Getting to the Source of Conflict between Liberals and Conservatives

The proposition—presented in my earlier post—is that people with a liberal mindset base much of what they think and do mostly on only two of five moral imperatives as defined by researchers at the University of Virginia.

For a liberal, matters of fairness and the well-being of others have high moral value, much higher that matters of group loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity (e.g., cleanliness is next to godliness).

For a conservative, these three things (loyalty, respect, and sanctity), together with the other two (fairness and protection from harm), also have high moral value and form a solid foundation of morality.

A careful look at the five moral foundations reveals that the first two are directed toward others—even to those outside the group. Loyalty to the group, authority, and purity are directed inwardly, toward the group itself. They keep the group strong. Although in many respects values derived from these areas are positive and good (who would argue that loyalty, respect, and cleanliness are inherently bad?) they may effectively build a wall around the group, separating the group from others. Under this condition, the in-group is pure and righteous, and the out-group can easily be viewed as evil and the enemy. There is no reason to care for the harm an enemy may endure, nor can there be any but one kind of justice for the enemy. To care for and insist on fairness for an enemy would be unpatriotic. Morality, instead of being a universal good, becomes relative only to the group. We are moral. They are not. Therefore…

To a liberal person, the three “conservative” values are often taken to extremes that harm the greater society: walling off and oppressing outsiders, autocratically dictating the way things should be, enforcing racial and sexual purity.

Because liberals may instinctively reach out to the oppressed, conservatives may see liberals as disloyal and unpatriotic, disrespectful of authority, and supportive of “abominations” like homosexuality and desegregation.

Liberals fume when people who talk about how moral they are (e.g., “moral majority,” “party of family values”) will support a war started under false pretenses, overlook the lies told to get us there, condone the torture of prisoners and the exposure of a CIA operative, shrug off the outright stealing of an election, and overlook a long list of sexual and marital transgressions by conservative politicians and clergy alike.

For a conservative, events like these are easy to condone or overlook because they take place within the group. (The same can be said about a liberal’s acceptance of Bill Clinton’s transgressions.) But to a liberal, the harm created by such unfairness is nearly unbearable.

Remember, though, that fairness and justice are also part of the conservative make-up. And this gets closer to the core of the problem, because each group has its own idea of what “fair” means and as a result will act accordingly.

Once again, I turn to researcher Jonathan Haidt, who in “What the Tea Partiers Really Want,” published in the Wall Street Journal in October 2010, points to the Roosevelt era and the establishment of “social programs” to help the disadvantaged as the root of the current political divide. On the one hand are the conservatives who believe that hard work yields reward, and hard work is all that’s necessary for society to thrive. Fairness means, “I get what I work hard for, and if you don’t get ahead it’s only because you’re lazy. Each of us gets what we deserve.”

On the other hand are liberals who see fairness as equality. Liberals use phrases like “level playing field” and “safety net” to express concepts that are supportive of the disadvantaged. Safety nets and level fields come in the form of social programs that cost money, “my money!”

It is unconscionable, to a conservative, that someone else would 1) get rewarded for doing nothing, and 2) that he, the conservative, would have to pay for it.

My father is a conservative, and we sometimes get into discussions around these topics. They go nowhere, of course, because each of us is a product of our own moral intuitions. But one day, while over at his house, I got a jolt of understanding about just how strong the current political impasse is. Sitting on a table was a copy of Michael Savage’s Liberalism is a Mental Disorder. Instead of asking what it was about, when I got home I did a Google search for “liberalism is a disease.” Try it yourself to see how pervasive this idea is (if you’re a conservative, you already know).

But it explains a lot: If liberalism is a disease which must be eradicated then there is no way forward if it involves compromise. Imagine, after being diagnosed with cancer, your doctor suggests compromise instead of surgery.

It also explains why, during the Republican debates, there is little substance other than who’s the best candidate to get Obama out of the White House. Because not only is Barack Obama the consummate liberal who represents all that is bad with this country, he’s the consummate outsider. Only when he’s gone will we “get our America back.”

Next, I will explore a different perspective on morality, one that has to do with action rather than political persuasion. It will focus on a much different concept of “hard work.”

Meanwhile, why not explore your own morals and even contribute to the research?

Why Liberals and Conservatives Have Different Moral Concerns

Two pillars of morality

In my last post I presented five innate foundations, or “intuitions,” on which people build their own sense of morality. They are:

• Harm/care
• Fairness/reciprocity
• Ingroup/loyalty
• Authority/respect
• Purity/sanctity

The list was assembled and defined by Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham of the University of Virginia. In their paper “When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions that Liberals may not Recognize” (Social Justice Research, 2007), Haidt and Graham explain how and why social and political conservatives differ from liberals.

Through their research, the pair discovered that these five factors are at work in all cultures and throughout history. But that does not mean that individually people have these traits in equal doses and form moral values in the same way.

The two foundations of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity (concern for the wellbeing of and justice for others) are prevalent factors in almost everyone’s moral development. In other words, in most people these traits are strong.

But as it turns out, however, social and political liberals develop a morality based almost exclusively on these two.

To liberal-minded people, justice and care for others are all they need to make moral judgements and take virtuous action. Whereas the other three may be important aspects of living within a community, to a liberal they have little or nothing to do with morality. For liberals, fairness/justice forms one half of their moral values and concern for those in the face of harm the other half.

Conservatives, however, develop all five in more-or-less equal doses. What’s striking, however, is that the three intuitions of ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity have everything to do with morality, even at the expense of care and fairness. Things like patriotism, obedience to authority, and disgust for the disease-ridden often will trump concerns for justice and care for “others” outside of the group.

Next: Getting to the Source of Conflict between Liberals and Conservatives

The Five Pillars of Morality: Which Ones Support You?

MoralityMost of us average people think of ourselves as being moral. Don’t you agree? I mean would any of you say, “Yep, I’m an immoral person!” Of course not. (I do exclude from this average population hardened criminals, sociopaths, and psychopaths who very well may proudly admit to being immoral.) So our tendency is to consider ourselves moral and not immoral.

Our ability to use language and tools to our advantage distinguishes us from other animals, but it’s morality and our capacity for virtuous behavior that make us human. Only people are capable of making moral decisions. Not that every one of us uses that capacity.

But have you ever thought about why you are a moral person? Have you ever wondered how those virtuous traits of yours developed over time?

Two researches at the University of Virginia, Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham, have been collecting data and writing about these very questions for years.

According to their research, human beings have five natural tendencies, or intuitions, through which they instinctively develop moral values. These intuitions are the same cross-culturally and through time.

Before describing these five foundational pillars of morality (as I call them here because it works with my drawing!), I think it useful to define some terms. Morality concerns itself with distinguishing among human behaviors that are right and wrong and good and bad. Virtue, as a collective noun, is excellent moral conduct or behavior that exhibits high moral standards. As a singular noun, a virtue is a trait or personal quality deemed of high moral value. One who is virtuous uses high moral standards to help discern between right and wrong, good and bad. An action has value, in the same way an object has value. An action can have high value, considered good, and low value, considered bad. As I’ll describe in a later post, there is not always agreement about what actions have high and low value.

Haight and Graham’s five pillars of morality are:

Harm/care: When there is potential for harm, people care. It begins with a mother’s instinct to care for her offspring and extends throughout the whole of society. Behaviors within this foundation are virtuous acts of kindness and compassion toward those who are, or may be, harmed. Conversely, acts of cruelty and aggression may be directed toward those who cause harm.

Fairness/reciprocity: This pillar is justice. Throughout history people have had the need to form alliances and work together to meet common goals. With alliances come not only the positive emotion of gratitude for when things go well, but the negative emotions of anger and guilt when they don’t. Justice is the concept of moral rightness and is the mechanism that attempts to maintain a reciprocal balance between the positive and negative.

Ingroup/loyalty: Human beings have the tendency to form groups and be loyal to them. People easily recognize, trust, and cooperate with others within the group. Betrayers of the group are despised as are those who don’t come to the group’s aid. Those outside the group are viewed with caution and even suspicion.

Authority/respect: Human communities are hierarchically structured, and values have evolved where people respect and admire those who have roles of authority and leadership.

Purity/sanctity: People have an innate disgust for what is unclean, that is, disease-ridden. It’s easy to see how corpses, vomit, feces, rats and other animals that carry disease would elicit disgust. Historically, disgust with (and the resulting avoidance of) these things bettered society’s chances of survival. Conversely, that which is clean and pure has high value and may even be sanctified.

Do you see any of these traits in yourself? Where do you think they came from? Are they equally strong, or are some more prominent than others?

As I show next, not everyone has equal doses of these intuitions. In fact, according to Haidt and Graham, there is a strong correlation between the distribution of these intuitions within an individual and whether that person is liberal or conservative.

Teaching Kinesiology

One of my jobs (doesn’t everyone have more than one?) is teaching at Oregon School of Massage. I teach a class called kinesiology to aspiring massage therapists.

Kinesiology is the study human movement, so for me and my students, that means bones, joints, and muscles. Lots of muscles. 

I teach two classes, one covering muscles of the upper extremities (arms) and trunk, the other covering muscles of the lower extremities (hips and legs). Oregon School of Massage has two campuses, one in Portland and one in Salem. I teach at both—Tuesdays in Salem and Wednesdays in Portland. 

Massage therapy is usually thought of as a luxury, something people do to relax. In advertisements, people—women, mostly—are shown receiving a massage in some spa-like setting. But it’s much more than that. Many soft-tissue injuries—for the most part meaning muscles and connective tissue—are best treated by massage. Outside of massage, achy and strained muscles are treated with pain relievers and muscle relaxants, which are not always the best choice. Especially when there are so many other benefits of massage therapy.

So it stands to reason that massage therapists need to know about the muscles they work on. Most states regulate massage therapy and have strict requirements about what’s included in a student’s education. In Oregon, broad knowledge of kinesiology is one of those requirements. That’s where I come in.

I’ve taught kinesiology for more than eight years now. It’s one of the more difficult classes for massage students. A lot of memorization is necessary—where a given muscle connects on which bones and what the muscle does. A few muscles have only two attachments and do only one thing, but most of them have many attachments and are active in several different movements. Students need a grasp of many concepts as well. So for some students, it’s difficult to put it all together.

It’s similar to acting in a play, I tell my students. An actor who merely memorizes lines and recites them rote will not give a good performance. Good performances come from actors who can make their lines come alive. Memorizing a long list of muscles and their attachments and actions will get a student only so far. Massage is a skill to be developed, just as acting is.

A requirement for licensure is passing the dreaded Practical Exam conducted by the Oregon Board of Massage Therapists. The practical covers several areas, including massage technique, communication, pathology, and kinesiology. It’s the kinesiology part that freaks people out the most. 

You can read more about my involvement with OSM and a lot of other stuff about me and  some of my other jobs here, in an article written by owner and president Ray Siderius.

Examining—and Ignoring—Cause and Effect

Cause and effect is a natural law. It’s hard to dispute that one thing leads to another, especially when the links in a chain of events are short and close together. When they are long and far apart, it’s more difficult to see any connection between two events. It’s also easy to deny any connection whatsoever. In that case, it’s easy—intentional or not—to misattribute a cause to an event.

Two current events are examples. Today, the Republican Party begins the process to select a candidate to run for President of the United States. Listening to the news this morning about the Iowa Caucus (not to mention news from the past few years), it’s easy to detect the Republican theme that we have to get rid of Barack Obama to “turn this country around.” The implication is that Obama is the cause of the poor state of the economy and everything else they find wrong with this country. 

Does no one in the Republican Party remember (or care to admit) that the stock market crashed—losing 50% of its value—in October 2008? George W. Bush was President then. Barack Obama was only a candidate. Does no one remember (or care to admit) that economic policies of the Bush administration made Enron possible? 

The other event is far removed from the political arena. But perhaps it shouldn’t be. On January 1, a man shot and killed a park ranger on Mt. Rainier in Washington State after wounding several others at a party. These kinds of tragedies happen a lot all over the world. Some people are unbalanced, angry, frustrated, vengeful, hateful, and will do any number of terrible things to others. Who knows what causes lurk behind such acts?

Yet, one thing about this story that sticks out, begging the question of Why? The shooter was Iraq War veteran who was apparently suicidal and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. We don’t know what this person was like before he went to war. But we do know that when he came home he had trouble adjusting to civilian life. His wife had a restraining order against him because she feared for her own safety as well as that of their child. 

Can you imagine, all those years ago when George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and many others were planning their attack on Iraq that they could have seen the consequences of their actions? Suppose someone in the war room said, “If we go ahead with this, on January 1, 2012, a park ranger with two children will be murdered by one of our soldiers.” Would it have mattered?

The law of cause and effect is always at work. And it’s human nature to ignore it just as it’s human nature to ignore an inconvenient stop sign.