How Do Conservatives and Liberals See the World?

I don't have much use for either of them

Yes, yes. Godwin. I know!

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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]
  3. 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.
  4. 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.”
  5. 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.
  6. 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:

Chart from the show

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.


Update: 2/17/12

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.

22 Responses to “How Do Conservatives and Liberals See the World?”

  1. Jeff Says:

    I’m glad you saw this. I meant to send it to you earlier.

    I’m surprised the Conservative bar isn’t higher for “Authority” – you know, Altemeyer and all.

  2. Jeff Says:

    Love the pictures, btw.

  3. rightardia Says:

    Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development set me straight on the difference between liberal and conservatives.

    Kohlberg has a hierarchy of pre-conventional, conventional and post conventional and six stages of moral development. Kohlberg would argue Haidt got it wrong. Post-conventional people can understand conventional people better that the reverse because post-conventional people were conventional at one point in their life.

    Conventionals, on the other hand, have a great deal of difficulty grasping post-conventional thinking. Most liberals have attended college but don’t become liberal (post-conventional) until their mid -30s. This is why there will always be more conservatives than liberals.

    Charles Hampsden-Turner also wrote a book about Kohlberg’s ideas called Radical Man.

  4. Ron Britton Says:


    I like Kohlberg’s theory a lot. I’ve been meaning to write a post about it for years (I don’t know how I’ve managed to put it off this long.).

    The problem is, as I alluded to above, I have a hard time feeling confident about social science theories. I can’t poke them and see if there’s any substance there. That’s why I like to see what multiple scientists have to say about a subject.

    I like some of what Haidt said. I like a lot of what Lakoff says.

    But I think you may be right about Kohlberg. It seems right. It seems to tie everything together best. But does it really? Creationists like their “theory” best, because it seems right to them.

    I guess what I’m saying is I’m out of my element here, and I have to rely almost entirely on experts to tell me what’s “true”. When you look at how badly wrong social scientists have been in the past (I’m looking at you, Sigmund Freud!), it doesn’t give me a lot of confidence.

    I have to disagree with him/you on a minor point. I was definitely a liberal by my 20s (and probably earlier), even though I was probably still a conventionalist at that time. It’s just that my values were different. I viewed humans as an invasive species, so by my conventionalist thinking (the Earth is the authority figure that must be obeyed), environmental issues trumped human needs (within reason).

  5. Jeff Says:

    I have to second Ron’s point about Liberalism. When I was in school, in the mid-seventies, everyone I knew was a Liberal. Even the few conservative Christians I encountered were liberal politically. They became more conservative as they grew older, had to deal with life, and, of course, as a result of the Republican hegemony beginning with Reagan.

    I’ve seen this pattern played out in successive generations – liberal in college, increasingly conservative after that. I can’t think of one Liberal I know or ever have known, mid-thirties or older, who was a Conservative in his/her late teens/early twenties.

  6. Ron Britton Says:


    In my case, that’s not quite what I was saying. You’re right, there always seems to be more liberals among the young. As they age, many of them do become more conservative.

    I do know some old liberals, though, so it’s far from a universal tendency. I also know people who have become more liberal, in the sense of being more tolerant, as they get older. That comes from exposure to people belonging to the many “others” out there (blacks, browns, gays, etc.).

    Kohlberg posits his stages of moral development. A lot of conservative thought is caused by conventional moral reasoning, which is primarily concerned with adherence to social norms and a law-and-order mentality. It doesn’t have much room for subtlety or nuance. Obeying authority is one of its key motivations.

    Most liberal thought is caused by post-conventional moral reasoning, which is more concerned with the social contract and universal ethics.

    I’m oversimplifying a bit, and I’m sure there are exceptions to those descriptions, yadda yadda.

    What was interesting about me, is in my early 20s, I’m pretty sure I was still in the conventional moral development stage. I know my thinking about a lot of important issues was rather simplistic, with not a lot of appreciation of the complexities and conflicting needs within the issues.

    But rather than worshiping the law-and-order state, I had a different set of values entirely. I valued the “law” of the ecosystem instead. You can’t destroy the thing that sustains you and expect to survive. I was rigidly adhering to the cold hard facts of sustainability. If there are people cutting down the rainforest, boot them out! (I’m post-conventional now. I’m still opposed to peasants cutting the rainforest, but the causes are complex, and the solutions need to be as well.)

    So even though I was conventional, I was centered on a completely different set of values. I don’t think Kohlberg would have expected his theory to play out in such a skewed way.

  7. Jeff Says:

    I do know some old liberals, though, so it’s far from a universal tendency.

    Right, I know old Liberals as well (hell, I am one). I’ve just never known anyone who went from Liberalism to Conservatism as s/he aged.

    And I know about the stages of development, but that’s what confuses me, as the correlations we’re drawing here run counter to all of my experience.

  8. nichevo Says:

    I have a particular quote about liberalism/conservatism that I like. Sadly I no longer remember who said it and what the exact phrasing was.

    It was something like, “Liberals worry that there is too much suffering in the world. Conservatives worry that there is not enough.”

    It’s a generalisation, for sure, but it matches what we observe. Liberals worry about the poor and starving. Conservatives worry about welfare freeloaders and criminals/terrorists.

  9. Ron Britton Says:


    I’ve just never known anyone who went from Liberalism to Conservatism as s/he aged.

    Don’t you mean the other way around, since that’s the stereotypical path?

    And I know about the stages of development, but that’s what confuses me, as the correlations we’re drawing here run counter to all of my experience.

    I guess if Kohlberg is right, then going from conservatism to liberalism would be the stereotypical path. The problem is, in my experience, most people who are still in conventional thinking by their 30s will never move beyond it.

    It’s probably inaccurate to try to paste Kohlberg on top of liberal/conservative. I’m pretty sure I’ve met liberals who aren’t in post-conventional thought (I was one myself). I think their values are just different (as Nichevo said in the previous comment).

    I think it’s only accurate to say that Kohlberg’s description of conventional thinking accurately describes just about every fundie I can think of. They have a simplistic worldview, and they’re beholden to the authority and dictates of their god.

  10. Jeff Says:

    Don’t you mean the other way around, since that’s the stereotypical path?

    Oh, crap, of course I meant it the other way around. I can’t even blame it on the spell checker. My mind is just gone.

    I think it’s only accurate to say that Kohlberg’s description of conventional thinking accurately describes just about every fundie I can think of. They have a simplistic worldview, and they’re beholden to the authority and dictates of their god.

    Yeah, I think he and Altemeyer have it pretty much covered between them.

  11. Babsie Says:

    So, is J Haidt buying into a grotesque characterization of the liberal/conservative extremes? As his own online tests reveal, one’s political tendency is much more complex and nuanced than the media version. I’ve taken almost all of the tests available. On some measures I was off the charts liberal. On some I was on the conservative side. – for example, I was higher than most liberals (I do consider myself liberal) on Harm and Fairness, but closer to conservatives on Purity, Loyalty though somewhat less so on Authority. (note: I was relieved to see I score lower than average on the Psychopathy scale). We all may feel conflict when asked about difficult moral reasoning issues – is anyone a cartoon version of liberal or conservative?

    As a glance at around the table at thanksgiving dinners and family reunions remind us, there are many flavors of political identification, and some issues motivate us greatly, others hardly at all. Though I feel I have always been ‘liberal’ on most measures, whatever exactly that means, I am feeling a bit of sympathy – though no longer schadenfreude, mind you – for my conservative brethren. The extreme right wing has louder and shriller voices than they do and lifelong Republicans are feeling regret at inviting some of these wingnuts, colorful as they might be, to the party.

    Perhaps it is more sensational and eye-catching even for a scholar such as Haidt to use extremists, such as the Tea Party and Newt Gingrich, as the definition of conservative. But he is flat out wrong to explain away partisan divisiveness and refusal to compromise as an attribute of some morality. No morality is self destructive. His use of the word ‘karma’ as a way of explaining conservative acceptance of abject poverty as one’s due (the ant and grasshopper parable) is chilling – suggesting an India-like society. That is not a road this country is willing to go down, and even the most groupish conservative is shown to be generous* to their preferred charity. (*see Brooks’ study and note this is also not a perfectly clear picture either)

    What I did find compelling is Haidts assertion that we all are blinded by our confirmation bias, this writer included, of course. That Google and the internet in general has enabled and encouraged us to crowd into our own little echo chambers is perhaps the most important reason our political discourse has deteriorated to the point where the political system is non-functional. More so than any inborn or cultural tendencies of ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ the constant positive feedback loops of our media (internet as well as TV etc) choices separate and divide us. It is this rather than a moral stance that allows demonizing and refusal to compromise with the forces of ‘evil’ (his example of Boehner who could not even bring himself to use the word compromise)?

    “Conservative intellectuals actually are more in touch with human nature” may be true, in the sense that our human nature is groupish and warlike. This is descriptive and perhaps an historical view. I can think of no reason why these aspects of human nature should necessarily be nurtured any more than other less than optimal aspects of human nature (rape; xenophobia). If liberals are characterized as willing to override our group loyalty, authority, etc tendencies in favor of fairness to larger society, is that not an improvement for us all?

  12. rightardia Says:

    Many interesting comments.

    College students are exposed to liberal thought in college because many of the professors are post-conventional. However, Kohlberg wold argue most people don’t really function as post-conventional thinkers until they are in their mid-thirties.

    Social institutions like the armed services can have a an regressive effect on moral development. However, once the individual leaves that environment, the post-conventioneer moral compass returns. I actually saw a study on this when I was in the USAF.

    The GOP candidates are good examples of Kohlberg’s theory. Newt Gingrich appears to be stage 2 instrumental egoist and Rick Santorum a stage 3 conservative with his focus on the christian Evangelical subculture values.

    Mitt Romney is an “in the box” stage 4 establishment Republican who will never be confused by facts.

    Ron Paul is a Stage 4+. He is the most post-conventional of the Republicans.

    Obama is a stage 5 post-conventional thinker. Many lawyers are post-conventional because they understand that few things in a society are really in concrete and that laws can be changed and outcomes negotiated.

    Most of the leaders and reformers in society are post-convectional stage 5 and 6 thinkers who do not accept the status-quo as conventionals do.

    Kohlberg’s work goes beyond theory. He actually developed diagnostic tools to evaluate a person’s moral development.

    Kohlbers’s work was also built on the work of other developmental psychologists: Piaget and Erickson.

    Kohlberg’s work is on more solid ground than Haidt’s arbitrary laundry list of traits which differentiate liberals and conservatives.

    Haidt’s moral concerns are reminiscent of the boy scout law:
    A Scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent.

    Part of the problem with conservative thought is that it is rooted in authoritarianism and has become increasingly anti-intellectual.

    My view of the GOP is that it is made up of stage 4 establishment/country club types who wish to maintain the status quo and Stage 3 emotives such as rick Santorum, the Evangelicals and fundies, and the Tea Party. The Stage 3 types are the true believers.

    The GOP is aware of this dichotomy which has been creating problems in the primary between these two factions. A RNC slide alluded to the two factions when Michael Stephen Steele was at the RNC.

  13. Sue Blue Says:

    This is interesting – I was just having a discussion last week with my husband about Kohlberg’s theory of moral development and how I saw conservatives/fundies as those who never seem to be able to get beyond conventional thinking.
    When I was in my early twenties, surrounded by religion in a small, conservative town, I was more conventional myself. I certainly had a more black/white viewpoint on certain issues. I’m happy to say that I have become ever more liberal and progressive in my values, attitudes, beliefs as I’ve aged. I studied ethics (medical) while in nursing school, which helped the process greatly. My husband (lucky me!) also seems to be one of those people who become more liberal with age. Also, my son, who grew up at a time when I was more conservative (conventional), was a more conservative adult; whereas my daughter, who was born much later in my more liberal years, is a very progressive, socially engaged liberal.

  14. Eric Elder Says:

    The brain structures of liberals and conservatives are different. Liberals have more pronounced corpus callosums and conservatives have larger amygdalas, a more primitive part of the brain associated with emotion.

    This may explain why religion and emotional appeals work for conservatives. If you ever listen to Rush Limbaugh, his rants are highly emotional and low and content.

    Back to Kohlberg, a lot of people fit in between stages. There are 3+ and 4+ and 5+ people. There are also rationale reasons why someone might be conservative on some issues and liberal on others.

    However, Kohlberg’s theory is useful for analyzing politics and politicians.

    Keep in mind too that a conventional person in another country could have a different set of values that an conventional American.

    it is my view that Kohlberg’s ideas can better explain Haidt’s than the reverse. of course, there are few perfect theories. Theories are constantly being revised.

    Kohlberg also indicated that most people who develop post conventional thought have attended college.

  15. Jeff Says:

    The brain structures of liberals and conservatives are different. Liberals have more pronounced corpus callosums and conservatives have larger amygdalas, a more primitive part of the brain associated with emotion.

    I’m certainly more than willing to accept this – I’ve been pushing for a neurological basis for years – but is there now experimental evidence to support it?

    Ken Heilman of U of Florida has found differences in neural firing patterns in the prefrontal cortex, but I wasn’t aware of any evidence of difference in size.

  16. rightardia Says:


  17. Ron Britton Says:

    That article was published in December of 2010. It says:

    The research was carried out by Geraint Rees director of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience who said he was ‘very surprised’ by the finding, which is being peer reviewed before publication next year.

    Does anybody know if it has been published yet? I’d like to read the study. The media do an extremely poor job of reporting science. I’d like to read the original.

  18. Ron Britton Says:

    Found it! I had heard of Google Scholar, but I had never used it.

    You can download the article as PDF. I’ll try to read it today.

    (In case they pull it down eventually, the reference is Current Biology, Volume 21, Issue 8, 677-680, 07 April 2011.)

  19. Jeff Says:

    …and there it is. Thanks!

    Can I do the “Told You So” dance now?

  20. Eric Elder Says:

    It is likely that religious fundamentalism and racism are a consequence of the larger amygdalas that right wing nuts have.

    There is now a drug that may suppress racism because it effects the amygdala.


  21. Jeff Says:

    I’m still in favor of selective breeding, but I wouldn’t be opposed to medicating them.

  22. melior Says:

    Oh, it seems we now have a 7th foundation, according to the latest research, Intellectual Laziness/Careful Thoughtful Response:

    “When people use low-effort thought, they are more likely to endorse conservative ideology, according to psychologist Scott Eidelman of the University of Arkansas. Results of research by Eidelman and colleagues were published online in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.”