I’ve been very influenced by Jonathan Haidt’s work on moral foundations theory which, in a nutshell, postulates that there are 6 components to intuitive moral reasoning, and that conservatives tend to apply them all but liberals only use a narrow set. The foundations are:
- Care/harm for others, protecting them from harm.
- Fairness/cheating, Justice, treating others in proportion to their actions (He has also referred to this dimension as Proportionality.)
- Liberty/oppression, characterizes judgments in terms of whether subjects are tyrannized.
- Loyalty/betrayal to your group, family, nation. (He has also referred to this dimension as Ingroup.)
- Authority/subversion for tradition and legitimate authority. (He has also connected this foundation to a notion of Respect.)
- Sanctity/degradation, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions. (He has also referred to this as Purity.)
According to Haidt, liberals consider chiefly care/harm and liberty/oppression, leaving the rest (including authority/subversion) to conservatives. But is that really true? Are liberals so anti-authoritarian? Or do they just have different authorities in mind? Megan McArdle has her doubts:
In the ultra-liberal enclave I grew up in, the liberals were at least as fiercely tribal as any small-town Republican, though to be sure, the targets were different. Many of them knew no more about the nuts and bolts of evolution and other hot-button issues than your average creationist; they believed it on authority. And when it threatened to conflict with some sacred value, such as their beliefs about gender differences, many found evolutionary principles as easy to ignore as those creationists did. It is clearly true that liberals profess a moral code that excludes concerns about loyalty, honor, purity and obedience — but over the millennia, man has professed many ideals that are mostly honored in the breach.
And, as it turns out, McArdle’s instincts are on to something. She points to an article by Jeremy Frimer for the HuffPo: How Do Liberal and Conservative Attitudes About Obedience to Authority Differ? The Surprising Result of My Study. After coming across extreme reverence for Che Guevara in Brazil, Frimer reconsidered the stereotype that conservatives are uniquely authoritarian:
Past psychology studies had found that conservatives have the more favorable attitudes toward statements such as, “If I were a soldier and disagreed with my commanding officer’s orders, I would obey anyway because that is my duty.” Did conservatives have a good feeling about this statement because they think that people ought to obey (in general), or because they support the military and its agenda? I suspected it was the latter.
Subsequent studies bore Frimer’s (and McArdle’s) suspicions out. If you ask about liberal authorities (e.g. “an environmentalist”) then suddenly you get anti-authoritarian conservatives and authoritarian liberals, leading Frimer to conclude: “Rather than thinking of liberals and conservatives as being fundamentally different psychological breeds, I now think of them as competing teams.” Frimer goes on to speculate that the reason we associate conservatives with authoritarianism is that, over time, authorities become conservative. But I think that depends on conflating two separate notions of conservatism: the literal one (e.g. those that maintain traditions) and the more common one (the right-wing of American politics, which is a blend of traditionalism and classical liberal philosophy). Authorities probably become traditionalist over time for obvious reasons. Once you control the institution, you have a vested interest in the institution. But there’s no reason why the institution should correspond to classical liberal philosophy vs any other philosophy other than historical accident.
For me there’s one more big question: where does this leave Haidt’s moral foundations theory? I think it’s plausible that Haidt is right about the 6 dimensions, but wrong about the divide between liberals and conservatives. It might not be that liberals don’t care about authority or sanctity. It might simply be that they don’t recognize their own innate moral drivers because, in American politics, the authority and sanctity considerations of the left are covert. We think of the military and police as authorities. We don’t think of academic as authorities, but they are. We think of purity as a religious concept, but it’s no different in function from the kind of purity that drives orthorexia (aka “Whole Foods syndrome”).
I would further speculate–just speculation at this point–that being cognizant of moral drivers allows them to be better moderated. Conservatives are self-conscious about their respect for authority, which permits critique of that authoritarianism. Liberals, however, are in denial of their authoritarian tendencies and so they are basically unchecked, which is dangerous.