The Morals That Determine Whether We’re Liberal, Conservative, or Libertarian

An old friend once wrote a line I’ll nev­er for­get: “There are two kinds of peo­ple in the world, then there are infi­nite­ly many more.” It always comes to mind when I con­front bina­ry gen­er­al­iza­tions that I’m told define two equal­ly oppos­ing posi­tions, but rarely cap­ture, with any accu­ra­cy, the com­plex­i­ty and con­trari­ness of human beings—even when said humans live inside the same coun­try.

Vot­ing pat­terns, social media bub­bles, and major net­work info­tain­ment can make it seem like the U.S. is split in two, but it is split into, if not an infin­i­ty, then a plu­ral­i­ty of dis­parate ide­o­log­i­cal dis­po­si­tions. But let’s say, for the sake of argu­ment, that there are two kinds of peo­ple. Let’s say the U.S. divides neat­ly into “lib­er­als” and “con­ser­v­a­tives.” What makes the dif­fer­ence between them? Fis­cal pol­i­cy? Edu­ca­tion? Views on “law and order,” social wel­fare, sci­ence, reli­gion, pub­lic ver­sus pri­vate good? Yes, but….

Best-sell­ing NYU psy­chol­o­gist Jonathan Haidt has con­tro­ver­sial­ly claimed that morality—based in emotion—really dri­ves the wedge between com­pet­ing “tribes” engaged in pitched us-ver­sus-them war. The real con­test is gut-lev­el, most­ly cen­tered on dis­gust these days, one of the most prim­i­tive of emo­tion­al respons­es (we learn in the hand-drawn ani­ma­tion of a Haidt lec­ture below). Haidt argues that our sense of us and them is root­ed, irrev­o­ca­bly, in our ear­li­est cog­ni­tions of phys­i­cal space.

Haidt sit­u­ates his analy­sis under the rubric of “moral foun­da­tions the­o­ry,” a school of thought “cre­at­ed by a group of social and cul­tur­al psy­chol­o­gists to under­stand why moral­i­ty varies so much across cul­tures yet still shows so many sim­i­lar­i­ties and recur­rent themes.” Anoth­er moral foun­da­tions the­o­rist, Peter Dit­to, pro­fes­sor of Psy­chol­o­gy and Social Behav­ior at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Irvine, uses his research to draw sim­i­lar con­clu­sions about “hyper­par­ti­san­ship” in the U.S. Accord­ing to Dit­to, as he describes in the short video at the top, “morals influ­ence if you’re lib­er­al or con­ser­v­a­tive.”

How? Dit­to iden­ti­fies five broad, uni­ver­sal moral cat­e­gories, or “pil­lars,” that pre­dict polit­i­cal thought and behav­ior: harm reduc­tion, fair­ness, loy­al­ty, authority/tradition, and puri­ty. These con­cerns receive dif­fer­ent weight­ing between self-iden­ti­fied lib­er­als and con­ser­v­a­tives in sur­veys, with lib­er­als valu­ing harm reduc­tion and fair­ness high­ly and gen­er­al­ly over­look­ing the oth­er three, and con­ser­v­a­tives giv­ing equal weight to all five (on paper at least). Dit­to does step out­side the bina­ry in the last half of the seg­ment, not­ing that his stud­ies turned up a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of peo­ple who iden­ti­fied as lib­er­tar­i­ans.

He takes a par­tic­u­lar inter­est in this cat­e­go­ry. Lib­er­tar­i­ans, says Dit­to, don’t rank any moral val­ue high­ly, mark­ing their world­view as “prag­mat­ic” and strik­ing­ly amoral. They appear to be intense­ly self-focused and lack­ing in empa­thy. Oth­er strains—from demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism to anar­chism to fascism—that define Amer­i­can pol­i­tics today, go unmen­tioned, as if they didn’t exist, though they are arguably as influ­en­tial as lib­er­tar­i­an­ism in the strange flow­er­ings of the Amer­i­can left and right, and inar­guably as deserv­ing of study.

The idea that one’s morals define one’s pol­i­tics doesn’t seem par­tic­u­lar­ly nov­el, but the research of psy­chol­o­gists like Haidt and Dit­to offers new ways to think about moral­i­ty in pub­lic life. It also rais­es per­ti­nent ques­tions about the gulf between what peo­ple claim to val­ue and what they actu­al­ly, con­sis­tent­ly, sup­port, and about how the evo­lu­tion of moral sen­si­bil­i­ties seems to sort peo­ple into groups that also share his­tor­i­cal iden­ti­ties, zip codes, and eco­nom­ic inter­ests. Nor can we can­not dis­count the active shap­ing of pub­lic opin­ion through extra-moral means. Final­ly, in a two-par­ty sys­tem, the options are as few as they can be. Polit­i­cal alle­giance can be as much con­ve­nience, or reac­tion, as con­vic­tion. We might be right to sus­pect that any seem­ing political—or moral—unity on one side or the oth­er could be an effect of ampli­fied over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion.

via Aeon

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Yale’s Free Course on The Moral Foun­da­tions of Polit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy: Do Gov­ern­ments Deserve Our Alle­giance, and When Should They Be Denied It?

Han­nah Arendt Explains How Pro­pa­gan­da Uses Lies to Erode All Truth & Moral­i­ty: Insights from The Ori­gins of Total­i­tar­i­an­ism

Do Ethi­cists Behave Any Bet­ter Than the Rest of Us?: Here’s What the Research Shows

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.