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