How Do Conservatives and Liberals See the World?
I just watched the latest episode of Moyers & Company with Bill Moyers. He interviewed social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Haidt has a forthcoming book titled The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. It was a fascinating program. I recommend it, if you haven’t watched it already.
This part of Moyers’ intro sort of sums up Haidt’s premise:
His ideas are controversial but they make you think. Haidt says, for example, that liberals misunderstand conservatives more than the other way around, and that while conservatives see self-sufficiency as a profound moral value for individuals, liberals are more focused on a public code of care and equity.
The thing about any of the social sciences is that they’re tricky to study. You can stick water in a beaker on a hot plate to measure its boiling point, but how do you measure a society’s boiling point? The social sciences are littered with the corpses of theories, plausible and crazy alike, that attempted to explain why we behave (individually or collectively) the way we do.
This Haidt guy has some interesting ideas. Is there any truth to them? I don’t know. I like things that can be measured objectively, and this isn’t it. I know I’m more partial to the ideas of George Lakoff, but I don’t know that he’s right either.
Haidt’s ideas are based on his Moral Foundations Theory. He describes it on its website:
In brief, the theory proposes that six (or more) innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of “intuitive ethics.” Each culture then constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world, and conflicting within nations too. [emphasis added]
These six foundations are:
- Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
- Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]
- Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.
- Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”
- Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
- Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).
When they asked liberals and conservatives how strongly they felt about those issues, this is how it came out:
I guess my biggest concern is how neutrally the questions were worded. It’s extremely difficult to write bias-free questions. Even his choice of labels raises some questions. In the list above, the first word of each pair is clearly the “better” or more desirable trait. But when I see the word “authority”, for example, I have an immediate negative reaction.
I’ve always disrespected authority. And what is “legitimate authority” anyway? There is very little in this country. The politicians have authority by virtue of occupying the roles defined in the Constitution, but it is not legitimate in my view. They have not earned that authority. They bought it with massive campaign contributions from Rupert Murdoch, the Koch brothers, and a few other unelected billionaires.
Or maybe he is referring to actual legitimate authority, which would result from free and fair elections. I’m all in favor of that, but we don’t have too many of those.
I score low on one perception of the definition, but high on the other. Since I don’t know how free of bias (conscious or unconscious) his questions were worded, I don’t know how much stock to put in his results.
It sure is peculiar that the liberals are so extremely lopsided and the conservatives are so evenly distributed.
Despite my doubts, he nevertheless has some interesting things to say in the interview. It’s worth trying to listen with an open mind and learn what we can from it.
Oh, and notice at the end of the interview that he shares my opinion that the system is extremely broken. He is of the mistaken opinion that it is fixable, though.
Rightardia posted about this at his own blog and added some more thoughts. He explains why Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development is a better model for explaining the differences between liberals and conservatives. I think Kohlberg is dead-on when explaining fundies, but I’m not yet convinced it applies to all conservatives and all liberals. You should give it a read.