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Conservatives Live in a Different Moral Universe—And Here's Why It Matters

Liberals and conservatives have highly different moral priorities. And we have to understand them if we want to accomplish anything.

| Mon Apr. 27, 2009 4:38 PM EDT

Haidt's framework of political morality can be traced back to a dispute between two important thinkers: Shweder, who would go on to become his mentor, and legendary Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg. In his 1981 volume The Philosophy of Moral Development, Kohlberg essentially argued that other moral systems are mere stepping-stones on a path that will eventually lead the entire world to embrace Western humanist values. Reviewing the book for the journal Contemporary Psychology, Shweder politely but effectively tore that notion apart.


Citing his extensive research on traditional Indian culture, Shweder pointed out the inconsistencies and lack of convincing evidence behind Kohlberg's arguments. Agreeing with philosopher Isaiah Berlin, Shweder asserted—and continues to assert—that a range of ethical systems have always coexisted and most likely always will. In a 1997 paper co-written with three colleagues, he broke down primal moral impulses into a "big three": autonomy, community and divinity.

Haidt found Shweder's ideas persuasive but incomplete. Agreeing with evolutionary theorist James Q. Wilson, he concluded that any full view of the origins of human morality would have to take into account not only culture (as analyzed by anthropologists) but also evolution. He reasoned it was highly unlikely humans would care so much about morality unless moral instincts and emotions had become a part of human nature. He began to suspect that morality evolved not just to help individuals as they competed and cooperated with other individuals, but also to help groups as they competed and cooperated with other groups.

"Morality is not just about how we treat each other, as most liberals think," he argues. "It is also about binding groups together and supporting essential institutions."

With all that in mind, Haidt identified five foundational moral impulses. As succinctly defined by Northwestern University's McAdams, they are:

Harm/care. It is wrong to hurt people; it is good to relieve suffering.

Fairness/reciprocity. Justice and fairness are good; people have certain rights that need to be upheld in social interactions.

In-group loyalty. People should be true to their group and be wary of threats from the outside. Allegiance, loyalty and patriotism are virtues; betrayal is bad.

Authority/respect. People should respect social hierarchy; social order is necessary for human life.

Purity/sanctity. The body and certain aspects of life are sacred. Cleanliness and health, as well as their derivatives of chastity and piety, are all good. Pollution, contamination and the associated character traits of lust and greed are all bad.

Haidt's research reveals that liberals feel strongly about the first two dimensions—preventing harm and ensuring fairness—but often feel little, or even feel negatively, about the other three. Conservatives, on the other hand, are drawn to loyalty, authority and purity, which liberals tend to think of as backward or outdated. People on the right acknowledge the importance of harm prevention and fairness but not with quite the same energy or passion as those on the left.

Libertarian essayist Will Wilkinson of the Cato Institute—one of many self-reflective political thinkers who are intrigued by Haidt's hypothesis—puts it this way: "While the five foundations are universal, cultures build upon each to varying degrees. Imagine five adjustable slides on a stereo equalizer that can be turned up or down to produce different balances of sound. An equalizer preset like 'Show Tunes' will turn down the bass and 'Hip Hop' will turn it up, but neither turns it off.

"Similarly, societies modulate the dimension of moral emotions differently, creating a distinctive cultural profile of moral feeling, judgment and justification. If you're a sharia devotee ready to stone adulterers and slaughter infidels, you have purity and in-group pushed up to 11. PETA members, who vibrate to the pain of other species, have turned in-group way down and harm way up."

McAdams was first exposed to these ideas about three years ago, when he heard Haidt speak at a conference. Around that same time, he was analyzing information he had compiled from interviews with 150 highly religious middle-aged Americans—men and women from across the political spectrum who had described in detail the ways they find meaning in their lives. Realizing this was an excellent test case for Haidt's theories, McAdams started comparing the comments of self-described liberals and conservatives.

Sure enough, "Conservatives spoke in moving terms about respecting authority and order," he found. "Liberals invested just as much emotion in describing their commitment to justice and equality. Liberals feel authority is a minor-league moral issue; for us, the major leaguers are harm and fairness."

It's hard to play ball when you can't agree who deserves to be a big leaguer.

Of Haidt's five moral realms, the one that causes the most friction between cosmopolitan liberals and traditionalist conservatives is purity/sanctity. To a 21st-century secular liberal, the concept barely registers. Haidt notes it was part of the Western vocabulary as recently as the Victorian era but lost its force in the early 20th century when modern rules of proper hygiene were codified. With the physical properties of contamination understood, the moral symbolism of impurity no longer carried much weight.

But the impulse remains lodged in our psyches, turning up in both obvious and surprising ways. You can hear strong echoes of it when the pope rails against materialism, insisting we have been put on Earth to serve a loftier purpose than shopping until we drop. It can also be found in the nondenominational spiritual belief that we all contain within us a piece of the divine. (Although it's sometimes used in a tongue-in-cheek way in our society, the phrase "my body is a temple" is reflective of the purity/sanctity impulse.)

"The question is: Do you see the world as simply matter?" Haidt asks. "If so, people can do whatever they want, as long as they don't hurt other people. Or do you see more dimensions to life? Do you want to live in a higher, nobler way than simply the pursuit of pleasure? That often requires not acting on your impulses, making sacrifices for others. It implies a reverence—which is a nonrational feeling—towards human life."

Consider two letters to the editor in a recent issue of the Ventura (Calif.) Breeze. The weekly newspaper has been chronicling a controversy about a 19th-century cemetery that gradually fell into disrepair and, since the early 1960s, has been used as a dog park. Some descendents of the people buried there are demanding that it be restored as a proper burial place.

"Why is there even a debate?" wrote one angry resident. He referred to the park as "this holy ground" and admonished city officials: "Your values and judgment need some serious realignment." But a second reader looked at the controversy from a more practical perspective, noting that public funds are limited in these tough economic times. Besides, he added, "the park is full of life now, and I'm sorry if this sounds harsh, but life is for the living."

Both arguments are rooted in firm moral beliefs. It's just that for the first correspondent, purity/sanctity is paramount, while for the second it's of minimal importance.

Not surprisingly, Haidt's data suggests purity/sanctity is the moral foundation that best predicts an individual's attitude toward abortion. It also helps explain opposition to gay marriage. "If you think society is made up of individuals, and each individual has the right to do what he or she wants if they aren't hurting anybody, it's unfathomable why anyone would oppose gay marriage," he says. "Liberals assume opponents must be homophobic.

"I know feelings of disgust do play into it. When you're disgusted by something, you tend to come up with reasons why it's wrong. But cultural conservatives, with their strong emphasis on social order, don't see marriage primarily as an expression of one individual's desire for another. They see the family as the foundation of society, and they fear that foundation is dissolving."

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