I have some thoughts about an interview with Jonathan Haidt on the moral values of liberals and conservatives. His episode of the podcast On Being was entitled “The Psychology of Self-Righteousness.” See onbeing.org (10/19/17 podcast).
He and other researchers used a standardized test to separate liberals from conservatives. Then they asked liberal people to take the test as if they were conservative, and vice versa. What grabbed my attention was that conservatives are a whole lot better than liberals at putting themselves in the other side’s shoes. As a card-carrying liberal, I was shocked and offended. Aren’t we at least as smart as conservatives?
Haidt said in the podcast that people who study the bases of morality generally recognize five major values: kindness, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity or purity.
All five values are recognized in most human societies that have been studied. The prevailing theory is that they evolved along with humans because they give us the ability to form stable groups involving more than a single family, groups whose members cooperate with each other to feed, shelter, and defend themselves. These abilities meant that more of us survived, so natural selection promoted people using these values.
As time passed, some of these values lost their allure to some people. In cultures that are western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic, the rights of individuals are held at least as strongly as values that support group identity. In particular, while kindness and fairness remain valued among liberals and conservatives alike, liberals do not join conservatives in placing equal value on loyalty, authority, and sanctity.
One theory about this difference is that liberals hold a sixth value – liberty or freedom. As a result, we abhor oppression by anyone. While conservatives value loyalty against betrayal, authority against subversion, and sanctity against degradation, liberals fear these values as the basis of racism, misogyny, and authoritarianism.
It seems to me that conservatives place limited value on liberty. As far as I can tell, they value liberty only in the sense that they don’t want the government to keep them from getting as rich as possible or from oppressing others. For example, conservatives resist regulations to bar banks from making risky bets with depositors’ money. Also, some Christians argue that their religious liberty gives them the right to discriminate against LGBT people, and to impose their own rules about abortion and contraception on all women, whether Christian or not. I think that most liberals recognize the right of groups to set standards for their own adherents, but not to impose them on outsiders.
To return to the original question, I think we liberals are bad at putting ourselves in the mindset of conservatives because we don’t share their respect for the values of authority, loyalty, and sanctity. We don’t just fail to understand these other values, we actively reject them as leading to oppression.
Perhaps we liberals can appreciate the values of authority, loyalty, and sanctity (or at least understand them enough to hold civil conversations with conservatives) if we temper them with the principles of liberty and freedom.
Placing final authority in a single human leader strikes us liberals as opening the door to tyranny. We believe that the checks and balances created in our Constitution are necessary defenses against authoritarianism. Perhaps we can recognize that we value authority in the rule of law, even if we reject rule by a single infallible leader.
Loyalty to America First can lead us to ignore our duties as human beings to people of other nations who have come to make their lives in America. We are a nation of immigrants; even the First Nations migrated here from other lands. Fear of immigrants comes from viewing our country as a lifeboat that will capsize if too many board. But America is more like a potluck supper. The more people come, the more food they bring, and the more varied foods there are for us all. Perhaps we liberals can appreciate loyalty to our country until it tramples on the rights of real or suspected immigrants.
Those who value sanctity often pass laws to impose rules derived from a particular view of God. Such laws infringe the First Amendment rights of all of us to worship in our own way. Most religions encourage their adherents to behave with kindness and fairness. Perhaps we liberals can recognize the value in all religions without letting any one of them run roughshod over the rights of those who subscribe to a different religion or to none.
Anyway, that’s what I hope. If more liberals can recognize that the values held by conservatives go beyond self-serving hypocrisy, we can hold civil conversations with them, and perhaps even accomplish some of what we can agree that our country needs.