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Liberal morality versus conservative morality: Understanding the difference can help you avoid arguments

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

utah traffic sign with beehive logoDr. Elisha Goldstein recently blogged about the political anxiety that some people are experiencing during this run-up to the 2008 presidential election (What do Barack Obama and Sarah Palin have to do with your mental health?). A quote from that post sets up the point I want to address:

In the past, I have literally seen people whose bodies are in knots and whose friendships and family relationships are completely strained due to an election. People become imbalanced, stress-out, irritable, and potentially aggressive to those who do not share their views.

In his post, Dr. Goldstein gives some useful tips about how to reduce politically-motivated stress once it has occurred. What I want to do here is to help people begin to understand why it is that people think differently on political issues in the first place, on the theory that when you have a better understanding of where the other side of the aisle is coming from, there is less need for you to feel tension in the first place.

Some of what makes political disagreements tense is the sense that many people have that those people who disagree with their own position "don't understand". They think that if they could just figure out a better way to communicate what makes their policies and politicians a superior choice over opponent policies and politicians that the "misguided" people they are speaking with would somehow come around to their way of thinking. The sense that the other side doesn't understand what is really important leads to immense frustration, and sometimes to anger and anxiety.

Ask someone who strongly identifies with one end of the partisan spectrum why someone might believe what people who identify with the other side of the spectrum believe, and she is likely to tell you that the only explanation can be because there is something wrong with them. What that difference is varies on the person speaking, but it is usually some variation on a small number of themes: "we're smart and they're stupid", "we are patriotic and they are disloyal". I've even seen some partisans claim that the other side has a mental illness that is causing them to believe deranged and unhealthy things (see Lyle Rossiter Jr, MD's book "The Liberal Mind", and also Joe Papantonio's video podcast, "The Republican Mental Illness". Both are prime examples of the irresponsible use of the diagnostic process as a weapon with which to stigmatize a political opponent.

In the last several presidential elections, though Republicans ultimately took the White House, the popular vote either went Democratic, or was split relatively evenly between supporters of the Republican candidate and the Democratic candidate. My point is that the country appears to be split, or polarized more or less evenly. In such a context, partisan cries that opponents are stupid or ill simply cannot be true. It's one thing to call a fringe group names, but really, when a group is so large as to be composed of roughly half the population of a huge nation, can any generalization really apply? Only a true believer (convinced of the superiority of their own position), or a manipulative propagandist (seeking to manipulate you for profit, in confidence-man fashion) would have you believe so.

A further important point to make is that the belief that more talking and a superior explanation will change minds on the other side is untrue. It doesn't doesn't work with regard to political arguments, just as it doesn't work for relationship partners who end up yelling at each other while trying to get their points across.

Everyone knows that liberals and conservatives think differently. However, not everyone knows why or how this is so. Political orientation is a complex thing and no single theory is likely to capture all of the nuances of individual positions. However, a partially useful way of thinking about it is going to be better than having no useful way of thinking about it.

The best recent partially useful explanation I've come across concerning how to psychologically characterize the differences between hardcore liberals and hardcore conservatives is due to Jonathan Haidt, an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia. In Haidt's view, the differences come down to a matter of the value systems that liberals and conservatives buy into. Such value systems are a matter of moral beliefs, and can, he believes, be best characterized by positions on five independent moral dimensions. These are:

  1. Harm/Care, which is the universal desire to minimize human suffering.

  2. Fairness/Reciprocity, which is more or less about a desire to see arguments and disputes handled fairly.

  3. Ingroup/Loyalty, which describes the desire to protect group membership (societal) boundaries.

  4. Authority/Respect, which concerns the desire to organize society into a hierarchy of social superiors and subordinates, with subordinates showing respect for the superior's superior position.

  5. Purity/Sanctity, which concerns the desire to maintain group membership in a pristine, pure, clean or proper state, and correspondingly, to reject from the group that which is dirty, impure, unclean and improper.

I strongly urge readers to read Haidt's recent and excellent article "What Makes People Vote Republican", from which I am drawing these moral dimensions. For those readers who don't wish to do this immediately, I will give a short summary of Haidt's basic ideas in the following paragraph.

According to Haidt, the first two moral dimensions (harm/care, and fairness/reciprocity) are universal, and heavily used by everyone in deciding what things are moral and what are not. However, the later three dimensions (ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity) are far more important to conservative people than they are to liberal people.

While both groups think that suffering should be prevented and that members of a society or group should treat each other according to principles of fairness and respect, conservatives place much more emphasis on maintaining ingroup/outgroup boundaries than do liberals; they demand and expect that members within the groups will be arranged into hierarchies where some are in better positions (with higher status, more wealth, etc.) than others, and that all members within the society conform to their assigned positions within society without complaint.

Reading between the lines, Haidt is suggesting that the real difference between liberals and conservatives is that the two groups have very different understandings of what it means to be a society.

Conservatives think of society as a thing which is more important than the sum of its parts, and understand that it is the duty (and I don't use that word lightly) of all the individual parts of society to play out their assigned role, even if that role is not in the best interests of some of the parts. In other words, it is the duty of the individual to subordinate their own needs to the needs of the larger society. To do otherwise is to be selfish.

To illustrate this perspective, think of how the Mormon Church uses the image of a beehive as one of their emblems. They are suggesting that if everyone works together, the group can produce something sweet and good. In this view of society, individual self-expression is a disaster, as the hive will fall apart if all the bees do their own thing. That is the belief anyway; not necessarily the reality.

Liberals think of society as something that emerges from the parts, and which is never more healthy as a whole than the most downtrodden of those parts. Liberals believe the dictum that "all men are created equal" and this makes them be less enthralled with the idea of a rigid hierarchical organization for society. If all men are created equal, then the least advantaged members of society should have a realistic opportunity to climb upwards in society, and that it is society's duty (and I don't use that word lightly) to provide opportunities for the more disadvantaged members of society to make that climb possible. By helping the more disadvantaged members of society to get a leg up, liberals think that they will help society as a whole become better. This idea is expressed beautifully in the phrase, "A rising tide lifts up all boats".

Conservatives often think that liberals would like lazy people to get a free ride, but this is not the case. What liberals want is for motivated people to be able to climb upwards based on their merit and effort and not to be held down due to circumstances beyond their control, occurring on account of an accident of their birth. If all men are created equal, then discrimination or prejudice is morally unacceptable.

Conservatives often get upset when liberals seek to use tax dollars to expand opportunities (educational, healthcare, etc.) for various minorities. If Haidt is correct, conservatives get upset not because they are trying to be cruel, but because they believe that it is somewhat immoral for people to complain about their place within society. People who advocate for more than they have are whiners, who don't have the decency to just accept their lot in life. This resistance to social change is based on the self-sacrificing idea that loyalty to the group trumps loyalty to self, and reinforced, based on its association with religion, so as to be in line with what God wants. Resistance to societal change thus becomes a sacred duty and is based on an unimpeachable source of authority.

Where conservatives are coming from is not so much resisting all change, but rather resisting alterations to the basic values system they have inherited from their "pure" and "authoritative" religious or societal sources. So there is no problem with their desiring to change laws or rules that are perceived as being against or in opposition to core conservative values. Conservatives are fine with changing society when change is interpreted as undoing the "damage" that liberals have caused.

Another angle on illustrating this: From the conservative point of view, society is like a body, and liberals with their ideas about individual rights and self-expression and the right to be free from repression and abuse and the "tyranny of the majority" are like a cancer - a bunch of cells that don't want to do their assigned job, but instead are "growing" and in the process threaten to take the entire body down with it. It must be kept in mind that this is a weak analogy, for all its attractiveness to some. Conservatives think that society will end due to the changes that liberals advocate for, but society doesn't actually end when these changes occur. Society did not end when women received the right to vote, for instance. It did not end when Lincoln freed the slaves. But these sorts of past facts do not stop many conservatives from thinking that similar future changes will be the ruin of future society.

In our present moment in time, we have to look no further to see conservative resistance to societal change than the struggle for acceptance of homosexual marriage. There is a great resistance upon the part of most conservatives to the idea that homosexual individuals should be able to marry each other. This resistance is in spite of the fact that such status would provide important legal and financial safety benefits for the dependent children and surviving spouses of homosexual partners; all things that are in society's interests to promote, in the liberal view, so that such families can stay intact in the event of the death of a partner. If Haidt is correct, however, conservative resistance to homosexual marriage is not occurring because of any desire on the part of conservatives to be cruel, but rather because, largely on religious grounds, they find the very existence of homosexual behavior to be perverse and impure; a sign of the weakening of society; and possibly something that God will decide to punish all Americans for if allowed to occur. The solution is to hold firm in the face of the demand for change and acceptance, resisting it as strongly as possible. Hence the many recent amendments to state constitutions defining marriage as a union which may only exist between a man and a woman.

Viewed from a liberal perspective, gay marriage is an institution that will protect a class of citizens who have been unjustly and immorally discriminated against. Legalization of homosexual marriage will aid in the formal recognition of the rights and responsibilities of partnered gays and lesbians, some of whom have dependent children, and will serve as protection for widowed spouses and dependent children just as it does for heterosexual couples.  It is a violation of the spirit of "all men are created equal" to allow this prejudice to continue. That conservatives cannot get past their beliefs to allow this injustice to be righted is why liberals sometimes describe them as cruel.

Fairness is not the same thing as Equality

If I've understood Haidt's work correctly, he is suggesting that liberals and conservatives have very different ideas about the nature of fairness. To liberals, fairness concerns boil down to equality concerns. In contrast, conservatives are more likely to view fairness complaints through the lens of the social status hierarchy If a subordinate and a superior both get sick and require medical care, but the superior status individual gets better access to medical care and recovers as a result, while the subordinate status individual gets sicker, this situation is entirely fair from the conservative perspective. Both individuals get the sort of care that their status allows them to access. The two individuals are not equal and should not have equal access to resources. To allow this to happen would be damaging to society. The same situation is not fair when viewed from the liberal perspective because of the liberal rejection of the relevance of social hierarchy in decisions that affect the distribution of critical resources such as medical care.

The ultimate point I want to make is this. If there is merit to the idea that conservatives and liberals go about thinking morally in very different ways, then it follows that 1) both sides are acting morally (according to the way they understand morality), 2) neither position is stupid, and neither position represents a mental illness, and 3) it isn't going to do much good to argue back and forth with one another, because it is unlikely that anything you say will cause the other person to radically adjust their basic moral beliefs. Particularly that last point is important. If it doesn't do much good to argue with a hardcore liberal person or with a hardcore conservative person you are confronted with, that kind of takes the pressure off, doesn't it?