The real difference between liberals and conservatives

So here is a guy giving a little talk on my new favorite website:, talking about what makes liberals and conservatives tick. He starts out by polling the audience, and it looks like about 2% of them consider themselves conservative. He claims that liberals are overwhelmingly dominant in the character trait called Openness-to-Experience.

It’s looking like it’s going to be an all out conservative-bash-fest, but Haidt does something cool. He turns the tables by using a liberal concept to force them to consider the value of the conservative mind. He points out that when everyone in a group thinks the same way they fall into a team psychology which shuts down open-mindedness. A general lack of moral diversity is going to make understanding the world a lot harder. So he challenges all these open-minded liberals to “take the red pill” and look at some moral psychology with him.

What we end up with is some charts that show five foundations of morality which he and cohort concocted after lots of study. These five foundations are:
1. Harm/care - This is what makes us care for others and protect each other, especially the vulnerable.

2. Fairness/reciprocity - The foundation for The Golden Rule.

3. Ingroup/loyalty - Tribal psychology has developed this foundation of forming groups that fight other groups. Even without warfare we establish the same patterns with organized sports.

4. Authority/respect - Sometimes based in power, sometime in deference and love.

5. Purity/sanctity - Any kind of ideology that tells you you can attain virtue by controlling what you do with your body or what you put in your body. The political right moralizes sex, the left moralizes food.

So Haidt visualizes these five foundations as equalizers on a sound system, where each can be raised or lowered to produce a different sound. His online questionnaire has given him the following data: liberals tend to favor the first two of the five foundations, (two channel) and conservatives favor the last three foundations but also see about the same value in the first two. (five channel)

Liberals reject the last three foundations as even being related to morality. They see them as xenophobia, authoritarianism and Puritanism.

To bolster his claim, he brings up an interesting poll about what kind of dog liberals like versus conservatives. Liberals are much more likely to want a dog described as “Independent-minded and relates to its owner as a friend and equal.” Conservatives want a dog that is “Extremely loyal to its home and family, and doesn’t warm up quickly to strangers.”

So, he asks, what is the value of those three foundations that liberals seem to despise: Ingroup/loyalty, Authority/respect, and Purity/sanctity? Haidt points to Hieronymus Bosch’s famous triptych: The Garden of Earthly Delights as a description of social entropy. He shows through other tests that the idea of social entropy is not a construct of the Christian imagination, but a consistently repeatable fact. So what social foundations combat this problem? Why, the ones conservatives value of course. He posits the typical modern idea of religion as an evolutionary adaptation to secure group cohesion.

Haidt gives us conservatives props: “The great conservative insight is that order is really hard to achieve, it’s really precious, and it’s really easy to lose.” As Burke said after the chaos of the French Revolution, “The restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights.” So Haidt proposes that once you see the value of a balance between liberal and conservative you can step outside the “moral Matrix”. Then he points to Asian religions (of course) as exemplars of this balance. And he makes the hilarious claim that “the deepest insights that have ever been attained in moral psychology” are in this quote from the zen master Sent-ts’an, “If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between “for” and “against” is the mind’s worst disease.” Kind of makes me wonder why Jonathan Haidt is promoting anything.
Then he completely goes over the deep end with this conclusion: “Our Righteous Minds were “designed” to unite us into teams, divide us against other teams, and blind us to truth.”

So I obviously disagree with a lot of his premises and conclusions, but I find his five foundation theory fascinating. One thing that’s really interesting to me is that he looks at the first chart and sees liberals exalting two foundations and denigrating three. He sees conservatives holding them all in high esteem. And his conclusion is that we need a balance of liberal and conservative thought. But I already see balance on the chart, and no, it’s not in the moderate category. It’s right there! On the right! Look at it, Mr. Haidt! I circled it for you.

(Even your silly dog-chart shows conservatives as balanced.)


Tim said…
Good to see you are interested in Haidt's fascinating work. However, I fear you have misinterpreted his conclusions, specifically what he means by 'balance'. He doesn't mean balance of the five foundations, he means balance of the two perspectives, liberal and conservative.

And his more philosophical quotes encourage us to acknowledge that we each have our intuitions and tendencies, and to each of us they feel universal. But others feel differently, so he's basically encouraging old school empathy - as promoted in Christianity and many other religions and philosophy - so we can put ourselves in another's shoes and consider how the world looks to them. Then we might hope to escape from assuming our intuitions are the only 'right' ones. Not to deny our intuitions, but to acknowledge they aren't necessarily universal.

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