Monday, October 5, 2009

Liberals and Conservatives – A Moral Difference?

I tend to like debate. I see discourse as fundamentally human and critical to any functioning society. Which is why I am so disappointed with debates in which two sides seem to be talking right past each other – each trying desperately to engage with a brick wall. Aspects of the current debate on health care seem to exemplify this type of standstill, particularly surrounding issues that deal with the boundaries of human life. Jonathan Haidt addresses this problem in a recent TED interview, where he explains that liberals tend to take a more materialist and utilitarian view of life, seeing nothing inherently wrong with abortion, voluntary euthanasia, and stem cell research. Many conservatives, on the other hand, tend to place a higher value on the sacredness of life, and will see these practices as abhorrent and profoundly immoral. Because of the different emphasis placed on sanctity, liberals and conservatives each see the other side as making outrageous claims or just missing the point. But Haidt doesn’t stop at health care – he has an entire theory about the differences between liberal and conservative thinking, and relates it back to fundamental differences in moral sentiments.

(Side note: I acknowledge that I’m using broad terms that by no means accurately represent all conservatives or liberals. Haidt certainly does this as well. I do think, however, that at the risk of simplification, such generalizations can be useful in understanding some dimensions of political debate.)

Intrigued by anyone claiming to have a grand theory of morality, I read more about Haidt’s work in moral psychology. His “Moral Foundations Theory” is as follows: there are five psychological foundations (or intutions) that provide the basis of human morality. He labels them harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. These foundations are not rigid determinants of morality, but they do place constraints on the range of human virtues that can be easily learned and cultivated. The extent to which they are valued and taught can vary greatly between different cultures – likened to tastebuds, these moral foundations are universal, but each society can have different “tastes”. Therefore, some societies may place much greater emphasis on virtues that protect the group, like subordination, obedience, and duty.  In these societies the loyalty and authority intuitions are much stronger. Other societies may build up a morality based more heavily on protecting individuals; in these societies the care and fairness intuitions are stronger.

Haidt takes this five-dimensional view of morality and uses it to explain many political disagreements in the US, mapping political liberals and political conservatives onto his system. In a series of surveys he asked participants to answer a set of moral judgment questions and identify which concerns were the most relevant to their decision. After matching up their responses with their self-rated political orientation (from extremely conservative to extremely liberal), Haidt observed an emerging pattern. Liberals in general rated care and fairness as their two main concerns, while conservatives tended to see all five moral foundations as highly relevant. The more extreme the political orientation, the more acute this difference.  In essence, liberals have a narrower focus to their morality than that of conservatives – individual rights and social justice take up most of their moral domain. Conservatives place additional value on the moral foundations that maintain order, provide stability, and bind the community together, and so their morality is more expansive.

Thus, as Haidt goes on to say:
“Conservatives have many moral concerns that liberals simply do not recognize as moral concerns. When conservatives talk about virtues and policies based on the ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity foundations, liberals hear talk about theta waves. For this reason, liberals often find it hard to understand why so many of their fellow citizens do not rally around the cause of social justice, and why many Western nations have elected conservative governments in recent years.”

He uses this theory to explain the reaction of so many liberals after the 2004 election – shocked at how the majority of voters who regarded “moral values” as the most important issue ended up voting for George W. Bush. Seen through a liberal care and justice morality, a president who cuts taxes for the wealthy and has no regard for the environment is hardly “moral.” For conservatives, however, morality doesn’t stop there – it includes values like allegiance, authority, and tradition. So showing support for an ongoing war (solidarity and loyalty) or opposing same-sex marriage (authority of traditional institutions) may follow as moral positions. It is not hard to see why this leads to disagreement.

So, is there anything that can be done? Haidt argues that a better understanding of the five moral foundations and how they are valued in different societies (or different political ideologies) is crucial. Dismissing values like loyalty, authority, and purity as “backwards” or  “ignorant”, as many liberals do, fails to acknowledge the moral concerns that drive many people’s decisions. And it’s hard to persuade people when you don’t understand their motivations. Haidt says that “recognizing these latter foundations as moral (instead of amoral, or immoral, or just plain stupid) can open up a door in the wall that separates liberals and conservatives when they try to discuss moral issues.” I do hope so.

Further links:
Morals Authority, a more detailed article on Jonathan Haidt and his ideas on morality and current American politics.
What's the Frequency Lakoff?, an article that discusses the ideas of both Haidt and George Lakoff, who also tries to identify mental frameworks that can help explain political ideology. Lakoff  traces many differences between liberals and conservatives to their conceptual metaphors of government as family – either a “nurturant parent” or a “strict father”. The article is pretty critical of Lakoff's ideas about political language, and sees Haidt as more accurately addressing the problem.

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