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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 3:38 PM EDT

Haidt doesn't want religious fundamentalists dictating public policy to ensure it lines up with their specific moral code. Even if you perceive purity as a major-league issue, it doesn't have to be on steroids. But he argues it is important that liberals recognize the strength that impulse retains with cultural conservatives and respect it rather than dismissing it as primitive.

"I see liberalism and conservatism as opposing principles that work well when in balance," he says, noting that authority needs to be both upheld (as conservatives insist) and challenged (as liberals maintain). "It's a basic design principle: You get better responsiveness if you have two systems pushing against each other. As individuals, we are very bad at finding the flaws in our own arguments. We all have a distorted perception of reality."

Spend some time reading Haidt, and chances are you'll begin to view day-to-day political arguments through a less-polarized lens. Should the Guantanamo Bay prison be closed? Of course, say liberals, whose harm/fairness receptors are acute. Not so fast, argue conservatives, whose finely attuned sense of in-group loyalty points to a proactive attitude toward outside threats. 

Why any given individual grows up to become a conservative or a liberal is unclear. Haidt, like most contemporary social scientists, points to a combination of genes and environment—not one's family of origin so much as the neighborhood and society whose values you absorbed. (Current research suggests that peers may actually have a stronger impact than parents in this regard.)

In his quest to "help people overcome morally motivated misunderstandings," Haidt has set up a couple of Web sites, and At the latter, you can take a quiz that will locate you on his moral map. For fun, you can also answer the questions you think the way your political opposite would respond. Haidt had both liberals and conservatives do just that in the laboratory, and the results are sobering for those on the left: Conservatives understood them a lot better than they understood conservatives.

"Liberals tend to have a very optimistic view of human nature," he says. "They tend to be uncomfortable about punishment—of their own children, of criminals, anyone. I do believe that if liberals ran the whole world, it would fall apart. But if conservatives ran the whole world, it would be so restrictive and uncreative that it would be rather unpleasant, too."

The concept of authority resonates so weakly in liberals that "it makes it difficult for liberal organizations to function," Haidt says. (Will Rogers was right on target when he proclaimed, "I don't belong to an organized political party. I'm a Democrat.") On the other hand, he notes, the Republicans' tendency to blindly follow their leader proved disastrous over the past eight years.

"Look how horribly the GOP had to screw up to alienate many conservatives," muses Dallas Morning News columnist and BeliefNet blogger Rod Dreher, an Orthodox Christian, unorthodox conservative and Haidt fan. "In the end, the GOP, the conservative movement and the nation would have been better served had we on the right not been so yellow-dog loyal. But as Haidt shows, it's in our nature."

Like Wilkinson, Dreher doesn't fit cleanly into the left-right spectrum; he reports that taking Haidt's test (showing he scored high on certain liberal values but also on some conservative ones) helped him understand why. He's appreciative of that insight and admiring of the way the psychologist is able to set aside the inherent prejudice we all share in favor of our own moral outlook. "It's hard for any of us to get outside our own heads and perform acts of empathy with people we don't much like," he notes.

In higher education, as in so many other fields, the best way to negotiate a pay raise is to get a competing offer. Not infrequently, an academic will entertain an offer from an institution he or she isn't really interested in joining, specifically so he can get a salary offer, take it back to his current employer and demand it be matched.

Haidt found himself in just that situation a few years back. But as he explained to Proffitt, his department chair, he was uncomfortable with the notion of lying to gain leverage.

"He told me, 'I know that if I was offered the position, I could get a big raise here. But I study ethics! I can't do that! That would be wrong!' He felt he wouldn't be playing fair with the people from the other university, who were putting out money and effort to recruit him."

"That game is played by a lot of people, but Jon would not," Proffitt says. "He elected not to do that on purely ethical grounds. That decision cost him at least $30,000 a year."

But was he guided by the harm/care instinct? Or fairness/reciprocity? Or did the conservative value of in-group loyalty, which tends to lie dormant in liberals such as Haidt, emerge under these unusual circumstances and convince him to be true to his school?

The most likely answer is "all of the above." The point is Haidt realized the wrongness of that behavior in his gut and acted on instinct.

In making such decisions, he is setting a rigorous moral example for his son, Max, who turns 3 in July. Haidt would be pleased if, by the time Max gets to secondary school, the study of ethics is part of the curriculum. "If I had my way, moral psychology would be a mandatory part of high-school civics classes, and civics classes would be a mandatory part of all Americans' education," he says. "Understanding there are multiple perspectives on the good society, all of which are morally motivated, would go a long way toward helping us interact in a civil manner."

Shweder cheers him on in that crusade. "I think this is terribly important," he says. "People are not going to converge on their judgments of what's good or bad, or right and wrong. Diversity is inherent in our species. And in a globalized world, we're going to be bumping into each other a lot."

Whether they're addressing the U.S. Congress or U.N. General Assembly, Haidt has astute advice for policy advocates: Frame your argument to appeal to as many points as possible on the moral spectrum. He believes President Obama did just that in his inaugural address, which utilized "a broad array of virtue words, including 'courage,' 'loyalty,' 'patriotism' and 'duty,' to reach out and reassure conservatives."

Haidt notes that the environmental movement was started by liberals, who were presumably driven by the harm/care impulse. But conservative Evangelical Christians are increasingly taking up the cause, propelled by the urge to respect authority. "They're driven by the idea that God gave man dominion over the Earth, and keeping the planet healthy is our sacred responsibility," he notes. "If we simply rape, pillage, destroy and consume, we're abusing the power given to us by God.

"The climate crisis and the economic crisis are interesting, because neither has a human enemy. These are not crises that turn us against an out-group, so they're not really designed to bring us together, but they can be used for that. I hope and think we are ready, demographically and historically, for a less polarized era."

But that will require peeling off some bumper stickers. Contrary to the assertion adhered onto Volvos, dissent and patriotism are very different impulses. But Haidt persuasively argues that both are essential to a healthy democracy, and the interplay between them—when kept within respectful bounds—is a source of vitality and strength. "Morality," he insists, "is a team sport."

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