How Ideology Colors Morality

Conservatives and liberals reside in different moral worlds.

Posted Apr 03, 2008


Liberals tend to think that conservatives are either stupid or evil. They see George W. Bush as a buffoon and Dick Cheney as a nefarious architect of doom. These two options strike liberals as the on1y possible explanations for why someone would adopt a conservative agenda. Conservatives must be either be confused about what morality demands of us in the political sphere, or they must recognize the demands of morality and simply ignore those demands, in pursuit of power or lucre. Conservatives have no more a flattering conception of liberals. For their vantage point, liberals either look hopelessly naïve (read "stupid") or dangerously corrupted (read "evil"). Liberals are either tree-hugging fools or calculating agents of moral degeneracy. Why is this?

One answer is that liberals and conservatives each make the same false assumption about the other side: they assume that their opponents share the same basic moral values. Suppose you and I share the same basic values, but you advocate some policy that I oppose. That means one of us is either making a mistake about what our shared values entail or willfully pursuing something we know to be immoral. One of us is stupid or evil. But there is another possibility: perhaps we have some different basic values. Perhaps we are both pursuing exactly what our values demand of us, but, since those values differ, we are pursuing different political agendas.

The idea that liberals and conservatives have some different basic values gains support from recent psychological research. For example, in a recent issue of Science, psychologist Jonathan Haidt reports that conservatives are deeply concerned about factors that fall outside of liberal morality. For liberals, morality is pretty much about harm and justice. To decide whether a policy is wrong, they want to know whether any one will be hurt by it and whether it will be fair to all those affected. Conservative care about harm and justice too, but they also care about three things that liberals tend to ignore: purity, respect for authority, and loyalty to the ingroup. Consider gay sex. A liberal will say, as long as no one is harmed, we should not prohibit gay sex; indeed such a prohibition would be unfair. A conservative might say that gay sex can be prohibited on the grounds that it is impure ("an unnatural act"). Or consider flag burning. A liberal will again say: no one is harmed, and everyone has the right to self-expression. Conservatives will say that flag burning is an act of desecration that disrespects the authority of this great nation. Or take preemptive war and regime change. Liberals will caution that it is bad to harm others and unjust to threaten the autonomy of other nations. Conservatives will focus on the threat that others pose to us here at home, and they will plaster their cars with stickers that say "support our troops," showing deep concern for the ingroup. The political agendas of liberals and conservative differ, because conservatives have some core values that are not part of liberal morality. Political disputes are not the result of ignorance or iniquity. Both sides are advocating policies that follow logically from their divergent moral values.

Other researchers have found further examples of divergence. The Berkeley linguist George Lakoff argues that liberals and conservatives base their political views on fundamentally different metaphors of how to run a society. For both, a government should be like a family, but for liberals, the ideal family is one that is run by a nurturing parent who forgives mistakes and wants all of her children to flourish and have new experiences. For conservatives, the ideal family is run by a stern parent, who emphasizes accountability and self-reliance, not self-expression. Think June Clever vs. Ward Clever. When people stray, liberals offer second chances and cite external influences; conservatives favor discipline and say three strikes and you're out. Lakoff argues that these different ideals inform many political debates. To liberals, conservatives appear inconsistent when they oppose abortion and favor the death penalty. In reality, both views derive from the same conservative principle: if a person does something imprudent (getting pregnant or committing a capital crime), that person should deal with the consequences. The abortion debate does not hinge on a scientific or theological debate about the beginning of life; it reflects different conceptions of responsibility.

Findings like this have important implications for understanding politics. Liberals and conservatives never seem to convince each other. They incessantly present arguments for their views on television and talk radio, but it's rare to see anyone getting persuaded to join the opposing side. The arguments used by spinners and editorialists serve more to rally the base than to convince the opposition. Liberals and conservatives are equally intelligent and they have access to the same facts, but they arrive at opposing views because they value different things. To this extent, cross-party political debate is a bit of a charade. There can be no consensus if the sides value different things. At best, the sides can look for some overlapping values and find rare islands of agreement or they can compromise and agree to tolerate policies that favor the opposition, provided the concessions aren't too great.

The findings also have important philosophical implications. Philosophers have traditionally assumed that there is a single morality shared by all people. Some philosophers think that morality has a rational foundation that can be discovered by intelligent reflection, while others presume it is hard wired into human nature. The fact that liberals and conservatives fail to agree, despite their intelligence, moral concern, and access to information, suggests that the traditional philosophical picture is mistaken. There are multiple moralities. Some moral values may have biological roots, but experience determines which values get emphasized, and, as in the case of liberals, some biologically rooted dispositions (such as preferential treatment of the ingroup) never become central aspects of morality. Most likely, we catch values from those around us, through processes of social conformity, emotional conditioning, imitative learning, and mere exposure. Moral values correlate with demographic and geographic variables. If morality reflected something more universal or rational, there wouldn't be red states and blue states. Once acquired, moral values are resilient to change through argument (when was the last time Rush Limbaugh convinced a liberal?). As a result, liberals and conservatives live in somewhat different moral worlds, and none of the arguments used in political discourse will bring us to total consensus. Failure to appreciate this simple fact leads to confusion and name-calling on both sides.

For more on these themes, see:

Haidt, J. (2007). The New Synthesis in Moral Psychology. Science, 316, 998-1002.

Lakoff, G. (2002). Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.