it's an understanding in terms of an appreciation for the moral values of the other side--as in, "Their moral motivations are worthwhile, but don't take these other (and I believe more important) moral motives into account."--or is it an understanding of how morally bankrupt, backward, or misguided misguided "they" (whichever side "they" are) is?

repsac3 said...

misguided misguided?

I think there's an echo in here...

Lista said...

Ok, I guess I'll start with your Summary than.

Just from reading your comment and what you said to KrisEveland, it appears that this relates to the issue of Absolute vs Relative Truth, which is a whole separate subject that we could get into.

Thanks for the Complement to Griper and I.

I'll be back with more later.

Lista said...

This Comments and the next one were actually First Typed into my Word Processor on Thursday of Last Week. Sorry it took me so long to finally get around to Submitting them.

I remember the first time that I glanced through your above summary that the phrase "Misguided Fear of what the other side is up to" caught my eye. It makes me think of the "Slippery Slope" phenomena and our Fears of how far the opposing side is actually willing to go. This Fear prevents a lot of Compromise from happening.

I have also heard of the idea that the Liberal Philosophy will lead us to "Embrace Western Humanism" and I would even add the word "Atheistic" to the "Humanism". Whether that is true or not does not change the fact that removing all references to God from public places is an infringement on the Freedom of Speech and in regards to this issue, the Left has not been willing to let up on its attacks against the Freedom of Speech of Christians.

I found it interesting that Liberals believe in Preventing and Relieving Harm and Ensuring Fairness, but not quite as much in Loyalty, Authority and Purity. An interesting side note to that is that Liberals tend to value Purity in relation to the Environment (Environmental Issues more than the Purity of the Body). To keep the body Pure in terms of Physical Health, Sexual Issues must also be addressed, because the fact that Sex outside of Marriage can lead to STDs can not be Debated and Homosexuality leads to Health problems as well.

Another interesting thought is how there are over laps. For example, Bad Health does in fact Bring Harm and Suffering, as also can Pollution, Contamination, Lust and Greed.

Lista said...

"I see Liberalism and Conservatism as Opposing Principles that work well when in Balance." Amen to that. In fact, I like this Entire Paragraph; especially the phrase "We all have a Distorted Perception of Reality." This is so true and especially among those who see Compromise as such a Negative, yet those are the ones who are the least likely to admit to the "Distorted Perception".

This is a very good Post, Repsac. Since there are about Eight Links connected to it, it could take me awhile to look at it all. As you know, I’m a little slow in my reading. That Quiz sounds Interesting, though.

I don’t know about being Wired Differently, Repsac. I think that there are indeed some Truths that are Absolutes. That’s a whole separate subject that I might one day Post on.

As to what you said to Pam, it seems to me that as Liberals focus on the "First Two Dimensions" and Conservatives on the "Last Three", yet Liberals view these Last Three Dimensions as "Backward or Outdated", and in doing so, mostly disregard them, while Conservatives "Acknowledge the Importance of" the First Two Dimensions and thus, do not disregard any of the Five. In saying this, it would appear that Conservatives are the ones who Include more in their Morality and Liberals are the ones who Limit and Disregard the Morality that is valued by their Opponents, thus, Leading more to Accusations, than to Understanding.

Just think about it. The Phrase "Acknowledge the Importance of" is way more generous and friendly than the Phrase "Backward and Outdated". Why can’t the Liberals at Least "Acknowledge the Importance of" the other Three Dimensions, rather than just throwing them out as "Outdated"?

repsac3 said...

"...removing all references to God from public places is an infringement on the Freedom of Speech and in regards to this issue, the Left has not been willing to let up on its attacks against the Freedom of Speech of Christians."---

I'm pretty sure that it is a minority of anyone who wishes to remove all references to God from public places. More people--and more of them liberals, I suppose--want to remove references to any particular religion from government spaces however, in accordance with the establishment clause of the first amendment. I think it'd be better if we could have a more "live and let live" attitude as regards religious expression on government property and in government funded institutions, but because so many freak out about their denomination not getting enough attention, someone else's faith getting too much, or the atheists questioning why any faith deserves government attention at all, the best way seems to be to just avoid religion in "state" situations all together.

(And again, who is this "the left?" Does it include me? Every Democratic officeholder? Some Democratic officholders? Any Democratic officeholders? And if it does not, is "the left" really the best term to use?)

"An interesting side note to that is that Liberals tend to value Purity in relation to the Environment..."The environment is largely a fairness issue, actually. Some people live where the waste gets dumped, or the hazards are, and some (generally including the folks who create them) don't.

I like how you linked the environmental movement to purity, and from there to sexual permissiveness and homosexuality. I don't share all your views--it isn't homosexuality that breeds disease, but permissiveness, same as with us heterosexuals, and besides, anyone, including the most pure, can get hit by a bus (meaning, there is risk inherent in just leaving one's house, but we do it, anyway)--but I like how you made them.

As to your second comment, I think you're reading too much into the word choices the author (or I) made. The best description of how it works was one I left out of the things I quoted. Somewhere in the article, a conservative writer (Douthat?, Willkerson?) said it was like a stereo equalizer. Both liberals and conservatives use bass, midrange and treble; we just use them in different proportions, because we value different sounds. I'm pretty sure no one's disregarding anything, and I think it'd be a mistake to paint either liberals or conservatives as "more moral" based on this article, and particularly on the wording the author chose...

Lista said...

Rather or not it is a Minority or not, does not change the annoying fact that we are continually having to send letters to Congress Men and Women and continually having to put Money into fighting against this Hostile, Atheistic, Anti-Christian group. I do not think that we should prevent Freedom of Speech in any way, even in Public Places. The phrase
"'State' Situations" is too often defined far too Broadly and when it is, Freedom of Speech is always effected.

When I originally made the comment about Freedom of Speech in Public Places, I did so to explain why the idea of "Politically Correct" has been taken too far. Whether you personally have taken the idea too far or not is irrelevant. The term has become an "Emotionally Charged" Phrase. Whether or not you are personally responsible for this is irrelevant. What is just is.

The main argument that I've heard that makes at least some level of sense to me relating to Environmental verses Physical Purity is that Physical Purity in relation to Sexuality is a Risk that is taken personally and involves only those who are engaging in the act, yet Environmental Issues effect other people besides those who Pollute.

I've said something else lately, though, relating to Environmental Issues, or more specifically, Global Warming and I'll give you the link in a minute after finishing my first read though your comment.

Anyway, thanks for the Complement.

I thought, Repsac, that the phrases "Backward or Outdated" and "Acknowledge the Importance of" came from the Article, not from you, for you were talking about the results of Haidt's Research. I didn't just base my comment on the fact that you used these phrases, though, Repsac, but also on the fact that I've seen the attitudes of a lot of Liberals and what you said rings true to me.

Ok, now for the Link. Of the Links I was considering, I guess I like best my Comment on Kris' Blog, "Reverse Discrimination...Is there such a Thing?".

Beneath this Post, I said "There are many Scientists who disagree that Man is the one causing this phenomena. It may just be a natural phenomena that we don't have much control over. My dad always says that the part that man contributes to this is so minute that it's not even worth talking about." and than in response to this, my friend Soapbox said "Indeed this is true. A good analogy would be to pee in the ocean and then consider the 'deletarious' effects to sea life."