Liberal vs. Conservative Values

So Experimental Theology posted about a thesis on morality that explains the moral differences between liberals and conservatives.

The blogger, Richard Beck, summarizes Jonathan Haidt's five moral foundations:
Harm/Care: Harming others, failures of care/nurturance, or failures of protection are often cited as reasons for an act being “wrong.” Some virtues from this domain are kindness, caretaking, and compassion.

Fairness/Reciprocity: Inequalities or failures to reciprocate are often cited as evidence for something being “wrong.” Some virtues here are sharing, egalitarianism, and justice.

Ingroup/Loyalty: Failure to support, defend, and aid the group is often cited as evidence for “wrongness.” Virtues include loyalty, patriotism, and cooperation.

Authority/Respect: Failure to grant respect to culturally significant groups, institutions, or authority figures is often cause for sanction. Virtues include respect, duty, and obedience.

Purity/Sanctity: Anything that demeans, debases, or profanes human or religious dignity or sacredness is also a cause for sanction. Virtues include purity, dignity, and holiness.

Research has shown that liberals and conservatives differ in the degree to which they deploy these moral grammars. Specifically, liberals tend to emphasize the first two: Harm and Fairness. Conservatives, by contrast, often appeal to the last two: Authority and Purity. This is not to say that liberals or conservatives restrict themselves to these warrants, but they do display moral tendencies with some warrants being used more than others or some warrants held as more vital than others.
I think there is definitely some truth to this thesis. (After all, isn't there a little bit of truth to almost all ideas?)

I think of the difference between one of my best friends and myself. As a conservative, I am much more disturbed by premarital sex than my liberal friend is. In fact, she barely understands my disgust with it, while I cannot comprehend how she is so at ease with it. This seems to confirm the hypothesis.

Yet I still doubt if this hypothesis is accurate. I think conservatives value stay-at-home mothers much more than their liberal counterparts. After all, children need to be cared for, and it is unfair for them to not have a proper upbringing. Yet conservatives also feel that mothers have a “duty” to care for their children, whereas liberals seem to apply this concept of “duty” more... liberally. Even if the conservative mentality is that of Authority/Respect and not Harm/Care or Fairness/Reciprocity, I would say that the categories are not as easily classifiable as is suggested. A mother's duty comes from conservatives' sense of justice and obligation to take care of children.

For a firmer counterexample, I think of race relations. When looking at the issue of affirmative action, conservatives talk about equality and fairness for all people, including whites. It often seems that liberals today demand “respect” for what they deem culturally significant groups – minorities.

Liberal human rights campaigns are often couched in terms of human “dignity.” Conservatives are the ones who demand “justice” for the victims of violence. Compassionate Conservatism seems to defy this system of classification. Democratic soldiers appear to negate this hypothesis.

After taking the test, it revealed some more insight: Republicans are ranked almost evenly on all five categories, while Democrats rank much more highly on the first two. Essentially, Democrats care little for Authority or Purity, whereas Republicans care about all moral factors.

The more interesting component of what Beck discusses is the “disgust-factor” which is addressed in this recent New York Times article. The article essential states that Republicans tend to feel more disgust than Democrats, and thus are psychologically different. This appears easy to link to the fact that conservatives value purity more than liberals.

Yet I wonder if the difference in values system might stem from other, more relevant differences. The Democratic Party is much more secular than the Republican Party, and I can easily understand why religious people would be more affected by moral situations involving purity. Christians are also called to fulfill their duties and act with respect for authority, whereas secular humanists feel more of an obligation to help other human beings. I think that these religious differences may be more key to understanding morality than simple political affiliation.

Needless to say, much more research needs to be done on the subject before I will grant it any weight.


Spaceman Spiff said...

I find it a bit difficult to see how your own opinion about how Republicans and Democrats reason could succeed in contradicting the results of an empirical study. His thesis, at least in your quotation was "Research has shown...", not "I think people reason this way..."

In your examples, as far as I can tell you're only reasoning from a conservative point of view. I don't think liberals actually believe that a working mother is somehow unfair to the children. They could very well be wrong, but that's neither here nor there.

And same with race relations. It isn't that liberals don't care about being fair to white people, it's that they think without affirmative action, things will be unfair for others whereas the actual loss in fairness to whites due to affirmative action will be very small.

And, of course, Beck didn't posit in his post that political affiliation fully explained the different approaches to morality; he would surely agree that religion plays a role. On the other hand, he's done research before that takes into account the differences between religious people who are more conservative and those who are more progressive with respect to their religious beliefs. (Speaking of which, it seems a bit of a jump to identify conservative and liberal with Republican and Democrat doesn't it?)

Sword Reforged said...

I would say this: if a few examples can contradict the results of a study, perhaps the study has not been designed well enough. I think this is the case with this particular study (or, at the very least, a conclusion has been drawn too quickly).

The point of the study seemed to be to see what moral values appealed to the different parties. So even if liberals think of affirmative action in terms of fairness as well, that doesn't change the fact that BOTH parties appeal to fairness when addressing the issue. Thus, fairness is not a one-partied appeal, as the study seems to suggest. (This applies to the working mother example as well.)

Finally, Beck is not the author of the study, and as far as I know, the author did not question the religious conservatism or liberalism of study participants, only their political conservatism or liberalism.

(It may be unfair to classify all Democrats as liberal or all Republicans as conservatism, but for the sake of not repeating words, I used them synonymously. Despite my conservative leanings, perhaps I used the definitions too liberally.)

Finally, I'm not sure that it was the intent of the study to show that political affiliation fully explained the different approaches to morality. In fact, my impression is that the opposite is true: our differences in moral approaches lead us to different political opinions. Yet it seems to me that political affiliation is linked to religion, from which stem our moral values.

My point about religion is merely to question how the rankings would shift if liberal Christians were isolated from the rankings for secular Democrats or secular conservatives from the religious Republicans. I wonder if there is a stronger correlation between religion and morality that gives the appearance of a link between politics and morality because religious people tend to be more politically conservative. This possibility seems to be completely ignored.

In the end, I just want more data on the matter. I included the link to the website that features the study. You have to log in to get the results, but I think examining that will give you a better idea of the general study itself. (I think it's wise to be skeptical of "studies" in general.)