Barry Goldwater’s Moral Foundations of Conservatism

The misunderstanding of the American Conservative.

Posted Apr 21, 2017

Robert Mather
A campaign button from Republican Nominee Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign.
Source: Robert Mather

“The root difference between the Conservatives and the Liberals of today is that Conservatives take account of the whole man, while Liberals tend to look only at the material side of man’s nature” (Goldwater, 1960, p. 10).

In 1960, Barry Goldwater wrote his thoughts on the differences between Liberals and Conservatives in their approach to people and governance. He based these ideas on his experiences as a United States Senator dealing with constituents and other politicians. He intended to show the practical difference of perspectives to dispel the idea that Liberals were concerned with people and Conservatives were not, and that Conservatives were concerned with economics only.

He suggested that the true difference between Liberals and Conservatives came down to a distinction in how each group understood human nature. He argued that Liberals focused more on economics and their distrust of people and thus had the tendency to compel economic and social forces to guide people to what they considered right. This is logical if you expect the worst in people with regards to selfish accrual of resources at the expense of others. Alternatively, he stated, “It is Conservatism that puts material things in their proper place—that has a structured view of the human being and of human society, in which economics plays only a subsidiary role” (Goldwater, 1960, p. 10). He further proposed that each human is spiritual, economic, and individually responsible for his or her own development as a person. Goldwater viewed a Conservative’s goal for politics as to maximize individual freedom while maintaining a social order so that no individual can infringe on the freedoms of another individual.

Further in The Conscience of a Conservative, he gave examples of how Liberals and Conservatives often sought the same ends, but disagreed on the means. With regard to civil rights, he argued that States should make the decision on desegregation, but also noted that desegregation was “both wise and just” and to continue segregation of Blacks would restrict their freedoms, stating “that to deny them this opportunity carries with it strong implications of inferiority” (p. 37). For a Republican in 1960, that was a strong statement in support of civil rights and desegregation. He essentially said that individual States should decide such issues, and that the States should decide to desegregate because it was morally the right choice. With regard to welfare, he said, “Let welfare be a private concern. Let it be promoted by individuals and families, by churches, private hospitals, religious service organizations, community charities and other institutions that have been established for this purpose” (p. 74). Again, he advocated keeping the federal government out of the welfare business and implored humans to take care of humans of their own volition. Far from being unconcerned with taking care of those who are less fortunate, his proposed means to do so was simply not the federal government.

If moral choices are taken from the citizens by the federal government, then what chance does morality have to thrive? When Conservatives are told that individuals need morals to guide their behaviors, they respond, “Of course they do.” When Liberals are told that individuals need morals to guide behaviors, they often respond with Post-Modernist “Whose morals? Morality changes as societies change.” Moral relativism makes it tough for two groups to discuss foundations for something that one group thinks may not exist and the other uses to guide their choices and behaviors.

More recently, Jonathan Haidt’s (Graham, Haidt, & Nosek, 2009) research on moral foundations has empirically supported Goldwater’s observations by demonstrating that Liberals and Conservatives do not employ the same primary moral foundations in their evaluation of information. Liberals construct their moral systems around the individualizing foundations of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity. Conservatives construct their moral foundations around the individualizing foundations of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity, but also around the binding foundations of ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. This parallels Goldwater’s observation about Conservatives and Liberals.

The misunderstanding of the Conservative perspective has not changed over time. Conservatives are vilified as heartless (e.g., Olsen, 2013; The Editorial Board, 2017; Walker, 2010) when in reality they donate more money and larger percentages of their incomes to charities (e.g., Hiltzik, 2014; Kristof, 2008; Watson, 2012; Will, 2008; Willett, 2007) than Liberals. This charitable differential “puts the lie to the well-worn liberal shibboleth that conservatives are misers who relish sawing the bottom rungs off the social ladder” (Willett, 2007, p. 205). Conservatives agree that humans should help other humans. They disagree with Liberals on the role of the federal government in doing so, and disagree amongst themselves on how much should be done in response to any particular problem. But here is the most important insight into Conservatism: It supports individual freedoms, it believes in the good capacity of humans to take care of each other, and it believes in morality. Morality to Conservatives is not a moving target.


Goldwater, B. (1960). The conscience of a conservative. Shepardsville, KY: Victor Publishing Company.

Graham, J., Haidt, J., & Nosek, B. A. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 1029-1046.

Hiltzik, M. (2014, March 31). Who’s more charitable—conservatives or liberals? Los Angeles Times (online).

Kristof, N. (2008, December 20). Bleeding heart tightwads. New York Times (online).

Olsen, H. (2013, September 19). Food (stamps) for thought. National Review (online).

The Editorial Board (2017, March 19). Editorial: ‘Conservative’ doesn’t have to mean ‘heartless.’ USA Today (online).

Walker, P. D. (2010, August 3). Are conservatives heartless villains or naïve idealists? The Huffington Post (online).

Watson, T. (2012, June 1). Giving differently: Liberals and Conservatives have radically different views of charity. Forbes (online).

Will, G. (2008, March 27). Conservatives more liberal givers. Real Clear Politics (online).

Willett, D. R. (2007). An inconvenient truth: Conservatives behaving charitably. Texas Review of Law and Politics, 12(1), 181-205.