Liberals and conservatives tend to argue with misguided aggression, with their fingers stuck in their ears, says psychologist Jonathan Haidt (see his good essays on the topic here and here).   

People who identify as either liberal or as conservative are likely to think that they hold moral beliefs and the opposing side does not, he says.  That’s a basic disconnect which can kill meaningful conversation. 

One explanation for the disconnect is that each side tends to register different slices of life as a “moral.”  In turn, we can feel radically different types of passion in the same physical scenario.

In his lab, Haidt has identified five moral impulses, or fives ways in which people’s moral buttons tend to be pushed.  He’s found that liberals tend to have the first two of the five “buttons,” and conservatives have all five.  For instance, when confronted with one issue like birth control, liberals might see it as a moral issue in terms of “harm,” and conservatives might frame it as a moral issue in terms of three buttons: “harm,” “authority,” and “purity.”  This doesn’t mean that one camp is more moral than the other, but it does mean that the two sides experience a different moral landscape.  When they talk to each other, they often miscommunicate because they’re not labeling the same pieces of the world as a moral matter.

Below are the five categories Haidt’s identified, which I’m calling the “buttons” that can be pressed to make us feel moral impulses.  Because Haidt is an evolutionary psychologist, he ascribes evolutionary origins to the following.   

The Five Moral Impulses

1) Harm/care. We’re a species that thrives when it keeps its young around for a long time and protects them.  In turn, we have developed nuanced capabilities for compassion.  We are good at sensing when others (our kids, but others, too) are suffering.  Cultures publicly promote the feeling of compassion in order to minimize brutality.

2) Fairness/reciprocity. We are also a species that evolved to form beneficial alliances, or to know what “fair” is for various members of a group that’s trying to stick together.  In turn, we’ve developed emotions that can foster fairness, like guilt, shame, revenge, responsibility, generosity, and gratitude.  All cultures have also developed abstract systems for “justice” to formalize what each group member is due to keep a group together.

3) Ingroup/loyalty. We survived as a species due to loyalty, too.  We have developed emotions and thinking patterns that help us defend an ingroup (people of a similar race or political bearing or religion, etc.) and reject the outgroup.  The most remarkable of these thinking patterns is prejudice: Our brains quickly size up others as “like me” or “not-like-me.”  The brain takes shortcuts to grossly categorize others and assess them as friend or foe.  Protecting the ingroup takes a certain personality structure, perhaps one with courage and aggression.  In turn, we have developed cultural notions like loyalty and heroism on the one side, and betrayal or treason on the other.

 4) Authority/respect. We also survived because we developed a sense of social hierarchy.  Monkeys, bees, and other species show similar organizational patterns: These species coordinate thinking and action through a leader like an alpha male, a queen bee, or a Napoleon.  In support of our fluidly functioning hierarchies, we have developed emotions like pride in leadership, awe for power, and respect for elders.  Different human societies promote authority, as opposed to a leveling individuality, to varying degrees.

 5) Purity/sanctity. Humans evolved into an eat-meating species relatively recently, somewhere from one to three million years ago. We learned to sort edible from inedible dead things about the time that we developed a large frontal cortex.  Many say that those two developments coincided with the evolution of the unique human emotion of disgust.  Disgust helps shape culture.  We have developed the incest taboo, the dislike for the sight and smell of feces and vomit, and a distaste for deformity and for disease.  Cultures establish systems that extend disgust to other issues about the body, often embracing racial and sexual “purity,” while rejecting category-shuffling lifestyles like gender-bending, unusual eating patterns, and atypical sexual activity.


In his lab, Haidt has found that people who self-identify as liberal tend to care about the first two moral issues: harm and fairness.  In contrast, conservatives feel more about all five issues above.  So, a single issue will incite different moral feelings in each. 

For instance, gay marriage is probably a moral prerogative in terms of “fairness” but a moral transgression in terms of the “authority” impulse.  Afterall, to change the marriage laws, we would need to go against the authority of historical opinion.  In turn, someone who invests heavily in “fairness” but not in “authority” might think the marriage laws should be changed on account of moral necessity, but someone who values “authority” more than “fairness” probably wouldn’t. 

So we often speak past each other.  Haidt says that we tend to stick to our feelings and are slow to admit that our opponents feel as sincerely as we do.  We tend to demonize the other side and form self-righteous opposing teams.  Haidt has helped to form a political group based on forming bettering communication between the two sides (see here). 

In order to talk more fluidly with each other, he says, we need to react less bullishly with the fact that others don’t feel like we do.  People can feel earnestly moral while (if you are impatient) looking simply contradictory or stupid to you. 

You can take Haidt’s moral impulse test at this link here to see which of the five “buttons” are yours.  If you want, tell us where you land on the moral button question, and the political stance question.  Does his map of miscommunication make sense to you?

About the Author

Ilana Simons

Ilana Simons, Ph.D., is a literature professor at The New School as well as a practicing therapist.

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